No Sacred Cows

They say humor is the best medicine. Norman Cousins famously recovered from a heart attack by watching Marx Brothers movies. I could use some humor. Last night I turned on the TV to look for some. I tuned in to the Emmys. There’s always some humor on awards shows. Well, let me tell you in case you missed it, there were jokes a plenty. Unfortunately, none of them were funny. Well, maybe they were. Maybe I’m just too old to get them. Now, that’s really funny, and the joke is on me.

Anyway, I gave up on the Emmys about half-way through and decided to create some humor of my own. At least, that’s what I intended it to be  . . . So, today’s post is a toast . . . to sacred cows.

Sacred Cow — n. informal; a person, institution, custom, etc, unreasonably held to be beyond criticism (or bad jokes).

Sacred cows make the best hamburger.

– Mark Twain

Secretly, the Buddha knew that enlightenment could only be found at Dairy Queen but he was reluctant to reveal the teaching because the people's minds were not ready for it.


Surprisingly, few people are aware that the Dalai Lama is also a pulp fiction hero.


No one gives a dharma talk quite like Thich Nhat Hanh.


Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman couldn't help but be frustrated when Ron Artest broke in on his lecture to announce he was changing his name to Metta World Peace.


Actually, I do have one sacred cow.



The Wrecking Crew In Sri Lanka

Last week in Sri Lanka, a group of roughly 100 Buddhist monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine said to have been built on a piece of property given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. One of the participants, a monk named Amatha Dhamma Thero, told the BBC that “he and 100 other monks from various Asian nations destroyed the Islamic shrine because Muslims in the country were seeking to convert the locale into a mosque.”

According to the BBC report, “The mob waved Buddhist flags and – in one picture – burnt a green Muslim flag. There have been no other reports of what happened.” Witnesses to the incident claim the police were present but did nothing to stop the destruction. The police deny they were there, but the photo on the right, published on a number of sites reporting the incident, clearly shows men wearing some sort of uniform looking on.

A local senior Muslim denies that a mosque was planned.

Sinhalese is the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion. Politicians and government officials routinely make pronouncements about how Sri Lanka is the center of Buddhism, and responsible for preserving dhamma, and so on. It’s sort of a Buddhist version of American exceptionalism.

Sri Lanka has a democratic, socialist government (the President is Buddhist). And while Sri Lanka has universal suffrage, the government has been accused of human rights violations in regard to the treatment of minorities, especially the Tamil who are Hindu. To be fair, there’s probably enough questionable treatment of others to go around on all sides over there. However, since I am a Buddhist, that’s the part  that interests me.

Some time back, I read an article by Chamara Sumanapala  entitled “Can A Buddhist Be A Racist Or A Nationalist?” The gist of his piece is that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “misusing Buddhism as a tool to achieve their own ends.”

Sumanapala begins his article with this statement,

An observer of Sri Lankan politics would notice that many if not all nationalist and racist elements of the Sinhalese community are Buddhists.”

The Sinhalese see themselves as a “chosen people.” This belief stems from The Mahavamsa or “The Great Chronicle”, a Pali text, actually a poem, which advances the notion that the Buddha made magical flights to the island of Sri Lanka and chose its people to be responsible for the preservation of Buddhist dhamma.

Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton and a leading scholar of Sri Lanka, writes,

The Mahavamsa is not just a text that gives us information on Sinhala-Buddhist identity; much more importantly it is a text that helps to create such an identity in a way that the previous chronicle, the Dipavamsa, did not. And central to that process of identity creation is the hero, Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), the man who conjoins the land or the place, Sri Lanka, with the sasana, already blessed by the Buddha as a place where the Dhamma will flourish. And when the anguished king asks the monks what consequences will befall him for having killed millions of people, the monks reply, that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers, no better than beasts. And more gratefully the Mahavamsa monks assign Dutthagamini a place in heaven in the proximity of the next Buddha, Maitreye.”

Of course, I don’t know the entire story of the incident last week, or how much of what Chamara Sumanapala writes is valid, or to what extent attitudes fround in The Mahavamsa have actually shaped the culture of Sri Lanka, but on the surface none of it sounds very buddistly, as Jeff Bridges would say.

Destruction, whether it be Buddhist statues carved in the side of a cliff or a Muslim shrine, is an act of hate. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as being concerned with the art of construction, specifically the construction of shrines of loving-kindness in human hearts.

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.

from the Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom


Mindfulness is just a four-letter word

Mindfulness is the English word most often used for the Pali term sati. Originally, it was used by Brahmans, meaning “memory”, in the sense of memorizing Vedic scriptures. In order to retain large amounts of material, one needed to have clarity of mind, a keen ability to focus, an enhanced quality of attentiveness. The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical term, using sati to refer to both “remembering” and presence of mind in meditation.

In this passage from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification”, composed in the 5th century and the first comprehensive manual on Theravada meditation, sati is used in the first context in this passage:

Now as to mindful and fully aware: here, he remembers (sarati), thus he is mindful (sata); He has full-awareness (samapajanati), thus he is fully aware (sampajana). This is mindfulness and full-awareness stated as personal attributes. Herein, mindfulness has the characteristic of remembering. Its function is not to forget. It is manifested as guarding.”

Elsewhere in this same work, sati is used in the context of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (of the body, of feelings, of consciousness, of mental objects):

And in some instances by the Foundations of Mindfulness, etc., accordingly as it is said: ‘Bhikkhus, this path is the only ‘way for the purification of beings, . . . for the realization of ‘nibanna, that is to say, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ . . .

And further on, Buddhaghosa also refers to sati in the sense of a specific meditation practice:

Mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’

So here we have a several different meanings or connotations of the same word in the same work, and when reading the first passage we notice that there are a number of other words or terms that seem to be interchangeable, having essentially the same meaning. We might wonder how does mindfulness differ from full-awareness? How is sata related to sati? This I think points to the difficulty of trying to parse the English words we use for Buddhist terms. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, in his introduction to “The Path of Purification,” describes at length the linguistic, epistemological, and even psychological problems of translation, noting for instance, that the single English word “desire” has been used “as a translation of sixteen distinct Pali words.”

In my opinion, playing semantics with Asian Buddhist terms and the various English words we use as translations is like stepping into a muddy swamp. If you can avoid it, you’re much better off.

Yet, some folks just can’t seem to help themselves. Believe it or not, “mindfulness” is a rather controversial word in Buddhism these days. It seems some people object to mindfulness. They say it’s been over-used, it’s just a buzz-word, a cliché, that it points to a watered-down form of Buddhist practice, it’s nothing more than a balm, an elixir, a feel-good term. What is never entirely clear to me is whether these critics merely object to the word or if they also object to the practice, or both.

I don’t have a problem with such criticism because they are attacking a sacred cow – I think I’ve said before there are no sacred cows on this blog – but rather, I feel it is just nit-picking which doesn’t really contribute much. Certainly, there are some who overuse and abuse the term, and in the hands of a few of them, “mindfulness” has become a marketing strategy. But I think they are in the minority overall, and as the old adage goes, a few rotten apples does not spoil the whole bunch.

Mindfulness is just a word, a sign. Other words like awareness, attentiveness, or thoughtfulness work, but perhaps not as well. Not to mention that there’s probably someone, somewhere who’d have an objection to any word that became the standard.

The most common use of “mindfulness” is in reference to the meditation practice taught by the Buddha. I believe I am correct in saying that the instructions attributed to the Buddha about this practice are the first meditation instructions recorded in history. We find them in the Anapanasati Sutra or the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.”

I often like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” I think this is true to some extent. While there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation, this is the foundation, the starting point. No matter what else I do, I always return to “mindfulness” at some point. I try to remember the maxim of one on my teachers, “Always go back to the basics.”

But the real heart of mindfulness, in all its different senses, is found in daily life. We want to learn to do things with better attention and focus, teach ourselves how to avoid the bad habit of doing one thing while thinking of something else. By merely practicing anapanasati, we can become more observant, and learn how not to taint what we observe with judgments, preferences, or prejudices. We train ourselves to stay calm in situations that tend to provoke irritation or anger. We learn how to deal more effectively with our problems, worries and anxieties. The list goes on and on.

The benefits derived from “mindfulness” practice are not easily obtained. It requires effort, and it can be hard, even painful at times. They are not “gifts”, unless you consider them as gifts you give to yourself. When we say that mindfulness can be virtually any activity whatsoever, we mean we can learn to apply mental disciple to almost any situation. We’re trying to stop reacting to things so mindlessly. And we certainly don’t mean that mindfulness itself accomplishes anything. We do it. This is jiriki we’re talking about. Self-power. “Mindfulness” only works for us when we make it work.

Another quote I probably use too often is from Robert Thurman, who once said, “Buddhism is just a bunch of tools.” A handyman has various tools and they have various names. It cuts down on confusion. Makes it easier to identify a tool when you need one handed to you. We have to do the same thing in Buddhism. Concern about the names we give the tools is missing the point, I think. Isn’t the function of each tool far more important?

The sati arisen inspired by breathing (anapana) is “mindfulness of breathing.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the sign of in-breaths and out-breaths. The recollection arisen inspired by peace is the ‘recollection of peace.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the stilling of all suffering.”



Of Falconry

I woke up yesterday morning and noticed a Peregrine Falcon perched on the utility pole outside one of my windows. They come and sit there from time to time. So do some of the Red-Tail Hawks around the neighborhood. Rarely do they linger long enough for me to grab my camera and snap a pic. This one yesterday did, though. You’ll see it below. Not the greatest photo of a Peregrine Falcon that’s ever been shot, but the best one I’ve taken. So far.

It’s interesting, here I am in the middle of a megalopolis and yet, there is a plenitude of wildlife around. I saw a raccoon for the first time in a long while the other night. Sometimes around 5 or 6 in the morning, I’ll see coyotes trotting up and down the street. And we have skunks, rabbits, possums, along with the usual assortment of squirrels, crows, hummingbirds, sparrows, and of course, the hawks and falcons. A few rats here and there.

Yesterday’s falcon put me in mind of a poem by St. John of the Cross. He was a Spanish priest who lived in the 16th century. I guess he was also considered a mystic. I don’t know a lot about him, other than that he’s been a Catholic saint for several hundred years and he wrote some pretty good poetry.

This one is called “Of Falconry.” I cut it out of the L.A. Times Sunday Book Review section about 15 years ago. Kathleen Jones, whose book, The Poems of St. John of the Cross, I found at Google Books, says,

Falconry was a popular sport among the Spanish nobility, and the imagery of the loved one was frequently used in secular love songs of the period . . . St. John was putting a gloss on a secular poem, and turning it into an analogy of the soul’s search for God.

Searching for God is obviously not my cup of tea, nevertheless, it’s a fine poem and translated by John Frederick Nims:

Of Falconry

Upon a quest of love,
hope sturdy and steadfast,
I flew so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

In this divine affair,
to triumph–if I might–
I had to soar so high
I vanished out of sight.
Yet in the same ascent
my wings were failing fast–
but love arose so high
I caught the prey at last.

Just when this flight of mine
had reached its highest mark,
my eyes were dazzled so
I conquered in the dark.
I gave a blind black surge
for love–myself surpassed!
and went so high, so high
I caught the prey at last.

The higher up I went
there, in this dizzy game,
the lower I appeared,
more humble, weak, and lame.
I cried, But none can win!
and sinking fast oh fast
yet went so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

Then–marvelous!–I made
a thousand flights in one,
for hope of heaven will see
all it can wish, be done.
I hoped for this alone;
I hoped; was not downcast.
And went so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

If you’re interested, you’ll find a vastly different translation by Sims of this poem that appeared in the August 1958 issue of Poetry Magazine here.


Ten Years After

Needless to say, 9/11 was a traumatic event. No one in this country was unaffected by it. There is not one life it has not changed. For myself, ten years after, I am still moved to tears when I view some of the images of that day.

America came together on September 11, 2001, and for several days afterwards. We were united by our fear and horror, and then by a common resolve to see our way through the tragedy. It did not hold for long. Rather soon, we were once more divided. Ten years after, we’re still at it, clawing and scratching at one another, and it is wearying.

Ten years after, we still lack a proper perspective on the event. Our unity was exploited, transformed into a call for patriotism and a battle cry. I have never been convinced that it was merely an attack on America. The Twin Towers were a symbol of global capitalism. That’s why the complex was called The World Trade Center.

Before long, a reckless president desperate to find something to be about, lied to us and led us into a needless war. The invasion of Iraq had more to do with a money-making opportunity called the Rebuilding of Iraq than it ever did with 9/11. Ten years after, how do we reconcile the deaths of 4474 Americans in Iraq with the 2752 who died on 9/11?

Ten years after, we seem to lack perspective on so many things. Our priorities are out of alignment with reality. We go out of our way to honor the first responders, and yet, looking at it objectively, they acted as we expected them to, for they get paid to risk their lives. And the same with the military, they find themselves in harm’s way because they volunteered for that duty. We don’t expect any less from them. I don’t disparage their service or their courage, but I wonder if we don’t inflate some acts of heroism out of proportion.

When I think of America’s heroes, I think of coal miners who brave dangerous conditions each day to provide this nation with electricity. I look forward to a time when coal is no longer needed. But today, I wonder why these heroes on whose shoulders so much depends remain invisible to us, forgotten until a mine collapses. Where are their national monuments? When do we consecrate memorials to their fallen?

When I think of heroes, I think of construction laborers, farmers and ranchers, steel workers, aircraft pilots, electrical workers, sanitation workers, fishers, loggers – these too are dangerous jobs. When will we as a nation mourn their sacrifice? Where are their steel crosses?

Ten years after, I have mixed feelings about 9/11. I find these anniversaries disturbing. All the words about security, resilience, honor and bravery, seem rather empty to me. Yesterday we dedicated a memorial to the heroes of Flight 93, and yet, no one is quite sure what transpired during the final moments of that flight. I suppose it was inevitable that they would pass into legend, like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie at the Alamo. But I had hoped for something more, that we might see beyond the fog of legend.

Ten years after, I wonder what we have learned from 9/11 and what should we have learned? Was the lesson merely how to manufacture a better mythology? To be more paranoid? In response to the attack, was our only recourse to attack someone else? It’s said that you should know your enemy. We’ve identified our enemy as being Muslim, but do we know the Muslim world any better now? Perhaps in a tactical sense, we might, but do we know the heart of Muslim people? Do we have any better understanding of the causes that have driven so many of them to terrorism? Have we reached out with real compassion to the vast majority of Muslims who reject terrorism?

I think what we should have been learning during this time is something about ourselves. Ten years after, we should be able to see more in ourselves than just resilience and courage. Ten years after, it seems we have not increased our knowledge. Ten years after, we should have greater insight into the evil that lies in human hearts and compels people to commit mass murder. I can’t help but feel that great events should produce great wisdom.

However, ten years after, we do not seem much further along. Monuments, crosses of steel, and speeches do not really heal, they only soothe, as remembrance alone is at best only a band-aid on the wound that is still sore and festering, ten years after.

When a good person sees mortals oppressed by old age and disease, attacked by a hundred pains, tortured by sorrow and fear from birth to death, moved by compassion she directs her conduct for their well-being: when she sees a world oppressed by instruments of pain in the region of hell, she seeks for the thunderbolt of knowledge which surely breaks these instruments of pain. She seeks for the strong plow of knowledge in order to clear the field of the world, which is covered with the scrub, thorns, and weeds of passion and hate, and all tangled with thick undergrowth of false doctrine.

Candradipa Sutra