Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley


Champion of the World

I don’t care about boxing, it is a brutal and stupid sport.  But I cared about Muhammad Ali.  I admired him.  I admired his courage.

When you are the Heavyweight Champion of the World, it takes a lot of courage to risk all that you have trained and fought for and refuse induction into the military because you object to the immorality of a war. Standing by his religious beliefs cost him the title, and he was found guilty of draft evasion.  He didn’t box in a fight from 1967-70.

Ali96When you have suffered from Parkinson disease for over decade and your hands are trembling badly, it takes courage, and determination, to muster up the control necessary to carry the torch and light the Olympic cauldron, as he did in 1996.  I watched it as it happened and it was a trilling moment, inspiring.

You had to love his gift of the Blarney, and even early on, in 1964, just after he won the world heavyweight championship and he declared “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest,” there was something about the way he carried on that made you think he really didn’t take himself so seriously.  All the gab was put-on.  Like a few years later when Andy Warhol was to go on a lecture tour and he sent out an impersonator to make all the appearances for him.  I always thought Muhammad Ali was like the Andy Warhol of sports.

On the 11 o’clock news, I heard it said that Ali was much more than a boxer; he was a political activist, a global humanitarian.  I also saw one of his bodhisattva-like quotes:

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”.

Parkinson’s was very likely caused by all the punches he took to the head during his career.  That’s why, like football, boxing is stupid.  You might want to ask whether there is any real difference between the basic violence of boxing or waging war, but not today.

A man who liked to talk, the disease silenced him.  An man of movement, action; the disease disabled him.  But Parkinson’s never diminished Muhammad Ali.

To the end, he was the champion of the world.


The Diamond Sutra in La-La-Land

“In La-La Land We Trust.”
– Robert Campbell

There’s a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Cave Temples Of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art On China’s Silk Road:

library-cave-2On the western edge of the Gobi Desert, near the ancient oasis town of Dunhuang, China, hundreds of cave temples were carved into a cliff face and decorated with Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. [“Library” cave shown right.] The caves are known as the Mogao (peerless) Grottoes. From the 4th to the 14th century, Dunhuang bore witness to intense religious, commercial, and cultural exchange along the trade routes linking the East and West, known collectively as the Silk Road. The documents and artifacts discovered in the site’s famed Library Cave, along with the paintings and sculptures found in almost 500 other caves, focus primarily on Buddhism. They also tell tales of the merchants, monks, and ruling families who lived, worked, and worshipped in the Dunhuang region.”

The exhibition is collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy and the Dunhuang Foundation and will feature rare objects from the caves, cave replicas, along with Cave 45 described as a “virtual immersive experience.”  One of the 43 manuscripts included is The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest complete printed book, currently on loan from the British Library.

I’ve written a number of posts that deal with this indispensible Mahayana Buddhist teaching that you can find here.

But an even better resource is a book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book that tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein (and his dog, Dash), an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discovered, one being the oldest printed copy of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra.

On the surface, The Diamond Sutra seems difficult to understand, but when we read between the lines we find that, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, “The sutra is so deep and wonderful.  It has its own language.  The first Western scholars who obtained the text thought it was talking nonsense.  It’s language seems mysterious, but when you look deeply, you can understand.”

In the Morgan and Walters book, Paul Harrison, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, compares the sutra to a “piece of music that must be heard to be appreciated or a play that needs to be witnessed”  but if you approach the text as you would a novel “with a logical mind expecting things to be done in sequence and no repetitions to occur, it seems very weird.”

Subhuti, what do you think?  Has the Buddha attained the supreme awakening? Has he something he can teach?”

Subhuti said, “World Honored One, as I understand the dharma of the Buddha, the Buddha has no doctrine to covey.  The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible.  It neither is nor is not.  How is it so?  Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.”

[Based on the Mu Soeng translation]


Daniel Berrigan: A Dark Word

Those of you who have been around awhile and had some exposure to the counterculture of the 60s will certainly know the name Daniel Berrigan, Roman Catholic priest and peace activist.  He died Saturday at the age of 94.  Arrested many times, as recently as 2006, he was once imprisoned for two years after he burnt draft files during a protest against the Vietnam War.  One of his partners in crime was his brother, Philip, who also served time in a federal prison.

You can learn more about Berrigan in this NY Times obituary.

According to Wikipedia,  until his death he taught at Fordham University and served as its poet-in-residence.

It seems apropos in the wake of his death and on the last day of National Poetry Month to present this poem by Daniel Joseph Berrigan:

A Dark Word

berriganAs I walk patiently through life
poems follow close –
blind, dumb, agile, my own shadow;
the mind’s dark overflow, the spill of vein
we thought red once but know now, no.

The poem called death
is unwritten yet.  Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.


I rock (I rock) therefore I am

It was 1981 and The Rolling Stones were touring North America in support of the Tattoo You album:  Two concerts at the LA Coliseum, October 9th and 11th.  I went to the Friday show with some friends and Sunday I went alone.  It’s always been a hassle going to a Stones concert but I was young then and full of Stones-fire and willing to put up with the physical ordeal part of it.  And, unlike any other of their concerts I’ve attended, I had fairly good spots to watch from both days.

Also on the bill were George Thorogood and The Delaware Destroyers and the J. Geils Band, two real good rock and roll bands.  And it was two real good rock concerts.  A special treat was a rare appearance by Ian Stewart, original member of the Stones, later road manager, played on many Stones records, and with them at live shows, however I don’t recall seeing him at any I attended.  For the two LA gigs, Stewart, considered one of the best white boogie-woogie piano players in the world, played with George Thorogood.

There was a fourth act, the opening act; a group that came out in some weird outfits with a lead singer who wore a corset and fishnet black stockings, or something equally outrageous.  They looked as if they had stopped by the Trashy Lingerie store in West Hollywood on their way to the stadium.  The music wasn’t bad.  In particular, I remember a song about John Lennon that sounded good.  If the audience had any appreciation for what the Stones were about, anti-social attitude tinged with a drop of androgyny, they’d have realized how this band fit right in.

But they didn’t and on both days the audience threw things at them and they were booed offstage during the fourth or fifth song.  On Sunday, legendary rock impresario Bill Graham, who was promoting the tour, came on stage and dared the audience to throw any more stuff on stage.  Some guy up front lobbed a milk carton at Graham.  Two security guys jumped down and pulled the guy up onstage and they took him out.  Of the stadium, that is.  I’d hate to think he was roughed up.

I had not heard of this opening act before, but less than a year later, a lot of people who attended those Coliseum concerts would be paying big bucks to see this guy who called himself Prince and his band The Revolution perform at similar venues.

prince2cI rock (I rock) therefore I am (therefore I am)
I don’t need you to tell me I’m in the band ((…) please)
I rock (I rock) therefore I am (therefore I am)
Right or wrong I sing my song the best I can

– Prince, 1996