Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Eightfold Path

This is my second entry on Buddhism...this one covers "the eightfold path", which is where I left off my last Buddhism entry. To recap, in the four noble truths, Buddha started with the symptom (life is out of joint), followed with the diagnosis (our drive for private fulfillment is causing life to be out of joint), and then with the prognosis (we can cure this disease by overcoming the egoistic drive for separate existence). His last noble truth was the prescription...the eightfold path.

The eight steps in the path are preceded by one that he doesn't include in his list, but refers to so often elsewhere that is was likely a presupposition here: right association - that is, we should associate ourselves with people that will help us attain illumination (truth-winners) and converse with them, serve them, observe their ways, and imbibe by osmosis their spirit of love and compassion. With that preliminary step in place, here are the eight steps proper:

1: Right views - life needs a map the mind can trust if we are to deploy our energies in the right direction; we need to know what life's problem basically is. As such, right views consist of the four noble truths (I know, a little circular, but I didn't come up with these!).

2: Right intent - this involves making up our hearts as to what we really want...people who achieve greatness are almost invariably passionately invested in some one thing.

3: Right speech - this involves becoming aware of our speech and what it reveals about our character. Instead of resolving to speak nothing but the truth, it is likely more realistic to start by trying to notice how many times per day we deviate from the truth and follow-up by asking why we did so. Similarly with uncharitable speech. Once we do this, we can move on to try to attempt changes in our speech. First toward veracity (habitual observance of truth in speech or statement) and second toward charity.

4: Right conduct - again, we should start by trying to understand our behaviour before trying to improve it...reflect on our actions with an eye to the motives that prompted them. Then move our conduct to selflessness and charity.

5: Right livelihood - if we are intent on liberation, we should engage in occupations that promote life instead of destroying it...occupations that were conducive to spiritual progress as opposed to ones that would impede it.

Note that the third, fourth and fifth steps can be grouped under the heading of morality - with Buddha making it clear that moral ineptitude risks not the wrath of a deity, but the retardation of one's own inner development.

6: Right effort - Buddha laid tremendous stress on the will...reaching the goal requires immense exertion - there are virtues to be developed, passions to be curbed, and destructive mind states to be expunged so compassion and detachment can have a chance. "Those who follow the way" says Buddha, "might well follow the example of an ox that marches through the deep mire carrying a heavy load. He is tired, but his steady gaze, looking forward, will never relax until he comes out of the mire, and it is only then he rests." A low level of volition for this goal won't do. Buddha added some thoughts on timing and balance, having more confidence in an approach involving a steady pull rather than in quick spurts.

The last two steps represent the most distinctive aspects of Buddha's teaching - namely the pivotal importance of meditation (or mental development, or mental cultivation). This involves two things which are described in the last two steps.

7: Right mindfulness - "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." Right mindfulness aims at witnessing all mental and physical events, including our emotions, without reacting to them, neither condemning some nor holding on to others. Through right mindful practice, we begin to see that every mental and physical state is in flux, and habitual clinging to these states is at the root of much of life's problems. We also see that we have little control over our mental states and our physical sensations, and normally little awareness of our reactions. Most important, we begin to realize that there is nobody behind the mental or physical events, orchestrating them. It becomes apparent that consciousness itself is not the light from a light bulb, the on/off is so rapid that consciousness seems to be steady, whereas in fact it is not. With these insights, the belief in a separate self-existent self begins to dissolve and freedom to dawn.

8: Right concentration - while the eighth step, in many ways it comes before the seventh because to undertake mindfulness exercises effectively, one must first learn to focus on'e mind. Buddhism counsels patient, persistent attempts at sustaining one's full attention on a single point, a common one being simply one's breathing. Initial attempts are inevitably shredded by distractions; slowly, however, attention becomes sharper, more stable, more sustained.

It should be noted that concentration does not end when mindfulness begins; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing.

Note: the above was extracted from Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Why Worship?

From John Shelby Spong's weekly email Q&A:

Chris from Central Texas writes: I attended your recent lectures in Austin and realize I forgot to ask you a question that has been increasingly on my mind: How does the concept of "worship" figure into your vision of a new Christianity? For a long time I have felt that God doesn't need my worship or praise, and to think that God does need my worship and adoration seems silly. (I think that "worship" and "adoration" are different from feeling a sense of gratitude and connection to God.) My church has been having some serious discussions regarding worship changes and I've heard some folks say that worship shouldn't be about us — it's simply about praising God. Well, I think that worship is very much about me and about the other worshipers as well — it's about drawing us closer to God, about the community called the church, about inspiring us to care for others, etc. Creeds that I can't say, prayers of confession that beat people up, hymns focused on atonement messages, and an emphasis on liturgy and ritual over spirituality only impede my relationship to God. Am I just spoiled and self-centered to want a more meaningful and more relevant worship experience?

Spong's reply: Dear Chris, yours is a perennial question. I cannot imagine a God who "needs" worship, or a God who has some innate need to be flattered by the human praise that is so often the content of worship. Listen to the words of such hymns as "How Great Thou Art" and "Almighty, Invisible God Only Wise."

Worship is always a human activity that meets a human need. Whenever one engages in worship, it is not for the purpose of working on God but on the human being who is worshiping. Worship is designed to enhance our humanity: to increase our capacity to live, our ability to love and our courage to be all that God created us to be. If worship makes us "religious" or "righteous" or turns us into being intolerant "true believers," then it has become nothing more than an act of idolatry.

Worship in most of our churches today is a mixed blessing. It is frequently the result not of careful study and critical planning, but of rote and tradition. Much of it is designed to keep us childlike and immature and to make a virtue out of chronic dependency. One of the reasons churches exhort its people to be "born again" is that this will postpone forever the necessity of their growing up.

Worship at its heart is the practice of becoming aware of the presence of God so that we become more deeply and fully human. I judge every worship experience in which I participate by that definition.

- John Shelby Spong

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pay Dirt: Literalism or Myth?

"Augustus came from a miraculous conception by the divine and human conjunction of [the God] Apollo and [his mother] Atia. How does the historian respond to that story? Are there any who take it literally?... That divergence raises an ethical problem for me. Either all such divine conceptions, from Alexander to Augustus and from the Christ to the Buddha, should be accepted literally and miraculously or all of them should be accepted metaphorically and theologically. It is not morally acceptable to say directly and openly that our story is truth but yours is myth; ours is history but yours is a lie. It is even less morally acceptable to say that indirectly and covertly by manufacturing defensive or protective strategies that apply only to one's own story. "

- John Crosssan, The Birth of Christianity, 1998, pg 28 - 29.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Pay Dirt: Harry Potter Quote

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling...the last of the Harry Potter series. Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where Harry is talking with Dumbledore (who is dead)...Harry isn't sure if he himself is also dead (and in some form of the afterlife) or if this whole scene is some kind of dream he is having. The last interchange between Harry and Dumbledore really struck me...especially the last quote by Dumbledore:

"Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real?" Or has this been happening inside my head?"

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

I found this very interesting when thought about from a religious experience perspective. We often say that the religious experiences people claim to have are "just in their heads". Interesting to consider the question "why on earth should that mean that it is not real?". Maybe in our heads is where we experience God???