Stephen Batchelor spoke at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on March 16 plugging his book, "Confession s of a Buddhist Atheist." I was intrigued by his interest in the question of the "historical Buddha," which has rarely been investigated. I asked him whether he (Batchelor) was a vegetarian, whether the historical Buddha was a vegetarian, and how this all related to the first precept (not to take the life of any sentient creature).
The other night I went to a meeting of the local group of progressive Christians. We heard a lecture on the subject of what we can know about the historical Jesus and what this means for progressive Christianity. The thesis put forward was that progressive Christianity supports inclusivity. Jesus believed in inclusivity — he hung out with tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and other disreputable characters. This is all very good, and very much to the point, because the presence of gays in the church (and the ministry) is very controversial in some circles.
But it doesn't go nearly far enough. What would Jesus say about the spectacle of the richest country in the world wantonly destroying the environment and polluting the atmosphere, conducting aggressive wars which kill hundreds of thousands of people, and rescuing the rich during a financial crisis the end of which we cannot foresee? And what would Jesus think about a society that allows all this to pass without apology, remorse, or accountability, or a church that thinks that this is too controversial a topic to speak about openly?
Ruth Lauer-Manenti's An Offering of Leaves was just reviewed in the German edition of Yoga Journal. I can't read the review myself, but know from the editor there that they think highly of both the book and the author herself.
That same magazine has a feature article about David Life, who wrote the Foreword to An Offering of Leaves, and Sharon Gannon, the author of another Lantern book entitled Cats and Dogs are People, Too!.
If you do read German, you can find both articles here.
Traditionally, plans and resolutions for a new year involve the hope for more: more money, more success, more travel and other diversions, more happiness. More happiness is definitely a worthwhile goal, but I notice considerable confusion about how to achieve it. Our society teaches that happiness comes from money, fame, power, the accumulation of possessions, the tireless pursuit of new experiences, and the achievement--even if artificial--of physical attractiveness, among other goals. However, rather than a need for more, I see many people suffering from too much: too much food, too much distraction, too much self-absorption, too much busyness and striving. The planet is also suffering from too much: too much human consumption, too much meat-eating and frivolous travel, and too much carelessness about the sacredness and fragility of the web of life. I try to look for ways to eliminate the unnecessary, the overly complex, the time-consuming, the excess, the meaningless aspects of daily living, and luxuriate in less.
Spiritual teachers of most traditions around the world have been trying to communicate this message for centuries, of course, long before the stakes for all life were as high as they are now at the beginning of 2010. In the Buddhist tradition I practice, for example, participants in a ceremony of commitment to the path of enlightenment declare: "I vow to live a life of simplicity. I vow to live a life of stability. I vow to live a life of selflessness. I vow to live a life of service." These vows could serve as a sort of shorthand for the life of less busyness and less stuff. If we can just keep in mind and practice those four "S" words--simplicity, stability, selflessness, and service--much of the unwanted, superfluous, and destructive would fall away.
Have you ever wondered what the oldest book is? I was instantly intrigued when I saw that claim on a book that crossed my desk at the library where I work. Coming down to us from around 2400 BCE, The Wisdom of Ptah-Hotep is the work of a Grand Vizier to a fifth dynasty Pharaoh. Widely studied in ancient times but lost for centuries, it resurfaced when a Frenchman passionate about Egyptian art purchased a papyrus in Thebes in 1843. It turned out to be the only complete copy of this work. Edited by noted contemporary Egyptologist Christian Jacq, the 2004 edition presents 45 maxims and epilogues along with the hieroglyphs line by line above the text.
Ptah-Hotep tells us that he is 101 years old, and wants to pass on the benefit of his experience through this collection of sayings, or "wisdoms." Here are some samples:
Maxim 1: "Don't be conceited about your own knowledge. Take advice from the ignorant as well as from the wise."
Maxim 9: "Don't blame or criticize those who have no children, nor boast about your own offspring. There are many unhappy fathers and as many unhappy mothers; a woman without children is more serene. God grants spiritual growth to the solitary, whereas the head of a family clan prays anxiously to find a successor."
Maxim 11: "Follow your heart, your conscience and your ka—your creative power—all your life . . . don't cut short the time spent on the spiritual life . . . do not pervert the course of your day-to- day life by spending too long on mundane chores . . ."
Maxim 14: "The one who is not a slave to material goods can acquire possessions provided he keeps in mind that he wants them only for a specific purpose . . . but he who obeys the impulses of his greed loses his own conscience, and provokes disdain rather than love . . . A big heart, in a man or woman, is a gift from God."
I've been reading a biography of Jim Morrison this weekend. I've never considered myself a serious fan, really--never read his poetry, never completely listened to or bought any of The Doors albums. Yet I remember clearly that when I first heard "Light My Fire" on the radio, I was washing dishes in the kitchen of my family's home. I was stunned, stopping what I was doing until the song was over. Usually only in the case of major family or political events do we recall decades later where we were at the time something happened.
Morrison's life is riveting, both for his brilliance and his breathtaking excesses. He could be monumentally immature and offensive as well as charming. What struck me throughout, though, was the degree to which his life was infused by an insistence on authenticity. Here was someone who gave all he had to the search for truth and, although his drug and alcohol binges interfered, to the development of his talents. He didn't let anyone else's expectations steal his time or energy.
I was reminded of something I tell my audiences when I'm talking about my book The Practical Peacemaker. I encourage those interested in peace to reduce their media consumption, for several reasons: to avoid taking in advertising that makes them buy products they don't need, as well as countless images of violence, and to free up time to spend with family, perhaps, or to get some exercise. Then I say something like this: who knows what unique talents you may have that never get developed if you spend too much time watching TV or checking Facebook? We all have special gifts and creative ideas to contribute, but these may lay hidden our whole lives if we fill our spare time with idle entertainment.
Morrison, especially early on, had that kind of focus, a dedication to developing his gifts that eliminated distractions. For one summer before he was famous he lived rent-free on the roof of an apartment building, with the building manager's permission, so that he wouldn't need to have a job. Think about anyone you admire for achieving something great. It may be an artist, activist, or someone in another field. I'm betting that person cleared out most or all possible distractions and diversions from their life in order to pursue the goal they sought.
I'm thinking about my own life and invite you to do likewise. What would it take for you and me to develop an unshakeable commitment to our inner life, to bringing forth what we came here to express? What changes would we need to make, what would we need to give up, to clear the time and energy? What would it look like to "break on through to the other side?"
"I am not mad," Morrison wrote in the last year of his life. "I am interested in freedom."
Lantern's engagement with Hinduism and yoga is more than superficial, as the books below testify—the fundamental principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion (karuna) extend, we like to hope, throughout our publishing program. it is a continuing orientation, expressed as much through our maintaining a vegan office or using as much recycled paper in our printing as possible as in the content of our titles.
Of course, the passing of anyone age ninety-four, especially someone who has passed on so much of his wisdom to so many people, and whose life has been by all accounts exemplary, is also a cause of wonder and celebration. Nevertheless, it might be worth offering a little prayer to Sri Pattabhi Jois the next time you do your downward-facing dog.
Have you ever had the experience of someone misunderstanding your behavior? Not long ago, in a conversation with a relative, I was astonished to learn that he had completely misinterpreted something I had done months before. He knows I try to do the right thing environmentally, and drive a small, fuel-efficient car. He had earlier bought an SUV, and I said nothing derogatory about that. He had explained his choice by saying that a large car, higher up off the ground, was more comfortable for him (he is a large person).
On the occasion of the misinterpreted action, I was visiting him and his family, and we were all going out to dinner. There were two cars available to take us, a compact car and his SUV. Remembering that he had said he was uncomfortable getting into small cars low to the ground, and due to habit, I got into the compact car, so that he could ride in the SUV. I did this both going to the restaurant and returning. I thought nothing of it at the time, but recently he told me he thought I was expressing my disapproval of his SUV by refusing to ride in it!
Similarly, Ajahn Brahm, a Western Buddhist monk trained in Thailand, made this point in a talk to several hundred people. Some years ago, when some scandals surfaced about sexual misconduct among monks in Thailand, Ajahn Brahm told his audience, “I have a confession to make. This is not easy . . . ” He hesitated. “I spent some of the happiest hours of my life . . .” Another pause. “ . . . in the loving arms of another man’s wife. We hugged, we caressed, we kissed.” He hung his head and stared at the carpet.
He could hear gasps of shock all around, and saw hands covering mouths in disbelief: “Oh, no, not him!” After a pause for effect, Ajahn Brahm explained—have you guessed it?—that the woman was his mother, and it happened when he was a baby. She was another man’s wife—his father’s—and they did hug, caress, and kiss. The audience exploded in laughter and relief. He pointed out that even though they heard the words from his own mouth, and their meaning seemed clear, many in the audience had jumped to an entirely wrong conclusion.
Misinterpretation can lead to anger, rejection, and despair. As practical peacemakers, we can be as clear as possible about our own behavior to reduce the possibility of mistaken interpretation by others. Knowing how easily false assumptions can be made, however, we also need to be careful not to jump to conclusions about the statements and actions of others.
Kate Lawrence and Keith Akers, both Lantern authors, are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary during this Valentine’s week. Here are some of their thoughts on long term love, first Kate’s, then Keith’s.
We’ve long been Beatles fans, but this song of theirs is hopelessly naive. At the beginning, yes, love is all you need, if love is defined as the attraction to, affinity with, and affection for, a partner. There’s enough juice in the discovery, passion, and getting to know each other to last for awhile, but—I doubt this is news—it ain’t gonna cut it for the long haul. Eventually, the partner’s little annoying habits begin to bleed through the bliss. You discover that, for all that you have in common, you are also different, and some values may actually be in conflict with each other. You also have to deal with problematic people outside the relationship. Gradually you realize you’re going to need some solid relationship skills to provide a foundation for long term love. But before I get to that, let me tell all you romantics out there how our love began.
Our favorite Buddhist nun, Venerable Yifa, popped by the other day to talk about her organization, Fo Guang Shan, the concept of suffering, her books, and working with Lantern. Watch our brief video of our conversation (al fresco, with planes overhead and trains passing by), here:
There are many connections that can be made between vegetarianism and the Jewish festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly), and Simchat Torah:
Sukkot commemorates the 40 years when the ancient Israelites lived in the wilderness in frail huts and were sustained by manna. According to Isaac Arama (1420-1494), author of Akedat Yitzchak, and others, the manna was God's attempt to reestablish a vegetarian diet for the Israelites.