Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

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Before You Bomb Korea, Mr. President

August 13, 2017

Dear Mr. President,

Before you decide to bomb North Korea, please consider carefully the impact of your actions on the people of South Korea. Last year I spent two weeks there, with two dozen other Americans and our two Korean-born priests, celebrating the centennial of my religious community, Won Buddhism. As you have increased the intensity of your threats regarding possible actions on the Korean peninsula this week, I am constantly reminded of the many wonderful people I met, people who will suffer the most from actions you may choose to take.

I am reminded of the retired women Won Buddhist priests we spent a morning with. We ended our time by exchanging hugs. I expected to be the giver of affection, and was deeply moved when instead I received overwhelming feelings of love from these women to whom I could say nothing. The deep-seated joy they radiated defied age and language. Are you willing to let these women suffer?

I am reminded of the family I spent a day and evening with. The father, a retired government minister and now a professor, who spoke to me of his last great professional goal, to free the people of North Korea from the destitution he witnessed during his trips there on behalf of his government. The mother, who welcomed me into her home and fed me wonderful Korean food and even did my laundry. Their daughter, who works as a business translator, helping companies conduct meetings in real time in English and Korean. They spent six years in our country while the father earned graduate degrees. Now they live 40 miles from the North Korean border in a suburb of Seoul. Are you willing to let this family suffer?

I am reminded of the Won Buddhist seminary students we spent an evening with. They are preparing to dedicate their lives to the service of others. Most will stay in Korea, but some will leave behind the familiarity of family and friends and go to America and other countries, as the two priests at my temple did. As we rounded the corner of a building to meet them, we saw them waiting for us outside. They began to cheer for us, like we were celebrities. Once inside, we spoke with them and chanted and meditated with them, filling our meeting hall with mutual affection. When we left, they walked us outside and cheered us again, waving until we were out of sight. Are you willing to let these young people suffer?

I felt this spirit of kindness and generosity and hospitality every day of my visit. The South Koreans are an incredible people. In three generations they have transformed a land devastated by colonization and war into the world’s sixth-largest economy. In two generations they have moved from violent dictatorship to vibrant democracy. They have been our steadfast ally in a crucial part of the world. Should you choose to act rashly in response to a bully’s words and the waving of his fists, the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live among them may be able to board a ship or a plane and leave Korea. But the people I met there will have no such choice. They will instead be asked to bear the consequences of your actions. Please keep those people in mind, Mr. President, and please choose your actions carefully.

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Mindful Reading

July 18, 2016

I love to read. I always have something on hand with me, and I don’t mean skimming Facebook or email on my phone. I mean I sneak a look at a magazine or book whenever I get the chance. But I’ve been worrying that I am too slow a reader. There certainly is always too much to read, and my piles grow, both on my nightstand and by my desk. Thanks to The Productivity Show podcast, I heard about an online speed reading course called Rev It Up Reading.

Last week my family went to the beach, and my favorite way to spend time at the beach is reading. Since I’d have so much time to read, I decided to buy seven days of access to Rev It Up, so I could put the techniques to immediate use. The course was really helpful. Although I was already a pretty fast reader, my speed went up nearly 25%, and my comprehension improved too. And I realized that highly effective reading is really an application of some mindfulness practices to the page and screen.

It’s All About Attention

At its core, improving speed and comprehension are about improving attention. One common obstacle to rapid reading is regression, going back and rereading paragraphs (or pages!) we’ve already read. While we sometimes we reread because of a passage’s significance or complexity, it’s more common that we go back because we were looking at the words but not reading them. This is because we weren’t giving our attention to the reading, but were instead thinking about other things. We did the physical work of reading, but not the mental comprehension that provides us with the meaning in the words.

When I’m not on the road traveling, I often attend morning meditation at my temple. During the session we chant four different dharma passages. I’ve done this enough times now that I have them memorized. Because I’m not always confident I really can remember all the words, however, I usually have my booklet open in front of me. What I now notice is that, if I just read the words, my mind can easily stray. I think about other things. My chanting mind is on auto-pilot. But if I chant from memory, then I am more aware of the words, and I think more about their meaning. The chanting gets more of my attention, and becomes a more fulfilling practice.

Quieting the Monkey Mind

Subvocalization, sounding out the words we read, can also slow down our reading rate. We speak about 150 words a minute, so if we sound out every word we read, we’re reading much slower than the mind can think. The trick to quieting this voice is to read faster, bypassing the vocalization process and moving the reading process more directly from the eye to the brain. At first this can feel uncomfortable, and it’s easy to worry that we’re not comprehending as much. But with a little practice, we end up understanding more. Just as removing the training wheels leaves us a bit unsteady at first, the need to pay attention to our balance focuses us, and we end up being much faster and more effective bicyclists.

I think of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind as a parallel to subvocalizing. Beginning meditators can be put off when they first notice the seemingly unending stream of thoughts the mind produces. I’ve had friends tell me that, after a single attempt at meditating, they want to give up the whole process. How can we have a quiet mind when there’s so much going on in there? But this internal chatter, often replaying the past or anticipating the future, is only noise. This monkey mind leaps from thought to thought, and appears to have boundless energy. But once we bring our attention to it, we see that the monkey mind can’t sustain itself. Our deeper consciousness stops feeding it. Meditation is just tapping into this consciousness, and returning to it every time we give our attention to our thoughts. With practice, we begin to feel more settled. Similarly, if we give our full attention to the words we’re reading, we can quiet the subvocalizing. We stop giving energy to the internal talking, and we end up reading faster and understanding more.

Won-Buddhism believes that meditation can happen anywhere, anytime. I’m now seeing that reading can be form of practice, too.

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Dharma Talk: Air Travel as a Form of Practice

January 24, 2016

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, our temple holds a dharma and meditation service. One part of the service is a dharma talk, when either a kyomunim (priest) or member of the community relates some part of the Won-Buddhist scripture to their life experience. A few months ago Rev. WonGong asked me to consider giving a talk. Friday I sent her a draft, seeking some feedback. She replied, “How about giving this talk this weekend?” I had not planned on going to the temple, because Jonas had dumped enough snow and ice to make travel dicey. But I figured there would not be many people there, reducing the pressure on me, and Vicki was willing to help me get her car out of our driveway. It took us a while, but Vicki was determined to get us on the road. Off we went, and after I gave the talk at the Saturday service, Rev. WonGong gave me some feedback and passages to include in the Sunday service. Here is the talk I gave today.

Notes: Quotes are from The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism. The Founding Master is Sotaesan, who established Won-Buddhism 100 years ago in Korea. “Son” means “meditation.”

The Founding Master said, “Ordinary people consider practice to consist of always sitting quietly in meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, and reading scriptures, and do not realize that there exists a practice conducted throughout everyday life” (pp.147-8). My everyday life involves air travel. I fly for my job, and I fly often. I began my job of teaching workshops and training trainers to teach workshops in 2004. Since then I have flown about 1.8 million miles. This work has opened up the world to me. When I began it, I did not own a passport. Now, when I go to Korea with the temple group in April, it will be my 24th country to visit. I am grateful to have work that is so interesting and has offered me so many opportunities.

But to balance this life in the air, I need grounding and stability. I have a family that supports me. I have colleagues who make my work easy and enjoyable. And for almost a year and a half, I have had this sangha. Maybe it is not a surprise that I love coming to a place where I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor. In the front of The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism it says, “Timeless Son, Placeless Son,” which means we can meditate anytime and anywhere. Later, the scripture says, “Even a farmer wielding a hoe can practice Son, as can a carpenter wielding a hammer, a clerk using an abacus, and an official seeing to an administrative matter; and we can practice Son even while going about or staying at home” (p.62). For me, this teaching means airplanes and hotel rooms should be just as conducive to my meditation as this temple.

The main principle of Son is that “Ever-alertness within calmness is correct … ever-calmness within alertness is correct” (p. 152). Rev. Ginger included this principle in a recent dharma talk, and it helped me to look at air travel as a place for my practice.

When I prepare for a trip, I need to be alert within calmness. When you make as many trips as I do, it is easy to slip up. To reduce the possibility of forgetting something, I have two checklists, one for domestic travel and one for international, that I use when packing for my trips. This way, rather than wondering if I have forgotten anything, I can focus on what I am packing, counting shirts and socks to make sure I will have enough. The list allows me to relax and focus.

The next phase of my travel requires calmness within alertness. The process of travel to the airport, checking bags, proceeding through security, and boarding the plane can be stressful. I am tempted to resist things I cannot change. I cannot change when the plane leaves, so I must give myself plenty of time to get to the airport and to navigate the lines. I cannot change the length of the lines or their speed, so I just bring my focus to my breath, let go of the tension I accumulate, and move when the lines allow. I cannot change how many security stations are open, or how long it takes my fellow passengers to remove their belts and shoes, or how slowly the TSA agents respond to those who need extra attention. Again, the breath gives me a place to let go of stress and remain calm. When the gate agent announces boarding has begun, the passengers swarm toward the gate. We are all wondering–will there be space for my bag? I try very hard not to move until my zone is called. I try to use my calmness to overcome the anxiety in the air.

Once we are all on board and the flight begins, my focus shifts back to remaining alert within calmness. Air travel is not easy for most of us. We’re sitting in a small space among strangers. It’s difficult to move around, and even harder to move without disturbing others. I believe that, even though flying is common now, we know sub-consciously that we are sitting in a small tube high in the sky, and that hidden awareness produces fear. In these challenging conditions the temptation is to numb the mind, to make the fear go away and the time pass as painlessly as possible. So people order Bloody Marys at 6:00 am. They play solitaire and watch movies and sleep. While I too sleep on flights, and on long flights I watch movies and TV shows, most of the time I try to use my time well. Because I fly so much, I cannot numb myself. Instead I choose to engage. I read–and not junk but good stuff, novels and books about my work and of course books on Buddhism. I sometimes write, and I tackle my inbox, and in all ways try to be present–alert amidst the calm.

What can I gain from approaching my travels in this way? Master Sotaesan says that we too “must advance still further in our practice in timeless Son of ‘one suchness in action and rest’ so that we too will gain the three great powers” of Cultivating the Spirit, Inquiry into Human Affairs and Universal Principles, and Choice in Action (p. 149). No matter where I go now, I try to bring this practice with me. I always travel with The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism, my Meditation Chants booklet, and my dharma journal. And I have a small Il Won Sang image I place on the desk of my hotel rooms. This community has given me a place of grounding, which I then try to bring with me, timeless and placeless. I am grateful for the dharma that guides my travels, and for this sangha which keeps me balanced even when I am far from here.

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New Year, New Me

January 7, 2016

On New Year’s Day I accepted a dharma name, making a formal commitment to join the Won-Buddhist temple in Chapel Hill. I hesitate to write about this, because it feels egotistical (and thus not particularly Buddhist) to draw attention to such a commitment. But accepting the dharma name was a public culmination of a 15-year spiritual odyssey, a path which I traveled mainly on my own (though with the consistent and inspiring support of Vicki), a path along which I kept swinging between Buddhism and Christianity.

Vicki and I both grew up Catholic, but as we prepared for married life we knew we wanted to raise a family in a different faith. We didn’t look for an acceptable doctrine first, then a community that fit it. Rather, we found a community we loved (Aldersgate United Methodist in Chapel Hill) whose theology we could also accept. In the same way, I decided one Sunday night in October 2014 to check out the web site of the Won-Buddhist temple that I had been driving by for nearly a decade. At 6:30 the next morning I attended my first meditation, and since then I have begun many a day there. I have also attended regular services on Saturday and Sunday mornings, joined tai chi and qi gong workshops, participated in dharma studies, and even begun to learn some Korean. Again, I was not seeking a community that would fit my beliefs; instead, I found a community whose beliefs I could accept.

Won-Buddhism is a fairly recent branch of Buddhism; it began in Korea only 100 years ago. While the dharma (teachings) of the Buddha are its primary texts, like other forms of Buddhism it also integrates aspects of the culture from which it springs. For Won-Buddhism this means it contains Taoist and Confucian elements that are prevalent in Korean culture. Like many religious communities, ours has a small core of dedicated members surrounded by a others with varying degrees of participation. After ten months or so of active attendance, I wanted to make a formal declaration of my commitment to this community, so in the early fall I told our two priests of my desire to receive a dharma name. My preparations included a one-on-one session with Rev. WonGong, and a weekend in retreat at the temple. Since the New Year’s Day service was a public declaration to this community and its practices and precepts, it feels acceptable to write about it here, too. Won Bup Sung (“The Nature of Dharma”) has found his spiritual home.

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The Power of a Religious Community of Practice

January 9, 2015

We know that one way religion influences us is that it provides us a sense of community, a place to belong.

I felt that yesterday morning. For a couple of months I have been meditating at a Won-Buddhist temple near my house. Every morning at 6:30 there is an hour-long meditation in the temple. When I woke up yesterday my phone said it was 11 degrees. I briefly considered returning to sleep. Then I remembered that there would be at least one, and probably three, people there this morning: the two priests who live next to the temple and Patty, who has been leading the sessions this week. I figured the cold might make it less likely for others to go, and I didn’t want those three to sit by themselves. I processed all this in less than a second, but it was enough to get me out of my warm bed and into the shower and on my way.

We ended up with seven people sitting together. Each of us provides mutual witness to the others of the value of meditation. Each individual keeps the others going. At the same time, we each reap the benefit of the others’ presence, deepening our own practice because we’ve chosen to show up at the temple on a cold, clear morning.

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Even the Ground Moves

June 12, 2012

Two Fridays ago Johan Santana threw a no-hitter, not just for my fantasy team but for the New York Mets. The Mets had played 8019 games in over 50 seasons without a pitcher ever throwing a no-hitter for them. It seemed like they never would. Padre fans know the feeling–they’ve yet to see their team throw one (though they’re only in their 44th season).

Two days later I was cutting our lawn, and afterward I could not close the door to our shed. There’s a huge stone with a flat top that looks kind of like a welcome mat at the shed’s entrance. The door has closed for the eight years we’ve lived here, and I imagine for as long as the shed has existed before that. But now it sticks up just enough that I can’t swing the door shut. This stone is massive: I can’t dig deep enough to lever it with a shovel, and even if I could it feels like it wouldn’t budge. There’s been no earthquake or mudslide at our house; everything looks the same, but somehow the stone has moved.

Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, even things that appear so. The evidence is no further away than a box score, or the earth beneath your feet.

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82 Hours for Nothing

May 23, 2012

In February of last year Tricycle magazine suggested its readers might want to use Sharon Salzberg‘s book Real Happiness to refresh their meditation practice. Salzberg asks her readers to commit to sitting for 20 minutes a day for 28 consecutive days. I started meditating in 2000 but, despite some brief periods of sustained practice, I have not been consistent about it. At all. So I bought the book, which I greatly enjoyed, and made the commitment.

I found 20 minutes a day reasonable. One reason I’ve not kept a practice for long stretches is that I have found 30 minutes hard to fit in. Putting it in writing, 10 minutes doesn’t sound like a big difference, but in my head 20 minutes is more manageable. By last May I was starting to flag a bit when I downloaded an app simply called Meditate. You set up how long you want to sit, and it chimes (with gorgeous sound) at the start, end, and (if you want) in between. Best of all, it keeps track of how much time you’ve sat, both cumulatively and in minutes/day.

Last week was my one-year anniversary of using the app. I sat for 20 minutes 246 times, easily the most I have ever meditated in a year. What did I “get” for those 82 hours of sitting? Of course the goal is not to want to get anything; the Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that desire is the root of our suffering. What I have found is a bit of space. I think I am catching myself more often from reacting automatically with thoughts and emotions as I go through my day. I feel a little more focused and relaxed in my body.

To start this next year I am going to try 30 minute sessions. 20 minutes a day (and the app) have established the habit; I expect that longer sessions will give my mind more time to slow down. Let’s see how long I can sustain it.

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