Category Archives: Meditation

Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective

Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. -Krishna

krishna  – Krishna was an earhtly prince who did many practical things to help the people of his time, but was always established in Self-Realization through yoga meditation.

Intorduction

In periods of seated meditation, there are states of great peace and great turmoil that pass through the mind in oscillating intervals.  As with the personal, so the collective: as human civilization evolves, periods of relative peace are often followed by chaotic times that require protest and dedicated work on behalf of the oppressed.  As current events unfold, it appears we are entering a period marked by increasing ignorance, injustice, and even impending catastrophe: nationalist politics threaten to deprive the rights of minorities; terrorism strikes fear into the hearts of decent people worldwide; climate change even threatens to destroy the world as we know it.

Any rational person understands that mere prayers and a “spiritual” perspective are not enough.  When people are hungry, they must be fed.  When laws are unjust, they must be protested.  When leaders concoct schemes to defraud the innocent, we must fight nonviolently to thwart their plans.  In short, all sorts of practical work must be done to improve the world, and every person has their own particular work to do.

To realize God is not to deny the obvious suffering in the world, but to have a different perspective on it.  While we do our work, we can simultaneously understand that the physical world, with all its seeming madness, is not the only Reality.  The sages and mystics of many religions tell us that our life is like a dream, and that whatever happens in the dream ultimately has no effect on the Dreamer, our True Nature. Everything we see in the physical world of matter is like the waves on the ocean.  The waves are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes raging in terrifying storms.  Yet whatever happens on the surface, the depths of the Sea remain at peace.  A sage is a person who works on the surface for the welfare of the world, but is simultaneously in touch with the depths.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that a sage is someone who sees that the waves and the depths are, in reality, one and the same.

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Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion

krishna  – Krishna revealing to Arjuna the timeless Way of the Yogis.

“In this world there are two orders of being: the perishable, separate creatures and the changeless Spirit.  But beyond these there is another, the Supreme Self (Brahman), the eternal Lord, who enters into (or manifests) the entire cosmos and supports it within.  I am that supreme Self, praised by the scriptures as beyond the changing and the changeless.  Those who see in me that Supreme Self see truly.  They have found the Source of all Wisdom, Arjuna, and they worship me with all their heart.”

The End of Religion

In the West, everything is a debate.   Politics is Democrat vs. Republican; economics is Capitalism vs. Socialism; and religion is so often unfortunately painted as religion vs. science, or even as one religion vs. another.  Atheists argue that all religion is a lie, and the religious respond with equally passionate claims of dogmatic surety.  We often and unwisely approach religion as a problem to be solved with our intellect, or as an “argument” to be won by debate.  Does it ever occur to us that God is an experience that is not confined by any tradition, that cannot be confirmed or denied by the perishable human intellect?

When I first began my spiritual search seven years ago, I was immediately drawn to the religions of the East like Taoism, Hinduism as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, and especially Zen Buddhism.  What most intrigued me about them was the idea that the Divine was not something outside of me to be “believed” in, but an actual experience that is the essence of what we ultimately are.  These religions were not “true” or “untrue” in the intellectual sense of the word, but merely described paths to an experience that is beyond all words and concepts.  To “have faith” in this sense was not to have faith in a God in heaven, but to have faith that through spiritual practice the experience of God is possible to have for yourself.

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Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation

krishna – Krishna teaching the mysteries of the universe to his devotee Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Those who have attained perfect renunciation are free from any sense of duality.  They are unaffected by likes and dislikes, and are free from the bondage of self will.  The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same.” – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

Renunciation is a word that freaks many people out, largely because they do not understand its spiritual meaning.  They associate it with images of emaciated forest Yogis who engage in silent meditation for years at a time, or perhaps with Christian hermits spending long days and lonely nights fasting solitude.  This misunderstanding unfortunately hinders many people from integrating the blessings of renunciation into their everyday lives. For periods of intense meditative separation from everyday routine are indeed a small aspect of renunciation, but true renunciation is a state of mind that is not limited to any particular life circumstance.

The Bhagavad Gita revolutionized and redefined the idea of renunciation at time in India when the population felt that God-Realization was only attainable by a small spiritual elite.  It proclaimed that renunciation is a matter of the heart, which transcends the mundane conceptions of monk and lay person, spiritual practitioner and “worldly” person that unfortunately still dominate many religious communities today.  The Gita radically proclaimed that a life of actively serving others (while inwardly renouncing desire and practicing frequent meditation) is actually superior to a life of solitary meditation alone.  Anyone who understands that God-Realization is the highest goal of life, and strives to structure their life around this lofty ideal, is a renunciate in spirit, regardless of their vocation, race, gender, or religion.

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Three Reasons to go on a Meditation Retreat

greatvow – The meditation hall at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I have lived for 9 months and have participated in 10 sesshins.  I have also done one 10 day Vipassana retreat (as taught by SN Goenka), which I highly recommend.

I returned this week from a 5 day silent meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists call sesshin (sesshin is often translated as “touching the heart-mind”) at Great Vow Zen Monastery.  It was my 11th long retreat, and, as usual, it was a deeply meaningful experience.  It was also utterly outrageous and fascinating; although retreats can be difficult, for me they are like going on spaceship adventures through my own mind/body and discovering new worlds!  In this post I’ll share three reasons why I feel that going on meditation retreats is spiritually useful. This post is mainly about retreats that are 5 days or longer.  There are also shorter 1-2 day retreats that are good introductions to retreat practice, and that can be very powerful experiences.  My discussion in this post is also limited to my experience in the Zen tradition, though I have also done a Vipassana retreat which I strongly recommend as well.   For a more in depth explanation of what meditation retreats are like, and for a fuller explanation of why I think they are important, you can read my book (specifically, the section is entitled “Meditation Retreats”) in the free pdf above.

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Travel Blog 1: The Burning Ghats of Varanasi

ganges-varanasi – The Ganges in Varanasi

Introduction

Varanasi!  How can I describe your beauty and your madness, your noble aspirations and your often chaotic reality?  Oh city of Shiva, you remind me of life’s highest goal, and the futility of chasing worldly desires.  You contain terrible poverty, but you posses the wealth of thousands of years of crystalized spiritual knowledge.  You are the victim of global capitalism’s inhumanity, but you testify to the transcendent God that is called by many names and who alone exists.  You are filled with modern pollution, but the fragrance of your devotion to God has blessed the world many times over.

I recently went on an amazing one-month pilgrimage to India, and stayed in the two holy pilgrimage cities of Varanasi and Bodhgaya.  I stayed in Varanasi for 9 days.  Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is considered the holiest pilgrimage site for most Hindus, and is highly influential to Buddhists as well.  The Buddha gave his first sermon just outside Varanasi in Sarnath nearly 2500 years ago.  Shankara, a great sage who influenced nearly all subsequent branches of yogic thought, is believed to have once lived here.  Tulsidass, Lahiri Mahasaya, Trailingaswami and countless other Yogi-Christ’s have blessed this city with their presence over the centuries.

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Zen Meditation in Activity

Introduction

Modern psychology has a strange way of categorizing the different aspects of our life.  Many psychologists emphasize that there are different spheres of life, and that we must find a proper balance in each sphere.  Everyone ideally, for instance, should have meaningful work, positive relationships, and soul rejuvenating hobbies.  Each sphere of life has different principals, and if one sphere is neglected our life becomes unbalanced.

There is certainly wisdom in this view, but all-too-often people make their spiritual practice just another category.  They divide enlightenment and the world, and allot spiritual practice only a portion of their time and dedication.  “This is my job, and there is my spiritual practice.”  “This is my prayer time, and there is the time I spend running errands.” “I go to church on Sunday, but during the week engage in ‘worldly activity.’” “I visit a monastery to live ‘the holy life,’ but my ordinary life in the city is mundane.”  Without realizing it, when we think in this way, we are re-enforcing the false view that the Divine and the world are separate, and our spiritual practice becomes just another delusion to garland our ego with.

When I began studying Eastern religions, my understanding of spiritual practice was utterly revolutionized.  In Zen Buddhist teaching, the tradition I have studied with the most depth, this very life is the activity of enlightenment.  There is not a moment of our life that is separate from enlightenment, from the Way, from God.  It naturally follows from this perspective that all of our activities are spiritual practice.

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Remembering the Goal of Life

“If a person beholds a lesser happiness and a greater happiness, let them leave behind the lesser to attain the greater.”
– The Buddha in The Dhammapada

It has been said that the spiritual path can be summed up in a single word: remembrance.  Remembrance of what?  The word remembrance points out that, in the spiritual path, we are seeking something we all know deep down to be life’s most important pursuit.  We all know that every person we love, and every material thing we cherish, will eventually be taken from us.  We all know that death will take even our body from us in a cosmic blink.  Deep down, we all know that true happiness cannot be found in impermanent things and people.  It can only be found in the realization of God, who is Bliss Itself and is our True Nature.

The word remembrance also reminds us that God-Realization does not imply the gaining of something.  Rather, the sages tell us that we have simply forgotten that we are God!  We have spent lifetimes upon lifetimes falsely identifying with our temporary minds and bodies, trapping ourselves in the illusion that we are not already Eternal.  Luckily, sages like the Buddha and Christ come to the Earth to remind us of what will truly bring us happiness, and to show us a path to Awakening.

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Working from the State of Rest

America is one of the only countries on planet Earth that is, in its ideal sense, not defined by ethnic identity.  Ethnicity has, of course, played a huge role in our formation as a nation, and still unfortunately heavily influences us today.  Yet I am talking about America in an ideal sense.  Germany is primarily composed of the German ethnicity, France is the home of the French, Mexico has a majority of Mexicans, etc.  What is a America, however?  In its ideal sense, it is a nation of people who share a set of governmental values, and also a group of people who are seeking to create their own identity.  To be an American means to lack an ethnic root that other nations take for granted.  This fact has had interesting psychological effects on us and, in my opinion, has generally produced a restlessness that, for better or worse, has helped produce one of the most domineering and massive economies to ever exist.

Our diminishment of ethnic identity has caused us to seek identity elsewhere, and nowhere is this misplaced identity more apparent than in the way we relate to work.  From birth, we hear the word “do” repeated like a mantra that endlessly jabs our souls like a searing brand.  From almost the moment we leave the womb, we are asked, “What do you want DO with your life?” instead of “How do you want to BE?” As adults, when we meet people, the first thing we usually ask after asking someone’s name is, “What do you do?”  I do, I do, I do… When we describe ourselves, our professional identity usually is preeminent: I am a doctor.  I am a construction worker. I am a teacher.  I am, I am, I am…

In recent years, God has been working to reprogram my brain from this repressive and capitalistic way of thinking about identity.  What I do is indeed important because, in a society, we must all contribute, and I have a natural desire to help people with my work.  Yet I refuse to think about myself in terms of my contribution to the economy.  Factoring out my career, what do I do?  Ultimately, I BE.  I live inside of God’s Mind in a state of indescribable Union with the ever-blissful Lord of the Universe.  And who am I, in a more personal, dualistic sense?  I am a child of the Most High God, unconditionally loved with an depth that couldn’t be described, even if all the trees of this world were converted into a single scroll filled with love sonnets from the timeless Muse.  Even if I achieve more than any human being has ever achieved, God will not love me one iota more or less.  What I do affects my own karma and life circumstances, but my identity is not based upon my work, but upon God’s Love that is entirely unaffected by it.  Blessed and forever praised is the One who has revealed this to me!

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Becoming a Master of Technology: Developing a Skillful Relationship with Technology from the Perspective of Spiritual Practice

technology

– In the 21st century, we must all learn to balance our use of technology with a lifestyle that is conduce to mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Introduction

What a fascinating age we live in!  Imagine traveling through time, and explaining the mystery of the internet to an ancient Roman citizen.  Imagine approaching Isaac Newton, holding up an I-Phone, and saying, “All the knowledge of humankind is now contained in this.”  Imagine Galileo, who worked tirelessly to create a telescope capable of seeing Jupiter’s relatively nearby moons, gazing through the famous Hubble Telescope at untold galaxy clusters that populate an ever-expanding universe!

Technology is a beautiful expression of the human mind, yet the way we use technology also reflects the dichotomy of the human condition, and our age old capacity for both good and evil.  The internet, for instance, is potentially the most innovative tool the human mind has ever created.  It has the capacity to educate every human being on Earth about the subtlest discoveries in science, the humanities, spirituality, and the arts.  Yet, a vast portion of it is used exclusively for pornography and cat videos… To use another well worn example, nuclear energy has the capacity to support humanity by providing power for entire nations; yet, as we all unfortunately know, it could also destroy the planet many times over.

I mention all this because I am philosophical by nature, and I typically cannot simply talk about a topic without shamelessly digressing about grand themes. This post wont be a grand exploration of technology’s effect on human society; rather, it will be a series of observations and practical tips about how to skillfully manage daily technology use from a spiritual perspective.

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Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective

JC

-A rendering of Jesus in deep meditation.  In my opinion, the future of Christianity must be informed by the more experiential religions of the East if it is to remain relevant.

 

Introduction

Jesus, Jesus Jesus….  Try as I might, I have never been able to escape this foreign name whose omnipresence in our society is, to me, an object of fascination.  Imagine giving an alien a tour through present day America and walking around a Midwestern city.  Inevitably the alien would ask, “What is this strange T-shape that adorns so many buildings and the necklaces of so many people?”  You would then answer, “It is an ancient device used to torture people to death that is a symbol of hope and transformation for billions of people on Earth.  It refers to a Jewish carpenter’s son who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago whom they claim was God Incarnate.”  What would the alien think about this?  Do we never stop to think about the strange uniqueness of the largest religion in the world? What a fascinating state of affairs!

This strange T-shape has dominated my spiritual life since childhood.  I was born in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity as a child.  I went to Catholic schools and non-denominational churches, and even have been the full time director of a Presbyterian ministry.  I can frequently be seen reading the Bible, and even have pictures of Jesus in my bedroom.  To the outside observer I might be labeled a Christian, but I do not consider myself one since I view all religions as equally valid paths to the Divine.

In high school I became disinterested in religion until I started practicing Zen meditation and ultimately went to live at a Zen monastery.  Ironically, my practice and study of Zen re-opened me to appreciating the original teachings of Jesus, now viewed from a new angle.  There is really no right or wrong angle, for there are many ways to understand the multifaceted life of Jesus and of religion in general.  In a previous post I examined Jesus’ death and resurrection from the Jungian perspective of an archetypal symbol, for instance.

In this post I am going to explore how the sayings of Jesus can be viewed from the perspective of the the Zen koan tradition. I hope to show that many of the sayings of Jesus can be approached the same way Zen students approach the Zen koan.  His sayings should be viewed as statements pointing to an awakened state of mind to be realized experientially, not as dogmatic edicts to be received with blind faith.  Jesus was not, as many Christian theologians have absurdly misinterpreted, God’s sole representative in the world for all of time to come.  Rather, to me, he was an awakened human being who taught about God and Enlightenment in the context of his Jewish environment in the 1st century.  He used various metaphors that people in his historical context were familiar with, but ultimately he was teaching about ineffable universal truths that other religions also symbolically express.

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