Saturday, November 30, 2013

Is Buddhism a Religion?

by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

We often talk about Siddhartha, the young man who became known as the Buddha, as if he were a god. The fact is that he was just a simple Indian guy, a human being like you and me. We think of him as some kind of super-genius for having attained complete spiritual awakening, but in fact his real genius was in showing how any one of us can attain the same awakening as he did. We describe him as a prince and a member of the elite royalty of his time, and we think that must have given him an advantage over us -- but the reality is that most of us today are probably better off, in material terms, than Siddhartha was.

We talk about his kingdom and so forth, but what the prince Siddhartha had was really no more than what you might find in any middle-class American household. He might have had more wives, but you've got more gadgets, more technologies and comforts and conveniences. Siddhartha didn't have a refrigerator, and you do. He didn't have WiFi, or a blog, or Facebook or Twitter. He might have had more houses and land, but you've got a more comfortable bed than he had. Maybe you even have one of those new, space-age Tempur-Pedic beds. Think of how much time you spend in bed, and how important your bed is. I guarantee that Siddhartha had a worse bed than you have.

The point is, we shouldn't mythologize Siddhartha's life and think that his spiritual awakening was due to his special circumstances. Most of us today actually live in conditions very similar to Siddhartha's, in terms of our material situation.

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

The Lure of Religious Trappings

A lot of people prefer to think of Buddhism as a religion. It's easy to see why, when Buddhism abounds with religious trappings: the rituals and the chants and the golden statues sitting on the shrine. Buddha himself never wanted to be deified in any kind of icons; at the beginning, he told his students no icons, no worshiping. But it's said that he had a very devoted student who kept pestering him, requesting his permission to make a statue of him, until finally the Buddha gave up and allowed the first image to be made. And now we have all these elaborate golden icons that look like they were dug out of an Egyptian pyramid. It's nice to have these reminders, but we must remember that's what they are: reminders of something, an example to be followed, not idols to be worshiped.

If our goal is to turn Buddhism into a religion, that's fine -- in America we have freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. We can make Buddhism into a religion, or a branch of psychology, or a self-help program, or whatever we want. But if we're looking for enlightenment, we won't find it through relating to the Buddha as a religious idol. Like Siddhartha, we'll find real spiritual awakening only when we begin to leave behind our fixed ideas about religious practice. Seeing the Buddha as an example and following his example -- recreating, in our own lives, his pursuit of truth, his courage and his open mind -- that's the real power of Buddhism beyond religion.

Truth Has No Religion

Siddhartha actually became the Buddha through his failure at religion. He saw that the ascetic practices he'd been engaged in were not leading him to true liberation, and so he left them behind. But he had five colleagues who continued their religious practices of asceticism, and they regarded Siddhartha as a failure. From their point of view, he just couldn't hack it, and that's why he gave up. Later, after he attained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, they became his first five disciples; but at the time when he left behind their religious program, they regarded him as a failure. I find that very encouraging. As spiritual practitioners, we should be open to being a failure. We can take heart in the fact that Siddhartha found enlightenment not through his great success at religious practices, but through his failures.

As Buddhists, Siddhartha's example is the most important one for us to follow. He was a great explorer of mind and its limits. He was open-minded, seeking truth, with no preconceived agenda. He thought, "Okay, I'll do these religious practices and see if I can find the truth that way." He did the practices, he didn't find the truth, and so he left the religion. Like Siddhartha, if we really want spiritual enlightenment we have to go beyond religiosity. We have to let go of clinging to preconceived religious forms and ideas and practices.

Religion, if we don't relate to it skillfully, can trap us in another set of rules. On top of all the ordinary rules we are already stuck with in this world, we pile on a second set of religious rules. I'm not saying there is anything bad about religion or rules, but you should be clear about what you're seeking. Do you want religion and a set of rules to follow, or do you want truth? Truth has no religion, no culture, no language, no head or tail. As Gandhi said, "God has no religion." The truth is just the truth.
If you are interested in "meeting the Buddha" and following his example, then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. Without your curiosity and questions and your open mind, there is no spiritual path, no journey to be taken, even if you adopt all the forms of the tradition.

Posted here by permission of the author.
Originally posted on August 6th, 2010 at

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Osel Hita Torres - The Reluctant Lama

Originally posted on on September 27, 2012
By Jolyon Jenkins
A Spanish toddler identified as the reincarnation of a revered Buddhist lama
spent his entire childhood in an Indian monastery.
But at the age of 18 he returned to his family in Spain.
Still hailed as a teacher, he is more comfortable on the beaches of Ibiza.

DOWNLOAD "The Reluctant Lama" MP3 and/or TEXT

When he was two, Osel Hita Torres was enthroned as a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist lama.

He was dressed in robes and a yellow hat. Grown men prostrated themselves in front of him and asked for his blessing.

No-one was allowed to show him affection unless he initiated it. He had his own special cutlery.

"It must have been tempting to take advantage of that sometimes and act badly," I say to him now.

"Yes," he replies. "I was a tyrant and an obnoxious spoiled brat. I was pretty bossy, let's say."

Even by Tibetan Buddhist standards, two was a young age for enthronement, and Osel was not even Tibetan - he is Spanish.

We are speaking in Ibiza, in the courtyard to his mother's villa. Osel is 27 and no longer a lama.

Osel would like to become a documentary maker.
He has swapped the rigours of monastic life for playing the drums on the beach, and chilling to trance music. He is not sure he is still a Buddhist.

Because of his bad experiences with the media, he hardly ever gives interviews. But he is relaxed and charming to me, and philosophical about his extraordinary history.

He was born in Granada, the fifth child of Maria Torres.

Maria had converted to Buddhism and was a follower of Thubten Yeshe, a charismatic and extrovert Tibetan lama who was traveling the West in the 1970s.

Yeshe was no ordinary lama. He visited Disneyland and was half in love with Western culture.

His young Western disciples were drawn by his Eastern exoticism. Some believed he could read their minds.
"It made me feel very special, the fact that he had chosen me as his mother” - Maria
But Lama Yeshe had heart problems, and he died in 1984 in a Los Angeles hospital, aged 49.

His followers were distraught. A few months later, Maria became pregnant with Osel.

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas who achieved a high level of enlightenment are able to choose what happens after their death - whether to be reincarnated and, if so, where.

The conviction grew among Lama Yeshe's followers and former colleagues that Yeshe had chosen to be reincarnated in Spain, in little Osel.

They detected in Osel a certain meditative self-containment. The way he acted reminded them of Yeshe. A baby like Osel appeared in another lama's dreams.

Osel was taken to India for testing, where he picked out Lama Yeshe's former possessions, including his sunglasses. The Dalai Lama confirmed that Osel was Lama Yeshe's reincarnation.

Osel went to live in a monastery in southern India and had little contact with his parents. It was a strange way to treat a toddler but Osel feels no resentment.

"For them it wasn't something negative, it was a huge opportunity they were giving the kid, like he's going to Yale or Oxford."

I met Maria at a Buddhist temple on Ibiza. I put it to her that her name is appropriate for the mother of a God. She does not reject the idea. "At the beginning, yes, it was something like this."

The fact that Lama Yeshe had come back in her son was good news.

"It was a reason for celebrating. It made me feel very special, the fact that he had chosen me as his mother. I thought that I was not going to have any more suffering during my life, just because of that. I wanted to share my son with the rest of the world, because it's not my son."

But did she not miss him? She says she was not clingy.

"Maybe because I don't really need to have my children by my side all my time, it was something I could deal with very easily."

But having a lama in the family was disruptive for her other five children as they all travelled the world, trying to stay reasonably close to Osel when he was very small.

Osel's Western disciples barely saw him as a little child at all. They detected in him wisdom, compassion and a detachment from emotional needs that allowed him to develop on a spiritual path - and stopped him missing his parents.

"When you were treated in this very deferential way, how much did you think to yourself secretly 'This is crazy'?" I ask him.

"For me it was completely normal," he says.

"But at a certain point in my life, around 15-16, I didn't feel comfortable with it...

When he was nine, he sent a cassette tape to his mother where he pleaded to be allowed to come back to Spain.

Instead his father, Paco, went to live in the monastery with him, and his younger brother, Kunkyen, went to join him as a monk.

"When I turned 16-17, I was dying to get out."

The turning point came when he read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and he started to wonder whether he was a true Buddhist.

Osel finally decided to leave the monastery when he was 18.
On his 18th birthday, he had a momentous conversation with his mother, which she described to me. "He said to me, 'If I decide not to go back to the monastery, can someone force me to go back?'"

"No", she told him. "Well, I'm not going back," he said.

But the monastery wanted him to return.

"I got a huge amount of letters and phone calls, and people coming to visit me, just telling me that I made a big mistake, that I lost a huge opportunity, that was my destiny, my purpose, blah-blah-blah, whatever."

Maria was also put under pressure but she supported his decision, and still does.
Life outside the monastery was difficult for him to start with - discos and girls were baffling and scary.
Life outside the monastery was difficult for him to start with - discos and girls were baffling and scary. One of his Buddhist sponsors living in Canada arranged for him to go to school there. He then went to Madrid where he did a degree in film studies. He would like to become a documentary maker.

Sometimes Osel seems like a living disproof of the old Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." The Tibetans had him from two till 18, but the pull of the West was stronger.

"What music do you like?" I ask him. "Reggae, I like drum-and-bass, I like trance, psychedelic trance, stuff like that. Hip-hop also."

In Lama Yeshe's organisation, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), they still see him as a teacher. He tries to accommodate them with what wisdom he can muster, but his advice tends to be light on Buddhist theology, with generic suggestions like, "When we see people in the centre, it's nice to always say hello."

His future is uncertain, caught between cultures and traditions. He lives on Ibiza but Spanish is only his third language, after Tibetan and English. He has taught Tibetan classes, he doesn't have a full time job but has been making a documentary for the FPMT.

He and Kunkyen feature on a recording that combines Tibetan chanting with Western trance music. He seems to be moving back towards the FPMT and even talks about returning to head the organisation.

Lama Yeshe was famous for his smile and sense of humor
"Maybe when the spiritual director decides to retire, then I can take over."

As the spiritual director?

"I'll probably just be maybe the co-ordinator. Not spiritual. I don't know, maybe some day. Slowly I am getting some interest towards Buddhism."

Maria is still a convinced Buddhist. "Do you still think he's a reincarnated lama?" I ask.

"Yes," she says. "What he isn't, is a traditional lama and it is what he doesn't want to be."

She has no regrets. "I never ask this question to myself, because it's not possible to go back. I always think everything has sense. What's happening now is the best it can happen, because it's what's happening."

Buddhists do not really do regret.

Osel himself still believes in reincarnation, and that Lama Yeshe could have chosen whose body he would come back in. He is just not sure it is him.

"Are there ever occasions when you feel a little bit of Lama Yeshe in you?" I ask.

"Yes, sometimes," he says. "Sometimes I ask Lama Yeshe to give me a message or a sign or something. And many times he does give me a sign or a message.

"So I don't know if he's outside or if he's inside. I don't know, but he's one of my best friends."

DOWNLOAD "The Reluctant Lama" MP3 and/or TEXT

Word List:
  • enthroned: officially recognize a young monk as the reincarnation of a high lama
  • prostrated [ мөргөл үйлдэх ] - to lying on the ground and facing downwards as a sign of respect
  • cutlery: knives, forks and spoons, used for eating and serving food
  • tyrant: a person who has complete power and uses it in a cruel and unfair way
  • obnoxious: extremely unpleasant, especially in a way that offends people
  • brat: a person, especially a child, who behaves badly
  • rigours: the difficulties and unpleasant conditions of something
  • extrovert: a lively and confident person who enjoys being with other people
  • distraught: extremely upset and anxious so that you cannot think clearly
  • clingy: needing another person too much
  • momentous: very important or serious, especially because there may be important results
  • baffling: to confuse somebody completely; to be too difficult or strange for somebody to understand or explain

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tacloban is calling

Originally posted on on Nov 12, 2013

This message is not for the people of Tacloban. The people of Tacloban do not need any messages from me. They are completely engulfed in a reality that eclipses the linguistic coding of sentiment or solidarity. Send money if you can. No, this message isn’t for, but rather from the people of Tacloban, because in their horrific struggle for survival and security, they have sent a message to you. It is a message you don’t want, and that none of us is ready for.

Some people have a sudden glimpse of reality, a stroke of insight, an aha moment. They might strive for it a long time – travel the world, trek mountains, study the wisdom of sages. But that’s not the glimpse of reality that matters. The glimpse that can change your life is the sight of rubble and ruin – the truth that things fall apart. We see the evidence every day, but still, it’s a hard thing to wake up to.

There was that cloudless morning in early September when most of us – roused by the radio, a phone call, or a shuddering impulse – turned on our televisions and saw the impossible. We saw a building buckle, and then, after a breathless half-second, a rushing crush of dust as one and then another tower disappeared in front of us – a Niagara of concrete, steel, desks, and doorknobs, everyday lives conjoined irretrievably in death, a plume of ash simultaneously rising and falling and haunting the gaping emptiness we could not turn away from.

One day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean stood to reach a resplendent sky and then tumbled forward into a bottomless blackness, swallowing the earth in one gulp, stealing the doomed from their innocent idylls and the sleepy ease of paradise – paradise! A whole population was snatched from the sheltering palms of a holiday while the rest of us still celebrated ours.

These things really happened. Of course, they happened to someone else.

There are a thousand tragedies no one knows about but you: the day the hospital calls, the accident happens, the letter arrives, and time runs out; the door slams, the brakes squeal, and the paperwork is signed. The day the rains flood, the pipes burst, the bones break, or the dinner burns. The day you lose your mind in a wild rage. The day you hurt someone.

We might think these days will end the way we spend our days – the way we worry and waste our days. We say they are wakeup calls. But do we really wake up? And what do we wake up to? Soon we forget, and go back to searching for the illusive comforts of a tamed and predictable world, one that doesn’t rise up without warning and defeat us every time.

Now, don’t tell me how you will die. Tell me how you will live.

Someone somewhere is always calling you.

Definition List:
  • to engulf: to surround or to cover somebody/something completely
  • to eclipse: a loss of importance, power, etc. especially because somebody/something else has become more important, powerful, etc
  • linguistic: connected with language or the scientific study of language
  • sentiment: a feeling or an opinion, especially one based on emotions
  • solidarity: support by one person or group of people for another because they share feelings, opinions, aims, etc
  • to glimpse: a short experience of something that helps you to understand it
  • rubble: broken stones or bricks from a building or wall that has been destroyed or damaged
  • to buckle: to become crushed or bent under a weight or force; to crush or bend something in this way
  • irretrievably: that you can never make right or get back
  • plume: a cloud of something that rises and curves upwards in the air
  • resplendent: brightly coloured in an impressive way
  • gulp: to swallow large amounts of food or drink quickly
Pronunciation MP3:
= engulf
= eclipse
= linguistic
= sentiment
= solidarity
= glimpse
= rubble
= buckle
= irretrievably
= plume
= resplendent
= gulp

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thai Women Don Monks' Robes

Originally posted on Inter Press Service on Nov 1, 2013
By Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau
Buddhist bhukkhini (female monk) ceremony.
Cedit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand, Nov 1 2013 (IPS) - Thai women were among the first women in Asia granted voting rights, in 1932. However, when it comes to religion, women in Thailand continue to struggle for equality and social acceptance.

Rhythmic chanting fills the air just before dawn at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, a provincial city located about 56km outside of Bangkok in central Thailand.

Unlike the 33,903 Buddhist temples that house an estimated 250,000 monks in Thailand, the Songdhammakalyani Monastery is the first temple built for women by women. The abbess, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is the country’s first fully ordained nun or Bhikkhuni in a Theravada monastic lineage.

The temple’s roots stretch back nearly five decades when Venerable Dhammananda’s mother, Venerable Voramai or Ta Tao Fa Tzu, became the first fully ordained Thai woman in the Mahayana lineage in Taiwan and turned their family home into a monastery.

“When my mother became interested in Buddhism she realised that in the Buddha’s time the Buddha gave ordination to women. Why were women never ordained in our country?” Venerable Dhammananda tells IPS.

“It was actually the Buddha who gave the ordination to his own stepmother and aunt and the whole story is in the Dhamma for you to read.”

Women account for an estimated 51 percent of Thailand’s population of nearly 68 million, according to a 2012 World Bank report.

Compared to neighbouring countries, women have made great strides in education and on the socio-economic front. However, women still earn 74 percent less than their male colleagues and hold a minority of high-level positions in business and politics. And when it comes to religion, women remain absent.

“A lot of the gender inequalities regarding salary and lack of female representation among the top-ranking members of our parliament are due to deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes of women,” Yad Prapar, associate professor of economics at Ramkhamhaeng University, told IPS.

“In Thai culture, they view the buffalo as a stupid animal that is hard-working. And they used to believe that woman was a buffalo while man was human. This is why women’s status in Thai Buddhism is far inferior to men because they are considered of less value.”

Under the current Thai constitution the ordination of women is permitted. But the Thai Sangha Council, a government-linked religious advisory group, maintains that only men can enter the monkhood, citing the 1928 Sangha Act that forbids Thai monks from ordaining women.

Women’s rights activists and religious scholars argue that legally recognising bhikkhunis (female monks) not only upholds the ‘Four Pillars of Buddhism’ but also provides a monastic community where women from all walks of life can practice among women.

“Women feel safer staying in a temple that is mainly run by women,” says Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, a lecturer at Nation University. “If I had a daughter I would feel more comfortable sending her, during the summer months when there’s no school, to be part of a bhikkhuni sangha where she could be a youth monk for about ten days or one month without harassment.

“Also, with bhikkhunis I can discuss issues pertaining to my personal life or the Dhamma privately. Whereas with a male monk, people could accuse me of having an interest in him because he’s handsome or claim that I want something more than guidance. This is how women strengthen Buddhism.”

The Songdhammakalyani Monastery’s regular 12-week Dhamma courses and three-day retreats in Buddhist education fill a major gap left by male-dominated sangha communities with a curriculum that is geared towards a feminist approach to interpreting Buddhist texts.

“Despite being a Buddhist all my life, I didn’t understand the Dhamma of the Buddha,” 53-year-old Venerable Dhammasiri, who received ordination four years ago in Sri Lanka, tells IPS. “I didn’t practice from my heart because I was never told the meaning of the chants, or the reasons we bow or abstain from certain foods. I was merely a Buddhist by birth certificate.

“In Thailand, the monks only teach from their point of view. I feel more empowered after becoming a bhikkhuni because I’ve not only learned self-control but my eyes have been opened to the historical role women played in Buddhism, like the thirteen female arahants, the history of the bhikkhuni sangha and the respected status we held during the Buddha’s time.”

Currently there are over 30 bhikkhunis and an unknown number of samaneris or female novices living in monasteries throughout Thailand.

To support the bhikkhunis’ movement of establishing a thriving and legally recognised female sangha in Thailand, a coalition of civil society members, scholars and legislators have put forth several proposals to amend Thai laws. Their hope is that in five to ten years the government and the religious clergy will restore the rightful heritage granted to women by the Buddha.

“Women have always contributed to Buddhism because it is actually women who feed the monks. Go to any temple in Thailand, and 80 percent of the attendants are women, so they are actually the foundation to keep Buddhism going in this country,” adds Dhammananda.

“We are laying the groundwork for more women to pursue the ordained life, so that future generations don’t have to fight so hard.”

Definition List:

  • to grant: to agree to give somebody what they ask for, especially formal or legal permission to do something
  • provincial: connected with the parts of a country that do not include the capital city
  • to ordain (ordination: ceremony): to make somebody a monk, priest, minister or rabbi
  • stepmother: the woman who is married to your father but who is not your real mother
  • colleague: a person that you work with, especially in a profession or a business
  • inferior: not good or not as good as somebody/something else
  • harassment: to annoy or worry somebody by putting pressure on them or saying or doing unpleasant things to them
  • to empower: to give somebody the power or authority to do something
  • to restore: to bring somebody/something back to a former condition, place or position
Pronunciation MP3:
= grant
= provincial
= ordain
= ordination
= stepmother
= colleague
= inferior
= harassment
= empower
= restore

The Passionate Buddha

The Passionate Buddha
Wisdom on Intimacy and Enduring Love
by Robert Sachs

Book Quotes:

Buddhism is more a set of tools than it is an '-ism.

If we open our eyes, relax our minds, and offer our hearts to those around us, there is no doubt in my mind that we shall receive in kind - and the journey will be that much richer and more joyful.

We may find something inside ourselves that encourages us to reach through the fog, giving us what may seem to be a completely unwarranted confidence that all will workout – somehow.
"Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate source of success in life." by Dalai Lama
Once we have come to the realization that we are inseparable from everyone and everything around us, expressing our loving nature fully and without reserve becomes effortless.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Awakening to the Sacred

Awakening to the Sacred
by Lama Surya Das

Book Quotes:

Do our opinions so define us that our innate goodness gets lost in the rhetoric? Are we so driven by our need for personal rites and rituals, schedules, timetables, and set ways of doing things that our priorities are lost?

We lose god, meaning, and our very selves in complexity. When we get caught up in the many, we lose the one.

By it's very nature, life is not simple.

The more deeply we are in the present moment, the less resistant we are to the ebb and flow of change and evolution.

The more aware we become of all that is within us, positive and negative, light and dark, the more we will be able to handle life in a balanced, sane, and spiritual way.

Each time we undergo even a small transformation and life change, we are reborn.
"There is no greater magic than meditation, to transform the negative into the positive, to transform darkness into light - that is the miracle of meditation." Bhagwan Rajneesh
A human life is a great blessing. If we accept and internalized the fact of our own mortality, then, by definition, we have to deal with the essential questions of how we live and how we spend our allotted time. We have to stop procrastinating, pretending that we have forever to do what we want to do and be what we long to be.
"Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit. Even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a large vessel. Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small. However small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain." Buddha

Definition List:
  • rhetoric: speech or writing that is intended to influence people, but that is not completely honest or sincere
  • "ebb and flow": the repeated, often regular, movement from one state to another; the repeated change in level, numbers or amount
  • transformation: a complete change in somebody/something
  • mortality: the state of being human and not living for ever
  • allotted: to give time, money, tasks, etc. to somebody/something as a share of what is available
Pronunciation MP3:
= rhetoric
= ebb
= transformation
= mortality
= allotted