Sunday, October 30, 2011

Do Buddhists worship idols?

Ajahn Yuttadhammo addresses the issue of idol worship in Buddhism, pointing out that while ostensibly Buddhists do not worship idols, many Buddhists do, in fact, worship idols (and not just Madonna or Lady Gaga). The fact that many Buddhists do worship idols is a central issue with why many Muslims and Christians are so hostile toward Buddhism and Buddhists.


Yuttadhammo has a series of videos "Ask a Monk" that are interesting and informative. They're worth checking out.

I have used the explanation that Yuttadhammo mentions of my possessing a Buddha statue and the creation of an altar is not idol worship, but a point of focus in my endeavor to develop mindfulness. And the Buddha didn't really say no to idols, just as he didn't completely rule out rites and rituals, as long as the practitioner was mindful that rites and rituals (and presumably idols) were empty and held no significance in and of themselves. If such objects or practices were helpful for developing mindfulness, then fine, they are useful as tools (I do believe somewhere in the Tipitika the Buddha warned of relic worship following his death). But the Buddha was not, is not, a god.

But it's easy to understand how some non-Buddhists are confused, particularly when many practitioners talk about "praying" to the Buddha, etc. (Again, someplace in the Tipitika I believe the Buddha is quoted as saying something to the effect that there is nothing to pray for because there is nothing to pray to)

I hope you take the time to investigate Yuttadhammo's other videos, particularly the ones on meditation. They're very informative and helpful.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Does success lead to indifference?

About a week ago a horrific incident in China spread across the interwebs with videos popping up showing the world the unbelievable – a hit-and-run crash in which a truck runs over a toddler in a Chinese market. But it wasn’t just the hit-and-run itself that was so shocking. It was the nearly two-dozen people who walked by the toddler as she lay injured and bleeding in the alley. Of all people, it was an immigrant woman collecting trash who saw the child and came to her aid.

There was plenty of U.S. media coverage of the incident; this particular video is stunning, although there are more graphic videos out there that show the actual collision between the truck and the child. An article in the Chinese newspaper Xinhua revealed how quickly Chinese and the world shared the story across the Internet. But perhaps much more revealing was this statement in the Xinhua article:

“The incident has left many people to wonder if China's rapid economic development has had an effect on ethics and morality in the general public.”

This particular incident in China may recall to some a similar event that occurred in the U.S. in 1964, the Catherine “Kitty” Genovese murder. The lead in the New York Times article about the murder, published two weeks after the killing, present an ugly and horrifying picture of fear and apathy:

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

“Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

This literally became a textbook example in many schools – I know we talked about it in a high school class of mine – of how people become numbed by fear and no longer show any interest in their fellow human beings.

How do people become so insensitive to others? It’s a natural question to ask, but it’s not really the right question to ask, the skillful question to ask. We can examine why people become insensitive, why they lack compassion or are unwilling to show compassion toward others, until we have what we might consider a definitive answer. But finding that answer won’t ensure we become compassionate ourselves, it does not lead one to being more compassionate.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was with a buddy of mine and his mom as we walked through downtown Midland, Mich., for the annual carnival days and sidewalk sales. It was such a gay time, but as we walked along I saw how people were making way for something. As we got near we saw a man lying on the sidewalk, blood streaming from his nose. Apparently he had been in a fight right there and was knocked down, his assailant nowhere to be seen. I’d never seen that much blood come out of a person’s nose before. He was conscious, but just lying there. My friend’s mom without hesitation, with not a shred of shock or dismay on her face, took her handkerchief out of her handbag and offered it to the man. I can still picture her in her slim dress, probably a Jackie O kind of thing that all the women were wearing at the time, it had to be about 1968, just as prim as can be offering her clean white lace-trimmed hanky to this brute on the ground with blood forming a pool just below his face. He at first declined her offer. She insisted, said it wasn’t doing her any good and it would likely do him some good. He acquiesced. Could she get some medical help? No, he wanted to be left alone. So be it, and we moved on. All during that episode, dozens of other people just walked by, taking only furtive glances before hurrying on. As we walked on, a couple medics were apparently on their way to help.

There were a lot of other children around that day. For most of them, the lesson was don’t pay attention, don’t get involved, pretend it doesn’t exist.

We don’t need to understand why people lack compassion. We simply must instill it within ourselves and express it to others. Unsurprisingly, the Buddha had plenty to say about this because even monks are not immune to indifference.

In the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the Buddha encounters a sangha where there is a monk seriously ill with dysentery, fouled with his own urine and excrement. But none of the other monks are attending to the sick monk. The Buddha asks the sick monk why.

"I don't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don't attend to me."

Now, the Buddha is a level headed guy, not given to extreme fits of emotion. Nonetheless, I have to think that when the Buddha heard this, he was freaking fucking mad. But the first thing the Buddha did was to immediately start attending to the monk, bathed him and put him to bed. After that, the Buddha went to the rest of the monks and asked them why they hadn’t been attending to the ailing monk. Their answer?

"He doesn't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why (we) don't attend to him."

Being the level-headed guy that he was – I mean really, getting all angry and bent out of shape accomplishes nothing – the Buddha firmly reminded the monks that they have abandoned their homes, which means they have no mothers or fathers or siblings or anyone else to attend to them. That means they must attend to each other.

It’s part of the Four Right Efforts when you think about it: Remove negative behavior and thinking from ourselves that already exists; prevent new negative behavior and thinking from arising in us that doesn’t already exist; further develop positive thinking and behavior that is already developed in us; and nurture and encourage new positive thinking and behavior in us that doesn’t already exist. We don’t need to understand why; we just need to do it because the benefits of such self-directed action will be readily apparent.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many obstacles out there that actively discourage being compassionate. As the title of this post suggests, new-found prosperity can lead to callousness, even without us being aware of it. We live in such a litigious society that we may fear aiding others because we might get sued. And particularly with children, men – especially gay men – need to be extra careful. If I see an obviously lost or distressed child, I don’t help the child. Instead, I seek out a woman and ask her to help the child, because if I do it, someone will carelessly accuse me of being a child molester.

But I think the most dangerous and destructive mental attitude we must be alert for is this line of thinking: This doesn’t pertain to me, it’s none of my business.

That Chinese toddler died from her injuries. Had she received help promptly, it might have been a different outcome. Then again, she might have died anyway. But all those people who ignored her? Oh, the kamma they have made.

The image with this post is not mine, but was given to me with permission to use. However, I can't recall whose image it is, so let me know so I can give you proper credit.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Selfishness disguised as compassion, or kamma can suck

For the past several days I’ve been struggling over what to do with my cat, Symba. He’s been sniffling and sneezing and losing weight, which I largely attributed to some type of severe allergy or sinus infection. However, there was a key symptom I wasn’t paying attention to: Symba’s breath was awful smelling, like rot. Everything else was beguilingly normal; all his other body functions were operating, shall we say, unimpeded. And he was especially perky whenever I fed him and Tazz, my other cat, soft food.

When I finally took Symba in to see the vet, the news was dire. It wasn’t merely nasal congestion or some allergy going on. It was an infection, but it was in his mouth. He had already lost several teeth, his breath smelled rotten because of all the pus building in his gums and even the roof of his mouth, which was starting to look like maggot-ridden hamburger. The swelling from the pus on his right cheek was so intense it was ready to burst through the outside of his cheek; the vet showed me the spot where hair was starting to disappear. That’s why he was constantly rubbing and grooming that side of his head with a paw. And that’s why he showed excitement when I brought out the soft food, because his mouth hurt so much to eat dry food.

I was overwhelmed with sadness, but it wasn’t for Symba – it was all about me. I hadn’t recognized it fully, however, at that moment. Oh, I knew I felt guilt for not paying closer attention to Symba’s symptoms. And I felt guilt over not listening to a vet 8 years ago who told me that Symba was developing gum disease that ought to be taken care of. But when he told me that it would cost $150 to clean his teeth when I hadn’t gone to a dentist in years to take care of my own teeth, I said no. Now I was looking at major surgery for Symba to the tune of at least $900, potentially more.

There was the possibility, the vet told me, that Symba’s problems were entirely restricted to this awful – and I mean AWFUL – mouth infection. She said there was a possibility he may have bone cancer in the jaw as well. If that were the case, she recommended putting him down. But there was a catch. She would need to begin the surgery on his mouth before she could see and determine if cancer were present. And even then, it may not be immediately obvious, which would then necessitate a biopsy. Biopsy results could take a couple days, meaning the mouth surgery would be completed and a few days after his return home, the biopsy result would be available.

This all meant that I could end up spending more than $900 only to learn later that Symba’s days were over. That bugged me. Really bugged me. But a voice inside reminded me had I listened to that vet 8 years ago and paid the $150 then, I wouldn’t be faced with $900 now.

This was all on Thursday. The vet told me she couldn’t do the surgery until Monday. If all went well, Symba could be home that evening. If it were just the mouth infection, she said his prognosis was actually excellent. Symba wouldn’t have any teeth, but should fully recover. They had a plan, also, that would allow me to pay for the surgery over time, interest free. I qualified, so I agreed to schedule the surgery for Monday with the knowledge that I still had the weekend to think things over.

That evening I had dinner over at a friend’s house. He gave me very practical feedback. I don’t have $900, this would add to my debt load, even if only temporarily, he told me. Symba was 15 years old, he’s lived a good life. I gave him an excellent home, took care of him and loved him. I shouldn’t feel guilty over not addressing the gum disease issue in the past. I also had my own life situation to consider. My cat food costs would like go up after this because I would need to buy soft food more frequently, so long term my expenses would rise. I needed to think about myself in this situation as well.

It was all very persuasive. My friend made excellent and valid points. I didn’t have any money, no savings at all, and Symba was 15 years old, at the high end of a cat’s normal life span. Even if the surgery was successful and there was no cancer, how many more years would I be giving to Symba?

Friday I worked at home, although frankly, I was not very productive. I struggled with my decision. I couldn’t ignore the cost and the impact that would have on me.

Symba seemed to sense something was troubling me. He came out of his corner where he’s been spending his days, the lower shelf on a small case where I keep grocery bags, and came into my home office. He looked at me, meowed loudly (I think he’s deaf now, and that may be the result of the infection as well), then jumped into my lap. I reclined back into my chair and he laid his frail body against me and began to purr. I understood now why his fur was so ratty looking; he wasn’t grooming himself because of the mouth infection. I knew why he had lost weight; because it hurt his mouth to eat the dry food. I was overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. I apologized to him. I did this to him. I had failed. And the decision to have him put down was beginning to take shape.

But it was still all about me.

I was ready to take him to the animal hospital that moment and have it done. But there was somebody else I wanted to talk to first. Benny. So I left a message for Benny to give me a call. While waiting for Benny’s call, I drove to Whole Foods to pick up some items with the idea that I would park my car on the street when I got back, making it easier to bring Symba down to the car to take him to the vet. But when I returned from Whole Foods, there were no street parking spaces, so I drove back to the alley to my garage.

Back inside, I tried to do a little work, responded to some emails, and then Benny called. We chatted for a bit and he said something that surprised me. Benny’s known about my Buddhist practice, I even tried to teach him meditation but he didn’t stick with it. He said that my dilemma sounded like something I should meditate on.

Duh. When was the last time I meditated? My practice had really gone to shit. It must have been weeks, perhaps months, since I last mediated. What was up with that? After my call with Benny, that’s exactly what I did, I went to the cushion.

It was a struggle. My mind was all over the place. Rather than attempt to “think” about anything, my decision or whatever, I just brought my mind back to my breath. Over and over it would run wild into this or that thought, and I would each time bring it back to the breath. By then end of the session, I had achieved some semblance of mental calm. I then began my normal routine of chanting some Pali verses after the silent sit. Needless to say I got a bit choked up when I said out loud, “May all beings be free from suffering.” But what really got to me was reciting the Five Recollections.

“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not got beyond aging.
“I am of the nature to be sick, I have not got beyond disease.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not got beyond death.
“All that is mine, beloved, and pleasing, changes and vanishes.
“I am the owner of my kamma, the creator of my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma; whatever kamma I create – skillful or unskillful, light or dark – to that I fall heir.”

My voice trembled as I recited this, but something was coming up. Something was rising.

I went back to my computer and began a search with the terms “euthanizing pets Buddhism.” The discussion was all over the place, but I began to see a common thread. And in particular, it was discussion on how our sense of compassion may not really be compassion at all, but a mask to cover up selfish intentions. We tell ourselves that our beloved pet is suffering and so we seek to end that suffering. At the other extreme is the notion we should never euthanize our pets because they have their own kamma to work through and by euthanizing them we’re interfering with that. I found that argument to be bullshit, largely because it presumes that we “know” what kamma the animal has and must deal with. Now that is ego to the extreme. Plus, such a position logically leads us never to intervene when anyone is sick because we might be interfering with their kamma. That’s just crazy.

But the notion that the option of euthanizing an animal was merely a smoke-screen covering up our own discomfort with disease and death was resonating with me. The more I began to re-evaluate Symba’s symptoms, the more I began to see that the likelihood he also had cancer was extremely low. I’ve had pets that were on death’s door because of either feline leukemia or another terminal illness. It was clear that they were close to death because they weren’t eating, some couldn’t even lift up their head and they could barely respond to any type of affection.

Beyond the fact that he had a horrible mouth, Symba was still Symba. He remained affectionate and even playful, particularly if he knew I was preparing soft food for him.

We all get sick. Sometimes really, really sick. But we don’t die from every illness. Not every illness is fatal. In fact, we recover from really major illnesses all the time.

And so do animals.

I do have responsibility for Symba’s illness. After all, I cannot ignore the fact that I did not heed the advice of that vet 8 years ago. Symba’s and my kamma are connected. And this got me thinking of the simile of the salt crystal. I can’t erase my negligence and selfishness entirely all in one sweep, but I do have an opportunity to remedy this and eliminate not just my kamma but Symba’s as well. And when I came to that realization, this burden I had been feeling was completely lifted. I felt light and at ease, like a shadow that never leaves.

So I will be bringing Symba in on Monday morning, but it will be for the surgery. Certainly there is the possibility that he has cancer and in that case, we’ll put him down. But I truly believe that is a slim chance. Despite that, I am comfortable with my decision. Symba doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t need to now. For me to think I would be doing him a favor by euthanizing him was delusion.

This time the decision was about Symba.