Temple hanging (noren) (19th century), lotus flower fabric textile. Original public domain image from The Minneapolis Institute of Art.

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  1. But then…how do we explain what buddhist people are doing in Sri Lanka and Burma these days? is it really Buddhism the answer?

    1. Thanks very much Maria for this comment. I do appreciate your thoughts, as they help me clarify some points that have deeply troubled me for many years. This blog post tried to answer the question How can we respond to the horrific acts of gun violence, especially the recent mass school shooting in Florida – particularly considering that the person reading this post practices mindfulness, or meditation; some may even feel attracted to Buddhism or Buddhist ideals.

      The answer I came up with, as I deeply struggle with this question, is that though the practice of mindfulness we learn to apply it to everything – our thoughts, our bodies and our emotions. This sounds like a simple answer, but if we truly commit ourselves to this practice, we learn, as I wrote above to gently hold rage and despair in our sacred inner healing space, while cultivating clear, steady concern and action.

      Now let’s turn toward your question, which perhaps can be re-worded as “OK, a Buddhist response would be as you describe (to gently hold rage while being clear and steady in our actions), but if this is Buddhist approach, and if some Buddhists in Asia are intolerant and act out on their rage with violence, doesn’t that mean therefore that Buddhism either does not “work” as it claims it does, and therefore is not “the answer” to violence?

      Another aspect of your question, as I interpret it, is how do I explain how people who “are” Buddhists can act out in such horrific ways as shown in the atrocities committed by the Singhalese majority Buddhists in Sri Lanka against the minority Hindu Tamils, or the majority ethnic “Burmese” Buddhists in Burma against the minority Muslim Rohingya?
      Having spent significant time as a Caucasian, foreign-born ordained Buddhist monk in both these countries I feel I can answer these questions from experience.

      That experience has shown me very clearly, and shockingly at first, that what we call the Buddhist religious traditions of and in Asia are made up of individuals, who, and despite the ideals of their faith, are humans and act as humans.

      We are not particularly shocked anymore by seeing a You Tube video of an Islamic extremist planting a bomb in a public market, but are shocked when a Buddhist might do the same thing. We are shocked because we feel that “Buddhists are supposed to be compassionate and pacifist.”

      If we go back in history, we see humans who claim allegiance to many different religions acting gallantly and stupidly all over the planet. We all known about the Buddhist in Sri Lanka and Burma now, but during World War II, Buddhist institutions in Japan were complicit in the nationalistic and world domination insanity.

      Buddhist societies are as prone to ignorance and stupidity as the rest of them.

      Why does it seem so shocking that some religious Buddhists have been and continue to be ignorant and violent? Because we think that Buddhist societies are some sport of special exemption. And I think we think that because many of us reading this have experienced profound spiritual and emotional growth from our practice of mindfulness and meditation borrowed from traditional religious Buddhism.

      So we think that if we have practiced these wonderful ideals of love, compassion and forgiveness that our teachers have taught us, and who they as teachers may very well have thoroughly integrated into their individual being, we think that therefore ALL Buddhists, especially back in the Asian heartland MUST also be wonderful, loving, compassionate beings.

      That’s one error.

      What I noticed when I lived in Asia as a Buddhist monk for three years was that very, very, very few people practice meditation. The vast majority gives money or food to monks and nuns and thinks that will give them a better rebirth next time around.

      Now, what really shocked me was that very, very, very few monks and nuns practice meditation!

      It was very difficult for me to actually find a monk to teach me meditation when I was in Asia! I eventually did find some truly amazing and exceptional teachers, but they were miniscule in number compared to the population of monks and nuns.

      Another error is more fundamental—that just because someone holds certain beliefs (many of which are taught by their religion) that they will behave in accordance with those beliefs.

      Yes, many Buddhist really do hold pacifist and tolerant beliefs they were taught in their equivalence of Sunday school, but there really is no good reason to be shocked when they don’t practice them!

      That’s part one of my answer.

      Part two is the most critical one: that just because many people in Asia hold Buddhist beliefs but act contrary to them, does not in any way imply that the study and practice of Buddhism or Buddhist meditative skills such as mindfulness does not really work!

      The Buddha taught that the development of loving-kindness, compassion meditative joy and equanimity was very hard work.

      This path does really work if you really work at it!

      I met many Asian Buddhists in Asia who were completely transformed as human beings by their sincere and thorough dedication to this work.

      But unfortunately these people are vastly outnumbered by those who are Buddhist by birth and don’t do much other than most adherents of other world religions do.

      And the sincerely transformed and enlightened folks generally don’t run for political office or become officers in military dictatorships!

      Many of “enlightened” folks in Asia, lucky for us, decided to teach, and that’s how we came to enjoy the incredible benefits of our mindfulness practice.

      Now to the very last part of your question: Is Buddhism really the answer?

      I assume the full question would be something like: Is Buddhism really the way toward peace and happiness? Or perhaps: Is Buddhism the answer to our fundamental questions about our existence?’

      I think a dedicated, sincere Buddhist practice is no better an answer than a dedicated, sincere Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or other traditional religious way. People often ask me “What’s the best spiritual path or practice.”

      Folks who ask me that are usually not satisfied by my answer:

      “Whatever spiritual practice or path is working for you now.”

      I put in the “now” part in my answer as I feel our life goes through many seasons, and one practice that was working in one season may not be as effective as other you will no doubt discover!

      Please, let’s continue this discussion if you wish. Just hit the “reply” button.

      Aloha,

      Tom

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