Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for the ‘Dharma Talk’ Category

Being Bound, Being Free

Luke 8:26-39

freedomDoves

Okay, this might start off a little strange. We’re going to talk about a very important theme for all of us as individuals, and extremely important for the health of humanity. But to do so, we’ll look at an incredibly weird and confusing story. Are you ready? Let’s give it a go…

Demons. Really?

I’m no expert on demons, evil spirits, or whatever you wish to call them. I like Hellboy a lot, but he’s kind of an anti-demon + anti-hero, wouldn’t you say?

3013508-hellboy

In fact, I should probably go to my friend and amazing author, Lucas Mangum. Flesh and Fire just might help set some context as to how demons are presented in literature [both religious on secular].

fleshandfire
Maybe Lucas will even chime in! Lucas, are you down there in the comments?

Anyway, this Luke Gospel story is about a bunch of demons. Jesus steps onto gentile territory and he is met immediately by a demon-possessed man. He is called a man of the city, like the woman of the city with the alabaster jar whose tears washed Jesus’ feet in the previous Luke story.

He is an outcast.

He doesn’t have a home, he doesn’t even have clothes. The people of his community even tied him up in shackles. They bound him to try to control him. Jesus, however, approaches him and commands the oppressive spirits to leave the man. Jesus sees him as a human being. But the man is tensed up and yells at Jesus to leave him alone. When Jesus asks him his name, he is able to get out: Legion.

This name makes sense, because a legion of demons was oppressing him. Apparently, the demons are reasonably smart and have thought things through; they have considered their options. The abyss? Not such a great place for demons to have a summer home. The abyss, in ancient Judaism, was a place where evil spirits were tormented. So yeah…no. So the demons beg Jesus to let them escape into some nearby pigs that were minding their own business. Jesus agrees and the demons enter the pigs and the poor animals rush down the steep bank of the lake and drown.

I grew up in Iowa and while I did not live on a farm, the farms were all around me. And so were the pigs. So what’s up with that, Luke? Really? Poor pigs…

Obviously, this is not good news for the guys who work with the pigs. Can you imagine? They were eye witnesses. There they are, minding their own business, when their pigs start going crazy like lemmings and run down the lake’s bank to their death. I imagine that they were ticked off. Which is great for the story, because their anger moves them to run off and tell a bunch of people. Meanwhile, the once-bound and oppressed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus [just like the lady with the alabaster jar], and now he has clothes on and his sane. But the people of the town don’t celebrate; instead, they are afraid and tell Jesus to get the Galilee out of town. The newly healed man, demon-free man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay in his town and tell everyone what happened.

I’ll get right to it. I’m not one who believes in demons or evil spirits—at least not the kind with horns and not the ones who make people’s heads turn in complete circles or spit out green fluid. I like reading about them in stories and comics, because I do think they point us to the real thing. That “real thing” is evil, or the personification of evil, and the way that evil can bind and oppress a person, a family, a community, etc. We have no clue as to what really afflicted this guy Gentile territory. Was it his past? Did he suffer abuse of some kind? Was it a chemical imbalance, addiction, what was it? I think Luke doesn’t say for a reason. The point is that he was afflicted by a myriad of things, so take your pick; put yourself in his shoes; put other people you know in his shoes. The first thing that stands out to me is that any kind of afflicted person is still a human being—even if people tie that person up, declare the person untouchable and even inhuman.

Still a human being.

The other thing that I notice is that not only was this man untouchable and marginalized, but the evil spirits themselves ended up in pigs, another untouchable, unclean living thing, at least for the Jews of that time. Remember, Jesus was in Gentile territory. Poor pigs.

And yet, in light of the recent horrific and tragic events in Orlando, Florida [and the sad, ignorant and hateful responses to it by politicians and others], I am going in this direction: you see, we seem to be able to talk about people who have drug or food or gambling addictions; it’s commonplace to talk about people who are bound by an abusive past. But how often do we admit to how many people are bound by prejudice? How many people have evil in their thoughts and worldviews, so much so, that they are willing to hurt others who are different than they are, using hateful words, bullying them, or even resorting to violence? It’s happening too often. And we rarely talk about it. Many of us have family members or friends who are clearly prejudiced against certain people. Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? Non-binary? Black, Asian, Latin American, African, Eastern European, Arab, Spanish-speaker, Atheist, Arabic speaker, Muslim?

They are afflicted, they are bound by their prejudice.

Some of it is a result of social conditioning. Maybe they were raised to hate a certain group of people. Perhaps they went along with their peers in school just to fit in. Or maybe at work it was just easier to put down the person who was different. Whatever the case, prejudice is evil. It is affliction. It binds people.

I, as many other people, I am tired of prayers for families of victims of hate crimes. I’m tired and angry. I’m not saying that prayers don’t matter. I AM saying that prayers are not enough and that sometimes we hide behind them. It’s easier to say we’re praying for the families and victims in Orlando; it’s a lot harder to actually do something about the prejudice and hatred in our own communities, families, schools, and churches. We live in a world in which is easy to spread hatred via social media with one click and a thousand shares. But it’s equally easy to do the opposite—to combat hatred and to cooperate, love, and embrace pluralism of all kinds. Churches pray, but what do churches do? I’m tired of all kinds of prejudice, including subtle prejudice and all the excuses that we continue to make as to why we won’t stand up and say enough is enough! Why we won’t be more courageous in our communities and risk upsetting relationships with friends, classmates, work colleagues, church friends, and even family. Our inaction binds us. Evil happens and we stand silent.

Jesus healed this seemingly untouchable, non-human. But then the newly-restored man was then told to tell the scared and prejudiced people of his town what God had done. What God had done. My take is that whether you believe in this god or not,there is a universal theme here. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. People will make categories and draw border lines and spread hateful rhetoric to keep us separated. They do that because they gain something from it [usually money and power]. But we can’t make excuses anymore. It’s time to admit to the prejudice that binds us as individuals and communities. The moment is NOW to stand up against your family members, friends, or co-workers who spread hate to others. Unfold your hands, open your eyes, and actually do something. Spread humanity. Spread cooperation. Spread love and acceptance.

Teaser for next week: Luke 9:51-62: Is it difficult sometimes for you to move on from your past? How can we stop looking back so much and move forward?

 

Side note: to all my friends and family and colleagues who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, or Non-Binary—I love you and I’m angry, too. I pledge to do my best to stand up against hatred and prejudice. My prayers will be my actions. And the same goes for all my Muslim friends and colleagues. Love you, too. I stand with you.

Self Knowledge, a Dharma Talk

On Tuesday, May 12th, 2015, I was honored to be the guest speaker at Won Buddhist Temple.

You can learn more about their community and Won Buddhism by clicking here and here.

WonFullMeditationCircleHow does one know him/herself?

A good and complicated question, am I right?

How do we know ourselves?

A simple answer would be:

Simply introduce yourself.

nametagBut it’s not easy to do that, is it?

Take me, for example. I was raised in the Midwest—Indiana and Iowa. I have many memories from those places. Religiously, my parents raised me as a Christian. Vocationally, while in college in Iowa, I decided to pursue theater. After that, I ended up on the East Coast for the first time—Princeton, NJ, in order to study theology, philosophy, and religion. Eventually, I became an ordained minister, started working in churches and other organizations, and found myself in a variety of places like Mexico City, Detroit, Honolulu, Honduras, Cuba, and Philadelphia. I got married to Maria Elena. I started working in interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

All these places, people, and experiences are part of my story. Seemingly, they define me. If someone doesn’t know me, and then asks me the question: who are you?

How do I answer?

Do I say that I’m a minister, a husband or partner, a son, a brother, a consultant, a Midwesterner, a Christian, an actor, a crazy person—how do I answer?

You see, in my experience, we most often define ourselves by all those external things: places, situations, jobs, nationalities, religions, etc.

Introduce1

But is that who we really are? Do we really know ourselves?

A few years ago, I started working on a grant project. I was funded to work with high school and college students from Greater Philadelphia and other places, including other U.S. states and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East. The concept of the project was: know your neighbor, know yourself. In essence, what I did was to help organize different experiences for these students in which they would meet and get to know students from other religious backgrounds. The point was to break down the walls of misunderstanding and prejudice and to promote peacemaking and cooperation. Sounds great, right?

But something else actually happened in the process.

Though our funders and the religious institutions that supported the project loved the idea of peacemaking and breaking down barriers, that is not really the most significant thing that happened in the end.

A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia met a Christian student from Wisconsin. They talked, they got to know each other; they participated in the silly but fun theater games I asked them to do, they did service projects together, and they shared about their own religious practices. But they also became friends. Before they knew it, they weren’t talking to each other as before. She was no longer a Muslim and he was no longer a Christian. They started to see each other so very differently than before and they were challenged to see themselves in a different way. No longer could they hide behind their religions or nationalities; they were challenged to know themselves as they were and to know others as they were.

Having done many of these projects, I can tell you that each time I am transformed by these students and the friendships they develop. And each time I am more and more convinced that we must know ourselves in a deeper way; this self-knowledge will enable us to know others as they truly are.

And yes, there is peacemaking and cooperation and justice that can result from this knowing.

But we as humans struggle with this kind of knowing.
We are so very conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of others and through the eyes of our external experiences.

I am a case in point.

My entire life, I have searched for knowledge. I’ve read books, scriptures of many religions; I have studied philosophy, theology, and psychology. All of the knowledge I gained from such study has been beneficial, but to a point. It is accumulated knowledge and clearly reflects particular worldviews and biases of society. It is limited knowledge, to be sure.

But there is a book that I should definitely read without hesitation.

It is the book of knowledge of the self.

Perhaps I can even say that we are all books ourselves. For some who believe in one Creator-god, we are then books written by this Creator. In Buddhism, we are books containing Buddha.

I have discovered [and still am discovering] that this book of self is the one I must read. I must continually look within myself to notice the creator in me; I must continue to know myself so as to recognize the Buddha in me and in others.

It is true that people will continue to write books about us. These books will tell us who we are and define our identity. But these books, written by others, are second and third-hand knowledge. If we read about ourselves in these books, then we are not real.

We are just someone else’s story.

And these other books written about us can prevent us from looking within, from reading our own book—to know our true selves.

There is a Hindu story from India that goes something like this. A very learned prince received scriptures from Krishna. Every time the prince read a new scripture, he would get confused and frustrated, saying: No, no, this scripture says something else than the other books I’ve read. And so it was again and again. Finally, Krishna laughed and said: When the light has risen within a human being, all your scriptures are like a tank full of water when the flood has come.

At times, when I was in a desert place in my life, certain books [written by others] provided some comfort and knowledge for me—a tank full of water. But the flood came when I started to read my own book, to know myself fully, and I was no longer in a desert place, but in a vast ocean.

This is recognizing that all the external identities I have been given are lesser than the true nature of myself.

It is like the venerable Sot’aesan, Founding Master of Won Buddhism once wrote:

As I do not hold the mind which wanders out,
Nor receive the mind which comes inside,
So now I obtain the One Mind which neither comes nor goes.

Lots of identities wander in during our lifetimes. But the true knowledge of self is in knowing the self that stays—the self that doesn’t come and go.

This is who we are.

When our minds are free of distractions and conditioning, desires, and attachments, we are as clean and as vast as space. This is often called beginner’s mind—who we really are at our core. To this space, we can always return. Within this space, our religious affiliation or lack thereof; our nationality; our cultural background; all the external identities given to us by the world–are of lesser importance. In this beginner’s mind, the sacred space, we are free to see ourselves just as we are and others just as they are.

A motto of Won Buddhism is “Everywhere a Buddha Image and Every Act a Buddha Offering.” My understanding of this is that it means we should recognize each person we meet as a Buddha, and treat others as you would treat a Buddha.
It is related to Grace, which expresses our interdependency and interconnectedness to all living things. Master Sot’aesan awakened to that truth and realized that nothing can exist without being interrelated with others.

And so I close with this story: Master Sot’aesan once met an old couple on their way to temple. They were going to pray for Buddha to help their troubled daughter-in-law.

But why go to a Buddha statue, Sot’aesan asked them, when you’re surrounded by living Buddhas? Why pray for someone else’s enlightenment when you can achieve it together? Your daughter-in-law is a living Buddha, so make your offerings directly to her, the same as you would to a Buddha statue. See as she sees, not as a piece of stone sees. We forget that the only way to understand another person’s problems is to look through their eyes.

Yes, I think this is true.

We must know our true selves first. And to do that, we must continually re-evaluate our own perspectives, our own opinions, and our own solutions. We must recognize the limitations of the identity that the world has given us.

And in this space we can join together with others in spite of our perceived differences. We can recognize our interconnectedness. We can cooperate across religious and social lines and bring about justice, peacefulness, and even joy.

May it be so.

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