Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Buddhist Bloggers Digging In

There are some powerful posts hanging around out there in the Buddhoblogosphere today.

Tom Armstrong has a fascinating post examining the languaging on homelessness in a newsletter for a branch of Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento. The newsletter opens with a quote from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and then goes on to make a decidedly Christian statement about homeless people:

They may look like humble clay as they trudge along 12th Street towards Loaves & Fishes but the stress of shared homelessness cracks open their humanity and gives us glimpses of the spark of divinity within them.

Tom goes on to comment, "Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good."

Check out the whole article for more; it's worth looking at partly because I think some convert Buddhists, who were immersed in Christian traditions before becoming Buddhists, really struggle to flip over the narrative that people are "sinful by nature."

Algernon, over at Notes from a Burning House, writes in his current post about the narratives banging up against each other in the Middle East, and the power beneath them.

Among his points, I found the following insight most important:

When truly committed and honest negotiators appear on both sides of this conflict, they will necessarily begin talking about concessions and compromises. In other words, there will be a discussion about conceding and sharing power.

On the rare occasions that people speak that way and mean it, what happens to them?

If you don't know the answer to that question, you'll have to read the rest of his post. And even if you do, read it anyway.

Barry, over at the Ox Herding blog, has been burning brightly lately. I've felt inspired by his posts recently, and am glad for his presence amongst us bloggers. his current post continues on the theme of making small shifts in one's life, and how this is often the way our life really opens up, contrary to the idea we often have lurking under the surface that we must give up everything, join a monastery, and forget about worldly life all together.

"Often the urgencies of life requires only the smallest action, such as a gift of flowers or a simple Thank You. And yet often we fail to make that gesture.

I've seen in my own life how hard it is to stay present to the requirements of the moment. It takes more than attentiveness to the shifting phenomena of feelings, impulses, thoughts and perceptions.

It takes a genuine commitment to love this world, no matter how it appears. It requires us to set aside our self-centered stories, to expose ourselves to the real.

Please go over to his blog to read the story behind these words.

And finally Maia, over at Jizo Chronicles, posted a dialogue between bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh that is definitely worth considering. Maia's blog is often a source of access points to socially engaged practice, something sorely needed in this day and age.

Here is a striking snippet from the dialogue for you.

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live.

I've been reflecting on how Thay's comments about fear point to what I've been experiencing with my career life. This struggle with the director I dislike has a lot to do with fears that what I want the organization to do, or what I and others are already doing, will be struck down by the desires of this director, who currently holds much of the power.

May we all be liberated a bit through each others' words.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Excellent round-up, Nathan. Very good and powerful writing out there indeed. Thanks! - justin

Anonymous said...

So, catholics see people as essentially sinful and Buddhists see people as essentially noble and good. Perhaps the biggest irony is the statement itself. good/bad, black/white,....

Anonymous said...

Tom goes on to comment,"Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good."

Oh dear, another Buddhist blogger looking to make distinctions, trying to draw lines between spiritual traditions rather than looking for points of contact and agreement.

Has Tom never heard of the Quakers, who believe that there is 'that of God' in everyone, the inner light? Has he never heard of the Christian idea that we are all made in God's image? Has he never come across the concept that God loves all his creatures?

Likewise, to say that we are all essentially noble and good does no good until that nobility and goodness is uncovered! Sure, Hitler had Buddha-nature, but I imagine it'll be a few kalpas yet before his karmic debt is worked/seen through.

The spark of divinity within them. I like that. And it's not exclusive to just Buddhists!


PS - the Wat Taimit Buddha that Tom features in his blog is now housed in a new building just recently completed. It is a stunningly beautiful building that truely matches the magnificence of the Golden Buddha. The only drawback is the racism at the gate...

...Thai people, or those that look Thai, can enter for free. Non-Thais, even those legally resident in Thailand, with papers to prove they have been paying taxes here for many years, even with Thai families, have to pay an entrance fee.

I have visited the Traimit Golden Buddha many times over the past ten or eleven years, I even made donatations along with my Thai wife to help build its new building. Now I'm excluded on the basis of my skin colour.

Twice I have turned up now to see the new building, and have even brought along my Thai work-permit, and other documents and yet have still been charged entry because I am 'not Thai'. Despite being legally resident and paying taxes here and having a Thai family.

So now it looks to me like the Golden Buddha has been re-covered in clay.

PS - I'm leaving the same comment over at the original article.

Nathan said...

Hi Marcus and Anonymous,

It's probably best to bring these issues up with Tom, since he wrote the article.

What I did feel was important, though, about Tom's post is that if you spend time in enough homeless shelters, you'll run into talk that basically points to the people there being sinners in need of redemption. I have friends who have worked in shelters. I've met plenty of people who have been in shelters. And on both ends, they've spoken about the high level of preaching that comes with some shelters, and how said preaching often has a "poor sinner needs Jesus" coloring to it.

I honestly have always found the original sin doctrine, as well as the message that "we're all sinners in need of divine intervention" confounding. It doesn't suggest that we are made in God's image - it's suggests we are inherently screwed up.

Yes, there are the Quakers. They aren't running the majority of homeless shelters.

And let's be honest - sometimes, it's important to draw distinctions. I don't feel the need to always find commonalities with Christians, Muslims, atheists, etc. We are all different people who respond to different approaches, even if there is a lot of similarities to the approaches. It's valuable to appreciate the differences, as well as the similarities.

I would agree that Tom appears to have a pretty cynical view of Christianity in general, and perhaps Catholics in particular. Maybe that comes from experiences in heavy handed homeless shelters - I don't know.


Anonymous said...

If you spend enough time in shelters you will also find hundreds of people who speak with their actions not words.

By the way, how many shelters are run by buddhists?

Yes, this type of exchange goes nowhere really ....

Nathan said...


I'm sorry you are offended by all this. This is why, in my opinion, people of differing religions keep smashing heads. We aren't taking the time to examine why people feel certain ways, or hold certain views - we just leap to being offened and defending our views.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm not offended and I'm not defending any view. I'm simply pointing out that stating Christianity = bad, Buddhism = good (as Tom effectively does in his post) gets us nowhere.

Tom's original article took offence at a Christian homeless project suggesting that we all have a spark of divinity within us, for goodness sake.

As for you finding the idea that "we're all sinners in need of divine intervention" confounding, why not simply re-frame it? We're all unenlightened beings in need of the Dharma.

And yes, Anon is right about action being so much better than words. If Buddhists are upset by Christian homeless projects working within a Christian framework, simply complaining that 'we Buddhists have a much better view on the nature of sin/delusion' helps no one at all.

All the best,


Nathan said...


Mostly, I'd hope that you and anonymous offer Tom a dialogue. I'm feeling like if I say any more about his particular post, I'm just defending it. I actually agree with you that it was a bit too black and white in places, but there were issues I felt worth bringing up.


Unknown said...

Tom here.

As I said in response to Marcus in Sacramento Homeless, I am not disparaging the Catholic/Christians when I observe that the the C/Cs believe that people are essentially sinners, and most Buddhist teaching sees people as essentially noble and good.

The story from the Christian side is that Adam and Eve let sin into our bloodline. We are all sinners; only Jesus was perfect. I have heard, repeatedly, that babies are born sinners. You don't have to teach a child how to prevaricate or disobey his parents. God cannot let sin into heaven. He despises sin.

I point that out because Loaves & Fishes turned the story inside-out. Kornfield's message from the event [discovery of the Golden Buddha] "fits" in ways Loaves & Fishes' does not. (1) It's a gleaming magnificent Buddha found itside the temporal husk of clay and plaster. (2) The connotative differences, and many direct differences, between divinity and buddhanature are not dismissable. They are in many ways opposites and at odds. (3) Buddha-nature is there in wait; salvation (divinity) has to be "accomplished" [if I can use that word]. Jesus knocks from the outside, and you let him in. (4) Buddha-nature is a liberation from suffering and impermanence, which closely fits the event of finding the golden Buddha; the Loaves & Fishes' story is from the outside, the observer's perspective, seeing people rather-unwittingly being somehow divine as a result of stressfulness.

Indeed, Nathan's points re the milieu of rescue missions, shelters, and the homeless-help industry is on-spot.

Loaves & Fishes is 'using' the story with garish unartfulness [my opinion] to portray homeless people in a distorting fashion that suits a goal of gathering donations. I find that, which happens over and over again, to be offensive.

As for shelters run by Buddhists: Buddhism does next-to-nothing to directly help homeless people in America. This is true and regrettable, to my mind.

But the Christians help homeless people for reasons of following dogma. And that screws things up. Somehow it all becomes the opposite of making any hearts pure; it becomes a business wrestling in the mud in competition with other businesses. And that "wrestling" becomes all there is; the Calico cat disappears and all there now is are the teeth.

Nathan said...

"(2) The connotative differences, and many direct differences, between divinity and buddhanature are not dismissable. They are in many ways opposites and at odds. (3) Buddha-nature is there in wait; salvation (divinity) has to be "accomplished" [if I can use that word]. Jesus knocks from the outside, and you let him in. (4) Buddha-nature is a liberation from suffering and impermanence, which closely fits the event of finding the golden Buddha;"

Yes. Exactly. Although you have Christian mystics, Quakers, and a few other groups who approach things very differently, salvation in mainstream Christian communities is definitely an "outside job." I have no issue with this, but it's not my path, nor what I see in Buddhist teachings. Distinctions like this are important to make because then we can really come from a place a respect for each spiritual path on its own terms, not from some mushy, "we're all one" kind of view.

I ,too, have heard plenty of times lines about babies being born with sin, and that there's no way to really be "cleansed" of this until one "accepts Jesus as your savior." Again, it's an outside-in view that is entirely different from the Buddha's teachings.

Thanks for stopping by and offering a little clarification for us Tom.