Ask A Buddhist: Is Buddhism compatible with gods?
Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online or if you would rather not take your answer ‘on the air’ please let Conover know by providing your email with your question.
I am curious about the G-O-D word. Is Buddhism compatible with gods? Is maybe the opposite true and it’s incompatible with them?
Your question, Dear Reader, is one that has flitted in and out of my own mind for years. Raised a Presbyterian, a comparative religions major in college, I jostled the G-O-D question academically, but that’s quite different from now, when my life’s meaning derives from the practice of a non-theistic religion. The question is both inessential and essential for the spiritually minded. The question may lead us delightfully into what Buddha called, “a thicket of views.” The question may lead us out of that thicket to a threshold words can’t cross, deep into the mystery pointed to in a recent poem entitled, “Another Country” by the late Jim Harrison.
I love these raw moist dawns with
a thousand birds you can hear but can’t
quite see in the mist.
My old alien body is a foreigner
struggling to get into another country.
The loon call makes me shiver.
Back in the cabin I see a book
and am not quite sure what that is.
Your question stirs up issues fundamental for many who want to make sense of Buddhism (and other Eastern religions for that matter), yet whose cultural indoctrination precludes room to take seriously a religion without a single G-O-D at its core. Even if you didn’t attend a church, a synagogue or a mosque growing up, an Abrahamic umbrella of a Creator God seems to be fixed in the DNA of Western Civilization. Think of the parade of monotheistic symbols, myths and allegories suffusing our waking and dreaming hours from childhood onwards. These same icons of Western monotheism manifest in centuries of Western architecture, stories, artwork, films, literature, and music. I didn’t understand how deep my cultural paradigm of G-O-D was until working on a book of Hindu stories and myths this past year, wrestling first-hand with the task of wrapping my mind around 330,000,000 gods. My Hindu partner in writing Ocean of Stories: Hindu Stories for Every Age, pitied my limited imagination, saying: “One God is so utterly boring!” He has a point. But the fact is that the overthrow of polytheism is a fundamental aspect of all the Abrahamic religions.
In fact, by using the singular, proper noun God (which our publishing stylebooks tell us must be capitalized) and also gods, (which same books says must not be capitalized), your straightforward question reveals the entrenched bias. This Western Abrahamic prejudice is disguised in the seemingly benign convention of newspapers, books and magazines. G-O-D makes sense to us culturally and we honor it with capitalization; alternative belief systems are unconsciously denigrated to lower caps. Reluctantly, I’ve had to use the same conventions in my books on Islam (only a single God ever mentioned) and Hinduism (many gods share many worlds).
OK, OK, but what about Buddhism and the G-O-D question? I started off this essay claiming that Buddhism was non-theistic. That’s not a totally true statement. In point of fact, the Buddha did talk about Gods (I’ll buck convention here if the editor will allow it)—the Devas that populate different realms of existence. The three realms of existence in Buddhism echo much of the Hindu cosmological map but with a crucial difference: While Devas do have certain powers, like humans, they are not liberated from cyclic rebirth (samsara). Indeed, in Buddhist circles it’s said to be more difficult for Gods to attain liberation from the God Realm than for humans from the Earthly Realm because life for the Gods is seductively comfortable, and suffering doesn’t push them into seeking the escape of liberation.
According to the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, all phenomena are constructed, no entity exists truly independent from anything else. I think of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetic essay called “Clouds in Each Paper:”
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Nothing exists apart from anything else. Buddhism is non-theistic even though the Buddha talked about godlings. According to the Buddha, there’s no single Creator God, an entity that actively intervenes in our lives. Sister Donald Cocoran, a Benedictine nun, in a conversation with Venerable Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist nun, discuss some of the differences:
It is certainly part of the Judeo-Christian experience that we experience God as personal, as a being (italics mine) with whom we interact…God is personal, providential and loving, and we even have a human incarnate form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the experience of God is personal, and yet it’s a person that opens out onto mystery.
Venerable Thubten Chodron responded to her with this comment:
Buddhism, on the other hand, has no concept of a personal God or creator. There is belief in beings who are highly developed spiritually—the fully enlightened Buddhas, the liberated arhats (saints)—but these beings exist in the continuum from our present state….in Buddhism, there is no unbridgeable gap between the holy beings and us. We too can purify our minds and develop our good qualities infinitely. We too can become fully enlightened beings, we have that Buddha potential.
So now I’d like to not exactly contradict all that I’ve said above, but boldly state the ultimate goal of a Buddhist—liberation—and the apprehension of the Divine or G-O-D in theistic religions seem to overlap. Sister Cocoran hints at it above in saying, “…the experience of God is personal, and yet it’s a person that opens out onto mystery.“ Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of the classic Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says this: “Buddhists believe in the nature of God, which is truth, but not in the concept of God. I asked Ajahn Anan, one of Thailand’s foremost Buddhist teachers, to explain. He recounted something he’d said to a group of visiting Catholic nuns:
If you compare the Buddhist state of emptiness (nibbana or liberation) then Christ and Buddha can be in harmony…Once we purify the mind…the mind state can be compared to being with God if you think of God as being empty of self…if you think of God as an entity—doing this or that—that’s not it. If you can let go of that idea of God, then those states of mind can become the same in a state of purity.
In just the same way that many theologians find it difficult to assign attributes to G-O-D, the Buddha avoided describing liberation, nibbana, the ultimate goal of a Buddhist practitioner. Both Buddhism and Christianity share a long history of utilizing an apaphatic approach to clarify ultimate religious experience by what it is not rather than what it exactly is. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.
The apaphatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, says Wikipedia, “which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or by the conditioned role-playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.” The Buddha taught just such a “cultivation of individual experience,” a knowing beyond the relative, a state of being that the discursive mind cannot reduce or capture.
I know I’ve leaned heavily on Christianity so far for contrast, but all the Abrahamic traditions grow mystics—often the great reformers of religion. Walter Kaufman, in his translator’s introduction to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou, says Buber’s most significant ideas cry out to be liberated from language altogether: “The sacred is here and now. The only God worth keeping is a God that cannot be kept. The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.” Many Muslims celebrate Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi. A story goes that a man once asked Rumi, “Why is it you talk so much about silence?” His answer: “The radiant one inside me has never said a word.” Indeed we discover a lot of overlap of East and West (not to mention North and South) religious experience when we journey into mysticism. To me, the strange and Technicolor myths of Hinduism convey a language of religious experience over mere words. Of course I’m painting with a big, fumbling brush here. Forgive me. I’ll get myself out of this thicket with the Taoist axiom—the way that can be spoken of is not the way.
The Buddha is one of history’s most practical spiritual giants. He taught praxis—practice as distinguished from theory or cosmology. The Buddha left unanswered questions that have to do with the soul, life after death, or the origin of the universe. The Buddha’s teaching presented a path of effort, not an ontological map. He wouldn’t answer questions about the origin of the universe because the question itself assumes an origin. Instead, he encouraged his followers to use their direct experience and appears to have regarded concentrating on questions such as infinity as distractions. In fact, the Buddha, a great maker of lists (in my opinion the logical response to the profusion of Hindu beliefs), lays out “Questions that should not be answered” in the famous Malunkyaputta Sutta: 1) Whether the world is eternal or 2) noneternal; whether it is 3) finite, or 4) infinite; whether the soul is 5) the same as the body or 6) different; whether an enlightened person 7) exists after death or 8) does not or 9) both does and does not or 10) neither does or does not. This list pretty much tears an ontological map into confetti.
The historical Buddha’s teachings relate to empiricism—with reality as experienced rather than deduced or hypothesized. Thomas McEvilly in The Shape of Ancient Thought, says that the Buddha viewed the rational and anti-rational types of faith in Islam and Christianity as obstacles to liberation. For this same evidential reason, he rejected the prevailing view of the Hindu’s around him. In the Tevijja Sutta, he criticizes various Brahmins—Hindu priests—for teaching a reality (the brahman) which they have not seen face-to-face (The Hindu concept of brahman is fairly synonymous with G-O-D). Further, in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha rejects the authority of scriptures, revelations, teachers, experts, common sense or convention and hearsay. He sends his students back to their own experience: is something both true and useful? “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” he says, “Hold fast to the truth as your lamp.” We have the Buddha’s instructional guidebook to attain liberation, nibbana, but not a map of the terrain. Do we need complicated speculations about G-O-D, or gods, when there is so much individual effort needed towards living wisely? The Buddha didn’t believe so.
Ask A Buddhist: Has Buddhism Become Trendy?
It seems Buddhism has become ‘trendy.’ Why do you think this is?
My simplest response will be straight from the teachings of the Buddha: conditions, conditions, conditions. Many elements in American society and global culture have converged in a situation of mutual change: Buddhism changed by the West, and the West changed by Buddhism. And for various other reasons (conditions, conditions, conditions), the crucible of these changes burns hottest in the U.S. Here we have the “perfect storm” of variables to propel the interplay at breathtaking speed.
Venerable Chonyi, one of my nun friends at Sravasti Abbey, had this response to your question:
Why Buddhism is trendy has nothing to do with Buddhism, does it? Well, maybe this: people have basic kindness and goodness. Many people feel disaffected with their religion of origin and disenchanted with the runaway materialism of our time. Anything that makes reasoned sense and offers a little peace—and gives people some hope in their goodness—will appeal.
She cuts through a lot of mystification with those simple words. But alas, I’d have to end the article right here, and I’d like to tease the trendy-ness apart a bit more. Sure, it’ll lead to a little complication and speculation, but hopefully also some food for thought. With a degree in religious studies, with feet in both secular Buddhism and religious Buddhism, I find the unfolding of this trajectory incredibly fascinating—an experiment we can watch up close, an unprecedented new historical chapter in Buddhism and in modern culture. Let’s look at some of the possible conditions for this shift—oh let me count the ways (so many I’ve had to trim quite a few from this list).
Let me start off by saying that, in my view, it’s not traditional Buddhism that is so very trendy, but mindfulness—a slice of the Buddha’s teachings—that has been extracted, secularized, and radically reinterpreted for popular consumption. Indeed a tsunami of mindfulness teachers, books, films, workshops, and retreats have found their way into every corner of American society and its institutions from schools to psychotherapy, to medicine, to science, to professional sports, to corporate trainings and even to the military. We could gloss over this situation, but if you substitute another religion-based practice such as counting the rosary, it might allow a little perspective on how unusual this mindfulness trend is! According to Jeff Wilson in “Mindful America,” mindfulness related products and services are now a $5 billion industry. You can hear him speak about his new book (another mindfulness publishing success) on the Tricycle Talks podcast: he is one of the few religious studies professors publishing on this issue.
By focusing solely on mindfulness with no commitment to its religious roots, this narrow portion of the Buddha’s teachings has been adopted into our culture as easily as sushi. Further, with this trend, the authority to teach mindfulness has greatly shifted from religious authorities to laity. As a consequence, what’s presented in the West through this avenue absents most of the central and vast canon of Buddhist teachings, the Dharma. For example, in the pop mindfulness movement, you won’t find a list of virtues as the first and most important steps of mindfulness training, nor will you likely hear any mention of karma and its trajectory through rebirth over lifetimes. Even the word alone—mindfulness—is more benign than the “Co-Exist” bumper sticker, all the fire and brimstone of the Dharma washed out of the term. But think of it’s opposite: mindlessness. Who would claim that being mindful isn’t a better way to be in the world?
Other speculations: I could be projecting here, but it seems to me just about every person I know feels strafed by the many toxic forces of speed and distraction (etymology of distraction—to be pulled apart) in our lives. The fact Mindfulness promises a way to temporarily pull out of the fray into the solace of mental and physical quiet—and least for a few moments. Additionally, overwhelming problems nationally and globally turn all of us into seekers, don’t they? And we Americans have a rich vein of history to draw upon: spiritual seekers colonized this nation. Further, the roots of our nationalistic vision have always tinted utopian. We are undaunted individualists and perpetual self-improvers: mindfulness promises a greater, more harmonious society by an individual’s efforts, present moment by present moment.
Even American patriotism pulls the mindfulness train along: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness (the Buddha promises an end to suffering, right?) recharges the mythos of our stated national pursuit with new spiritual vigor and validity. Mindfulness also offers the ultimate in religious freedom: a personal spirituality that is nobody else’s business, as close as our own mind/heart. One could also joke that it’s as close as the iPhone in our pocket with the entire canon of Buddhism available and thousands of teachers to guide us, a fact which brings us to yet another condition for the American mindfulness mania: it’s portable! As long as you are breathing, your breath as an object of attention comes with you. We can practice while driving, shopping, walking, or sitting in an airplane.
And I have yet to mention mindfulness’s rise to the zenith of the self-help, healing and health worlds through media, books and stardom. To name a few: Oprah’s interviews of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama (the world truly needs these heroes); best-selling author John Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction adopted by many in the medical and psychological fields; and scientific studies backing mindfulness’ effectuality in reducing stress and increasing brain plasticity.
OK, perhaps I’ve had a little too much fun being sassy. I confess to listening to online Dharma talks daily, and would highly recommend online guided meditations. Mindfulness is good for you. In fact it’s more than good for you: it’s a practice that can land you in astonishing mind states—fully in awe of life. Anyone—Buddhist or not—who remembers to bring more awareness to her daily life and tasks can validate some immediate fruit of mindfulness.
An experienced practitioner would in fact tell you that steady mindfulness has the potential to encompass the whole path of the Buddha’s teachings: all the factors of liberation such as compassion, joy and tranquility are potentially present. What isn’t being sold by publishers or taught in corporate seminars is the Buddhist soteriological view—a very clear idea of salvation. The Buddha’s true purpose was to teach a path to happiness outside of, and not dependent upon, any of the changing conditions of phenomena. This is no small deal, because the Buddha’s path to achieving true freedom—ultimate freedom known as liberation—is a path suffused with morality, sense restraint, and abandoning the notion of an individual self. These aspects of Buddhism require a radical and relentless shift in perspective from “I, me, mine.” And I do mean radical: our body is on loan (would you sign up for sickness, old age and death given the choice?); our thoughts don’t belong to us (did you create your brain, would you choose emotional suffering over joy, and how long can you hang on to a single thought anyways?); our beloveds don’t belong to us; our possessions are just “decoration on our graves” as Venerable Chodron warns. Mindfulness in its true breadth and depth is in fact a gradual process of disassembling most everything society points to as real and lasting, most everything we’ve spent our life’s energy trying to solidify. To really see things as they are includes the reality that all things are dying the moment they are born. And to dip a bit cliché, knowing and feeling the human predicament with this quality and reach of mindfulness does not lead to doleful nihilism, but to further astonishment and awe of life.
Should the loss of the traditional religious dimension of the Buddha’s teachings diminish the benefits of trendy Buddhism and popularized mindfulness? Does this mean that we shouldn’t appreciate every moment more, or live more harmoniously with the aid of Buddhist awareness practices? Of course not. But perhaps popularized mindfulness can open other doors for society. I’ve fantasized a situation in which generosity—a premium value in Buddhist ethics—becomes wildly trendy. What might that America look like? Or what if kindfulness, a term that Ajahn Brahm promotes, becomes the next craze?
Venerable Chonyi finished her letter to me with this:
I will rejoice when Buddhism is not an industry, when meditation is not separated from the Buddhist view of how things work in the world (karma and its results, ethics as the basis for happiness…compassion overriding self-centeredness, and wisdom in tandem with compassion trumping everything). If THAT becomes a trend, there’s some hope for our future.
What’s your definition of ‘humility’?
Some years ago, I worked with a local radio station and high school students to produce a show that put the teens face-to-face with people in our community by recording impromptu interviews between the two. What’s love? What’s important? What’s achievement? One memorable evening at a grocery store, I watched and listened as they asked for definitions of courage. The circumspect responses freely shared between aisles of cereal boxes and canned tomatoes were astonishing. Scratch below a person’s veneer and you’ll find that each has gleaned pearls from tough experiences.
Lately, I’ve been especially intrigued by the idea of humility, as much of our national political discussions have deteriorated into a swamp of incivility and the word, humility, seems to have vanished from popular diction. With recorder in hand, I began to query strangers for their personal definitions of the concept. It didn’t surprise me that the first person I asked, a retiree in an Idaho coffee shop, responded, “What’s that?” Knowing he was speaking half-truth and half-sarcasm for our times, he had a good laugh. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh along.
The next gentleman said he didn’t want to be recorded, but eventually told me that his wife was emblematic of humility: she took care of him, she cared about him, and she cared about their children. I appreciated his personal answer, but it also signaled to me that the word, the idea, of humility might be out of circulation as a cultural virtue.
So I cheated. The next time one of my writing classes called “Making it Matter” gathered (through Spokane Community Colleges’ Act Two Program), I gave them some minutes to contemplate the word. All my “students” now are 55 and over with a lifetime to experience humility intimately (who doesn’t feel more humbled as they age?), and by the examples of others. Some of their thoughtful responses follow.
- Humility is authenticity; that place where we’re not trying to be anything but our very best selves, and whether we achieve it or not, we’re able to say, “Oops” or “I’m sorry,” or “You go first,” or “Let me help.” (Mary Ladwig)
- Humility does not announce itself: it slips in unnoticed but gives one the feeling of being in the presence of greatness. (Karen Dummore)
- I don’t think a person ever arrives at humility: it is a process of mindfully being conscious to the truth of the present. I appreciate the softness of it in my later years. (Shelly Barber)
- Humility enters gently. She has a quiet voice. When humility presents herself, you notice her amidst the thunder of the world around her edges. (Cerena Lauren)
Here’s a short scene/essay written on the spot by Dennis Ashley:
“Are you making fun of me?” she asked her husband angrily.
“I thought that was clear,” he shot back.
And at that point she knew she could take the whole conversation down a road they had walked down one too many times—a road with anger and hurt feelings. Or she could travel down a pathway that filled itself with humor and unadorned truth.
She chose the second path. She laughed. They teased each other for a few minutes, and underneath the laughter rested some degree of truth they both needed to share and hear, a large glistening, un-mined nugget of honesty.
Maybe that is the definition of humility. To engage in honest conversation without the attachment of ego sucking out the life of the interaction. Humility requires humor, love, and even a certain sense of detachment. But still, all the time, digging for those un-mined nuggets of truth.
Ian Cunningham was absent the day we wrote on the subject, but I invited him to submit something by email. With a dictionary at hand, he wrote the following:
When I think of the definition of any word, I look at the roots and shoots, because language is so green in its growing. The Latin root generally is defined as low, modest, even submissive. The Latin get tastier when we dig up “humus,” the original, and so “low” becomes compost, the enriching soil where so much lives and breathes, the dirt from which food comes. I think of humility, then, as an understanding that all my beliefs are incomplete, to be broken down by life’s experience and becoming something simpler and richer at the end.
David McClure, former pastor of the Unity Church of Truth in Spokane, had clearly given years of thought to the subject. In a few minutes time he produced a guide for life that will be printed up, framed and hung on my office wall:
I am humble when I am teachable. When I know I don’t know, but I want to know and am willing to learn. When I dare to ask myself, “What’s the lesson here?” When I stop assuming, categorizing, and pigeonholing. I’m humble when I listen to other people, to books and to nature…I am humble when I don’t come to conclusions or discount an idea or an inkling.
I am humble when I’m all ears and no mouth.
In our youth-worshipping culture, I feel not only privileged to work with older writers, but am thoroughly—yes, I’ll say it—humbled by their wisdom. Although this exercise would have been a great contemplation for the high school students I used to teach, I’m confident their thoughts on this topic could not have pulled such depth to the fore. How could it? The “softening” mentioned above by Shelly Barber takes years in the making—we ripen slowly.
An old activist friend of mine, Fran Peavey, used to travel the world’s benches in the 1970s and 80s with a simple sign that read, “American Willing to Listen.” We’d be looking at a different political landscape now if only more of us had.
Flying home from a recent trip, I couldn’t reach any of my pals for a ride when I landed. Spokane International Airport is so small that the taxi stand can be a lonely spot until you phone a taxi company. But not this time.
A somewhat rumpled white Honda waited in the shade, a white “taxi” sign wedge atop to identify the humble chariot. With enthusiasm and consideration, a young man jumped out of the car to help me. He took my bag and placed it gingerly in the trunk as I seated myself in the back seat.
Although I pride myself on puzzling the geography of accents, when he spoke, his stumped me: a rolling “r,” some clipped consonants, a rhythm that clearly hearkened to another music of language. Having an irrepressible curiosity (as well as having grown up in the suburbs of New York) I usually get right to it: “Where are you from?” I asked in the most un-offensive way I could muster. These days, that simple query can be radioactive. His body stiffened and he examined my face in the rear view mirror, determining if I were friend or foe.
“Afghanistan,” he said, after a long pause. I’d never met an Afghani before; that’s why I couldn’t recognize his accent.
“That’s amazing!” I responded. “Tell me about your long journey to Spokane, Washington.”
Black hair shaved military style, he wore a leather bomber jacket with faux military patches on it. A bold tattoo flashed out from under his cuffs when he grabbed the steering wheel. He turned around to look at me directly and I saw a face scarred both externally and internally. A thirty-something whose features detailed a difficult life journey. He smiled, turned back to the windshield and began to drive.
In the six miles between the airport and my home, in the suddenly intimate bubble of his car, I listened and learned. He was fluent not only in English, but in three other languages as well. His father, a general in the Afghan army, had been shot by the Taliban. The general’s only son, he’d escaped to Russia where he lived for seven years. After that he lived in Jordan and Turkey until he finally attained a special visa to move to the US. Landing in California with an Afghani community, he eventually ended up in Spokane where a close friend invited him to settle.
As he spoke, I began to wonder how my very white town had welcomed him, a non-Caucasian. “How’s our town been treating you?”
Instantly, he wavered between crying and ranting. Tears welled while his hands gesticulated hotly. “You Americans don’t know how to be hospitable! Arab cultures treat everyone like family if you are our guest”—he pantomimed an embrace—“but here, after a year, I might only get a short little bro fist. I don’t have a chance to be friends. People look at me like I don’t belong here and say as much. They even resent my car—as if it doesn’t belong on the street!” I squirmed, ashamed, noting silently that the word, hospitable, shares the root with hospital, the place we go for healing and life-saving measures.
I know exactly the quality he’s referring to, I tell him. I’d been to all the countries he mentioned. I know what he’s saying is the truth. The way I was embraced and my status as stranger permanently revoked by new friends in the Middle East. The women who treated me as a sister, who fed me over and over, who got up on the kitchen table to demonstrate proper belly dancing. The families in Egypt and Turkey whose generosity towards my family appeared bottomless. We could have moved into their homes and they wouldn’t have complained. My most astonishing memories—far beyond the canyons at Petra or the homes carved from volcanic tuff in Cappadocia—was this quality of hospitality I’d never encountered in my own country, even by kin.
When I read from my first book on Islam at a bookstore in Jordan, Ayat Jamilah: a Treasury of Islamic Stories for Children and Parents, people wept. That an American would take the time to understand, to listen to their lives and share it in a book to other Americans was the greatest respect they’d ever been shown by a Westerner.
I apologized to my taxi driver for the hostility of my city and for my country towards immigrants. On the most practical level it doesn’t even make sense: if we make someone feel un-welcome, un-American, we may push them into a corner that will in fact endanger the commons. I knew enough of Afghanistan’s war-torn history as a many-decades battleground between the interests of the United States, Russia, and Afghani tribes to feel further ashamed.
As soon as he got an education and a better job, he said, he would bring his mother and sister over. Clearly, he had needed an American willing to listen. When he pulled up to my house, parked in my driveway and dashed to the back to fetch my suitcase, my heart as well as my conscience ached. I paid, wished him luck and Godspeed. I meant every word of it. My only regret is that I didn’t ask for his telephone number so I could invite him and his other Afghani friends to dinner. I owe at least that much for the kindness shown to me in Muslim countries.
One of my spiritual teachers asserts that the shortest bridge between any two people is to listen well. Really listen. Perhaps when you next find yourself in a long line at the checkout counter, look around. Find someone standing near you who might feel like a stranger in America’s midst. Be warm, kind, and hospitable. Then get ready to listen.
Practice listening skills with children. In Sing to the Power, a Tapestry of Faith curriculum for grades 4-5, “Recording Oral Histories” in Session 8: The Power of Listening is an activity that guides children to prepare, conduct, and reflect on an interview with an adult guest. The session also has other activities, suitable for a wide age range of children, focused on listening skills.
Sarah Conover has authored or co-authored five books published by the UUA’s Skinner House for family and children’s reading on world wisdom traditions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. She is also the co-editor of Chaos, Wonder, and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting.
Buddhism stands on three foundational legs: virtue, concentration (the meditation practices) and wisdom. The three are inextricable in their effect on each other; however, I’m going to approach your question today through the leg of meditation practice as over the last decade or so a tremendous amount of neuroscience has validated the practical benefits of meditation for mind and body. In fact, achieving lasting contentment by freeing oneself from afflictions (such as stress and depression) is the central promise of Buddhism. I’d like to note, however, that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is liberation, an aspiration much more comprehensive than meditation’s utilitarian aspects: like any religion, Buddhism is a system of salvation and concerns the nature of being, becoming and existence.
Although this article will lean heavily on the available science supporting the positive outcomes of meditation on mind and body, I’m going to juxtapose it with my own experience as a meditator and a meditation teacher for over two decades, offering some cautionary tales to a guaranteed fast and effortless path leading from cyclic depression to a stable contentment. The science is drawn from a summarizing book chapter of scientific findings available on-line titled: “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.”
To name a few of the down-to-earth meditation benefits supported by science: improving the immune system; growing more grey matter; improving brain plasticity; developing contentment and ease in daily life; increasing compassion; cultivating emotional equanimity; reducing stress; reducing distractedness; improving attention and focus.
First, the present consensual definition of meditation used for its scientific study is: methods that seek to improve self-regulation of attention and emotion. I find this broad description very helpful and clarifying. Under this designation fits the two camps—the attention focusing methods and the receptive methods–of most everything I’ve heard of, read about or experienced across many wisdom traditions. The attention focusing techniques include, but are not limited to, Islamic Zhikr, TM (Transcendental Meditation), Jewish mystic traditions, Tibetan mantra visualizations and yogic breath methods. The cultivation of inward-listening techniques are found in Insight Meditation, Christian Centering Prayer, Zen koan study and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to name just a few. That being said, I could probably exchange the examples I just named and put them in the opposite camp because each fosters the cultivation of both.
The great Thai Forest Buddhist master Ajahn Chah says that meditation is like picking up a single stick—at one end of the stick you’ll find the concentration methods (attention regulation through steadying the mind) and at the other end of the stick are the receptive methods (emotional regulation through receptivity and non-identification with thought and emotion). One can safely say that all Buddhist schools offer teachings that include both self-regulation of attention and emotions, but various traditions may weight one end over the other.
No matter the specific meditation technique, scientists have found that meditation can lead to both state and trait experiences involving a deep sense of peace and calm. State changes signal temporary changes in mind states and mood; trait changes are transformations in brain function seen over an extended period of time.
The experience of state-changes during meditation will be familiar to anyone who has meditated regularly or even for a short while; in fact, Buddhist meditation methods are deliberate pathways to state changes. In groups I facilitate, especially when I use a guided format, state changes seem to occur sometimes as quickly as five minutes into a meditation sitting: when I hear a change in the quality of breathing around me I’ll peek and notice that faces and shoulders are relaxing, surrendering to gravity as people drop the preoccupations with which they arrived.
In regards to mind state changes, scientists have identified five major categories of brain waves, each corresponding to different levels of activities. Meditation allows us to move from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency, affording access to areas of brain function not used in our everyday lives. Among the benefits of lower, slower brain waves, a meditator may find more time between thoughts and thus an opportunity to more intentionally choose what thoughts to invest in and what actions to take (Ashley Turner, Huffington Post, “Meditation 101”).
I confess to being somewhat of a state-change junkie through meditation. Anyone who knows me would peg my normal level of activity in the red zone of any scale, but after over two decades of Buddhist practice (and probably with the helping hand of age), I savor not only the mental ease arising from more restful mind states, but also the capacity to better anticipate what we Buddhists term, “skillful action.” Meditation abilities develop slowly over time, and to start discerning mind states and their effect on thought and emotion is central to Buddhist practice (see the Satipattana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).
The beneficial state changes from activation to relaxation are validated in numbers of scientific experiments that use objective measurements such as in heart rate variability (HRV)—one of the body’s signals that we have moved from the sympathetic nervous system (the opposite of what it sounds like!), known as the fight or flight response, to the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest system. Pressed up against a busy, stressed and distracted world, bumped about by emotions and events, our fight or flight response is the default mode for most of us and over-releases hormones such as cortisol that limit brain function in the moment and over time.
Trait changes are the long-term neurological changes in our brain function noted by scientists studying meditation. Overall, these transformations are distinguished by density increases in gray matter regions and white matter pathways. “The brain state changes found in meditators are almost exclusively found in higher-order executive and association cortices,” say the authors of “Meditation and Neuroscience: From Research to Clinical Practice.” It turns out that meditation is one of the few pathways that fosters communication between the primitive brain and the brain’s executive functions, supporting the notion that meditation increases self-regulation of emotions and attention.
As regards depression and meditation, meditation may at first intensify both positive and negative feelings. This makes a lot of sense to me: sitting with experience instead of distracting yourself lands you a front-row seat at the mind’s theatre. Episodic depression, as any of us who have dealt with it well know, may have originally occurred with the onset of a traumatic event, but over time, the role the event played becomes more muddled; instead, each new episode of depression seems to have a lower and lower threshold. Ouch. At this point in time, there isn’t much research on meditation’s effectiveness alone vis-à-vis depression: what the stats show is that cognitive therapy that includes a component of meditation can reduce the probability of depressive relapse quite significantly.
And here I’d like to insert some thoughts and observations from personal experience and from a number of people I know that came to meditation for help with recurring depression. Simply said, if you are prone to cyclic depression, you’ll need guidance and you’ll likely need to utilize meditation methods aligned in the attention focusing camp. Without training in self-regulation of attention and emotions (i.e. without meditation instruction), the default mode of the brain is to perseverate rather endlessly, and so the new and experienced meditator may encounter a dark and rather frightening situation. As said above, both negative and positive emotions may intensify when a meditator focuses inward. Scientists call the slide into a space where negative thoughts proliferate cognitive reactivity—the ability of a slight change in mood to degenerate into a series of deeply negative thoughts. The word papancha in Buddhist psychology characterizes the mind’s ability to self-fuel in this way: the etymology comes from the way an ink drop on a cloth spreads outward from fiber to fiber. I’ve encountered this gloom and doom in myself and I’ve seen the same situation for others. Sometimes one is just too raw for that front-row seat without some concentration tools and an encouraging guide
For over a decade, I used to teach a fairly technique-free version of meditation, but over time, I’ve come to understand that people longing for interior solace need some tools to help them achieve peace sooner rather than later. Without some meditational structure, almost everyone is prone to a wandering mind, which it turns out is universally, across cultures, the common denominator of unhappiness (to see the data about this and to track this in your own life go to trackyourhappiness.com, a crowd-sourced world-wide scientific experiment). Even in the foundational teaching mentioned above, the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha taught at least 40 methods. Many of the other wisdom techniques the Buddha taught, such as the Brahma Viharas, the Sublime States, specifically brighten the mind and heart by cultivating universal love for oneself and others.
Our fundamental need for tranquility became quite obvious to me facilitating a meditation group in Airway Heights Prison: certainly there is little peace to be found in “the block,” within the buildings housing large numbers of inmates. When I first began teaching there, I used a very undirected, open format. Whether or not they were dealing with depression (prison inmates have one of the highest rates of suicide of any population), the hunger for interior peace is palpable. My co-facilitator, a teacher trained through the Spirit Rock Center who began the group at the prison four years previously, taught some of the Buddha’s techniques from both teachings mentioned above, so I was able to see the differences in effectiveness between our two approaches. What I saw over time caused me to change my own meditation practice.
The transformation in these meditators, especially after months of practicing the loving kindness methods from the Brahma Viharas, strikes me as almost miraculous. Faces and dispositions are brighter—everyone seems to have a positive testimonial weekly. One inmate was stunned by the fact that he no longer ate alone, but that others had spontaneously begun to join him. Most recently, an inmate said that before he’d directed loving-kindness to himself, he’d assumed all happiness was found externally—from other people, money, and activities. However, he now realizes that a love for self and others generates from within, peace truly comes from within. Can there be a much more important human insight? My time with the inmates, within the four walls of the prison chapel, inspires my own practice deeply.
We come to meditation searching for rest and solace and a chance to consider and perhaps revise how we live. The seclusion of closing our eyes, tuning into and slowing down our internal world, is one of its great gifts. I’ve not found stress to be much fun at all anymore, so my response these days (when I disengage from a situation enough to remember) is to meditate, to cultivate an intimate and compassionate self-regulation of attention and emotion. That moods and emotions affect thoughts, and visa versa—is an old fact described in Buddhist psychology, but a dawning area of research for scientists.
Mindfulness, a core practice across all schools of Buddhism, is the guardian of harmlessness, a guardian of the way we relate to ourselves and to the world. Minds secrete thoughts the way our bodies secrete many things I won’t detail here: the task of meditation is to alter the way we relate to our minds and hearts. Or, here’s another metaphor that Jon Kabat-Zinn uses: in meditation we are learning to stand on the bank of the mind-stream, watchful and curious, instead of being swept away in its rapids. It turns out there are evolutionary neurological roots to both suffering and happiness, and it turns out that many of the Buddha’s teachings are effective pathways to cultivating happiness. So, yes, Buddhist meditation—as well as other kinds of meditation that incorporate the body more directly such yoga—prove to have very practical, beneficial results in daily life in the short and long term.