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The Real Martin Luther King Jr. (…and what to honor on his day)

Our society has whitewashed the civil rights leader’s life and deeds. On Monday, we should remember his dream of beloved community and his commitment to activism.

By , President and columnist of EastBayExpress in Oakland, California. Published with permission.

On January 20, our nation will celebrate the American hero Martin Luther King Jr. Schools and post offices will be closed, giving many of us a three-day weekend — a welcome respite from our busy lives. But what will we be celebrating?

If we are to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. the man, we need a return to the real King, not to the tissue-paper-thin image of him devoid of meaning or historical accuracy. Tributes and celebrations are all too often marked by false remembrance, in which radical and transformational leaders and movements are cynically turned into bland narratives of fairness and justice. When applied to King, this process does a disservice to his work and the issues he held dear.

King was an activist and an intellectual whose courage shone during one of our nation’s most important moments. He was moved by religious faith and earthly fire. He was a believer in divine miracles and in progress through human endeavor. He was a religious figure and scholar who understood how the ills of society interconnect. He was a complicated man in a time in which the fundamental question upon which his activism began — justice for black Americans — was a simple binary. In the town where I grew up, Little Rock, Arkansas, there was one question with only two possible answers: Do you believe in segregation of the races — yes or no?

It is in King’s extraordinary writings that we can find the man today. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written to a hostile white southern clergy, is a classic of American prose. It should be read by kids and adults everywhere this week. King argued for the sacredness of the inclusive “beloved community” of our human species and the importance of all of us. He stressed notions of love, power, and justice and their relationship to the nature of social existence — a message echoed in progressive strains of Buddhism and Catholicism.

It was through his conception of beloved community that King led the Civil Rights Movement, maybe the most important movement in our country’s history. In this struggle, he also inspired a generation of activists. In response to the Vietnam War, he called our government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The elite howled and The New York Timesexcoriated him for this “reckless” connection of racism and militarism. King died in 1968 while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, yet many believed his decision to link war with racism led to his murder.

The realization of beloved communities of human joy, plenty, and safety, King preached, is frustrated by three things: poverty, racism, and war. On January 20, we should remember that these three evils still exist today. Last week, the US Census Bureau reported that nearly one in three Americans experienced an episode of poverty between 2009 and 2011, a scandalous proportion. As to racism, the legacy of the death of Oscar Grant remains with us, and the educational opportunities for black Americans continue to deteriorate, as our privileged starve the public education system in the guise of standing up to teachers unions. As to war, our culture of endless conflict continues to cost us dearly in lives and money. King fretted about the diversion of resources from human improvement to war. Last year, a Harvard researcher calculated that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually hit $6 trillion.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day also comes on the heels of the death of Nelson Mandela, another hero who is being sanitized by contemporary culture. Mandela was praised by all the world’s leaders, yet, in his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, he was no pacifist. Despite tremendous pressure, he refused to condemn the actions of apartheid’s opponents — even when those actions included violence. Yet at his funeral, world leaders tried to remake him in the image of their sanitized version of Martin Luther King. Mandela’s funeral was surreal, as he was joyfully praised by leaders of nations who had branded him a terrorist and funded the apartheid system that kept black South Africans in slave-like conditions. Luminaries such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, a supporter of apartheid in his college days, and one of our American princes of impoverishment, Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz, made the pilgrimage.

Whitewashing the misdeeds of the elite — and the responses of historical heroes — is nothing new, of course. It’s worth revisiting Tom Paxton’s satirical ballad “What Did You Learn in School Today,” which Pete Seeger sang at a historic Carnegie Hall concert fifty years ago. Paxton’s lyrics described what kids were being taught at the time.

I learned that Washington never told a lie. I learned that soldiers seldom die. …

I learned that war is not so bad. I learned about the great ones we have had. …

I learned that policemen are my friends. I learned that justice never ends. …

I learned our government must be strong. It’s always right and never wrong. …

An understanding of history and what to honor and what to remember is not an empty intellectual enterprise. As Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote from the Mandela funeral, “The past has a legacy and the present has consequences: our understanding of how we got here and why is crucial to our decision about where we go from here next and how.” Understanding who our heroes really were and what they actually did is, indeed, critical.

The question is not whether to praise King; the question is what we commemorate. For me, it was his commitment to direct action with his eye always on the prize of a beloved community, a place where joy and a healthy life for all can be created. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his Birmingham letter. This is the message to be celebrated and taught to our kids.

Opening a Door to Traditional Korean Culture

This file photo shows participants at a Templestay program meditating in the woods with Korean Buddhist monks. (Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism).

by Cho Chung-un
from the Korea Herald

Buddhism is not just a religion in Korea. It is an integral cultural asset that has substantially contributed to the development of the country’s tradition and arts for the last 1,700 years.

The Korean Buddhist culture now attempts to go abroad in an effort to better serve the rising global demand for learning about Korean history and culture, thanks to the popularity of K-pop around the world.

The Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, an affiliate of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, plans to develop various programs to promote its two signature cultural offerings ― Templestays and temple food.

Its latest development includes a Templestay program designed exclusively for K-pop fans from France created in collaboration with the Korea Tourism Organization. It also plans to open the first temple food restaurant on the rooftop of the French department store Galeries Lafayette in Paris next year.

Click here to read the full article

September 1st, 2012 at 10:55 am

Merging Spirituality and Clinical Psychology at Columbia

Photography credit to Michael Appleton from the New York Times.

Marina Mazur, left, and Allie Jordan, right, Columbia students, work with residents of Covenant House in a therapy session.

from The New York Times
by Sharon Otterman

The psychology graduate student ran a wooden stick across the edge of a Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl on Tuesday and asked the five homeless young men sitting in front of him to listen to the undulating sound, and to raise their hands when they could no longer hear it. One by one hands went up, until well after the sound had seemed to dissipate.

Then the student asked the men to take long breaths and to visualize themselves not in their current circumstances — living in transitional housing near the Lincoln Tunnel — but as their “best selves.” With eyes closed, the young men pictured those best selves loving their present selves. Then they visualized sending that love across the room, first to one of the other men, then to all of them.

After 15 minutes, they opened their eyes. They were still in a fluorescent-lighted conference room at Covenant House with a few plants, a coffee machine and a microwave. But their faces were relaxed. Over the course of 16 weeks of group therapy and meditation, a bond had formed among them, the young men said, one that they said filled them with a sense of possibility.

Click here to read full article 

Bussy-Saint-Georges, the Town with Built-in Religious Harmony

Photography Credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters from the Guardian.

Workmen prepare the European Regional Temple in Bussy-Saint Georges.

by Stephanie Le Bars
from The Guardian Weekly

Hugues Rondeau is the Radical party mayor of Bussy-Saint-Georges, a new town in the Paris suburbs. His taste for “ordered urban space” has led to an innovation: the multi-faith district. On a plot of land just beyond the built-up area, he has authorised the construction of several places of worship.

“Here there will be two Buddhist temples, a mosque, a synagogue, a Chinese evangelical church and an Armenian cultural centre,” said the mayor, a practising Catholic who is convinced that in a secular state the government should not turn a blind eye to religious fact. “Our 30,000 inhabitants are mostly of foreign origin with 45% from Asia,” he said. “We couldn’t deprive them of their religious practice.”

Click here to read full article

Global Spirit: An Interview with Robert Thurman and Karen Armstrong on Religion and Compassion

Photo Credit Global Spirit

Karen Armstrong and Robert Thurman being interviewed together in New York.

from The Huffington Post

We call Global Spirit the first “internal travel” series, because the topics and the discussions so often lead to a kind of inner exploration. Unlike programming on Animal Planet or National Geographic, Global Spirit is not about discovering anything that is outside of yourself. The opening program in our series, “The Spiritual Quest,” was one of our more exciting and challenging to produce

For Karen and Bob, it was one of those “first-time meetings” that we try to achieve on Global Spirit — to bring two people together for the first time, in this case, two highly articulate teachers and authors from distinct religious traditions, who have always wanted to meet each other. You can sense a kind of magic in the air, as they both experience the sheer delight of discovering things about each other they’ve always wanted to know. Yes, it was an uplifting show, with a good amount of spontaneous humor.

Click here to read the full article and watch a clip of the interview

Dalai Lama Taps American to Bridge East and West at Tibetan Monastery

Nicholas Vreeland, newly appointed abbot of Rato Monastery in Southern India.

by Kim Lawton
from The Washington Post

The Dalai Lama has given Nicholas Vreeland, director of The Tibet Center in New York, a daunting new assignment. On July 6, Vreeland will be enthroned as the new abbot of Rato Monastery in southern India, one of the most important monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism. He will be the first Westerner to hold such a position.

In making the appointment, the Dalai Lama told Vreeland, “Your special duty (is) to bridge Tibetan tradition and (the) Western world.”

“His Holiness wishes to bring Western ideas into the Tibetan Buddhist monastic system, and that comes from his recognition that it is essential … that there be new air brought into these institutions,” Vreeland told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Click here to read full article

 

July 1st, 2012 at 10:55 am

Three Stories About Expressing Faith in America

A class of boys receives instruction at the Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, California. Listen to stories of Buddhism in America and other lesser-known religion stories by clicking the link below.

from Voice of America

Religious faith is both deeply personal and a community experience. In the United States, religious communities of many kinds co-exist and sometimes work together in interesting ways.

This week, learn about Buddhism in America. The ancient religion has its roots in India. Today, many forms of Buddhism are practiced in the United States. Hear what American-born clergyman Kusala Bhikshu has to say about the religion’s popularity.

In the state of Tennessee, members of the Catholic religious group, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia’s, lead simple lives of work and service. Not much has changed in their community over the years. But more young women are joining. Some see this as a sign that young people are placing growing value on faith and service.

But first, we hear from Muslim students at a Christian university here in Washington DC. Christopher Cruise tells us how students are dealing with the differences in their religious beliefs.

Click here to listen to the stories and/or read the transcripts

Seminary Student Reflects on Religious Pluralism Class

The following article is a final synthesis paper written by Lora Burge, a seminarian at McCormick Theological Seminary. The course, Religious Pluralism and the Ministry, has been taught by Prof. Robert Cathey and CPWR Trustee Janaan Hashim since 2006.  The course developed as an off-shoot from the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona.  Over the course of the semester, students actively study five faith traditions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism.  Students’ final reading includes Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.  Equipped with a semester of observation, research, and writing, students leave the class working on a philosophical and/or theological framework for thinking about religious pluralism in Chicago and beyond.  With Ms. Burge’s permission, Prof. Cathey and Prof. Hashim are pleased to share with you this young interfaither’s thoughts.  Enjoy.

Finding a Universal

by Lora Burge

Humility is my table, respect is my garment, empathy is my food and curiosity is my drink.  As for love, it has a thousand names and is by my side at every window.  –Tariq Ramadan  [1]

Approaching the sacred, finding the holy, listening to the divine, worshiping God within and among us.  As I reflect on the journey and experiences of this semester, I can’t help but marvel at everything I saw and observed.  On one hand, it’s hard to make comparisons between the different religions.  Friday afternoon prayers, puja, and a Shabbat service are organized different ways for different purposes.  Yet, on the other hand all these involved searching.  Looking out and watching for something bigger, something outside of themselves, something beyond human reason and quantifiable experience.  They were seeking Brahman, Allah, YHWH, God, enlightenment.

Growing up in a pluralistic, postmodernist world, I have always been taught to be suspicious of overarching truths and meta-narratives.  I’m well-steeped in the practice of criticism and always asking “Whose truth?  Whose narrative?  Who’s speaking?  And with what authority?”  I wonder if those questions don’t put more distance between myself and my neighbors.  Are these questions I was taught to ask other-izing the “other”?  It’s a lot easier to ignore, overlook, and mistreat people when central parts of their identity and belief have been objectified away.

I am such a product of my own education that I have a hard time conceptualizing what a universal truth would look like.  I was taught to be so suspicious of any universals as to make them seem an impossibility.  I will always be a child of postmodernism, understanding life in terms of social constructs, contextual truths, and lived experience.  It seems unlikely (at least now) that I will completely break out of this mold of thought that has been the result of two decades of education.  Yet now I criticize the critical mode of thought itself.  If we objectify all truth, and conceptualize of each human being as living in her or her own uniquely-constructed world, then we’ve erased the possibility of common ground and shared experience.  Anybody outside of myself will always be “other” to my reality.  Not just somewhat “other,” or different, but completely so, which will make relating and understanding each other difficult.

Here’s the crux of it: by asking so many questions and stripping things bare as social constructs and humanity-made realities, we’ve removed the common ground out from under our own feet.  Precisely by focusing on each individual’s uniqueness, we’ve lost sight of or lost altogether the universal nature of our own humanity.  We are making “other” out of our own flesh and blood.  Until we learn a new way of thinking, we will continue to push people away as irreconcilably different.

The Universal

Something then must be done to reclaim our common ground.  It is not hard to see the ways in which our world is tearing itself apart: wars, violence, poverty, economic injustice, and more.  Yet how will we put it back together with such differences?  It is imperative that we relearn how to understand our common humanity rather than focusing on differences.

If nothing else, we all share in the same humanity.  We all breathe, eat, sleep, learn, and to some extent live in community with other human beings.  Some faith traditions understand the condition of being human as the nature of being created in the image of God.  Some understand the human condition as rooted in suffering.  To others, being human is something to be mastered through rigorous spiritual disciplines.  Regardless of our personal understandings of what it means to be human, we all are, and that is one universal characteristic that we share.  Across religious, political, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic and any other constructed categories that divide us, we are all human.  So what are we to do with our universal human nature?

It is time to recognize that shared humanity in itself is enough of a foundation for shared common ground.  We must move forward understanding that we share at least one thing with the rest of the world: our being.  This shared existence is something to be honored and respected.  Tariq Ramadan notes that, “We must love human beings, with their qualities, their beauties and their difference, but also with their weaknesses, their doubts and their fears.  This means acknowledging that they, like us, are capable of the best and the worst.[…]  Our love must be resolutely universal, and eager to share.”[2]  If human nature is the universal condition, then love must become the universal action.  Each of us from personal experience knows of the human potential for good or for evil, and everything in between.  Love cannot be measured out on the basis of works and worthiness: this will only lead to constructed divisions, categories, and the naming of people as foreign “others.”

Instead, this universal love needs to be something that we have in common and something that brings us together.  The free, unconditional giving of love is not something that comes easy.  Survival instincts and greed lead to the selfish management of resources, even love.  A few millennia of stingy, particular love have left us a world full of divisions, hatred, and violence.  There must be another way.

Namaste

There is a practice within Hinduism of bowing to other people and saying “Namaste,” or “I bow to the God in you.”[3]  Hindus will bow to other Hindus and non-Hindus alike; to them, there is God in everyone.  For Hindus, this practice is based on their universal conceptualization of a sacred nature present within each human being.  It would be presumptuous to think all human beings would want to engage in the practice of Namaste bowing.  With many theological, spiritual, and anthropological understandings of what it means to be human, finding the sacred in our fellow humanity will not be a practical approach to the universal.  Yet there is something in the practice that could be a helpful model.

There is no rationale or emotion tied to the bowing.  I am not bowing to thank someone for a gift or a professor for help with an assignment.  I recognize there may be circumstances where this bowing is easier and other situations where it is really hard to see God present in others.  But regardless, the bowing happens simply to unconditionally honor the God-nature in others.  This is precisely what we must learn to do.  Regardless of any words or actions we may use, we must learn to love and respect the humanity—the human nature—of the people around us, both in the local but also the global sense.  We need to recognize that within every other there is a shared human nature, a shared life force, and in fact, he or she is not such an “other.”

This is precisely what I had a taste of this semester.  Going to a synagogue, a mosque, a gurdwara, a Buddhist center, and a Hindu temple—I was an outsider and an observer but I never felt like an “other.”  All of our speakers and hosts were eager to have us there and as equally enthusiastic to help us learn about their faith tradition.  In some instances, there were shared elements of religious heritage between us, and in other instances, none.  Yet we are all human beings, living from the same human condition, and searching for similar things.  Instead of seeing a young white liberal Christian woman from the West coast, each of them chose to see and affirm a fellow human being also searching for a life of meaning and happiness.

Moving Forward

This is what I need to take with me: there is one possible universal truth, and that is love for my fellow humanity.  Not a love that requires uniformity in belief or political systems, not a love that dissolves diversity for a false sense of unity, not love that has any conditions or requirements at all.  This universal love then is a deep, unconditional positive regard not because of how people are in the world but because they are in the world.  This love honors people simply and wholly because they have a human nature and being, which means they are like us.

This universal love is something that needs to be cultivated and practiced.  In an economic system based on achievement and merit, giving anything unconditionally is uncommon.  Universal, unconditional love for the human nature of all people is not something that will happen overnight; it will happen in many specific moments and encounters.  Tariq Ramadan explains that, “Love too is a journey.  We have to set out, get away from ourselves.  We have to take the first step, and keep our balance.  And, ultimately, it is all a question of balance.”[4]  We need to step away from our specific selves, step into our common humanity, and live from a universal love and a shared reality that we are, in fact, all human and we share in this thing called life.

Bibliography

[1] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), xii.

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Pandit, Dr. Bansi, “Hindu Tradition.”  Lecture, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2 December 2011.

[4] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 195.

Buddhist Leader Highlights Need for Education, Empowerment in Advance of Rio+20 Meeting

Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist movement based in Japan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

from PRNewswire

Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist association, issued a proposal on June 6 stressing that empowerment of individuals and communities is vital to achieving a sustainable global society. The proposal puts forward ideas related to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development opening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 20.

Ikeda states: “It is unacceptable to consider the pursuit of sustainability as simply a matter of adjusting policies in order to find a better balance between economic and ecological imperatives. Rather, sustainability must be understood as a challenge and undertaking requiring the commitment of all individuals … constructing a society that accords highest priority to the dignity of life.”

The proposal, entitled “For a Sustainable Global Society: Learning for Empowerment and Leadership,” emphasizes that education is key.

Ikeda was a strong advocate of establishing the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) which ends in 2014, and he now calls for a successor framework, an educational program for a sustainable global society to start in 2015, focused on fostering agents of positive change. Such a program should give rise to empowerment, and beyond that, to leadership, if it is to generate real transformation.

Ikeda puts forward ideas for far-reaching institutional reform of the United Nations agencies responsible for development and environmental protection. He suggests the consolidation of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and related agencies to create one integrated “global organization for sustainable development.”

Click here to read the full article

“Sacred Solidarity” in Chicago

Sacred Solidarity in Chicago

Sunday, June 10, 2-4pm

Federal Plaza, on the southwest corner of Adams and Dearborn

Eight Chicago Religious and Spiritual Communities to Pledge Interfaith Cooperation on June 10 

Sharing Sacred Spaces

The sacred spaces of the eight participating religious and spiritual communities

Sacred Solidarity” is a public event that is the culmination of an eight-month project called “Sharing Sacred Spaces” sponsored by the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR).

“Religious and spiritual communities standing with each other in the face of religiously-motivated defamation, hatred and violence is the meaning of solidarity,” says Dirk Ficca, Executive Director of CPWR.  “Grounding a pledge of solidarity from within their religious and spiritual traditions makes it sacred. That religious and spiritual communities in downtown Chicago have made such a pledge brings a sacred dimension to the civil space they share.”

In the past eight months, people from different Chicago religious and spiritual communities have forged bonds of friendship and trust through the “Sacred Spaces” series of events. The pledge they sign will symbolize their ongoing effort to honor and respect their different traditions, as well as committing to spread this effort to the surrounding community.

Representatives from the eight participating communities will gather to sign a pledge committing to work together to reduce social tension and build bridges of trust and hope in the city of Chicago.  These bonds were built as each of the eight communities invited others into their sacred space, engaged the visitors around matters of their tradition or practice and provided hospitality and conversation. Welcoming each other into their sacred spaces created appreciation of the various religious and spiritual traditions and a sense of community between the participants.

The public is encouraged to join in the pledge-signing event on Sunday, June 10th, 2-4pm, at Federal Plaza, on the southwest corner of Adams and Dearborn.

The solidarity pledge speaks to the many levels of understanding and respect that were built over the eight-month period among eight different religious communities in Chicago. The eight communities are the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Fourth Presbyterian Church, St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Chicago Sinai Congregation, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, Old St. Patrick’s Catholic church and the Downtown Islamic  Center. The pledge is as follows:

“Sharing Sacred Spaces” Solidarity Pledge

We, communities of faith and spirit serving in the Chicago metropolitan area, acknowledge and commit to these ideals:

  • that the work of cultivating the religious and spiritual life of human beings is an essential part of the strength and progress of our wider community
  • that supporting those who are committed to cultivating religious and spiritual life strengthens the entire fabric of our community
  • that we honor the wider traditions of those affiliated with and worshipping or practicing with the communities listed here
  • that we actively look for ways to stand in solidarity with each other and to serve our wider community
  • that we stand together against any public attempt to disrespect or harm the well-being of any community of faith or practice or its sacred space
  • and we celebrate our shared values of compassion, justice, peacemaking, and harmony in diversity.

The eight participating communities:

  • The Midwest Buddhist Temple, 435 W. Menomonee, 312-943-7801
  • The Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, 312-787-4570
  • St James Episcopal Cathedral, 64 E. Huron, 312-787-7360
  • The Chicago Sinai Congregation, 15 W. Delaware, 312-867-7000
  • The First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington,312-236-4548
  • The Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, 44 E. Wacker,312-236-4671
  • Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams St, 312-648-1021
  • The Downtown Islamic Center, 231 S. State, 312-939-9095 

Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, says the “Sharing Sacred Spaces” model of community building will be offered to other neighborhoods and suburbs of Chicago as well as to over 70 international Partner Cities. “Chicago is just the beginning,” says Ficca. “Together, we hope to chart a course that will strengthen bonds between diverse religious and cultural communities throughout the world.”