Friday, September 14, 2012

Time to die

At some point everyone has to die. It may be sudden and unexpected or you might have plenty of time to think about it. Contemplating ones's own death is a practice used by both Buddhist and Christian monks. Having no fear of death is also considered a sign of boddhisatva or a saint. Alan watts never claimed to be enlightened but he did report maintaining a state of no fear for several days. He's said something like, you could have chopped off my head and I wouldn't have cared. If I think about it I am afraid of dying right now - if someone tried to chop off my head I would be really upset! From a Christian perspective, fear of death reflects a lack of faith. We will all die and mostly it happens when we would rather not, so if I fear it now how will I be when it actually happens. Fear of death is fear of letting go of the things associated with our life. In life when something precious is taken away it feels like part of us has died, but we are still living. This is especially true when we have lost access to a loved one.

In the brain, all the different things that cause happiness do so by firing neurons. But this does not mean that the feeling or ”qualia” of happiness is merely an electrical signal or neurotransmitter. If I have a dish of dopamine and I pour some more dopamine into it, does this cause the dish to experience happiness??? No! (dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward). Likewise, most physicists no longer believe that time is a fundamental property of the universe (don't have a reference off hand for this but there was a good article on this in a recent scientific american). Instead, like qualia, time appears to be an emergent property that plays no direct role in the physical universe. So death, which is the end of something in time, is an illusion. Likewise the feeling of sadness associated with a loss is an illusion. We have to deal with it because we're programmed (through evolution) to think in terms of gain and loss, but it helps to know that it is an illusion.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Murder of the Buddha

Another thing that Jesus and the buddha have in common is the manner of their death. This is rarely discussed in Buddhism, but it is most likely that the Buddha was murdered and it is most likely that the murderer was a Buddhist who did not act alone. Late in his life the Buddha decided to leave the hugely successful monastic structure he had created and head out, with only a small group, to a wilder, tribal area, beyond the kingdoms that had accepted Buddhism. This was the second time the Buddha had done this. The first time was during a rebellion in the Buddhist community by monks who felt the Buddha had betrayed the original system he had created and favored a more fundamentalist approach to running things. The Buddha took no action to oppose these monks and they gained a large following. There were attempts on his life and still he did nothing. Finally, when his own supporters would no longer listen and insisted on putting down the rebels, the Buddha left. He walked away with nothing to live as an aesthetic in the forest. Meanwhile, when it was learned that the Buddha had left many followers also left. Eventually a delegation was sent to find the Buddha and beg him to come back, which he did. His return restored confidence and he forgave everyone involved.

Later in life, when the Buddha was becoming old and frail, he suddenly left again, this time with a small group of close supporters, but he would have needed help at that age. However, he did not get very far. They stopped to eat and stay overnight at the house of a lay Buddhist follower. The Buddha died there, reportedly from food poisoning from eating mushrooms, but no one else even got sick. Some versions of the story imply that the mushrooms were only served to the Buddha, but this is also strange. Also, when the Buddha was dying he praised the householder for his hospitality and declared that the meal was one of the best he had ever had. Although Buddhist accounts do not refer to the Buddha being deliberately poisoned they do say that the Buddha did this so that the householder would not get into trouble with his companions.

It is interesting that Buddhists do not discuss this much but they discuss other parts of the Buddhas life. Personally, I think there is a very important teaching in this

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Friday, September 7, 2012


Discernment is a practice in both Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism it is sometimes referred to as seeing with compassion  From a Christian point of view, seeing with compassion can be considered as discerning God's will.

The process of discernment usually involves thinking about an issue to get clear on what the question is, then keeping the question with you for a time until you have a sort of feeling or clarity about it that comes of its own accord. The I Ching recommends 3 days before attempting a decision and 3 more days to evaluate it. Meditation, prayer, etc are good during this time of course. If successful, decisions made in this way should leave you at peace, even it is a difficult decision.

It is important to understand that this process does not reveal absolute answers about what is right or true. The idea that enlightenment or God grants an individual access to the "right" answers is dangerous. Both Buddhist and Christian mystical sources caution against this belief and consider it dangerous to your spiritual progress and well being.

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Monday, September 3, 2012


St peter of damaskos discusses a number of important practices in the philokalia. A lot of them have to do with denying yourself things that we find enjoyable, such as food, sex, entertainment, relaxing, wealth, fame, etc. He also notes that simply avoiding these things will not have any effect. So why avoid them? The point of avoiding them is not because they are bad but because in our ignorance we believe they will deliver something that they will not. Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses, but really it is the false belief that our attachments will bring fulfillment. The training to abstain for them is so that we gain the ability to stop indulging and obsessing over them long enough to have contemplative experiences. There is nothing wrong with having a cookie and enjoying the taste, but choosing to cope with problems and emotions with cookies is a bad choice when compared with contemplation and other spiritual methods. However, ironically, if you develop mindfulness you will have a much greater enjoyment of cookies and movies and sex and other things.

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