An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Buddhism’

More Everything Give Me

A popular Mormon hymn, More Holiness Give Me, begins each of 30 phrases with the word, “more.” Granted, most of the requests are for spiritual gifts such as more faith, patience, gratitude, and purity. Each desire correlates with Joseph Smith’s definition of the word “mormon” as meaning “more good.”*

The Doctrine of More is very much part of current LDS teaching: More life—an eternity. More family—for all eternity. More sex—eternal procreation. More work—creating worlds. More power—becoming as God.

These “mores,” directed towards the next life, give Mormons greater purpose in this life. None of these is a bad thing to want more of. In fact, all of these Desires-for-More correspond to human nature. Of course, contemporary American Mormons, like their gentile counterparts, extend “more” to coveting more material goodies in this life. That too is human nature.

With a philosophy nearly opposite that of 21st century American values, it seems odd that Buddhist practice is growing in the US. Buddhism emphasizes “less”—less attachment to material goods, less attachment to past and future, less attachment to body, to ego. The Buddhist philosophy of acceptance may be more realistic than the Mormon tradition of striving for perfection. It is certainly more peaceful. Still, I suspect it has less appeal to our human nature which is bent on acquiring and keeping.

Which belief system will flourish in a century that, so far, promises constant turmoil? Maybe neither.

*(See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 300 for this unusual etymology).

You Haven’t Changed a Bit

Buddhism teaches that everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux—nothing is permanent—not even the self. Deep down, we know this about ourselves. Every experience—every thought—makes an impression and alters, however subtly, our beliefs, values, and coping strategies.

It’s easy to see changes in ourselves—especially the positive ones—but somehow, we expect everyone else to stay the same. Even when we became his caregivers, my dad treated my brother and me as irresponsible, rebellious teens. George will be the cute, funny baby brother in his family until his sisters breathe their last. Likewise, our youngest son, Techie, is kept in that role at family gatherings.

A few years ago, at an extended reunion of George’s family, I met one of the “popular” girls from my junior high. Pippi, with her social ease and cute clothes, had belonged to the “in” crowd which  excluded gawky kids like me. Forty years later, Pippi assured me I hadn’t changed a bit—not exactly a compliment. I had graduated from college, earned a master’s degree, held a teaching job and enjoyed respect from colleagues and parents. But the instant I saw Pippi, memory shackled me: My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, pimples erupted, my hair scraggled, my elbows and feet grew three sizes, my clothes became mismatched. Even the fact that Pippi was now 70 pounds heavier than me failed to overcome the tyranny of memory.

I doubt another meeting with Pippi would affect me the same way–we don’t step in the same river twice. We are all in the process of becoming, but sometimes memory tricks us into re-enacting scenarios from a past self. And sometimes memory prevents our recognizing change in others—and we unwittingly force them into the role of a nearly forgotten former self.

Loving Kindness

Loving kindness is a Buddhist term which defines right action on the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s also the title of a wonderful book by Sharon Salzberg.    The best bumper sticker I’ve seen proclaims, “Loving Kindness if My Religion.” Not a bad motto for people of any denomination.

One of my favorite meditations is to recall all the people who have shown kindness and love to me throughout my life—starting with my parents. The list is lengthy and the memory-walk always leaves me feeling peaceful, grateful, and hopeful that I can pass along the love and kindness I’ve received to others.

Mitch Albom wrote about the five people he hopes to meet in heaven. Because I’ve been remiss in offering thanks in this life, I have scores of people I’d like to thank in heaven.

I have to admit that some of the kindness I’ve received hasn’t been appreciated at the moment. I remember being angry with my dad when I was 12 or 13. I stormed to my grandmother’s house to snitch on my ogre father—forgetting that Grandma was Dad’s mother. Instead of sympathy, which never helps, Grandma told me in no uncertain terms that my dad worked hard to support and care for my brothers and me since my mother died. I needed to be helping, not harassing Dad.

Another act of kindness I didn’t enjoy was Cousin Buffy’s criticism of my junior high taste in clothes. To avoid Buffy’s censure—I tempered my “throwing on whatever is handy” style to a more coordinated approach and avoided ridicule from peers.

A couple of teachers at transition points—9th grade and Freshmen year of college—kindly gave my sloppy first assignments low grades which shocked me, but motivated greater effort.

Kindness comes in many forms.

Buddhist-Mormon Heritage

Buddhist-Mormon Heritage  12/13/10

My sister Pelly is one of the few people with whom I can enjoy honest religious discussions. Pelly has battled cancer for 36 months and knows she doesn’t have unlimited years ahead of her. Age rather than cancer threatens my own mortality. Neither Pelly nor I find solace in Mormon teachings of eternity and have turned to Buddhism for wisdom in dealing with our impermanent existence.

Pelly has visited the Zen Center where I study and mediate and I’m planning a visit to the Tibetan Temple where she meditates. I’m surprised we have spiritual beliefs in common since Pelly and I did not grow up together. We have different mothers and a seventeen-year-age gap. I didn’t know she was into Eastern philosophy until, on a visit to her home, I discovered books by the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. Like me, Pelly is careful in talking to relatives about spiritual beliefs. When a cousin asked her to define meditation, Pelly described it as, “prayer—only with listening instead of asking.”

I think we both came to Buddhism through our dad. Dad was an active Mormon, but his roots were unconsciously Buddhist. He cared nothing for material goods. He was attached to nothing besides family and friends. He wanted his children to be active Mormons because he believed in the blessings of eternal life for us, but he had no expectation of eternal life for himself. He performed good deeds for the sake of doing good.

Although his personal philosophy was aligned with Buddhism, Dad could never have meditated. He practiced the gospel of work.  He found picking beans at the church welfare farm far more spiritual than sitting through church meetings. I think the only reason Dad attended the LDS temple frequently after retirement was because it is called “temple work.”

Be Still and Know That I Am God (D&C 101:16)

“You are not your thoughts,” my yoga instructor said  as she told us to clear our minds and prepare for savasana at the end of class. Her statement made no sense. If I’m not my thoughts, what am I? My mind is my individuality. What else is there? My instructor pointed out that most of us don’t have hundreds of thoughts in a day. We have a few thoughts over and over.

She was right. What I was attached to as my thoughts was pretty trivial stuff running through my head. Mundane plans for running errands, fleeting glimpses of things I wanted or wanted to do, sometimes negatives—wishes for things to be different, for time to pass. Most of what kept my mind from resting was monkey chatter.

My brother, who reads Tibetan philosophy, answered my “What else am I?” question recently. In Tibetan Buddhism, the part of the person that transmigrates is the character rather than the personality. Character includes both positive and negative attributes: kindness, generosity, love, intelligence, greed, sloth, ignorance, and anger. I like the idea of keeping my good characteristics and leaving behind the negatives I’ve overcome, but I would prefer to keep my memory so I don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.

Western religions teach that inspiration comes from without, from the Holy Spirit. Eastern religions teach that inspiration comes from within. From whichever source, one thing is certain: Inspiration best enters a quiet mind. The value of meditation is that it quiets the mind. I find my most creative ideas arise during or right after meditation.

Emma Lou Thayne, the Mormon poet, finds she can receive inspiration during sleep which sounds like a great timesaver. Before falling asleep, she reflects on a piece she is writing or a speech she is preparing. When she awakens in the morning, the words fall into place for her. This method works wonderfully for Emma Lou, but creates insomnia for me.

A few years ago I began meditating with a small group who met weekly, read and discussed philosophy, and practiced sitting or walking meditation together. I have no desire to be a guru who sits silently for hours each day in the lotus position—I can’t even get into a full lotus—but sitting for 10 or 15 minutes before bedtime, softly chanting mantras to myself—such as “calm/ease” or “love/peace” clears and expands my mind.  I also try to be mindfully present while doing repetitive tasks. Leaving the car radio off while driving, focusing on breathing while doing yoga or walking, and doing housework without accompanying music or radio commentary are all ways to still my mind several times a day.

Trick Question?

“What is the most important thing in the world?” was the question Genpo Roshi asked at Sunday’s Zen Center session. The question flashed my mind back to my first calling as a Primary teacher umpteen years ago. The Primary President gave new teachers a small book of gospel basics by Mary Pratt Parrish. Unlike Mormon Doctrine and the dull manual currently used in Priesthood/Relief Society classes, this book radiated charm and personality as it taught Mormon principles. Sister Parrish posed the same question as Roshi. “What is the most important thing in the world?” Unlike a Buddhist, Sister Parrish answered the question: “The most important thing in the world is the gospel. If you lost your family, friends, home, even your life, the gospel would restore it all for eternity.”

Curiously, this answer rang true to my young self, but fails to satisfy me now that I’m much closer to the end. What I’ve learned from living is that life is precious and all too brief. And the thought of an eternal reunion is scant compensation for lives cut short.

So, what is the most important thing to me? I really don’t know. And I doubt there’s a right answer to the question. When my children were young, it was probably them. When I taught, it was probably my work—at least that’s where I spent my time and energy. With the wisdom of age, I think it’s folly to place another human being or a job, no matter how fulfilling, as the most important thing. People, work, possessions, even our health and minds can all be lost.

 I think it’s a good question to ask ourselves; however, and I suspect our answers will vary as we progress through life. George, who is not a Buddhist, gave a very Zen answer to the question: “The most important thing is Here and Now.”

Wake Up and Sniff the Roses

Last week I phoned my ex-sister-in-law. I’d heard she’s having more health problems. Chaotica sounded groggy. “I’m on pain pills. I’m having surgery next week and the pain in my back and legs is excruciating.” I’m not surprised she’s on painkillers. Chaotica has spent most of her adult life going from doctor to doctor for hard-to-diagnose ailments. She had triple by-pass surgery three years ago and nearly died—not only from the heart problem, but from the effects of all the prescription drugs she’d been on.

“I went to Seattle with a friend last week and had a rotten time,” she said. “I started vomiting non-stop.” “Was that a reaction to your meds?” “I don’t think so. I ate a cookie that wasn’t cooked thoroughly. I think that did it.”

She ate a cookie. Chaotica has diabetes and insulin doesn’t bring her blood sugar down to safe levels.  Her heart and other organs are affected. Yet every time I see her at a social occasion, she’s tanking up on desserts. Although she’s a bright person with a degree in counseling, Chaotica has never managed to exert any control over her own life. Currently, she’s married to a guy who has lost his driver’s license for multiple DUI offences. A compulsive gambler, he cleaned out her checking account while she was in the hospital for her heart surgery.

Recently I attended a session at the SL Zen Center with Genpo Roshi. He talked about awakening—being fully conscious of our lives and our behavior. I thought about Chaotica—and other people like her—stuck in unproductive behavior, stumbling through life, eyes closed to the possibilities available to them—seeing themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Roshi talked about karma—the chain of cause and effect. While we don’t control everything that happens to us—getting hit by a bus, rape, and disease, for example—we are responsible for our reaction to these events. Awakening is becoming fully conscious—aware of our responsibility and our choices in life.

For many people I know, a religious experience or conversion is an awakening factor in their life. I used to be critical of people who experienced a conversion, joined a church, then left it for another within a short period. I now realize that we humans generally need more than one awakening in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking that awakening experience in a new setting.

I wish I knew how to help Chaotica. I want to yell, “Wake up! You’re missing out on a great life!” Of course, telling her what I think she’s doing wrong would be even less effective than telling my dog that rolling in garbage makes her stink. Most religions call unskillful behavior “sin” which is much like dropping acid onto a wound. It might kill a few germs, but will the collateral damage be worth it?

Is there any way to help a person who takes no responsibility for her actions? A person who sees herself as a victim of circumstances beyond her control?

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