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Guru yoga, freedom of belief, women’s rights, compassion

March 23, 2012

in Other

I’m doing something in this post I haven’t done in a while: share stuff I’ve been inspired by that you may not have seen if you don’t follow me on twitter or facebook. Not that I’m very active on the latter, however my tweets get sent there automatically.

Guru yoga is a rather tough aspect of Tibetan Buddhism for most Westerners to follow. Here’s an explanation from within the tradition that’s as good as any I’ve seen, however it will still probably leave most of you asking yourself: what is this? Part of the problem is that when we hear a Tibetan geshe speak, they’ll say inspiring things, useful things, interesting things, but also things we have trouble with. It’s partly about culture and partly about expectations. Guru yoga is entrenched in Tibetan Buddhism to the extent that some of the teachers literally get incense burned in front of them every time they enter the teaching hall. Sure – it’s about the Dharma they teach, not the person – at least in theory. But in practice it does also mean that disagreeing with the teacher can feel tricky especially for those who take on that teacher as their personal teacher.

When you look at that article, you’ll see that Jetsunma makes sure to stress that when you’re venerating the teacher, you’re actually venerating ALL Bodhisattvas and Buddhas – not merely the one before you. Sure – that makes sense, however it’s clear that this is pretty tough. It’s much easier to just be devoted to that teacher because of their love, wisdom, compassion and charisma. Before scoffing, theosophists should definitely check out the material on Chelas and Disciples I gathered on my Esoteric Studies Guide.

The story about guru yoga that I’ve heard repeated again and again by Geshela Sonam Gyaltsen is when Atisha went to Indonesia to learn Bodhicitta (universal loving kindness) from Dharmarakshita. He was devoted to this teacher despite the fact that he disagreed with the man on no less a subject than the realization of Emptiness (sunyata). Since emptiness and bodhicitta are the two wings of becoming a Buddha, this is not a light thing at all. See also my own post about taking refuge.

Which brings me to my next link: it’s about freedom of belief. I’ve been a champion of freedom of belief for as long as I’ve been active online. It’s not for nothing that my site represents all kinds of spiritual perspectives. However, I’m also enough of a religions scholar to realize that belief is only one half of religion – and in most religions it’s traditionally not that important an aspect at all. Much of the debate on my Judaism quiz centres around this question: how do you define religion? How do you define community? How do you deal with conflicting definitions of what it means to belong? Recent developments in Israel bring this point to the fore even more.

The point made in the article believing in religious freedom by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is that many religious communities don’t traditionally define themselves as being about ‘belief’ in something or other. Buddhism is one example, traditionally. That’s one reason why the Buddha could say that we should not believe what he said merely because he said it. Buddhism is traditionally more about the sangha (the monks and nuns), studying, giving TO the sangha by lay people, rituals performed by the sangha for the lay people etc. And yes, in rare cases, Buddhism has also been about meditation.

Of course what Buddhism is becoming in the West is a different story… And part of what it’s becoming will be defined by our Western expectations that religion is about what one believes. The whole theosophical project is focused on that too: what one believes and whether what people believe as Christianity (for instance) is really what Jesus meant… It’s a very modern way of looking at things.

And that way of looking at things makes it easier to feel sorry for persecuted Christians in Syria than for the Syrian population as a whole which is rising up against a dictatorship. The point? When we focus on Christian’s being persecuted we’re really saying: Christians being persecuted is more important than the whole population being persecuted. And in saying that, we’re strengthening the differences between Christians and Muslims in Syria and by doing so contribute to the persecution of Christians in Syria. By telling the story that way, we’re also supporting a dictatorship. See the article for more.

Then again – the Arab spring is turning out to be a landmark in women’s rights as well. As Egypt reinvents itself, women are threatened with losing rights they already had, because fundamentalist Muslims (also a very modern phenomena btw) want to be ‘non-western’. Let’s hope the women who fought besides their brothers for regime change will continue to stake their claim to freedom.

Perhaps freedom of belief is not as essential as practicing compassion. Karen Armstrong with her Charter for Compassion project certainly believes so. The site has inspiring stories to share.

Last but not least and totally unrelated, I found this story about how patients are helped in dealing with chronic disease by getting a mentor inspiring.


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