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

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 (site gone) 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.

7 thoughts on “Guru yoga, freedom of belief, women’s rights, compassion”

  1. You mention that you favor religious “freedom of belief,” and you also express concern over the loss of “women’s rights” within traditional Islamic religious fundamentalism. You can’t have it both ways. Religious fundamentalism (and let’s just place Islamic fundamentalism as an example) exists because it is seen as the keeper of the flame, so to speak. It lays out clear, definable contours of conduct and morality for the benefit of the believers. And you will find many women who will support the “losing of rights” women have claimed for themselves because they simply will adhere to the fundamentalist position because of what it gives them. And you will also find that there are more and more female Islamic intellectuals who will claim that Islamic fundamentalism makes sense for them. Does your support for “freedom of belief” apply to all religious believers of whatever stripe, or only those with align with your political views?

    1. Actually, my post is precisely about that tension. However, if you click through there clearly are Muslim women who DO want freedom.

      As for politics… I’d fight for anybody’s right to express their opinion, as long as they don’t harm anybody doing so. Practically, I do also reserve the right to limit freedom of expression on this blog when i feel people are disrespectful, aggressive or go off topic.

      The fact is: no well thought out system of thought can fit all aspects of reality, not even social reality, so I make no attempt at being consistent. This post is merely about sharing stuff I think is interesting and some of my thoughts on the topics.

  2. @Darryl Freedom is relative concept. Relative to the observer. When 2 people meet then belief systems meets. In the Dutch language there is the word “ontmoeten” meaning “er is geen moeten”. It means opposite things can coexist, we do not need to go to war over these differences. And in that way we can still meet and enjoy each others company. We can listen to what people say and think. Off course we can get feedback if the other thinks there are inconsistencies.
    One can align to certain groups and then automatically feel distance to other groups. I can see the validity of the way of the Islam people in their perspective, the same applies for many ways. I can however express that a certain way is not my way, without forcing the other group to adhere to my way. This can be accepted as a different view.

  3. I was specifically talking about “freedom of belief” and the perceived lack of freedom within religious fundamentalism. Saying that definitions or opinions about freedom are all relative has nothing to do the “problem” of religious beliefs of certain groups, women’s rights and the tension between the two.

    The problem with religious belief systems that they exclude more than they include. It scarcely needs to be mentioned that the projects of religion and spirituality have done nothing to make the planet a better place for everyone. Oh, they’ve had plenty of time to do so, century upon century, and failed. How much more time do they want? This alone should signal to those of us interested in these matters, that it is time to step up and demand all religionists and spiritualists to back up their claims and PROVE to us that what they have promised to exist (Heaven, Nirvana, God, Shiva, Allah, Peace, Love – whatever) does indeed exist. Since they can’t, which is obvious as well, we must then be forced to the position that EVERYTHING we’ve been told about these spiritual matters have been “STORIES.” Stories that give “meaning” in a meaningless universe. But I digress.

    My point is this: if one is going to champion “freedom of belief,” then realize that one actually is calling for the enslavement of people to beliefs. Beliefs are things that the mind wants, desires and hopes to be “true.” Thoughts, beliefs and imaginations do not make things “true.” Religious belief is an acute separation from the physical reality, which is where all the dirty work must get done. Yet these beliefs can cause people to physically harm others due to the ideas floating around in their heads. Oh, to have the people be freed from their religious beliefs! Such a consummation most devoutly to be wished!

    1. I guess Daryl, you want to be the saviour of all worlds. But once a wise man said to the world: The House of my Father has many rooms.
      Within those rooms the people can feel safe to grow to their next level. People, saying those rooms should not be there, to me, seem to have lost their sense of reality. As long as people place their beliefs outside themselves, they will need something outside themselves to help them.
      That something outside themselves will create an area where people feel secure.
      As for your statement about about your personal “freedom of belief”, why would you give other people the right and/or the power to judge your belief system ?
      I can give your a real life example. Here in Thailand is freedom of religion, but I can assure you that when a specific group of religious people start to advertise too much, they are warned that they are not allowed to enforce their belief system on the population.

    2. You’re sort of making a point that is also in the post I linked to here, though I’ll turn it on its head.

      The fact is that anybody who proposes ‘freedom of belief’ takes a certain kind of state for granted: a state in which individual beliefs are more important than communal values. In such a state, like all western states, individual rights are very strong, as long as one doesn’t harm anybody. This is a very modern and historically unusual position.

      Anyhow, I think the discussion about this part of the post has gone on long enough. More posts by you and Leo on the topic will be deleted.

  4. I’m not saying that those “rooms” shouldn’t be there, I’m saying that nobody can prove those rooms exist in fact. And your claim “that something outside themselves will create an area where people feel secure,” amounts to nothing more than sloganeering. We have seen that some people may find security within their spiritual beliefs, but how does that security spread out over the world to influence the global systems where there are competing political, economic and religious forces at play, forces that obviously have reduced and diminished the human being and poisoned all interpersonal relationships?

    By the way, your last paragraph about religious expression in Thailand agrees with my thesis that the essence of religion (while purporting to reveal and explain hidden metaphysical principles) does not bring the people together but actually excludes, separates and misleads the people.

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