Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Budding Buddhist

This story was originally posted on 5 April 2015, on my person blog, which contains a lot of other stuff, as well. (http://aalew.blogspot.com/2015/04/budding-buddhist.html)  I will update this information at some point here on this website, which is where I plan to share things that I particularly find of interest in my Buddhist practice. -- Alan


Taiwan is my kind of place: exotically different and challenging, while still being relatively easy to comprehend. It is a place, for example, where I feel I can safely and comfortably drive a car, despite not being able to read many of the road signs.

I first visited Taiwan in July 1976, on summer holiday while an undergraduate exchange student studying Cantonese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I spent a week with another American student visiting Taipei, Taroko Gorge, and Penghu Island. My impression, as best I can recall, was that Taiwan was a beautiful island (scenic mountains and coastlines), but that the people were a bit strange, probably because at the time they were under martial law and tensions with mainland China were very high with the impending death of Mao Zedong in September 1976.

I did not return to Taiwan until November 2010, when someone I met at a conference in China invited me to give some lectures at his university, and then had me join an urban geography field trip with his students. This time, I not only found a beautiful island, but also a beautiful people. Taiwan is less crowded than Hong Kong, and much more relaxed and easy going than mainland China. I think the openness of Taiwan in terms of its democracy and freedom of speech (and internet access) has created a culture that is more courteous in public spaces, friendlier to strangers, and more respectful of individual diversity, in comparison to mainland China. It is also more traditional and mostly Taoist, although Buddhism is also everywhere. It sort of reminds of the culture I see in American Chinatowns, though at a country-wide scale.

I came here to do research and to write a couple of articles, while attached to National Dong Hwa University on the less populated and very scenic east coast of the island. That area also has frequent earthquakes, although I have not yet felt one because I was out of town when a 6.0 occurred recently! The research is going well, and I am finally getting over some serious writer’s block.

View from near my apartment on the National Dong Hwa University campus, Hualien, Taiwan
Something totally unplanned and unexpected, however, has come to consume a good part of my attention: Buddhism. While I have long appreciated Buddhist traditions, more so than any other religion that I have been familiar with, I never felt comfortable actually calling myself a Buddhist. After two months in Taiwan, I think now might consider myself a Buddhist – maybe.

My slide into Buddhism came through several stages. Over 41 years ago I learned Transcendental Meditation during my freshman year in college. I have practiced TM fairly consistently since then, though sometimes I only meditated once a week.  When I developed high blood pressure over a year ago, I decided to see if I could reduce it by more consistent meditation (which has not really worked, for me at least).  I even attended a weekend TM retreat Tucson last Fall 2014. And I also started attending yoga classes with my wife, who goes to them daily when we are home.

Also about a year ago or so, I stumbled on the Audio Dharma podcast by the Insight Meditation Center (http://www.audiodharma.org/) in northern California. I would often listen to these Buddhism talks (and occasionally other new age podcasts) late in the evening while working at home – after my tech and other news podcasts.

So then I came to Taiwan in January 2015 for a 3 month sabbatical research stay.

I got here a couple of weeks before Chinese New Year, which this year is the Year of the Goat – which is also my birth animal year. I thought that would be good, but I soon learned that it is actually very bad for me. I spent CNY with a friend’s family and he took me to a Kuan Yin (the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion) temple so we could do the standard prayers to overcome all the bad things that were in store for me this year. While I had made incense offerings occasionally at other Chinese temples, this time I took it more seriously – not sure why, as I am not normally superstitious. Another friend arranged to have a small golden Buddha statue to be dedicated at her family’s temple in my name (and that of a couple of other Goats) to bring us good fortune for the year. Possibly because of these two event, I have come to take all such Chinese temple offerings more seriously than I had before – which is something new for me.

I should also note that being a Goat-year person, I am approaching my retirement decade, so that has also been on my mind during this sabbatical. When I arrived at National Dong Hwa University, I met someone I had known for several years, who is also looking at retirement and who said that he is becoming more interested in Buddhism than in his university career. It also turns out that my primary host here is a devoted student of Buddhist thought. So in addition to talking about research and teaching (‘talking shop’) we would also talk about Buddhism – what I was learning in my podcasts (which are based in the Theravada Vipasana tradition) and what she had learned in her more Mahayana Buddhism classes. I eventually taught her how to meditate (because it was not part of what she was learning) based on my knowledge of Vipasana mindfulness meditation and TM, and we talked a lot about the role of meditation in Buddhism practice.

Meanwhile, I had contacted the Taiwan TM Center to see if, by chance, they might be having a meditation retreat that I could attend. It turned out that they were having a retreat and it was schedule start on the day that one of my field work trips was going to end, and in a location very convenient to my research site. It could not have been a better coincidence. So I attend the 3-day TM weekend retreat. Over two weeks after that retreat, I still feel that it has been a life-changing experience.
TM is based on Hinduism, not Buddhism. However, Buddhism (in its different forms) emerged out of the Hindu tradition, so while different, there are many ideas that are similar. For me they all work together very well. Without going into too much detail, the TM retreat opened and resolved some deep stresses (‘attachments’ or ‘dukkha’ in Buddhism), much more so than my last retreat. Since that retreat all I want to listen to are my Audio Dharma podcasts. I am almost afraid to listen to my old tech and world news podcasts because I am not yet ready to end this retreat experience, and returning to them might be sign of that! I have also been preferring vegetarian foods over meat even more than I had before (though I do still eat meat).

So I have been learning a lot about Vipasana Buddhist practice, taking notes of the most interesting things, and have had many discussion on interesting Buddhism topics with my friend here as well as with my wife. My friend has also shared some of the key books (online English versions) that she has been studying from with the group she is part of. The main books are:

      The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering – by Bikkhu Bodhi (1999) - http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/noble8path6.pdf  www.buddhanet.net

-        The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment – by Tson-kha-pa (1402) – translated by The Lamrin Chenmo Translation Committee (2000) – in 3 volumes

The element of Buddhist thought that has influenced me the most is the Eightfold Path, which is the prescription that the Buddha gave to overcoming the suffering (disappointment) of life. The path consists of:
1. Right View, and 2. Right Intention (Wisdom; Prajna)
3. Right Speech, 4. Right Action, and 5. Right Livelihood (Ethical Conduct; Sila)
6. Right Effort, 7. Right Mindfulness, and 8. Right Concentration (Mental Discipline/Centered Mind/Meditation; Samadhi)

The more I came to better understand these eight principals of Buddhist practice, the more strongly I felt that these really are the best guide to leading a more satisfying and ethical life, and for creating a more caring world. (That perspective, by the way, largely encompasses the Right View and Right Intention parts of the Eightfold Path.) As I ponder decisions related to my career, I turn to Right Livelihood as my guiding principal. As I consider my relations with others, I want to be seen as someone who can be trusted with Right Speech and Right Action. And through my practice of meditation and yoga, and learning from Dharma talks and books, the paths of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration help me to achieve more balance in my life (I hope).

This is what I have come to in the first two months of my sabbatical here in Taiwan (along with doing my research and writing). When I came to the east coast of Taiwan in 2012 to give a keynote speech at a tourism conference, I felt like this was a very special place, with its clean air, mild temperatures, towering green mountains, and dramatic ocean vistas. I told my host at NDHU that I wanted to return here for my next sabbatical, little realizing that it would be more than just a research sabbatical.

It currently feels like a milestone experience for me, laying a foundation for many years to come. As I have come to understand the deep, but very flexible and open, philosophy of Buddhism (which results in many different forms of practice for different types of people), I can now confidently say that I am comfortable with adopting Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path as the best guide for my life, and that yes, I am a Buddhist.

Taroko Gorge National Park, Hualien County, Taiwan

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