Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Happy and Radiant 2016

The true nature of all sentient beings is to be happy and radiant

Buddhism teaches a path to awakening one's true nature

Wishing All the World a Happy and Radiant 2016

Daibutsu bronze buddha in the Todai-ji Temple, Nara, Japan

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ethical Judgments, Actions and Mistakes

When facing an ethical decision (one that involves right and wrong conduct or consequences), the Buddha says you must ask yourself these three questions:
  1. Does this choice benefit my welfare?
  2. Does this choice benefit the welfare of others?
  3. Does this choice lead to peace?
  • You must be able to say ‘yes’ to all three for it to be a wholesome and right (ethical) decision or action. Only then will it not result in karmic consequences for your mind and body.
However, most of the decisions we that face on a daily basis are not ethical ones. Instead of deciding right and wrong, we are actually deciding between “pleasant” and “unpleasant” feelings -- for example: should I select the chocolate or the vanilla ice cream?
  • In situations like this, we are actually caught in the delusions of “attachment” (to pleasantness) and “aversion” (to unpleasantness). Such attachments and aversions are always impermanent. As such, they always lead to some level of disappointment and suffering. 
    • "It is important to understand that anything that can be lost is never truly ours. Anything that we deeply cling to only imprisons us." [Jack Cornfield] -- and that includes ice cream...
On making mistakes (such as an unethical decision or action), the Buddha says that recognizing that a mistake has been made, making amends to make it right, and setting a clear intention to do it different in the future are he three steps to turning that action into a wholesome learning experience, and making progress on one's path to awakening and freedom.

Except for the quote from Jack Cornfield, I think I got the rest of these ideas from Thanissaro Bhikkhu, but I am not 100% sure about that.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Karma, Rebirth and Meditation

I have a lot of thoughts and notes on what is Karma. Here are some ...

Your body is old karma. [Buddha]
  • You were born into this world with a set of genes and behavioral dispositions that are the karma from your past lives. Similarly, as you age, you accumulate karma from unskillful actions in this life, which are folded into your body and mind. It is all there, looking at you in the mirror.
Your mind is old karma. [this is from me, though I am surely not the first to say it]
  • Karma is "our repetitive, habitual, compulsive, neurotic behavior/thinking that keeps taking us back to where we started [re-becoming]. We cannot easily stop these, they just keep going on in our mind." - quote from Stephen Batchelor in one of his many podcasts. 
  • Through our repetitive and unthinking (unwise) actions, we accumulate new karma in our mind and body. 
  • Overcoming these patterns of the mind (by recognizing them as impermanent winds of change and by acting wisely, in a Buddhist way) is overcoming karma and the cycle of rebirth.
Rebirth in Buddhism is actually the Pali word Punnabhava, which means “again becoming” or "rebecoming". (Buddha never used the word rebirth.)
  • The karma in our body and mind drives our rebecoming. This happens over and over again in each passing moment. If we are aware and mindful, we can change that moment and change "our repetitive, habitual" behavior. We cannot change the past, but we can change the present before it becomes the past. (This is also the idea behind "Be Here Now".)
    • A relevant Buddhist proverb says... Living in the past leaves a mark. Living in the future leaves a mark. The present leaves no traces. Source: Buddhism Now
Meditation calms and quiets the mind and body to enable us to be more aware and mindful of the present moment.
  • In this way, meditation allows us to safely face and release the karma wound up in our mind and body. On top of this, Buddhism teaches us how to act wisely to minimize the further accumulation of new karma.
  • Ultimately, this leads to freedom from the "neurotic behavior/thinking that keeps taking us back to where we started" ... this is freedom from karma and rebecoming, and is the goal of Buddha's teachings.
  • Buddhism seeks ultimate freedom from both good and bad karma -- both things we like and those we do not like. Meditation brings us to a higher state of happiness and contentment, beyond likes and dislikes.
  • In Buddhism, karmic influences still shape and impact awakened person, as long as they still have a physical body. But with awakening, they recognize the impermanence of these influences and are free from being consumed by them.

    • On a side note, Transcendental Meditation (which I also practice) refers to the release of stress through meditation, and associates stress with negativity built up in the mind/body. I think that Buddhist karma and TM stress are essentially the same thing ... at least that works for me.

Being Together on the Spiritual Path of Buddhism

Buddha said:
If two partners [such as a husband and wife], who are leading a harmonious life together, wish to remain together into the future, then they should take care to be well matched in the qualities of faith, morality, generosity and wisdom.

Just as one is inspired and enthusiastic in their faith, so should the other be. Just as one is careful and compassionate, and upholding moral conduct, just so should the other be.

If one of them wishes to support a worthy cause, the other should encourage them. If the other wishes to offer aid, the first should be delighted.

And so too, they should strive to understand each other equally, though wisdom and knowledge.
In this way, Buddha defines the value of a committed partnership that is based on wholesome spiritual aspirations. Attachment, aversion and delusion are still major dangers that must be avoided, as they will undermine the benefits of a shared supportive path. But that is true for any activity that we are involved in, not just personal relationships.

Engaging with Society while on the Buddhist Path

Buddha said that there are things that we should be concerned about on the path to freedom, and there are things that we should not be worried about on our spiritual path to awakening.

Among those things that we should not be worried about are:
  • Love and romance relationships
  • Caring for one’s family
  • Pursuing one’s career or a passion for a good project
  • Desire to enjoy life (nice home, travel experiences, good friends, good food, nice things)
  • Working to make a living, including being engaged in trade and commerce
  • Being involved in the legal and political affairs of our society
In general, we do not need to worry about engaging with society and meeting the basic human needs that all humans have.  While it is true that all these can involve much desire and craving, they are not in themselves obstacles on the Buddhist path to awakening (enlightenment). Doing them is not an indication that our lives are not spiritual. 

On the other hand, the Buddha said that there are some things that we should be concerned about and should seek to avoid. These are greed/attachment, hatred/aversion and delusion/ignorance (known as the defilements). These can (and will) appear at any time and with any activity that we partake in. When they arise arise and acted upon without proper awareness and mindfulness, they become major obstacles to freedom and awakening. Buddha's teachings tell us how to be mindful and to live our lives in skillful and wholesome ways. 

Delusion and Awakening

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. 
         That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.

From Dogen's GenjoKoan [Zen]

I interpret this as ... to experience and act in the world with the idea that "I" am at the center of acting and experiencing is delusion. But to allowing the world to come into my experience without any intereference of a "self" getting in the way is awakening.

On Enlightenment

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 
                           After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 

This is one of my current favorite Zen sayings, attributed to the Xin Xin Ming, one of the earliest Chan (Zen) Buddhism texts in China.

To me, this is about karma and life. We come into this world with a karmic past that plays itself out throughout this current life. We cannot change our past, and the karmic energy must be played out in some way.

Buddha teaches us, in the 8 Fold Path, how to live the life we have without creating more karma on top of it, which will require additional lives to be worked through.

An enlightened one has learned the lessons of the Buddha (or perhaps discovered them in some other way), and is able to live out the karma of this life (chop wood, carry water) with adding more karma to it.

Mindfulness Eating and Weight Management

[UPDATED on 20 January 2016 -- The updated section is at the bottom of this post.]

In May, 2011, I wrote a blog post about how I used calorie counting and vegetable to lose 50 pounds (

Since that time, my weight has gone up and down. I travel a lot for my work, mostly to Asia, and when I travel I cannot count calories. In addition, I want to eat the local foods when I am overseas, so I pay less attention to limiting my calories. I usually gain between 5 and 10 pounds when I go to Asia, and I usually lose it in a couple of weeks (sometimes more) after I get back to calorie counting when I get home.

For the past year, however, even my lowest weight has been somewhat higher than I would like it to be - in the range of 165-169. In part, this is because I have been traveling so much. But also because there were limits to how much I was willing to cut my calories ... until now.

More recently, I wrote about my three months in Taiwan and how I "discovered" Buddhism. After getting back to the US from my most recent overseas trip (two months in Japan), I decided to apply Buddhist mindfulness meditation practice to eating. I called in Mindfulness Eating. Soon after I started doing this, I learned that my daughter learned mindfulness eating in a mindfulness meditation class that she had taken a year or so ago. So I did not invent this, and an online search on "mindful eating" will bring forth a lot of articles and books on the topic.

Mindfulness, or mindful, eating with intention -- only doing one thing at a time -- only eating and not doing anything else. It is focusing on your food as you eat it, and not multitasking with other things (like reading a newspaper). It can help to turn off the TV and radio, and even to close your eyes if you are alone. It is preferable to not talk to other while you are chewing the food, though that can be hard, so I am careful not to go too far. Chewing is complete, as you savor and enjoy the changing taste and texture of the food as you consume it.

All I can say is that it works for me!  This past week, by using mindful eating, my daily calorie count has been under 1400 a day, and my weight has quickly plummeted to levels that I have not been at in about a year.  Today, I ate less than 1000 calories (including a granola bar), and I feel fine. It takes me a lot longer to eat my food than anyone else in my family, but I am eating only about half as much as most others. I am still counting calories, although I plan to stop doing that and just do the mindfulness eating once I reach my goal weight of 159 (very close to it now).

So, the lesson here is that Calorie Counting combined with Mindful Eating is an incredibly powerful way to lose weight. 

I have another trip in a month or so, and I will update this blog with a report on how it goes with mindfulness eating on the road....

[UPDATE: 20 January 2016]

It has been a month and a half since I wrote the post above. During that time I have made a couple of week-long out-of-state trips, which have challenged my mindfulness eating and weight management -- as I totally expected.  Here is what I have experienced...

I gained weight. No surprise. The reasons are also very well known to me, and include:

  • I was not counting calories (I never do when I travel)
  • My will power to resist new and interesting foods was quite weak (which also always happens when I travel)
  • I ate out a lot, which usually means foods that are tasty, but high in calories and salt

The one new thing was that I was trying to remember to eat mindfully. Again, my will power and memory to do that was not as steadfast as when I was at home. But at least I was doing it some of the time. I am now clearly the slowest eater in my family!

The result of mindfulness eating while traveling was that I did not gain as much weight as I might have if I were not being mindful. I can't say for sure, but I think that is true.

I have now been home for a couple of weeks from my last trip. When I first got home, I tried to see if I could lose weight using mindfulness eating alone. Well, mindfulness alone was not very successful for me. I managed to lose 1.5 pounds after a week being home, which could easily have been due to eating less salt. 

I came the conclusion that mindfulness is able to keep me stable (not gaining weight), but it was not enough to get me to lose weight at the rate that I am used to after I get back from a weight-gaining trip. 

So after more than a week of that, I decided to go back to the combination of calorie counting and mindfulness.  This accelerated my weight loss, as I expected, though I did get stuck at a plateau for 4 days -- those things happen.

I am now back to my goal weight, which for me means that I can stop counting calories and just rely on mindfulness eating to maintain that weight. Although I am just starting that, I feel confident that it will work -- until my next travel food adventure, at least!

Budding Buddhist

This story was originally posted on 5 April 2015, on my person blog, which contains a lot of other stuff, as well. (  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 ( 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) -

-        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