Sunday, June 05, 2011

What little I have learned about Buddhist philosophy and practices, so far

Buddhist philosophy and practices have interested me for many years though I do not think of myself as a “Buddhist.” In fact, in some of his writings, The Buddha, himself, says that that his teachings are not intended to be “a religion.”

About four years ago, I decided that regularly following a meditative practice might be useful. I had read several of the Dalai Lama’s books. Those personally close to him were unanimous in describing this remarkable spiritual leader as someone who embodied The Buddha’s teachings to an unusual degree. While not excluding other sources (for example Sri Lanka’s Pali Canon that is the foundation of Theravada Buddhism) I have chosen to focus my study on the Dalai Lama’s writings and base my practice on guidelines those writings provide.

Over past four years, I believe I have some made some progress, though mostly in becoming more conscious of shortcomings in my meditative practice and attempts to be guided by precepts of daily living for laypersons that the Dalai Lama teaches. For me, a particularly useful resource, though a challenging one, has been Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings, written by the Dalai Lama’s long time translator, who is a Professor of Buddhist Philosophy and former Buddhist monk, Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Philosopher. Here is the essence of what I believe I have learned so far.

All beings seek happiness and seek to avoid suffering,

Fro human beings, the surest path to happiness (contentment) is to live a life guided by altruistic compassion.

The two principles providing the best guidance for altruistic compassion are these: (1) If possible help other sentient beings. (2) If that is not possible, do no harm.

The surest foundation of altruistic compassion is recognition that emptiness (dependent origination) is the ultimate reality. That is what The Buddha means by "enlightenment.”

The mastering and practicing of concentrated meditation is the surest path to attaining enlightenment.

This is not easy. It may take years of concentrated application or even, if one believes in reincarnation, several lifetimes.

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Is there a distinction between what is legal and what is moral?

In the past several days there have been a number of radio interviews discussing the role of the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs in the recent financial crisis. A particularly theme has been the manner in which Goldman partners not only survived the crisis, but profited by simultaneously selling securities to clients and “taking bets” that those same securities would become valueless. In Congressional testimony, Goldman executives defended this as a practice that was legal and therefore perfectly acceptable. They seemed puzzled that questioners believed their could be a distinction. I was reminded of a question that Senator Sam Ervine often posed during Senate hearings on the Watergate scandal that lead to the resignation of President Nixon.

“I understand that you believed what you did was legal,” the Senator would ask, “but did you believe it was proper.” At the time, I remember querying a much-respected older friend and mentor, an attorney, about this. To my surprise his view was that there was, at least in the matters related to business and public policy, no distinction between what was legal and what was moral.

It seemed clear that the views of the Goldman Sachs Executives were similar. The adverse impact of their actions on clients might have given the executives their trust as well as their savings was not a matter of concern. A question comes to mind: In the domain of morality is there any real distinction between these executives and the much-maligned Bernard Madoff, except that the executives were far more clever?

The following is a May 31 excerpt from my “Insight from the Dalai Lama” calendar on the topic of greed.

When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing which is quite characteristic is that although it arises from the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining it. Therefore, it becomes limitless or boundless, and that leads to trouble. The interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction… even after obtaining the object of one’s desire one is still not satisfied. On the other hand, of one has a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether one obtains the object or not, either way, one is still content.

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