31 March 2014

Review of Understanding the Mystery of the Cross

Understanding the Mystery of the Cross: We Died at a Tree; God Gave Us Life at a TreeUnderstanding the Mystery of the Cross: We Died at a Tree; God Gave Us Life at a Tree by Mike Beecham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well-written book on a very important area of Christian theology; it's also a great contribution to Christian theological writing, overall. While the topic/teaching is deep, Beecham clearly expounds on the meaning of the Crucifixion, and what that means for the Christian in their everyday lives and in the idea of salvation.

Mike Beecham writes with clarity and authority, developing this teaching and making it accessible to any reader while maintaining orthodoxy. I hope to see more books from him in the future.

I would recommend this for anyone interested in an excellent explanation of the Crucifixion and what that means in overall Christian theology/doctrine and belief.

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Understanding the Mystery of the Cross

23 March 2014

Love ... Really?

Hello, call me the fool.1   

Since the Bible says so, some would say: "God is love."2  That that's all fine and good for those who believe in the Bible. It's nice that they consider the god in the book to be love. My experience with both the Bible and its god is a little different. For me, there is more hatred than love portrayed there; but not only portrayed in the Bible, but taught in many churches. 

You might argue and say, "I have never heard anyone teach or preach hatred in my church." And I hope you never do.  But, if you do, run from there like your butt's on fire. No, the teaching is with actions; with little innuendos: "We're better than 'those people,' those atheists, those drug addicts, those alcoholics." That's what is said with body language and unconscious vocabulary. I know, because I was once like this myself (I have to say, in my defense, that it was not intentional--but, nevertheless, I was guilty).  Aloud, you may hear something like: "We love them; we accept them, even as Jesus accepted us." But then, listen

You'll probably hear something not unlike this: "We just have to tolerate them until they grow (i.e. learn to think and believe as we do)."  Or: "We love the sinner, but not the sin."  That is a sneaky form of prejudice; it gives us a way to avoid the very people we are supposedly supposed to love.  It's a prejudice to which most people, especially those who believe themselves to be "chosen," will not consciously or readily admit (I'm sad to have to admit, again, I know this first-hand).  You may say: "I'm not like that.  And neither is anyone else in my church.  We really do love people."  I hope you're not like that.  I hope you and all the people in your church really do love people (e.g. esp. the "unlovable").  If you are like that, you are rare and that is beautiful.  I appreciate you!

For those not in that minority, those who are more like I was, my question is: Is that really love? Can I love people without being around them and being willing to get my hands dirty?  I'm not saying it's necessary to engage in immoral behavior in order to show our love, but often what we do is: we completely avoid those whom we claim to love.  And behavior toward the "loved" ones is stand-offish and squeamish and doesn't quite come across as love, but rather as disgust....

The Bible teaches that we should love all, in action not only in word: 

Matthew 25.35-40; 42-46 (KJV):

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
These are ideals to which anyone, Christian or not, can aspire.  If you're an unbeliever, just realize that you're doing this will not win you any brownie-points.  If you are a believer, then this should be the life you strive to live anyway, simply based on Jesus's teaching. 

To make this practical we can ask ourselves regularly: "Am I showing love to people around me; to strangers; to 'scary' people; to mean people; to people who will probably not love me in return; and not only when someone is watching me, and not hoping for a reward or a prize or even a simple pat on the back and an 'at-a-boy'?"

^1. Psalm 14.1
^2. 1 John 4:8, in case you're wondering. You're welcome.

22 March 2014

Review of Black Irish

Black IrishBlack Irish by Stephan Talty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hard to put down, well-written novel. Talty introduces some well developed characters and background for them that is both interesting and fun to read. The back-story and historical research is nicely integrated.

There are few twists that were completely unexpected, which is not easy to do in this day and age, given all the murder/thriller/suspense novels, and stories and films and television shows....

Talty is an author to watch and I'm looking forward to reading more of his fiction and non-fiction. I can't believe I waited as long as I did to read this and when it was due at the library and I had to wait for someone else to read it, I was biting at the bit waiting for it! I finished it in a couple of days of so much reading I had sore eyes!

If you like mysteries/suspense/thrillers, I highly recommend this book.

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Black Irish: A Novel

21 March 2014

Review of Devil's Highway

Devil's HighwayDevil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many in the US complain about illegal immigrants, while forgetting that their ancestors once came to this country uninvited. And most of those who come, now, really don't want to; they have family back home and many of them can't find jobs, because the American corporations have pulled out and left few jobs and those that are available are worse than minimum wage here. Sadly, many of those who try to come to the US die in their search for a better life for them and their families.

This exposes the selfishness that often comes with abundance that many US citizens enjoy. All of us can gain perspective by thinking about the ordeals our ancestors went through so that we could enjoy freedom of religion and the abundance available in this country. And, in truth, there are people in this country who are so far from that abundance that they can't even afford to see it on TV. It's not helping them to keep the immigrants out. They don't have access to the jobs the immigrants are out for. The world is screwed up enough without our complaining about people trying for a better life. Many who complain, however, try to lump all illegal aliens into one group: drug and human traffickers.

I'm reminded of the way German-Americans, Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII, and the way many people of Middle Eastern descent were treated (are still?) after 9/11. It's fear--xenophobia! And it is sad and disgusting. Especially when it is those who are simply trying to pursue happiness or a little less sadness, or even a little more to feed, clothe and house their family.

These immigrants often die in a horrible way, crossing Hell trying to reach the Promised Land which despises them for no other reason than they aren't from here.

Yes, the drugs and crime are often part of it--but, NEWS FLASH! drugs and crime have been part of the culture of the US for a loooong time and it does NOT depend on illegal immigration to keep going.

This book gives names to a few of the hundreds that try to find a better life, it gives the outsider a view into the lives of the kinds of people they are, how they live, how they want what everyone wants: happiness and the chance to take care of their families. I can't imagine anything closer to Hell on Earth than what all these desperate men endured and what lead to many of them to their deaths. Luis Alberto Urrea also shows how our jobs are not really in danger of being all taken away by illegal immigrants; he gives the whole thing context in which to come to our own ideas about border crossing and immigration.

If you are interested in what goes on on the Mexican-American border; in what often happens to the people who try to cross into a better life; or in ways all this is handled by our respective governments, and what that means for citizens of both countries; this is a good read to has a few answers, while at the same time putting a face on the brave and desperate people.

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The Devil's Highway: A True Story

11 March 2014

Review of The Words of My Perfect Teacher

The Words of My Perfect TeacherThe Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this out of curiosity more than out of a desire to live this way. Tibetan Buddhism is the most ritualistic and "religious" of the forms of Buddhism that I have looked at so far. And, a lot of the information in this book is meant to be used in conjunction with the oral transmission of a qualified teacher. Much of it seems require the learner/practitioner/student to live monastically, but apart from that the teaching on equalizing and exchanging, and on bodhicitta are worth the time to read, not only for Buddhists, but for anyone interested in living better in this violent world. Those chapters, which reinforced what I have learned on these subjects from other books, were very helpful in overcoming difficult emotions and thought processes. Those teachings have helped me look at the world and at other people differently. I am far from a Bodhisattva, and quite honestly, don't know whether that is a state that I could ever attain, but just attempting to cultivate a heart and mind of love and compassion will help make (at least my part of) the world a better place.

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The Words of My Perfect Teacher: A Complete Translation of a Classic Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Sacred Literature Trust Series)

07 March 2014

Thoughts on Vigilance Chapter of Dhammapada

“... the guard [their vigilance] as their greatest treasure.”
Dhammapada, vs. 26, trans. Eknath Easwaran

Diligence comes from the Latin verb diligere, meaning to love, to take delight in.  That isn’t the usual feeling I’ve had when thinking of diligence; my own thinking, and that of many people I have discussed this concept with, is of drudgery, hardship, sacrifice, etc…  But, thinking of diligence with its Latin etymology helps when it comes to cultivating Right Diligence (yes, that is one of the parts of the Noble Eight-Fold Path).  

It’s not a drudgery or a chore; it’s something delighted in.  This line of thought reminds me of Jesus’ “My yoke is easy, my burden in light” (Matt. 11.30).  In the Dhammapada chapter on vigilance, I see the connection between the two concepts: vigilance means to keep awake; diligence means to be careful and persistent, or assiduous.  They are brought together in earnestness (i.e. showing sincere and intense conviction).

The delight gives one conviction to stay awake.  This all leads to one guarding their conquest of the mind, of the four kinds of Mara1.  Without Right Diligence we will lack the earnestness to be vigilant.  

We awaken a little to realize that we need to awaken.  We have an instant of enlightenment to show us we are sitting in darkness.  This is beginner’s mind.  Without that “small” awakening we will not be aware that we are asleep.  Once we have that beginner’s mind we will delight in practice: we will fall in love with the Buddha we are to become.  Love will keep us on the path.  This is why last time I talked about love as being the only thing that will put an end to hatred.  Love is what gave the five “wise” virgins, of the Gospels, their wisdom, i.e. their vigilance.

If what you’re doing feels like a chore, a burden, a drudgery, then it will not be Right Diligence.  There must be and ease and a joy involved in the doing.  Verse 26 of the Dhammapada says, “... the wise guard it [vigilance, heedfulness] as their greatest treasure” (trans. Easwaran).  Treasure is something people love, otherwise it’s not treasure.  If you have trouble with your faith or practice, if they are bothersome, like something you don’t want to do but must, then those are not your treasure--they are your burden.

Think about it like this: people don’t love, don’t take great care, and don’t keep awake and guard a thing they don’t want.  They do those things for things they treasure--for treasure!  This is the reason Jesus said in Luke 12.34, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The thing is: how do you change this?  How do you change what feels like a burden into a treasure?  Sometimes, you can’t, and in that case you have to accept the situation.  

You know the saying, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure”?  It has merit.  It may help to get a new perspective.  Try this: Make two columns on a piece of paper.  Then, write how you truly feel about the concept/practice that you consider a burden/a mere duty.  Then, in the second column, write down a different feeling--one you would rather have, would prefer to have.  Try something like: “I would prefer to see _________ as a splendid treasure instead of as a burden.”  Questions are powerful, so you can ask yourself, several times a day, something like: “Why is this belief/practice/concept/_______ a treasure to me?”  Have fun with it.  “Why is this _______ ‘my precious’?”  ;-)

It may be necessary to find a new practice--one that has ease, joy, peace and happiness in it.  It’s important to walk the Middle Way, i.e. not too tight, not too loose, but perfectly tuned to make the beautiful music of your life.

Once we have experienced the “small” awakening, we need vigilance to keep awake in order that we can walk the path to liberation, to freedom, to cessation of suffering.  Carry the treasure of vigilance with love and earnestness, with ease and joy, within your heart everywhere you go, every day of your life, every precious moment.

Peace! :-)


1. The four kinds of Mara: unwholesome mental factors, the Five Skandhas, death, and distractions.  For more on this, see: Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening the Heart, note 75.

04 March 2014

Thoughts on The Dhammapada, verses 3 and 4

"He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
"He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

How does one "be" with their feelings, if those mentioned in verses 3 & 4 are present?  If one is experiencing hatred and stops dwelling on those thoughts, the hatred will cease.  How do we decide to not dwell on a thought?  It is in allowing the thought to flow through the river of the mind.  Often, we create snags that catch our thoughts and then, we dwell on them and, before long, in them.  They become the walls and bars of our self-constructed prison.  Then, we cry that someone else did it to us.  We complain and cry that we're falsely accused, but we don't realize that it is we who are falsely accusing others and we who have imprisoned ourselves with our thoughts.  

So, if I have and dwell in the thoughts like those in verses 3 & 4 of the Dhammapada, I will in reality be reinforcing my prison walls and strengthening its bars, and over time my cell will grow narrower and smaller until it fills my entire head.

Thoughts are things and they can be more powerful than nuclear bombs and harder than diamonds.  They can grow to fill our universe and yet fit in the space inside our heads.  If our thoughts are in line with our path, we can live in happiness and peace.  If they're not, our lives can be hell.  Allowing the kinds of thoughts in verses 3 & 4 can be like another Buddhist idea: i.e. like swallowing a red-hot iron ball and being unable to spit it out.  Hatred is, imho, one of the hell realms.  And, according to verses 5 & 6, love is the only thing that can put an end to hatred.  Love (Sanskrit: Maitri; Pali: Metta) is the key, the jailer, the dismantler of the prison we build for ourselves with hatred.  If that is the case, and from experience I believe it is, how do we "grow" our love, cultivate our love; how do we forge the key of love that will free us from our self-created prison in the hell realm of hatred?  Verse 6 gives us a hint--"People forget their lives will end soon.  For those who remember, quarrels come to an end." (trans. Eknath Easwaran).  We begin to awaken love by remembering that life is impermanent.  Impermanence is an important ingredient in love (not selfish, clinging, or attachment; but, true love--a love that gives).  The Tibetan Buddhists believe that all beings have at one time been our mothers.  If that helps, use it.  

The beauty of Buddhism is that you try things out and if they work, they become the raft (or at least part of the raft) that can take you to the other shore.  Love should be a major part of that raft. Or, in keeping with the prison metaphor: we try different combinations of things in order to fashion a key that will ultimately lead to our liberation--nirvana.  If we are talking about getting out of hatred, then love is the key, if we are talking about getting out of the prison house of samsara, love is only one ingredient of the key.  We will also require self-discipline and faith (to be full of faith), and a purified mind, truthfulness, self-control--all parts of a well-trained mind.  We will also need to be selfless.  Once we have cultivated all of those things through practice of the teachings, we will begin to have more freedom and joy and peace.  Enlightenment can come at any time, but it will not come (I use these words while assuming you understand it does not "come," it is here and now, but, alas, I struggle with language) if we continue to live in our thoughts of hatred, anger, lust, greed, etc.  In other words, it needs the proper conditions.

These thoughts act like a very strong sleeping pill, keeping us asleep.  It is when we learn, and practice what we learn, that we counteract the drug of samsara and thus, are able to wake up.  So, it takes a small amount of waking up to see that we are dwelling on/in the kinds of thoughts stated in verses 3 & 4.  We have to wake up enough to realize that it is our own mind (our own thoughts) that is keeping us in the prison of the hell realm of hatred.  We have to wake up enough to see that love is the way out.  We have to wake up enough to learn the way to cultivate love, faith, compassion, and the other things, that will liberate us.  It's not enough to recognize the key or even to hold the key.  It must be placed in the lock and turned.  This is the practice.  

If someone has done wrong to us or to our loved ones, often we experience anger, hatred, and maybe a host of other emotions.  How do we keep these from becoming a prison (even temporarily)?  One way is by remembering that we have used the key to free ourselves, and we have been practicing with that key: love.  But, how do we love those people?  I answer that with a question: How do we love anyone?  If we love one person, we can love two, and so on.  It is our own mind that produces the thoughts of affinity and of aversion.  If we can let go of those, we can truly love.  And then, we will come to understand the other person better which will lead to a deeper and a truer love.