12/31/2007 3:36:33 PM
We blunder through our days asleep, our lives a dream, the true nature of reality obscured. And why not? It seems so hard to pierce the veil of everyday life to get to something sublime. Where would you even start?
The beginning is simple. You notice how you walk. You notice your breath.
That’s how you start Vipassana meditation. Also called insight meditation, Vipassana meditation trains the mind to notice sensations. From the simple act of observing your breath and your thoughts, your understanding can deepen. The idea is to get to the true nature of reality in which the self dissolves. And while that goal seems heady, it all begins with the basic act of breathing. Interested? The 2007 Utne Independent Press Award-winning Shambhala Sun is featuring a helpful step-by-step introduction from its archives by master Sayadaw U Pandita to get you started.
12/31/2007 3:14:53 PM
As she perused the shelves of a Beijing bookstore, Susan Fishman Orlins was surprised by the titles of certain books. In the business section she noticed The Wisdom of Judaic Trader and the Jewish People’s Bible for Business and Managing the World. In the parenting section she saw a man reading The Jewish Way of Raising Children.
Apparently, Fishman Orlins reports in an article for Moment, there’s a recent rise in Chinese appreciation for Judaism, evident in part through an increase in “Jewish how-to literature.” These books are filled with stereotypes, caricatures, and even made-up information about Jews, but the main message is admiration and a desire to achieve what the authors see as the financial, moral, and intellectual success of the Jewish people.
“While few Chinese can articulate quite what a Jew is, many believe that if they could emulate, among other things, how Jewish parents raise their children—as though there were a prescription—it would boost their offspring’s chances of growing up to own a bank or win Nobel Prizes,” Fishman Orlins writes. Perceptions like these have seen an uptick in the past few decades, especially in China’s economically booming cities.
But what do the Chinese and the Jews have in common? I have a hard time understanding what draws Chinese people to my religion. Xu Xin, the founder of Nanjing University’s Institute for Jewish Studies, tells Fishman Orlins that he admires the high numbers of Jewish Nobel Prize winners and scholars. He also noted that both the Chinese and Jewish cultures are very old but have managed to hold on to their traditions. His oddest assessment was that Jews have stronger morals than the Chinese, and that Jews abide by set laws rather than personal beliefs. “Jewish culture has many lessons Chinese people could learn on their way to becoming a responsible part of the international society,” Xu said.
Though I still find this Chinese fascination with Judaism puzzling, it doesn’t seem particularly troubling, as long as it steers clear of negative stereotypes. I wonder if the Chinese are aware of the stereotype that Jewish people love Chinese food. (It’s true, you know.)
12/29/2007 12:46:28 PM
Never use magic to get a date. Don’t even try. It will only get you into trouble. The latest issue of New Witch (article not available online), a pagan magazine from northern California, details why lonely, witchcraft-curious neophytes shouldn’t dabble in magic for superficial reasons, like finding a date. “Magic isn’t safe,” writes the “therioshaman” named Lupa. Some people try to delve into the spirit world to escape their personal problems, but according to Lupa, advanced magic will force people to “face the scariest adversary of all—him or herself.” The single and lonely should try the interpersonal charm, and leave the magical charms to the experts.
12/28/2007 5:50:04 PM
Some Christians are uncomfortable with observing Kwanzaa, even though none of the holiday’s principles conflict with the tenets of Christianity. The holiday’s founder, Maulana Karenga, has stressed that “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday,” and that it “is not a reaction or substitute for anything.” In an article for Religion News Service, Adelle M. Banks describes how various churches continue to celebrate Kwanzaa, in spite of the criticism they receive from other Christians, both inside of black churches and out. Theological compatibility aside, many churches continue to struggle over whether or not Kwanzaa distracts churchgoers from Christmas. If it does distract, is that a problem? The debate, at its core, exposes tensions surrounding identity formation and shared values within communities of faith.
12/26/2007 3:19:51 PM
For many African Muslims on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, being stranded for days at an airport isn’t just an inconvenience. It is a test from god. This year, the BBC reports that more than 1,100 Tanzanians were stranded in a Dar es Salaam airport for ten days before finally receiving the go-ahead to travel to Mecca for the Hajj. A devout traveler quoted in by the BBC echoed the sentiments of many in the group saying, “Anyone who gets angry because of flight delays at this time of year does not know Islam.".
Spiritually, the story helps put that ten-hour delay at the Atlanta airport in perspective.
12/19/2007 9:48:17 AM
Surviving the cold Chicago winters can be tough for anyone. For the more than half a million Mexican-Americans living in the Windy City, and the many more in the metro area, the frigid weather can be brutal. Instead of packing their bags and leaving for warmer climates, the Mexican immigrant population has managed to bring a bit of Mexico with them: by building a hill to enshrine an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the grounds of a Chicago-area Catholic children’s home.
According to Willard F. Jabusch, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago writing in Commonweal (subscription required), more than 7,000 people now attend Mass each Sunday at the shrine. On the recent feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the site drew many more—despite the bitterly cold December weather. Jabusch writes that the site’s popularity highlights the community’s resilience: “Racism, border guards, and fences have not kept out the newest wave of immigrants. Nor will their spiritual passion and zeal be suppressed.”
12/18/2007 2:11:48 PM
Are you a culturally sensitive gentile? If so, you’ve probably heard by now that many Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. You may have also heard that Hanukkah is not exactly a major religious holiday.
Many Jews, including Jewcy.com blogger Elisa Albert, would appreciate it if gentiles took their cultural sensitivity a bit further. A good first step would be to realize when the Festival of Lights actually takes place. (Hint: It doesn’t include December 25 this year.) Albert pokes fun at “those exclamations of ‘Happy Holidays!’ or ‘Merry Christmas!’ that turn, with squeaky awareness, to ‘...or, uhhh...Happy Hanukkah?’ when it dawns on the speaker that there’s a real, live Jew in the house.” Such corrections may be well-intentioned, but they make little sense, now that Hanukkah ended about a week ago.
A nice alternative could be to wish Jewish friends a happy Tu Bishvat, as the New Year of the Trees is less than two months away. If Tu Bishvat sounds too obviously researched, just go with Rosh Hashanah. September may seem far away, but it’s a lot closer at this point than Hanukkah is.
12/18/2007 12:13:19 PM
American culture tends to idolize youth and bestow little grace or honor on the elderly. For Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, this is cause for concern.
Writing in Sojourners
(free registration required), Rohr traces the spiritual development of Western ideas about aging—from pre-Christian myth, which idealized the past, to classical Christian spirituality, which looked ahead to the afterlife, rather than to one’s twilight years. Neither of these models was particularly conducive to developing a culture where the elderly are respected and admired, and wisdom is cultivated.
Western culture needs more reverence toward age and aging, Rohr argues. His description of the spiritual essence of that reverence is where the piece is most striking:
We are no longer in touch with the inherently self-renewing and patient nature of time and aging. Thus we are swimming against the spiritual tide of life--where the now is always full and free, and where time itself renews all things.
For another take on wisdom and elders, read The New Elders from the September/October issue of Utne Reader.
12/18/2007 11:21:37 AM
Christmas is coming, and millions of Americans are descending into an orgy of capitalistic gift-giving, gift-receiving, and gift-begging. Not everyone, though, is buying what Santa’s selling. Some people are trying to opt out of the whole “desire” thing. A couple weeks ago my grandma asked me what I wanted to Christmas. I paused: I didn’t really want anything. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in quiet rooms meditating with my eyes closed, just so that I wouldn't want things. But instead of telling her that, I just murmured something about socks.
The Yoga Journal, a nominee for the 2007 Utne Independent Press Awards, just might have a solution. Senior editor Phil Catalfo suggests a few gifts for those friends who are annoyingly casting off the chains of desire. The gifts are so good, readers might find something that’ll make them wish they had desires again.
For another holiday gift guide, be sure to read Utne.com’s From the Stacks, The Gift-Giving Edition.
12/18/2007 11:02:07 AM
If you’ve seen the documentary Jesus Camp, you may be alarmed about what goes on at conservative Christian summer camps. At least at some of them—my own memories consist largely of swimming, throwing a frisbee, and awkwardly chatting up girls. Writing in the Sun (article not available online), Matthew M. Quick touches on something fundamental to the Bible-camp experience: the tremendous spiritual high that Christian summer camps cultivate, and the inevitable difficulty in sustaining that feeling after you go home.
The article begins in the present, with the author as an adult. Quick answers a phone call from his mother, a devout Christian who is deeply depressed. Quick is no longer devout, but he declines to tell her that in so many words. Instead, he tries to comfort his mother in her depression—while simultaneously putting away a fair amount of whiskey.
Recalling the campfires and tearful prayers of his youth, Quick emphasizes his overwhelming sense “that Christ had come to me, as if I could have reached out and touched his robe and been made whole.” In the present, what limited peace his mother can find is immersed in a similar sense of the physical presence of Jesus. Quick now finds such belief to be out of reach—as distant as the mountaintop spiritual epiphanies he felt as a child. What he does have is the whiskey, which he drinks, not to escape so much as to imagine the divine presence he no longer feels:
When I swallow, the burn climbs my throat, and I try to imagine this burning sensation all over my body. Maybe this is what it feels like to touch the robe of Christ. Wasn’t it wine that Christ transformed into his blood? … I think if he were here right now, I would drink his wine until I could no longer stand. I would take him to my mother, so that he could lift her depression for good.
12/17/2007 5:45:38 PM
With no burning bushes available, many people of faith are turning on their cell phones to stay in touch with God. Muslims are using cell-phone software to help find the direction toward Mecca for prayer, Elizabeth Biddlecome writes for Wired. Christians organizations are trying out the mobile technology too, according to Biddlecome, with Bible verses available via text message, or a “Thought of the Day” from the Pope sent directly to Catholics' pockets. Not to be outdone, the Associated Press (via MSNBC) reports that Orthodox Jews can now buy “kosher” cell phones, able to block both text messages and phone sex lines.
As religious groups embrace technology, major changes are occurring in the way the devout worship. In the future, people may begin to turn their phones on, rather than off, when entering places of worship. And when theologians struggle with technological problems, the question becomes, “Can God get cell reception in my basement?”
12/10/2007 8:43:40 AM
Mac: Hello, I’m a Mac.
PC: And, I’m a PC.
Mac: You worship false idols.
PC: Mine is the one true faith.
Given the messiah-like reception that Apple’s iPhone has received, technology could be “the new frontier of religious warfare,” according to an article by David Gibson in Science & Spirit.
12/10/2007 8:33:48 AM
Political blogging isn’t known for respectful, civil debate. Most people who thrive in the blogosphere are aggressive and contentious, welcoming a tone of argument and escalation. R.J. Eskow, who blogs for the often-angry Huffington Post, doesn’t want to be one of these insult-hurling pundits. Eskow is bucking the raging-blogger tradition, seeking to hold himself to a higher standard.
Specifically, Eskow is trying to follow the ethical and spiritual teachings of Buddhist tradition. Writing in the western Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Eskow questions the tension between blogger rage and Buddhist serenity:
Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.
In today’s political dialogue, what’s left?
Eskow attempts to cultivate spiritual discipline without sacrificing his rhetorical efficacy. Eskow’s inability to maintain calm raises issues fundamental to both spiritual integrity and political change: Which is more important, faithfulness or effectiveness? More importantly, is there a third way? —Steve Thorngate
12/10/2007 7:57:18 AM
A number of my friends are considering major changes in their careers and their lives. They often ask me rhetorical and vaguely familiar questions: Where do I want to work? Where do I want to live? What do I want to do with my life? Young people are often accused of being over-praised, self-centered, and entitled, but no one says they lack motivation.
I thought of my meaning-seeking friends as I read editor Sy Safransky’s latest piece in the Sun. In it, he asks, “How do I keep my passion alive?”
Safransky answers his own question saying, “By recognizing the difference between something that’s genuinely important and something that merely clamors for my attention.... By allowing hope to rise in me; that’s the nature of hope. By remembering that hot air rises, too.”
It reminds me of the famous “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
My friends have figured out that motivation, while important, doesn’t achieve anything on its own. The trick is directing that motivation in the right place.
12/7/2007 3:58:38 PM
Finding time to seek spiritual satisfaction can be difficult when secular obligations (friends, rent, etc.) are all so time consuming. To help readers find their paths, Buddhanet has designed a feature called The Daily Enlightenment, a daily devotional message with small hints, practices, and poems for busy Buddhists. By portioning out the long, hard work of enlightenment into easily digestible morsels, the website makes the path to spiritual satisfaction a little more manageable.
Yesterday’s message comes from the Samyutta Nikaya:
The worse of the two
is he who, when abused, retaliates.
One who does not retaliate
wins a battle hard to win.
12/4/2007 3:32:52 PM
The early 1900s was a time of crisis in America. Large-scale industrialization buried the poor in poverty while elevating a lucky few to new heights of monocle-wearing decadence. A cult of individualism meant that people cared more about buying pretty things than they cared about the community. The stale scent of religious hypocrisy hung in the air: Some people were just going through the motions of religion, while others believed they should let a sinful world burn.
Enter , a firebrand of the social gospel movement. Rauschenbusch encouraged Christians to get out into their communities and help people, instead of just sitting around in smug assurance of their own salvation. His message inspired a new breed of Christian activists who changed the face of American politics, Casey Nelson Blake writes for Commonweal, in a review of a new edition of Rauschenbusch’s groundbreaking book Christianity and the Social Crisis.
Many of Rauschenbusch’s ideas aren’t defined by 21st Century political terminology. On one hand, he championed a socialist reform of capitalism. He wanted to build a large welfare state guided by expert social scientists to temper capitalism’s excesses. On the other hand, he also wanted to preserve the traditional, protestant family. Blake writes that the parts of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel that don’t fit into our modern political spectrum are the parts that are most helpful to us.
Here’s a key quote from the article:
At the very least, liberals who take exception to the cultural conservatism that fueled Rauschenbusch’s radicalism need to explain how a libertarian position on cultural issues can coexist with social solidarity, or where the moral resources he found in the home might be nurtured today. The Evangelicals who have turned away from the Republican Party because of the catastrophe in Iraq and the GOP’s environmental policies will not be satisfied by evasiveness on this score. Nor will people of other faiths and many nonbelievers who are as anxious as Rauschenbusch was a century ago about the triumph of market imperatives over other loyalties.
Religion has become a wedge in American politics today. A return to Rauschenbusch’s social gospel won’t immediately solve that, magically closing the gap between religious conservatives and liberals. Rauschenbusch’s hybrid conservative and progressive politics do, however, offer a third way between the typical atheist-left versus religious-right dichotomy. This may seem like a optimistic, but Rauschenbusch lived in the age of robber-barons like William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie. Forty years later, Americans had had Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Today, Americans live in a time of Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps a collation between evangelical Christians and social liberals could give rampant capitalism a run for its money. In forty years, people may know better. —Brendan Mackie
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