More big-time lectures coming to St. Theresa’s in Briarcliff

The terrific lecture series at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor gets going again in a few weeks.

It’s free. Open to all. 7:30 p.m. each time.

A nice, small church with plenty of parking. Get there 20 minutes early if you want to sit toward the front.

Here’s the line-up for the fall:

Thursday, Oct. 8, Donald Lopez, “Buddhism: What it is and isn’t?” Lopez is distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan and a translator for the Dalai Lama. He will explain why Buddhism appeals to so many Westerners these days.

Monday, Nov. 9, Father Robert Imbelli, “What is this pope up to? The theological vision of Benedict XVI.” Imbelli, a prof of theology at Boston College, will explain the vision behind the pope’s encyclicals, his book about Jesus and his changes in the liturgy.

Monday, Dec. 7, Jonathan Alter, “The Reality of Hope: Barack Obama’s first year.” The longtime political analyst will offer a preview of his new book detailing Year One for Obama.

Around the world (religions) in 4 hours

Not many people are rushing to Queens today — with the Swine Flu and all — but I just got back from a fast-paced day in Flushing.

I went on my first class trip in some time, tagging along with several “world religion” classes from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Masters School to write about a Buddhist monk who was creating a mandala, an artwork of sand. One of the teachers told me that “world religions” is a required course at the school and that each class takes a one-day field trip to houses of worship from several traditions.

I thought it would make a good story. And now it is.

Two busloads of students, teachers and parents (plus me) headed out this morning to Flushing, believed to be one of the most diverse places in the world. (When I covered Billy Graham’s last crusade there in 2005, I certainly got the sense that this was true.)

We went to a Russian Orthodox Church (located in a former Lutheran church), a Daoist temple, a mosque and a Hindu temple.

Since this was a one-day crash course (crash trip doesn’t sound right) and the students had to get back to Dobbs for afternoon sports, we could only spend about 45 minutes at each stop. So we got a brief introduction at each house of worship before students got the chance to ask questions.

Then we were on to the next stop.

It was a great, if brief, education for the students, who got to see people who practice the religions they study in class.

I’ll write more about it at some point this week.

Did karma or other forces cause such suffering in Myanmar?

The death count in Myanmar is now 22,000. It will certainly go much higher. 1 million are homeless. There’s little food and drinking water.

Anyone who was paying attention when the military government cracked down on Buddhist monks last fall knows that Myanmar is a largely Buddhist country.

And Buddhists, of course, believe in karma. When I was writing my book about the divine role in natural disasters, Buddhists had much less trouble explaining “acts of God” than most others because they believe that karma – a universal system of cause and effect — is responsible for the good and the bad.

cyclone.jpgThe devastating cyclone that hit Myanmar, then, was the result of lots of bad karma built up, perhaps, by individuals, communities, other forces.

Many Burmese probably believe that their country was hit because of the military government’s despotic rule. But the cyclone hit a region of the country where ordinary people live — not the region where the rulers live.

But what other forces might have been at play other than karma? Indian officials say their weather forecasters warned of the approaching cyclone, but that the Burmese government did not prepare the people for what was coming. Additionally, Western officials say they are now having trouble getting aid to the stricken areas. The government wants to control foreign dollars.

One of the main conclusions I reached when working on my book is that when it comes to “Acts of God,” it’s often difficult to separate where divine responsibility ends and human responsibility begins.

Now that’s a haircut

Eight South Korean children had their heads shaved today before they entered a Buddhist temple to experience a monk’s life for one month. The occasion was to celebrate Buddha’s birthday on May 12.

Here’s one of the one-month monks (from the AP’s Lee Jin-man) having his final hairs wiped off:

d48ca37c8abf49969a57c5c9110820f5.jpg

A need for Buddhist chaplains

I got a postcard from the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which is offering a program to train Buddhist chaplains.

hand.jpgIt says:

As Buddhist spiritual practice finds an increasing presence within American society, there is both an opportunity and a need to train Buddhist practitioners to serve as spiritual caregivers and chaplains. The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is offering a yearlong training program to provide an introduction to spiritual care skills from a Buddhist perspective. This is a unique opportunity to study Buddhist principles and practices relevant to spiritual caregiving, as well as an introduction to the psychological, social, and ethical issues related to chaplaincy.

With more Buddhists around (and people who practice aspects of Buddhism), it make sense.

The program, which looks demanding, is for people who already have a “committed and ongoing involvement with Buddhist practice, teachings, and way of life.” That means at least two years of Buddhist practice and study — confirmed in a letter from a Buddhist teacher.

The Zen Center serves people in hospitals, hospices, juvenile centers and other places where people face daily challenges and could use 2,500-year-old contemplative wisdom.

Meditation — new and improved (maybe)

Can one go deeper into meditation?

I know that many Western believers (and non-believers) have been experimenting with meditation in recent years, intrigued by the growing interest in Buddhist practices.

tjndc5-5emdoadp98o18ceanjxz_layout.jpgThere’s “Jewish meditation” and various forms of “Christian mediation,” not to mention many more traditional forms that are available to everyone (there are plenty of Zen centers here in the burbs).

I came across a funny piece in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle by a veteran “sitter” (slang for one who meditates) named Barry Evans.

After years of meditating, he concludes that meditation does not get better or deeper over time — but just is. He writes:

For me, meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as “bad� meditation, but there’s no such thing as “good� meditation either. It is what it is. So when I hear words like “effort� and “discipline� and phrases like “deepening one’s practice� and “advancing along the spiritual path� spoken in the same breath as the word “meditation,� I wince. Just sitting (shikantaza)—doing and wanting nothing, breath coming and going unbidden, eyes seeing, ears hearing—in this effortless state, thoughts flurry like falling leaves.

So can a so-called experienced meditator offer anything to someone new to the practice? Probably not. If what we’re really talking about is awareness, how can we help someone notice what’s going on? This is what’s going on: no more, no less. Unlike a subject like, say, carpentry, where we learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, meditation is defined by spontaneity, by not knowing. As the Roshi says, “practice only one level.� Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure newcomers that each of us starts over with every sitting and every breath.