Native American groups cultivate a similar encompassing awareness of the spiritual dimension of ordinary activities.
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For example, Lame Deer, a member of the Oglala Lakota People, explains the message of a pot of boiling soup to the white outsider:. I think about ordinary, common things like this pot.
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The bubbling water comes from the raincloud. It represents the sky. The fire comes from the sun which warms us all—men, animals, trees. The meat stands for the four-legged creatures, our animal brothers, who gave of themselves so that we should live. The steam is living breath. It was water; now it goes to the sky, becomes a cloud again. These things are sacred…. We Sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual.
We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. Buddhist texts are more likely to declare that ordinary household life is spiritually counterproductive.
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It is not easy for a householder to practice the religious life, completely pure and fulfilled in entirety and polished like mother-of-pearl. Then let me cut my hair and beard, put on the yellow robes and wander forth from home to homelessness. Traditions have been maintained with great vigor and authenticity by a core of dedicated practitioners. And, unburdened by household responsibilities, monks were free to carry Buddhism across cultural frontiers.
The development of serious lay practice, however, does not necessarily mean that activities traditionally held in low esteem are now accorded value. For the time being, it means only that lay people now attempt to make time for practices usually engaged in only by monastics, and that their efforts are encouraged.
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However, if this shift continues, a transformation of values is inevitable, and everyday life, career, and family will come to be regarded as Buddhist practice. Such restructuring would challenge the traditional hierarchy between the spiritual and the ordinary: housework vs. Yet while this change in perspective may enlarge the canon of Buddhist concerns, it introduces new tensions as well.
From a Buddhist view, a person practicing the kind of rituals recommended by Judaism, for example might still be attached to the very objects and ties that are the basis for sacred awareness midst of daily life. And as long as there is attachment there is no true freedom. Furthermore, one can easily mistake the feelings that may accompany ritual or religious experience for detachment, insight, and release. Ordinary life is too seductive, the Buddhist might say, it is safer, surer, and more productive of true freedom to replace ordinary life with a monastic simplicity that reduces the opportunities for attachments to form.
Yet one can become attached to anything, including the routines of monastic life or the status it affords. Clearly, the attachment is what must be overcome; attachment itself then, rather than any object in particular, is the problem. The earliest model for this pursuit of clarity in the midst of daily life occurs in the Therigatha poems of early Buddhist nuns.
The commentary tells the life story of a nun who first became a lay disciple.
So she went on performing her duties, reflecting on the sweetness of the doctrine, and living devoted to insight. Then one day in the kitchen, while the curry was cooking, a mighty flame of fire shot up, and burnt all the food with much crackling. Watching it made it a basis for meditation on the utter impermanence of all things.
Thereby she was established in the Fruition of the Path of No-Return. When she refused to wear jewels after this experience, her husband finally relented and let her become a nun. While her story illustrates the possibilities of practicing mindfulness in household life, it ends by portraying the monastic path as superior. Serious conflicts can accompany an attempt to combine the monastic and householder roles.
These topics are rarely discussed in classic sources and if they are the discussion is remote.
Because of this paucity of traditional resources, practitioners—especially women—feel that it is useless to ask Buddhist authorities for guidance. In Zen Buddhism, daily physical work has become a critical part of meditation training.
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Gardening, building, and maintaining the monastery, are all done with precise mindfulness and are regarded as central to overall training. There are in addition to cooking and cleaning—typically feminine tasks—which have long been used as opportunities for mindfulness.
Notoriously, Zen Buddhism even lent its hand to disciplining warriors in Japan, providing them with meditation training to enhance their skills. Tibetan monasteries also had military components in some cases. If the stereotypically male pursuits of agriculture and militarism, two activities strictly forbidden in the vinaya rules of monastic discipline can be revalorized, one wonders why childrearing has not been.
The answer, of course, is that few childrearers usually mothers had the opportunity to become Buddhist teachers. Further, early Indian Buddhists disparaged sexuality, and it too has since been championed by Vajrayana Buddhism both as symbol and experience. While historically Buddhism has stressed the differences between monastics and householders, perhaps the two are not so different.
Buddhism is a more patriarchal religion; feminist friends thought she was crazy and Buddhist colleagues called feminism nonsense. The idea that there could ever be one universally accepted world religion is ludicrous, she said, and only those religions who make exclusive truth claims have construed it. Yet in finding the common ground between all religions, patriarchy is an aspect most share. Rita asked the following questions: How can we transform our religions so that they are much more comfortable dealing with religious diversity? What are the grounds on which we can evaluate other religions and on which we can corporate?
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To argue about theology, she said, is beside the point. The fundamental questions are ethical. Where we can work together is on ethical issues which intercept very strongly with feminist concerns, the ethical issues of the ways in which women have been put down in every religion in the world. The starting point has to be more of an educational enterprise than a dialogue.
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There are two stages to the process, Rita said: first, learn information and differentiate between facts and emotions. Second, try to encourage empathy by obtaining a good background of facts about religious others to imagine how it might feel to live in that religious universe. In her teaching at the university, Rita saw many people leave the world religions course changed. Instead of what is fighting with what is not you, learn how to react empathetically and ethically.
She cited two spiritual disciplines to living well with religious diversity: empathetic understanding of religious others, and contemplation of essential questions slowly, rather than grasping for easy answers. Whatever answer you have becomes grounds for further questions…moving from a superficial understanding to a deep understanding. Rita suggested developing flexibility around rituals. Berkeley: University of California Press, We will send out publicity shortly.
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