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Archive for January, 2008

I recently watched a modern classic: Philadelphia (staring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington).  Tom Hanks is a lawyer for a prestigious firm in Philadelphia.  Sadly, he contracts AIDS through unprotected sex with his gay partner.  Soon after showing signs of his illness, he is mysteriously fired from his job.  Hanks believes that he has been unfairly fired for being both gay, and having AIDS (the year this film was set was a rough time for gays).  Hanks recruits Washington to represent him in a law suit for unfair dismissal.  To start with, Washington refuses (mainly because he doesn’t like gays).  However, when he sees Hanks being discriminated against in the local library, Washington decides to put his personal feeling aside and representing Hanks.  Cut a long story short, they win the case, however Hanks dies shortly afterwards.I wish I could say that discrimination and prejudice were no longer around, however, I’m sad to say this is not so.  We still have prejudice in our lives.  Some are little and, for the large part, excepted (like homosexuality).  Some are larger and to some extent, very much controversial (like Immigration, or race).  Now personally, I believe that prejudice is partly a form of laziness.  Granted, parents and upbringing have a large role too.  But what about when that person becomes old enough to make up their own decisions?  Why do they stick to their original beliefs?Lets take an extreme example for a moment.  Bob Smith is bought up by his parents to believe that being gay is wrong.  He is told that all gays have something wrong with them, and that they are ‘not right’.  Now, when he gets to the age of 18, he begins work at a local firm and still holds the view that being gay is ‘wrong’.  One of his new colleagues is a gay woman who doesn’t hide the fact that she lives with a woman partner.  Despite the fact that she is an excellent worker, very friendly and friends with plenty of the people in the office, Bob doesn’t like her because of her sexual orientation.  He starts to show his discomfort in front of the others.  Eventually, he spurns his colleague and seriously hurts her feelings.  I’m not suggesting that Bob should change his views just because he works with a homosexual.  What I do object to is when one of these different views is seen as superior.  When Bob believes that is view is the only right view, and no one else’s.  It’swhen this view causes the person to assert their view on others.  This is when it becomes prejudice and wrong.  When we learn our prejudices from our peers and friends, we are running the risk of being lazy.  Being peer pressured in to believing what our friends think is the main cause for bullying in our schools.  I know, I was a victim, and all because a relatively small group of people (or even one person leading that small group) decided that I was not worthy of their attention.  The reason I was so unpopular was because most of my year didn’t like me.  Had it not been for a handful of people who decided to see me as I really was, rather than the general image that was put out by the majority of the year, I had friends, and to them I offer my thanks.We don’t need to look far back in our history to see Prejudice at work.  From the gays from the early eighties, to the Jews in world war two, to the blacks in the early part of the last century.  Even further back we see religion being an “excuse” to cause harm to other sentient beings (the huge witch hunts in the middle ages spring to mind amongst others).  We have clearly come a long way from accusing people of magic and burning them at the stake (although I can’t help but wonder what an inquisitor would have made of David Blane).  However, there is one kind of prejudice that we have not rid our selves of, and it’s something that has grown over the years and one that millions of people work hard in the UK and world wide to make sure persists.  I am talking about people in prison.  The UK has one of the largest prison populations in the Europe, which is partly thanks to our fantastic Police forces across the country (yes, I’m a little biased).  But when we look at it, isn’t putting people in prison a form of Prejudice?  We put people away in a confined space because they have broken views that we hold (and have made law).  They are feared by the vast majority of people, and in some places, are killed for defying our views.  Is this wrong?  Of course not.  If we didn’t have law and order in our towns and villages, we would have chaos.  And I intend to do my part to bring the levels of crime down.  It’s just worth a thought: is all Prejudice bad?
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Yesterday was a strange day…  Full of coincidences.  First of all, I received a newsletter from Jamyang, the Buddhist center in London that I try to attend whenever I can.  One of the articles was from the residential teacher, Lama Soepa (who I have talked about previously).  His article was a preview of his new book, The Precious Tree of Cures.  In the excerpt, Geshe-la was talking about the killing of animals (for food).  He said it was best not too, because no more animals would be killed, which means that we wouldn’t be gaining any negative Karma.  This is an obvious thing to come from a Buddhist monk, but the coincidence comes in here:  latter that evening, my wife and I watched “Jamie’s Fowl Dinners”, a program explaining where our eggs come from, and what happens to the chickens after they are past “laying” age.  Being Jamie Oliver, it wasn’t sugar coated, and rather graphic.

To start with, his unsuspecting audience were asked to separate a batch of baby chicks into males and females and were shown what happens to them if they were in the egg industry.  The males were put into a gas chamber and killed.  It was sad to see these very cute chicks suffocate to death and then be fed to a python.  The females on the other hand, were sent off into their egg laying life.  If they were battery hens, they would live in small cages in groups of up to six, fed by a conveyor belt and lay a minimum of one egg a day.  Most of the time, they were scrawny looking, missing feathers and often sitting in their own feces.  Barn hens were kept in huge groups of 1600, but in relatively better conditions.  Finally, free range egg chickens were kept in wide open spaces, with a nice warm barn to sleep in.  It easy to see what chickens are better looked after (not saying that battery hens are badly looked after, but I know which I’d rather be). 

The second side of the ‘industry’, is the chicken side that we eat for our roast dinner.  There are two different kinds, so called ‘Frankenstien’ chickens (who grow to full size in 38 days) and ‘normal’ chicken (who take longer to grow).  The fast growing chickens are used for things such as fast food, cheap microwave meals and some of the cheap complete chickens you can buy in the shops (the 2 for £5 kind).  The ‘normal’ chickens are also used for roasts, but obviously cost a little more.

To finish off the program, the innovative chef showed how some chickens are killed.  I’m glad to say that the method shown was relatively painless, but still tear jerking.  The whole point of the programme was to show where our chickens come from, and campaign for a better life for them. 

A final thought: Is the eating of meat right or wrong?  Well, at the end of the day, I think this is a personal issue.  Personally, if I’m going to eat an animal, I’d like to know it was treated well before death, and if I can’t know, I pray that the animal has a good rebirth.  After all, even His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat, but only when his diet requires it. 

One of my wifes’ friends said “If it’s going to be slaughtered, why bother giving it a good life, surely it’s just false hope”.  A good argument.  Here is my counter argument:

Every sentient being (including humans) are going to die some day.  With the above reasoning, if we’re going to die, why bother making any effort at all in life, surely it’s all a waste of time?  Personally, I completely disagree on both these comments.  Chickens are sentient beings too, and who knows, we may have been a chicken in a past life (or it may have been our mother!).  With this in mind, were we a chicken, would we want a rough life, no matter how short, or a nice life?  Same with being in a human body.  Should we waste our life doing nothing, or make the most of it while we can?  You decide…

If you’d like to learn more about Jamie Oliver’s campaign for animal welfare, or to find out more about the chickens and eggs we eat, visit Jamie Oliver’s website here

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Tomorrow will mark one year of writing this blog.  One year along my journey.  I have enjoyed writing about it, and hope you have enjoyed reading it.  At the beginning of this blog, I set my self a target: to try living by the precepts that Buddhists live by to see if it “suited me”.  And the very simple answer is a resounding yes.

I have tried to test something that the Buddha said:

“Do not believe something just because I say it is.  First, test it against your own beliefs, and if it concurs, follow it.”

I have tested some of the Buddhist beliefs and found that some of them work.  Take stress for example.  Is stress in the mind, or is it “out there”?  I think it’s fair to say that it is mainly in the mind, but that we also need some stress to work.  If we didn’t have stress in out muscles, we would collapse to the floor in a heap.  If we didn’t have the stress of work, we wouldn’t be motivated to move on.  However, it is a bad idea to add to this ‘usefull’ stress.  My wife recently turned to me saying “I won’t be able to enjoy this holiday without thinking about the washing we have to come back to”.  I was so bewildered by this statement, I couldn’t answer.  We were off to see my parents, and my wife was worrying about the dirty washing over a 1000 miles away!  Although this isn’t the worst thing to stress about, it was one of the oddest.  Why worry about something that can easily be done when we returned?  To me, this mindset was baffling.  Some people regularly worry about valid things, such as making ends meet, paying off credit and bringing up our children well, and that is all very well, but making it seem more urgent than it is, or just worrying too much is never a good idea.  This is when the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness comes in.  Mindfulness allows us to take an objective, non judgemental look at our mind and look at what we are stressing over.  Take for example the dirty washing at home.  Is stressing about it going to get it done any quicker when we get home?  Probably not.  Will it ruin our holiday because we are continuously thinking about something we can’t control? Definitely.  So why stress?  Acknowledge that the washing is there, mentally kick yourself because you forgot it, accept that worrying about it over the next couple of days is useless, mentally write it on your ‘to-do’ list and forget about it.  Stressing over it will just make you more tired when you get back from holiday than when you left.

Moreover, I have found that meditation is a great stress reliever.  Sitting for just 10-20 minutes a day helps you to slow everything down.  What’s great is that you don’t even have to sit in a quiet room with incense burning, soft music playing and an alter in front of you to do it (although, it is preferable).  It can be done whilst walking, siting, standing and even going to the loo (just don’t get distracted, or you’ll have people knocking on the door asking if you’re ok).  I like to do it when I’m walking, it helps me clear my mind and the walk goes quicker, which is handy when the beat is quiet.

After a whole year living the life of a Buddhist, I can’t see how I would revert back to my ‘ordinary’ lifestyle before hand, so in a way, the one year trial was almost self defeating, as it was next to inevitable that I take it further.  I have therefore decided that this blog will now serve as a journal to document my efforts to complete my journey to enlightenment.  I will take refuge (a sort of Buddhist confirmation) and follow the precepts to the letter.  And I hope you enjoy reading about the ups and downs.

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This is a sentiment shared by millions in the new year.

Every year, Millions of us vow to change our lives for the better, go to the gym more, find a better relationship and maybe not drink so much.  But what are we really celebrating?    In real terms, the earth as done one full circuit around the sun.  Historically, the beginning of the Gregorian calender.  Religiously, Christians are still celebrating the Christmas season, with the 6th of January marking Epiphany, the arrival of the three wise men to Bethlehem (more of a Catholic celebration).  For most, the first of January is a time to turn a new leaf, make a fresh start, not to make the same mistakes again.  And we keep these resolution strongly until something makes us give up and we start all over again next year.

At the beginning of the year, self help books and gym memberships are amongst the first things people buy I would imagine.  And why?  All because you think a slimmer, better adjusted you is what needs to change to make it all better.  And to some extent, this is true.  Slimming down to a healthy weight is important.  I stress healthy because being stick thin and calling yourself fat is NOT healthy (see my post Internal Appearance Vs. External Appearance for more on this subject).  Emotional stability is also important.  I will admit that I always used to make New Years resolutions.  None, that I remember, I ever kept…  But who does?  Not everyone let’s be honest.  This year however, I will, again, make a New Year resolution, and I am going to state it here for the whole world to see (if they read this page…):

I will keep up my Buddhism and meditation practices.

The first is not too hard, as it is a regular thing I do every day (or at least try).  The second, though, is slightly harder…  I always have good intentions to sit down and count my breaths, but sometimes it’s just not feasible.  I read somewhere that the best time to meditate is either early morning before dawn, or late at night before sleeping.  The late night before sleep isn’t too hard.  Normally when I come home  from working a late shift (I’m normally through the door by 23:30), I sit down for around twenty minutes and meditate.  No problem, it helps me sleep, dissolves the stress of the day at work and centers me.  Early morning is not so easy, especially in the winter.  I do take solace in the fact however, that His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama also claims to have the same problem.  To hear that such a highly experienced practitioner has the same problem is reassuring.

My final thought for this first post of 2008 is this:  You don’t necessarily need something external to get a New You, just your will and determination to liberate others from samsara.  Or at the very least, just help others.

May all my readers have a Happy New Year and prosperous 2008.  I leave you with this simple prayer for those in need:

 May I become at all times,
Both now and forever;
A protector for those without protection,
A guide to those who have lost their way,
A ship for those with oceans to cross,
A bridge for those with rivers to cross,
A sanctuary for those in danger,
A lamp for those without light,
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter,
And a servant to all in need.

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