Monday, June 7, 2010

Loaves & Fishes implicates Buddhism and Jack Kornfield in its June Donations Plea.

The Sukhothai Traimit Golden Buddha was found in a clay-and-plaster overlaid buddha statue in 1959, after laying in wait for 500 years. It's huge and heavy: just under 10 feet tall and weighs 5 1/2 tons.
At the beginning of their June newsletter, Loaves and Fishes relates a story, taken from the beginning of renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield's 2008 book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.

The first part and first chapter in Kornfield's book is "Part I: Who are you really?" and chapter 1 is called "Nobility: Our Original Goodness," which ought to serve as a clue to what the beginning of the book is about, not that that sentiment isn't strewn through-out the chapter, section and book such that what Kornfield is telling us should be crystal clear.

Somehow, the not-ready-for-primetime management at Loaves & Fishes have managed to use Kornfield's wise and kindly words in a way that mangles the meaning and says something at odds with Kornfield's intent.

Loaves & Fishes changed the story slightly to remove mention of the setting (which is in Thailand with the Buddha stature being in the city of Sukhothai/Sukotai) and conveyed the story thus to readers of their newsletter:
In a large temple there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha.

Though not the most handsome or refined work, it had been cared for for over 500 years and became revered for its sheer longevity. Violent storms, changes in government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the Buddha endured.

The monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot and dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images ever created...Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over.
The story's meaning, relating to "certain of [L&F's] guests" in Homeless World Sacramento, according to the newsletter writer, is this [emphases, mine]:
In the story above, it is only when the statue cracks from age and stress that it reveals its golden interior. So it is with certain of our guests. They may look like humble clay as they trudge along 12th Street towards Loaves & Fishes but the stress of shared homelessness cracks open their humanity and gives us glimpses of the spark of divinity within them. Their grace and generosity under pressure is truly golden. They joke with each other, comfort each other, pray with each other as they confront staggering losses, of jobs, of livelihoods, of families, of homes.
As I say, Loaves' meaning is afield [indeed, far aKornfield] from what meaning Kindly Jack attributed to it.

I suppose Loaves can conger up their own meaning from the story, out of thin air, as they seem to have gone ahead and done, but it is crass, at best, for them to do that: to implicate or connect Buddhism and Jack Kornfield in what is clearly the set-up for a plea for donations. Indeed, at the end of the first page in the newsletter it reads, "You can make a donation online ... blah, blah, blah"

Kornfield says of his story, immediately after relating it in The Wise Heart [emphases, mine]:
The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest. In much the same way, each of us has encountered threatening situations that lead us to cover our innate nobility. Just as the people of Sokotai had forgotten the golden buddha, we too have forgotten our essential nature. Much of the time we operate from the protective layer. The primary aim of Buddhist psychology is to help us see beneath this armouring and see our original goodness, called our buddhanature1.
For the purpose of the newsletter, "stress cracks open ... humanity ... [to reveal a] spark of divinity." Contrariwise, Kornfield's Buddhist reading is that inside, beneath the armouring of a protective layer [that comes into play for all of us because of life's threatening situations] is our essential buddhanature or innate nobility.

Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good.

Christians put on an armour of protection from the dastardly world. [See Ephesians 6:11 "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." ]

In Buddhism, the idea is to take off any protective armour, to learn who we already are and to be with and relate to others in the marketplaces of the world, which is not a dastardly place.

The newsletter says that stress cracks open humanity allowing sight of divinity. The Buddhist reading is that the aim from settling the mind is to know who we really are. Divinity has nothing to do with it.
-----
Loaves' analysis of the story reveals some untoward things about the view of Loaves & Fishes management toward those the organization supposedly exists to serve and what it thinks of potential donors.

For Kornfield, the message is one that relates to us all.  For Loaves & Fishes, the story is one selectively about a subgrouping of homeless people (the most pathetic among us, I guess they're going for): a bunch of clay figures that don't walk, but trudge, along Twelfth Street.

Make no mistake, there are homeless people we all might consider pathetic, in a sense.  They are pathetic because they are in need of help that they mostly don't get.

In Loaves & Fishes' telling, only after the stress of being homeless is there a crack in pathetic homeless people's clay exteriors that lends sight of their humanity. Oh, really?  What were they before that, when they had more-normal lives or were first homeless? Zoo animals?

There are several discordant meanings for the word humanity:  (1) mankind; human beings as a group; (2) the human condition; (3) the quality of being benevolent.

You have to suppose the newsletter writer was going for meaning #3. Thus, stress cracks these pathetic people open such that they are seen as being benevolent and divine.

It's an interesting theory, but I really don't think so.  I think, like all us homeless folk, and like many who are housed, we forget our troubles from time to time and enjoy what is immediately before us.  We are, momentarily not under pressure.  We can be like the prisoners at the end of Sullivan's Travels and laugh at a Warner Bros. cartoon, forgetting where we are.  And where are we, often?  At Loaves & Fishes.
-----

1 The Buddha-nature doctrine centres on the possession by sentient beings of the innate, immaculate buddha-mind or buddha-element (Buddha-dhatu), which is, prior to the attainment of complete buddhahood, said to be not clearly seen nor known in its full radiance.

The Buddha-nature is equated in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra with the changeless and deathless true self of the Buddha. In the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, however, it is said that the tathāgatagarbha might be mistaken for a self, which according to this sutra, it is not. This Buddha-nature is described in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra to be incorruptible, uncreated, and indestructible. It is eternal awakeness (bodhi) indwelling samsara, and thus opens up the immanent possibility of liberation from all suffering and impermanence.

No being of any kind is without the Buddha-nature (Buddha-dhatu). It is indicated in the Angulimaliya Sūtra that if the Buddhas themselves were to try to seek for any sentient being who lacked the Buddha-nature, not one such individual would be found. In fact, it is stated in that sutra that it is impossible for Buddhas not to discern the presence of the everlasting Buddha-nature in each and every being. [From wikipedia.]

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8 Comments:

Blogger Mumon said...

Tom,

Thanks for this important post. Of course, that is the issue with many of these proselytizers; they must engage in what can be viewed by us as wrongful speech in order for them to "get what they want."

Of course this is a gnat compared to some of the activities of such benevolent people; I'm thinking of the issue of Catholic missionaries in Alaska.

Moreover, it must be somewhat aggravating to be portrayed vicariously into a Western homeless analog of the "noble savage."

I will try to also mention this on my blog.

June 8, 2010 at 6:45 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

It's interesting - I missed what was happening the first time I read the passage from the newsletter. The poetic language lulls one on in a sort of sentimental way, which is probably a good marketing strategy.

Thanks for providing insight in the framing being done here, because I think it's happening even in some convert Buddhist communities.

June 8, 2010 at 8:06 AM  
OpenID Marcus said...

Hi,

"Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good."

Oh dear, why look to make distinctions, trying to draw lines between spiritual traditions rather than looking for points of contact and agreement.

How about the Quakers, who believe that there is 'that of God' in everyone, the inner light? What of the Christian idea that we are all made in God's image? The concept that God loves all his creatures?

Likewise, to say that we are all essentially noble and good does no good until that nobility and goodness is uncovered! Sure, Hitler had Buddha-nature, but I imagine it'll be a few kalpas yet before his karmic debt is worked/seen through.

The spark of divinity within them. I like that. And it's not exclusive to just Buddhists!

Marcus
_/\_

PS - the Wat Taimit Buddha featured in this blog is now housed in a new building just recently completed. It is a stunningly beautiful building that truely matches the magnificence of the Golden Buddha. The only drawback is the racism at the gate...

...Thai people, or those that look Thai, can enter for free. Non-Thais, even those legally resident in Thailand, with papers to prove they have been paying taxes here for many years, even with Thai families, have to pay an entrance fee.

I have visited the Traimit Golden Buddha many times over the past ten or eleven years, I even made donatations along with my Thai wife to help build its new building. Now I'm excluded on the basis of my skin colour.

Twice I have turned up now to see the new building, and have even brought along my Thai work-permit, and other documents and yet have still been charged entry because I am 'not Thai'. Despite being legally resident and paying taxes here and having a Thai family.

So now it looks to me like the Golden Buddha has been re-covered in clay.

June 8, 2010 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

Marcus:

There are BOTH distinctions and points of agreement between Christianity and Buddhism. That is THE TRUTH of the circumstance. I am not meaning to slam Christianity by pointing out differences.

I just think it mightily bizzare for the very Catholic Loaves & Fishes organization to use a Buddhist thingy and twist it into a bizzare reading that makes no sense and has Christian overtones.

Kornfield's message fits in all ways, and besides it's HIS telling of the story of the Traimit Golden Buddha.

L&F could have, at least, written their own account of the Traimit Buddha if they were committed to perverting things.

BTW, the Traimit Buddha is a major other religion icon that supposedly enrages God so much that nodding toward it is a Top Ten Sin.

I mean, for crying out loud.

Marcus, pay the entry fee. Quit your whining!

June 9, 2010 at 5:40 PM  
OpenID wakeupandlaugh said...

Hi Tom,

I'm confused. It's okay to complain about a Christian organisation using a Buddhist story to suggest that we all have a spark of divinity within us...

... but it's not okay to mention a case of unfair discriminatory action when it is relevant to the subject being discussed.

Imagine if a legal resident of the US, a US taxpayer and a spouse of a US citizen was levied a charge for entrance to a religious site in the US while all US citizens (no matter which religion) were allowed in for free. Would you suggest that they 'stop whining'?

Anyway, this is your blog and I've already said enough I guess. Take care Tom and all the best,

Marcus

June 9, 2010 at 8:15 PM  
Blogger Buddhist_philosopher said...

Great post, Tom. I'm going to write a bit about this soon - today perhaps. But I think you're right to notice and point out the 'spin' that L&F has put on Kornfield's story. It's easy to miss, and clearly can lead to a very different path about what it means to be a human being. And it DOES highlight, as you point out, a common difference between (mainstream) Catholicism and (most) Buddhism.

I agree with Marcus' point though about the fee for 'non-Thais' (it's the same in India, and probably lots of other countries, to allow those who look/sound like you in free and 'foreigners' have to pay). It's discriminatory and worth raising one's voice about.

June 10, 2010 at 10:34 AM  
Blogger Mugo said...

Hi Tom. Just thought I'd send a wave.

June 10, 2010 at 11:13 PM  
Blogger Thomas Armstrong said...

Buddhist Philosopher and Marcus, I must point out that in America [everywhere, really] there are steep taxes for hotel rooms and airline tickets and cab rides. Why? To gouge the outsider, the visitor, the non-native. This is common. I think y'all take offense, not at the practice, but at the casual extra-legal method of the 'guy at the door' determining by look, dress and speech who gets in free and who has to pay.

But THE REALITY is that what is done is common. Outsiders aren't voters and are probably in the chips and can afford to pay.

September 8, 2012 at 2:30 PM  

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