Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Aug. 5 Insight: How Many Yogas ARE There in Hinduism?

(The 3-Minute Weekly Insight from Spirituality U.)

The answer to that question is complicated; some Hindus say 3, others say 4, and some might exclaim, “Too many to count!” Today, we are going to say 4.

But before we explore the 4 yogas, let’s talk a bit about Hinduism and its many gods.

Because Hinduism (on the face of it) seems to have literally thousands of gods, people usually think it is polytheistic. But there is another way of looking at Hinduism; all of its individual gods may simply be manifestations of just one God that serves as the ground of all being.

And if Hinduism offers the world many manifestations (or faces) of God, it also reminds us that there are a variety of different paths to tread in approaching the Divine. These paths are referred to as “yogas.”

It can be argued that there are as many yogas as there are people on the planet, but Hindu theology typically recognizes four, and each is determined by the personality, skills, interests, and focus of the individual.

The first of the pathways is Karma yoga, an approach to the divine that is based in selfless service. The key concept is that we “reap what we sow” through our actions. Selfish actions tend to bind the soul. Selfless work on behalf of others liberates the spirit.

Second is Jnana yoga, a method of approaching the transcendent through study, philosophical exploration and, ultimately, wisdom. Jnana yogis (or practitioners), tend to minimize sensual pleasure. Instead, they focus on quiet and seclusion for their spiritual studies.

Raja yoga functions as the third of the spiritual paths and is the one that most of us know as just “Yoga.” Raja is built around physical exercises and meditation. Raja yoga is also called “Astanga,” a word that means eight parts. This yoga sets out eight distinct and essential stages in spiritual development. Theses stages are explored succinctly in the Bhagavad-Gita.

The fourth and final yoga, Bhakti, is seen by many Hindus as the culmination of the other yogas. Bhakti takes the yogi to a state in which the focus is on worship practices aimed at honoring the Divine. These include rituals, pilgrimages, and highly developed religious actions. 

Bhakti is the yoga most recommended in the Gita. This form of yoga is typically pursued under the guidance and assistance of a guru (who is highly accomplished spiritual teacher.)

According to the “Heart of Holiness “Hindu web site, “Many thinkers claim that all paths are equally valid and effective….Others suggest that all four paths are stepping stones along one spiritual path, each building progressively on the previous, more elementary disciplines.”

At the heart of the idea that there are a number of yogas is the notion that, based on who we are and what our personalities are like, we pursue spirituality in different ways—none of which is better or worse than any other. We may find fulfillment through music, reading, social justice work or contemplative prayer, or a combination of all of them!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22 Insight: Yes, We Have No Nirvanas!

Yes, we have no Nirvanas…unless we have reached an advanced state of spiritual wakefulness. And no, Nirvana is not just a West Coast grunge band.

Nirvana is in some sense the goal of Buddhist practice. The term is a variation of a Pali word that means to “blow out” or “extinguish,” in the sense that a candle flame is snuffed out.  The Dalai Lama has defined Nirvana as “the state beyond sorrows.”

We will discuss what is extinguished, but first a few words about some key beliefs in Buddhism that give rise to the idea of Nirvana.

The Buddha was an actual historical figure who was born in what is now Nepal. After decades of spiritual questing, he came to the realization that the main problem people face in life is suffering—especially emotional and spiritual suffering. He also realized that there is a pathway that can be followed in order to extinguish suffering, and that pathway is open to all people. Moreover, this extinguishment can be experienced either during our lifetimes or once our lives are over.
The pathway ultimately leads to a state of bliss.

It is important to note that the Buddhist idea of the goal of spiritual practice is different than the goal embraced by Christianity and other Western religions which see the fundamental problem of life as the battle between good and evil, and the ultimate goal as going to heaven.
So, if Nirvana means “to extinguish,” what is it that gets extinguished? And, how do we extinguish it?

What gets extinguished are the “fires” of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. To put it another way, the Buddha himself said, The three fires that burn within you are greed, hatred and ignorance [or more properly, delusion]." And, according to the Noble-Buddhism-Beliefs.com web site, “The essence of Buddhism is giving up those beliefs and actions that give rise to emotional states that bind and inhibit your mind and body….That is, you lessen your clinging and grasping to things that are worthless and only clutter your mind.”

The Buddha used the metaphor of fires being extinguished because at the time he was teaching, deeply spiritual Indian families kept three ritual fires burning in their homes. So, speaking of blowing out flames resonated deeply with people to whom he was speaking.

Here are a few words of further explanation about the deeper meaning of each of the three fires.
Greed is pretty obvious. It signifies a consuming, obsessive desire for, and pursuit of, possessions and wealth. (Things that ultimately own you!)

Hatred is undue dislike of, hostility toward, or aversion from people, things, and processes.
Delusion is a fixed, false belief that defies reason and makes us unable to see and accept reality.

So how do you know when you are making progress toward extinguishing these fires and achieving Nirvana? According to Noble-Buddhism-Beliefs.com,You know by the way that you handle the obstacles in your life…by the way you experience the good things in life…by the way you feel when you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July 15 Insight: Holy Smoke: How and Why Incense is Used in Religion and Spirituality


According to the adoremus.org web site, “The word ‘incense’ is derived from the Latin incendere, which means “to burn.” Incense is commonly used as a noun to describe aromatic matter that releases fragrant smoke when ignited, to describe the smoke itself, and as a verb to describe the process of distributing the smoke.

The burning of incense is used in a variety of religions (and also in secular settings) as a symbolic sacrificial offering to a deity, as a form of prayer, and as a way of invoking emotions and attitudes. Incense is sometimes called the “Food of the gods,” reflecting the idea that it was a gift from the gods in primordial times, and that lighting incense is a way of not only honoring the holy ones but also of nourishing them.

Moreover, in recent decades the use of incense has spread beyond strictly religious contexts and into spiritual and even non-spiritual settings where, according to S. Brent Plate, it is used for “purification, protection, healing, memory, the marking of time and even the visual creation of space.’

The reason why incense holds such a powerful place in our spiritual lives may relate to the way our sense of smell connects to our brain and thus our consciousness. According to Plate in his book, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, our olfactory (smelling) system is plugged directly into the place in our brains where memories are stored and emotions are processed. He adds, “Smell touches our species’ deep desires and fears.”

The use of incense in a religious context dates back to the third millennium BCE. Religious folks in China and other parts of the Far East began using incense at about the same time.

These days incense is used in religious rituals by Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and especially Christians in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (Episcopal in the US) faiths. It is not typically used by mainstream Protestant or Evangelical Christian denominations. Nor is it typically used in worship by Jews or Muslims.

The way incense is used in Western Catholic and Eastern Christian traditions can provide a powerful model for the symbolic use of fragrant smoke. First, in these traditions incense is used to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven. Second, according to adoremus.org, “Incense is a sacramental [something that is designed to enhance devotion] used to venerate, bless, and sanctify. [Third], its smoke conveys a sense of mystery and awe.”

In Roman Catholic practice, incense can be used at the beginning of Mass or another important ritual as a method of purifying and honoring items and persons involved in the spiritual activity. In this “censing” process, incense is placed in a special burner called a “thurible” and then lit. The thurible typically hangs at the end of a chain and the person performing the ritual (or a religious deputy) swings the thurible sending aromatic smoke toward the altar, the congregation, and religious leaders.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 8 Insight: How does the Dalai Lama get to be the "Dalai Lama?"


The answer to that question is complicated, since the current Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) has hinted that the process for selecting his successor may depart from the traditional process. First, some background.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist people. The position was established in the 14th Century, and there have been 14 Dalai Lamas to date.
"Dalai Lama" is the combination of the Mongolic word, dalai, meaning "ocean" and the Tibetan word, bla-ma, meaning teacher or mentor. The Dalai Lama is sometimes referred to as the "Ocean of Wisdom."

Whoever holds the title is traditionally thought to be the current rebirth in a line oftulkus (religious leaders thought to be enlightened beings) who are manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion.  Bodhisattvas are people who commit themselves to the way of life of a Buddha with the goal of bringing peace and enlightenment to all beings.

For periods of time between the 17th and 20th Centuries, the Dalai Lama served as both the religious and political leader of Tibet. In 2011, the current holder of the position retired as head of state for the Tibetan government. He retains religious leadership of Tibetan Buddhists throughout the world.

[Note: due to military pressure from China, the current Dalai Lama and many of his followers were forced to flee their homeland in 1959. The seat of the Tibetan government in exile is the city of Dharamsala in northern India.]

So, how does someone become Dalai Lama? Historically, when an "Ocean of Wisdom" dies, Tibetan spiritual and government leaders spend two or three years trying to find a young child who will next hold the position. The technique for identifying the youngster has traditionally been mystical.

Tibetan spiritual leaders may consult an oracle, and sometimes visit a lake in central Tibet where they ask the lake itself for a sign as to who will be the next Dalai Lama. This was the initial step in finding Tenzin Gyatso. In 1935, the temporary leader who guided the Tibetans after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama also had a vision that led him to the home where Tenzin resided as a small child.

When the religious leaders believe they have found the child (as with Tenzin) who is the rebirth of the Ocean of Wisdom, the boy undergoes a series of tests. In one of these, the child is presented with a number of objects only some of which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. The boy is asked to select the items that belong to him. If he chooses the items that belonged to the recently departed Dalai Lama, (and passes other tests) he is confirmed as the new leader.
And, what will the next Dalai Lama be like? His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, has hinted that his successor may be found outside Tibet and just might be a woman! He has also suggested that the position of Dalai Lama may be abolished in the future.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

June 24 Insight: What's the deal with "Patron Saints?"

(June 24th 3-minute Weekly Insight from Spirituality U. at IPP)

First, a word about Saints in general.

The word "Saint" means "Holy." In the New Testament, the word Saint referred to anyone who believed in Jesus and followed his teachings. Very early in Christianity the meaning of the word changed dramatically.

Christian communities began to notice that some men and women lived lives of heroic virtue and felt that these individuals should be singled out as examples to be revered. They called these individuals Saints. These Holy people lived out the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Eventually, the Church created a process called "canonization" through which such extraordinary people could be recognized and honored by Catholics everywhere.

The idea of formal Sainthood is shared by Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (Episcopal) Churches, but many Protestant denominations do not accept the concept.

A "Patron Saint" is regarded as a "heavenly advocate" for a hemisphere, continent, nation, city (or place), group, craft, cure for an illness, job or avocation.
The reason why certain Saints are Patrons for places or jobs or groups is sometimes easy to recognize. For example, St. Francis of Assisi, who loved animals, is universally recognized as the Patron Saint for critters. The role of his spiritual partner, St. Clare, may be harder to understand. She is the Patron Saint of television (really, I'm not joking).  Why? Because she had the ability to bi-locate (to be in two places at the same time).

When the process of photography arose in the 19th century, St. Veronica became its Patron because her veil miraculously captured the image of the face of Jesus after she wiped the sweat and blood from his brow. Franciscan Joseph of Cupertino is Patron of airline pilots and astronauts because he had the gift of levitation.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Patron of the Americas, Joan of Arc of Paris, Bridget of Europe. Thomas More is Patron of attorneys, Ambrose of bee keepers, and Gabriel of broadcasters.

Here are some other interesting Patron Saints:

Athletes: St. Sebastian
Barbers: St. Louis of France
Bodily ills: Our Lady of Lourdes
Booksellers: St. John of God
Brides (and grooms): St. Nicholas
Businessmen: St. Homobonus
Businesswomen: St. Margaret Clitherow
Charities: St. Vincent de Paul
Colleges: St. Thomas Aquinas
Comedians: St. Vitus
Computers (and the internet): St. Isidore of Seville
Desperate causes: St. Jude
Difficult marriages: St. Rita of Cascia
Disasters: St. Genevieve
Dogs: St. Roch
Ecology: St. Francis of Assisi
Food servers: St. Martha
Grandparents: Sts. Ann and Joachim
Greetings: St. Valentine
Headaches: St. Teresa of Avila
The Homeless: St. Benedict Joseph Labre
Immigrants: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
Juvenile delinquents: St. Dominic Savio
Kidney disease: St. Benedict
Librarians: St. Jerome
Lost items: St. Anthony of Padua
Motorists: St. Frances of Rome
Mystics: St. John of the Cross
Orphans & abandoned children: St. Jerome Emillani
Police: St. Michael
Politicians and government workers: St. Thomas More
Race relations: St. Martin de Porres
Reconciliation: St. Vincent Ferrer
Social Justice: St. Joseph, Husband of Mary
Teachers: St. Gregory the Great
Writers: St. Francis de Sales

Here's a link to more information about Patron Saints:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

May 21 Insight: Can you name 4 1/2 Key Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue?

Before we talk about guidelines for interfaith dialogue, let's take a moment to talk about the meaning of the word "dialogue" itself.

Dialogue isn't a conversation (which tends to be shallow in its content). And it certainly isn't a debate. It is a pathway for two people to engage in a deep exchange of information and opinions; its goal is to increase understanding in both participants.  And interfaith dialogue involves individuals from different religions, Christian denominations, or spiritual traditions.

Here are my four-and-a-half suggested guidelines for interfaith dialogue.
  1. Easy does it. Don't dive into the deep end of the interfaith pool too quickly. It is probably not productive to begin your dialogue by confronting controversial or explosive issues such as caste systems, suicide bombings, or the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. Start with a less painful, less anger-producing topic or two and work your way up to more difficult and important dialogue topics. Remember, you aren't limited to one dialogue. Plan a series of interfaith encounters.

    And pick a time and location for your initial dialogue that is comfortable and private, with minimal distractions. A faith-neutral space (library, coffee shop, park) is probably best. 
  2. Listen. REALLY listen. Frequently, when we talk with someone, we aren't paying attention to he or she is saying. Instead, we are mentally preparing what we are going to say next. In interfaith dialogue, it is extremely important that we pay extremely careful attention to not only WHAT is being said, but HOW it is being said. Watch for significant body language. And, if you don't understand or aren't clear about what your dialogue partner is saying, respectfully ask that person for clarification.   
  3. Don't hold back. Share openly and fully about your beliefs and practices. There is a tendency in dialogue to water things down to a meaningless common denominator that is sweet but not very honest. It is important that we celebrate what we have in common but also what makes each religion different and distinctive. We don't have to agree about everything. In fact it may be healthier for us to live with the tension of knowing and disagreeing with another.   
  4. Strive to understand rather than convince. If you begin with the idea that your partner is wrong and needs to be straightened out, your dialogue will likely be a failure. Remember, a dialogue is not a debate. The purpose of this communication is to increase your understanding (and that of your partner) of ideas and practices that hold significance to each of you.
Oh, and let's not forget the "half" guideline. Know your own religious orspiritual tradition before you begin. The person with whom you are dialoguing is probably hungry for information about your basic beliefs and practices. If nothing else, 'Google" the name of your religious group or spirituality (including atheism and agnosticism) and see what turns up.  You might be surprised to discover some things you didn't know! Make notes. Memorize a few key points to share in your dialogue.    

For more information about dialogue visit:    

May 14 Insight: Find out why some South Asian women wear a dot between their eyebrows

That dot, about ¼ inch in diameter and often red in color, is called a bindi(pronounced bin-dee) and is worn for a number of reasons. The bindi is a facial adornment adopted by women around the world, though most particularly by Hindus (and sometimes by women of other religions) in India and other nearby countries.

It can be worn simply as a fashion statement, but this is not as common. It can also be adopted by Hindu women in parts of India as a sign that they are married. But the most significant use of the bindi is as a manifestation of spiritual practice.

The location of the bindi, above the nose and between the eyebrows, has significance for a couple of reasons. First, for practitioners in a variety of mystical religious traditions, the bindi is placed at the location of one of the seven chakras(pronounced Shah-kruhs). Chakras are seen as energy centers at key nerve locations in the body. Many who embrace the idea of chakras believe that if one of the seven becomes blocked, illness can follow. Thus, it is important to keep energy flowing through these nerve centers in order to keep us healthy.

The spot where the bindi is placed serves as the location of the sixth Chakra. The sixth is often referred to as the "Third Eye" chakra (more about the Third Eye in a moment). This chakra concerns issues related to intuition, imagination, wisdom, and the ability to make decisions.

But it is the idea of the "Third Eye" that may hold the most significance for Hindus. One of the primary concerns of Hinduism is finding a way to make a direct connection with the transcendent (as opposed to the concern with good and evil that is central to many Western religions). Hindus believe that there are many paths to follow  in making a strong connection with God. One such path is the pursuit of wisdom.

And the place between the eyebrows where the bindi is placed has been recognized by Hindus as the seat of concealed wisdom. It is a focal point where all of our experience is gathered in total concentration.

According to one web site about Hinduism, the red mark on the forehead is said to retain energy in the human body and control the various levels of concentration. Some see this spot as the central point of creation itself-symbolizing auspiciousness and good fortune. The spot is often associated with the sacred utterance, "Om." Activation of the seat of wisdom can lead the person wearing the bindi to overcome egotism and the idea of the self as a separate entity in the universe.

The color red signifies honor, love, and prosperity. In creating a bindi, the wearer dips a fingertip in vermilion powder and, with skillful application, makes a nearly perfect red circle. And, even though the bindi is usually made of red powder, bindi's can be created using faux jewels (or real precious stones) affixed to the forehead.

For more information about Bindis, visit: