Sunday, January 27, 2013

Personal Manifesto

I've posted this before, but a couple of people requested I repost it so they can find it. I urge you all to write your own personal manifesto, and to update it as needed. Don't be afraid to change.

Rabbi Rami's Manifesto

* Everything is a manifestation of the one thing I call God. 

* God is not good; good and bad are human categories about which God cares not one bit. 

* Life is not controllable, but you can learn to navigate it, and do some good in the process. 

* Thoughts and feelings are not controllable directly by the will, but you can do what’s right regardless.

* Religion is a human invention designed to give us the illusion of control from which we can then create a sense of meaning and purpose without admitting we are creating it. In truth, we have no control, we invent what meaning there is, and purpose is only a story we tell to hide from the specter of randomness that haunts us. 

* Life has no purpose; life is purpose. 

* Sacred texts always reflect the bias of their authors and intended audience. Don’t be surprised that the Torah’s Jews are God’s Chosen; that the Gospels make Jesus the Christ; that the Bhagavad Gita sees Krishna as God; that the Qur’an holds Mohammad as the final Prophet; or that Harry Potter makes Harry rather than Hermione the hero.  

* Priests, rabbis, pastors, imams, swamis, lamas, and gurus sometimes have your best interest in mind, and always have their best interests at heart. Learn from them, but never turn your life over to them.

* At its best religion is about personal freedom, social justice, and compassion for all living things. At its worst it is about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best. 

* Human beings can be taught to see through propaganda—religious, political, commercial, etc.—overcome its divisiveness, create loving communities, and glimpse the truth through science, art, music, literature, and spiritual practice. What we lack are the teachers to do this.

* Spiritual practice cuts through self and selfishness, reduces conflict, and increases compassion. And that is the best we can do. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Down with Downward Dog?

Even though many of us associate California with yoga, it turns out that the teaching of yoga to California elementary school kids as a way of calming their minds and improving their bodies may be in trouble. According to opponents of the program, yoga has broader spiritual aims, and therefore yoga classes in public schools violate the First Amendment. I hope they’re right. *

Yoga means “to link or to yoke.” In the context of Hinduism, and yoga makes no sense outside that context, the link is between Atman and Brahman, the soul and God, which, in Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, are in fact one. There are four yogas or four ways of realizing this unity. Hatha yoga isn’t one of them, though it can be used to enhance any of them. The four yogas are Karma Yoga (union with the divine through service), Bhakti Yoga (union with the divine through devotion), Raja Yoga (union with the divine through meditation), and Jnana Yoga (union with the divine through knowledge and study).

So the opponents of public school yoga programs have a point. Done well, yoga awakens us to our union with God. While opponents of yoga in public schools seem to know this, too many practitioners of yoga don’t, and have stripped yoga of its deepest spiritual roots and promise in the name of physical fitness. If this is what it takes to get yoga into public schools, it may be a cost too great to pay. Yoga is more than exercise, it is spiritual practice. So while I wish every elementary school student could begin a life-long yoga practice that would lead to Self-realization and divine union, I’m afraid that the elementary school itself may not be the place for it. Sad but Constitutionally true nonetheless.

* Full disclosure: There was a time in the early eighties when I practiced hatha yoga daily for 90 minutes as part of my work as a Jnana yogi devoted to study (in my case primarily Torah study). I followed the Iyengar method, and got good enough to be able to kiss my own ass, a nice compliment to the other kind of ass kissing congregational rabbis are often called upon to perform. I haven’t done this in a long time (yoga, I mean, ass kissing is eternal), but I continue to practice Jnana yoga (studying the Torah/teachings of all wisdom traditions), and to a lesser extent Bhakti yoga through my daily chanting practice. And, as promised, these yogas do awaken you to God.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

What Difference Do You Make?

I’m writing this on Christmas morning, shortly after sunrise. I’m on my way to Nassau and then on to Paradise Island and the Sivananda Ashram where I will be teaching for the week. As always I pick up a copy of USA Today.

The best article in the paper is about David Menasche, a forty-year old high school English teacher dying of brain cancer. David is travelling around the US visiting past students and asking them if he, David, made a difference in their lives. Wow.

My mind immediately ticked off a list of teachers, now deceased, who have made a difference in my life: Peter Santos and Michael Gelinas, the two high school social studies teachers who introduced me to Hinduism and Buddhism. Miss Marshal, my junior high school history teacher with whom I stayed friends until the end of her very long life. Dr. Terri Havens, my first guru, who introduced me the Mother and Her many guises. Dr. Taitetsu Unno, my Buddhist Studies professor at Smith College who taught me too sit “like a mountain.” Sasaki Roshi who challenged me to be a “Zen Rabbi.” And Dr. Ellis Rivkin and Bonia Shur, two professors at Hebrew Union College, who taught me how to read Judaism for its archetypal wisdom, and how make it come alive by letting that wisdom speak through me, respectively. Reb Zalman Schachter–Shalomi who showed me that as wide my thoughts roamed, Judaism could always accommodate me, and he would always love me.

Not a long list, granted. And there may be others whose names I have forgotten at the moment. But without these people I wouldn’t be who I am.

I have reached thousands of people both in person and through my books, and while I am not aware of any terminal illness, Mr. Menasche’s question remains: did I make a difference?

As we enter the new year, I find this a question worth asking. May you live the new year so that when you die you know you have made a difference. For the better, of course.