Inclination

Theurgy describes the practice of rituals performed with the intention of invoking the action or presence of one or more gods, especially with the goal of uniting with the divine. Theurgy means ‘divine-working’.

The source of Western theurgy can be found in the philosophy of late Neoplatonists, where the spiritual Universe is regarded as a series of emanations from the One. From the One emanated the Divine Mind and in turn from the Divine Mind emanated the World Soul. Neoplatonists insisted that the One is absolutely transcendent and in the emanations nothing of the higher was lost or transmitted to the lower, which remained unchanged by the lower emanations.

Plotinus urged contemplations for those who wished to perform theurgy, the goal of which was to reunite with The Divine. Therefore, his school resembles a school of meditation or contemplation. Iamblichus of Calcis, a student of Porphyry (who was himself a student of Plotinus) taught a more ritualized method of theurgy that involved invocation and religious, as well as magical, ritual. Iamblichus believed theurgy was an imitation of the gods that endowed embodied souls with the divine responsibility of creating and preserving the cosmos.

Iamblichus’ analysis was that the transcendent cannot be grasped with mental contemplation because the transcendent is supra-rational. Theurgy is a series of rituals and operations aimed at recovering the transcendent essence by retracing the divine ‘signatures’ through the layers of being.

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Recitation

Buddhist chant boxes are hardware loop players that are sold in temples throughout Asia. They are small battery-powered devices resembling a cheap AM radio that play looped recordings of Buddhist chants. They are intended for use when it’s not possible to get to a temple, or if one wanted to chant and meditate on the go. Each box usually contains either two or more chants.

In Buddhism, chanting is the traditional means of preparing the mind for meditation, especially as part of formal practice. Recitation of the name Amituofo is a way to purify the mind, thoughts and environment. When the mind is serene and compassionate, the living environment will become tranquil. The benefits from this kind of thought can neutralize turbulance from greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance. Everyone can benefit from this recitation regardless of religion.

Almost every Buddhist school has a tradition of chanting associated with it. While the basis for most Theravada chants is the Pali Canon, Mahayana and Vajrayana chants draw from a wider range of sources. In the Vajrayana tradition, chanting is also used as an invocative ritual in order to set one’s mind on a deity, Tantric ceremony, mandala, or particular concept one wishes to further in themselves.

While not strictly a variation of Buddhist chanting in itself, Japanese Shigin is a form of chanted poetry that reflects several principles of Zen Buddhism. It is sung in the seiza position, and participants are encouraged to sing from the gut, the Zen locus of power. Shigin and related practices are often sung at Buddhist ceremonies and quasi-religious gatherings in Japan.

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Awareness

Meditation has been defined as self regulation of attention, in the service of self-inquiry, in the here and now. The various techniques of meditation can be classified according to their focus. Some focus on the field or background perception and experience, often referred to as mindfulness. Others focus on a preselected specific object, and are called concentrative meditation. There are also techniques that shift between the field and the object.

In mindfulness meditation, the meditator sits comfortably and silently, centering attention by focusing awareness on an object or process such as the breath, a sound such as a mantra, or a koan or riddle-like question. The meditator is usually encouraged to maintain an open focus.

Concentration meditation is used in many religions and spiritual practices. Whereas in mindfulness meditation there is an open focus, in concentration meditation the meditator holds attention on a particular object such as a repetitive prayer, while minimizing distractions and bringing the mind back to concentrate on the chosen object.

Meditation can be practiced while walking or doing simple repetitive tasks. Walking meditation helps break down habitual automatic mental categories, thus regaining the primary nature of perceptions and events, focusing attention on the process while disregarding its purpose or final outcome. In a form of meditation using visualization, such as Chinese Qi Gong, the practitioner concentrates on flows of energy in the body, starting in the abdomen and then circulating through the body, until dispersed. Some meditative traditions, such as yoga or tantra, are common to several religions.

Cultivation

Forgiveness is typically defined as the process of concluding resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense or mistake, and ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. The concept and benefits of forgiveness have been explored in religious thought, the social sciences and medicine. Forgiveness may be considered simply in terms of the person who forgives including forgiving themselves, in terms of the person forgiven, or in terms of the relationship between the forgiver and the person forgiven.

In some contexts, forgiveness may be granted without any expectation of restorative justice, and without any response on the part of the offender. In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, apology or restitution, or even to just ask for forgiveness, in order for the wronged person to believe himself able to forgive.

Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern day traditions and practices of forgiveness. Some religious doctrines or philosophies place greater emphasis on the need for humans to find some sort of divine forgiveness for their own shortcomings. Others place greater emphasis on the need for humans to practice forgiveness of one another, yet others make little or no distinction between human and divine forgiveness.

In Buddhism, forgiveness is seen as a practice to prevent harmful thoughts from causing havoc on one’s mental well-being. Buddhism recognizes that feelings of hatred and ill-will leave a lasting effect on our mind karma. Instead, Buddhism encourages the cultivation of thoughts that leave a wholesome effect. In contemplating the law of karma, it is realized that it is not a matter of seeking revenge but of practicing forgiveness, for the victimizer is truly the most unfortunate of all.

When resentments have already arisen, the Buddhist view is to calmly proceed to release them by going back to their roots. Buddhism centers on release from delusion and suffering through meditation and receiving insight into the nature of reality. Buddhism questions the reality of the passions that make forgiveness necessary as well as the reality of the objects of those passions. If we haven’t forgiven, we keep creating an identity around our pain, and that is what is reborn. That is what suffers.

The need to forgive is widely recognized by the public, but they are often at a loss for ways to accomplish it. For example, in a representative sampling of American people on various religious topics in 1988, the Gallup Organization found that 94% said it was important to forgive, but 85% said they needed some outside help to do it. However, not even regular prayer was found to be effective. The Gallup poll revealed that the only thing that was effective was meditative prayer.

Recent work at the International Forgiveness Institute has focused on what kind of person is more likely to be forgiving. A longitudinal study showed that people who were generally more neurotic, angry and hostile in life were less likely to forgive another person even after a long time had passed. Specifically, these people were more likely to avoid their transgressor and want to enact revenge upon them several years after the transgression.

Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments. One study has shown that the positive benefit of forgiveness is similar whether it was based upon religious or secular counseling as opposed to a control group that received no forgiveness counseling.

Distinction

Kensho is a Japanese term for enlightenment experiences, most commonly used within the confines of Zen Buddhism. It generally refers to the realization of nonduality of subject and object. Frequently used in juxtaposition with satori, there is sometimes a distinction made between the two in that some consider satori to be qualitatively deeper.

Kensho itself has been said to be a blissful realization where a person’s inner nature, the original pure mind, is directly known as an illuminating emptiness which is dynamic and immanent in the world. Kenshō experiences are tiered, in that they escalate from initial glimpses into the nature of mind to an experience of emptiness.

Working towards this realisation is usually a lengthy process of meditation and introspection under guidance of a Zen or other Buddhist teacher, usually in intensive retreats. The methods used differ depending upon the tradition and practice. Soto tends towards a gradual approach preferring to let the experiences happen on their own while Rinzai tends toward the use of Koans or a set Koan question as a technique to bring the experience sooner.

Which methods are more appropriate for any given student are made by which lineage of Zen the student practices as well as what seems most appropriate by the student’s teacher. It should be noted that the Kensho experience is not limited to Japanese Zen Buddhism traditions and occurs in many traditions as well as outside of Buddhist practice.

Kensho may also be spontaneous, upon hearing or reading some significant phrase, or as result of a profound dream. For example, Zen lore describes the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng’s spontaneous experience of kensho upon hearing a phrase of the Diamond sutra.

Koans are a technique that can be used as meditation aids, particularly in the Rinzai tradition. For example, one koan is known as ‘Who am I’, since it is this question that guides the enquiry into one’s true nature. The realization that there is no ‘I’ that is doing the thinking, but rather that the thinking process brings forth the illusion of an ‘I’, is a step on the way to Kensho.

It is not unusual for various hallucinations and psychological disturbances to arise prior to true kensho. These are referred to as makyo. Distinguishing these delusions from actual kensho is the primary function of the teacher, as the student may be erroneously convinced they have realized kensho.

Storytelling

Shamanism is a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world. One of the most significant and relevant qualities that separate a shaman from other spiritual leaders is their communications with the supernatural world.

Shaman perform a plethora of functions depending upon the society wherein they practice their art, such as healing, preserving tradition by storytelling and songs, fortune telling, acting as a guide of souls and leading a sacrifice. In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper place the souls of the dead, or curing of ailments. The ailments may be purely physical afflictions, such as disease, which may be cured by flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease spirit, and which may be completed by displaying some extracted token of the disease spirit. Displaying this is supposed to impress the disease spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient’s body. Mental afflictions amy also be treated, such as persistent terror on account of some frightening experience, which may be likewise cured by similar methods.

In most languages a different term other than the one translated  as shaman is applied to a religious official or priest leading sacrificial rites, or to a reconteur or sage of traditional lore. There may be more of an overlap in functions with than of a shaman in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.

Following are beliefs that are shared by all forms of shamanism:

  • Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  • The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
  • Spirits can be good or evil.
  • The shaman can treat sickness caused by evil spirits.
  • The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy.
  • The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  • The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message bearers. Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living.

In contrast to organized religions like animism or animatism which are led by priests and which all members of a society practice, shamanism requires individualized knowledge and special abilities. Shaman operate outside established religions, and, traditionally, they operate alone. Shaman can gather into associations, as Indian tantric practitioners have done.

Shaman act as mediators in their culture. The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman’s objects and symbols.

Among the Selkups, a report mentions a sea duck as a spirit animal. Ducks are capable of both flying and diving underwater, thus they are regarded as belonging to both the upper world and the world underneath. Similarly, the shaman and the jaguar are identified in some Amazonian cultures. The jaguar is capable of moving freely on the ground, in the water, and climbing trees (like the shaman’s soul). In some Siberian cultures, it is some water fowl species that are associated to the shaman in a similar way, and the shaman is believed to take on its form.

The Shaman’s Tree is an image found in several cultures as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath. Its trunk belongs to the middle, human inhabited world, and its top is related to the upper world.

In some cultures there may be additional types of shaman, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a guide of souls. Other specialized shaman may be distinguished according to the type of spirits or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts.

There are also neoshamanistic movements which differ from many tradtitional shamanistic practice and beliefs in several points. Neoshamanism is not a single cohesive belief system but many philosophies lumped together. Most neoshamans believe in spirits and pursue self actualization through meditation and the use of entheogens.

Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practices continue today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and even in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially true for Africa and South America, where mestizo shamanism is widespread.

Etiquette

Zendo is a Japanese term translating roughly as meditation hall. In Zen Buddhism, the zendo is a spiritual dojo where zazen, or sitting meditation, is practiced. A full sized Buddhist temple will typically be divided into at least one zendo as well as a hondo, literally base hall, sometimes translated as Buddha hall, which is used for ceremonial purposes, and a variety of other buildings with different functions. However, any place where people go to practice zen can be referred to as a zendo.

The first meal of the day in the Zendo will often be taken in the early morning, before dawn. It normally consists of rice gruel and pickled vegetables. The monks are summoned to meals by a gong that is struck. The five meditations are recited, after which monks will be served with the gruel and vegetables. Often monks will offer some of their meal to the pretas or hungry ghosts. Two meals are taken later, in the late morning and late afternoon. These meals usually consist of rice, vegetable soup and pickled vegetables. The monks remain silent during mealtimes and communicate via hand and arm gestures.

The following are recommendations on zendo etiquette, along with explanations of some Japanese terms. Etiquette varies in different temples, so the following rules may or may not apply in part or in full at any given zendo:

  • Enter the zendo on the left side of the entry, left foot first.
  • Gassho (place the hands palms together) and bow to the altar.
  • Walk forward across the room past the altar and go to a seat turning corners squarely. Cross in front of the altar only during kinhin (walking meditation).
  • Gassho and bow toward the seat, greeting the people to both sides.
  • The people on both sides respond to greeting.
  • Turn clockwise and face front.
  • Gassho and bow to those directly across room, greeting them.
  • They respond with a gassho-bow in greeting.
  • Sit down on the zafu (round cushion).
  • Turn clockwise toward the wall. (If in a Soto-style zendo, Rinzai style is to sit facing in from the wall.)
  • Always turn or move clockwise as viewed from above the zendo.

In some Buddhist sects there are as many as 348 precepts, or Patimoksha Rules, some of which serve as guidelines for the many details of monastic living, such as taking off your shoes before entering the zendo, and being sure your feet and clothes are clean. Fully ordained women are given about fifty more precepts than men. The precepts were created individually as situations arose that put monks and nuns in danger, or that were counterproductive to practice.

Ganesha

Ganesha is one of the best known and most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. His image is found throughout India. Hindu sects worship him regardless of other affiliations. Devotion to Ganesha is widely diffused and extends to Jains, Buddhists, and beyond India.

Although he is known by many other attributes, Ganesha’s elephant head makes him easy to identify. He is widely revered as the Remover of Obstacles and more generally as Lord of Beginnings, patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom. He is honoured at the start of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as Patron of Letters during writing sessions. Several texts relate mythological anecdotes associated with his birth and exploits and explain his distinct iconography.

Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art. Puranic myths provide many explanations for how he got his elephant head. While some texts say that Ganesha was born with an elephant head, in most stories he acquires the head later. The most recurrent motif in these stories is that Ganesha was born with a human head and body and that Shiva beheaded him when Ganesha came between Shiva and Parvati. Shiva then replaced Ganesha’s original head with that of an elephant.

In another story, when Ganesha was born, his mother, Parvati, showed off her new baby to the other gods. Unfortunately, the god Shani who is said to have an evil eye, looked at him, causing the baby’s head to be burned to ashes. The god Vishnu came to the rescue and replaced the missing head with that of an elephant. Another story says that Ganesha was created directly by Shiva’s laughter. Because Shiva considered Ganesha too alluring, he gave him the head of an elephant and a protruding belly.

Ganesha’s earliest name was Ekadanta (One Tusk), referring to his single whole tusk, the other having been broken off. Some of the earliest images of Ganesha show him holding his broken tusk. Ganesha’s protruding belly appears as a distinctive attribute in his earliest statuary, which dates to the Gupta period during the fourth to sixth centuries. This feature is so important that two different incarnations of Ganesha use names based on it: Lambodara (Pot Belly) and Mahodara (Great Belly).

The number of Ganesha’s arms varies. His best-known forms have between two and sixteen arms. Many depictions of Ganesha feature four arms, which is mentioned in Puranic sources and codified as a standard form in some iconographic texts. Forms with 14 and 20 arms appeared in central India during the 9th and 10th centuries.

The serpent is a common feature in Ganesha iconography and appears in many forms. Depictions of snakes include use as a sacred thread wrapped around the stomach as a belt, held in a hand, coiled at the ankles, or as a throne. Upon Ganesha’s forehead there may be a third eye or sectarian mark, which consists of three horizontal lines. Specific colors are associated with certain forms. Many examples of color associations with specific meditation forms are prescribed. For example, white is associated with his representations as Heramba-Ganapati (Ganapati Who Releases from Bondage). Ekadanta-Ganapati is visualized as blue during meditation on that form.

A Vahana or a Hindu vehicle, sometimes called a mount, is an animal, mythical entity or chimera closely associated with a particular deity in Hindu mythology. Ganesha is often shown riding on or attended by a mouse. The mouse is interpreted in several ways. Some say it symbolizes those who wish to overcome desires and be less selfish. Others note that the mouse is destructive and a menace to crops. It was essential to subdue the mouse as a destructive pest, a type of impediment that needed to be overcome. According to this theory, showing Ganesha as master of the mouse demonstrates his function as Lord of Obstacles and gives evidence of his possible role as a folk village deity who later rose to greater prominence. It is also suggested that Ganesha, like the mouse, penetrates even the most secret places.

Ganesha is worshipped on many religious and secular occasions, especially at the beginning of ventures such as buying a vehicle or starting a business. There can hardly be a home in India which does not have an idol of Ganesha. Ganesha, being the most popular deity in India, is worshipped by almost all castes and in all parts of the country. Devotees believe that if Ganesha is propitiated, he grants success, prosperity and protection against adversity.

Ganesha is a nonsectarian deity, and Hindus of all denominations invoke him at the beginning of prayers, important undertakings, and religious ceremonies. Dancers and musicians, particularly in southern India, begin performances of arts such as the Bharatnatyam dance with a prayer to Ganesha. Mantras such as Om Shri Ganeshaya Namah (Om, salutation to the Illustrious Ganesha) are often used.

Devotees offer Ganesha sweets such as modaka and small sweet balls. He is often shown carrying a bowl of sweets, called a modakapatra. Because of his identification with the color red, he is often worshipped with red sandalwood paste or red flowers. Durva grass (Cynodon dactylon) and other materials are also used in his worship.

An annual festival honours Ganesha for ten days, starting on Ganesh Chaturthi, which typically falls in late August or early September. The festival culminates on the day of Ananta Chaturdashi, when images of Ganesha are immersed in the most convenient body of water. In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak transformed this annual Ganesha festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event. He did so to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra. Because of Ganesha’s wide appeal as the god for everyone, Tilak chose him as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule. Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and he established the practice of submerging all the public images on the tenth day. Today, Hindus across India celebrate the Ganapati festival with great fervour, though it is most popular in the state of Maharashtra.