Saturday, August 27, 2011

Justin Whitaker

Hello and Happy Saturday!

I wish to thank Jenny for her enjoyable interview last week. Thanks for sharing your faith journey with us Jenny!

Today we have a new interview so please welcome Justin Whitaker. Justin is a Buddhist and I know you'll enjoy his interview as well!

Here Is Justin Whitaker's Introduction:

I am a doctoral student in Buddhist Ethics splitting my time between Montana, England, and India, amongst other travels. I grew up and completed my first degree in Montana and went on to study in England. I made my first trip to India last year as a teacher of Buddhist Philosophy for Antioch University's Education Abroad program. I am grateful for my travels as they have enriched both my life and my teaching career. I am also an amateur photographer and marathon runner.

1) What religion do you practice?
I practice Buddhism.

2) Are you a convert/revert or were you raised within this religion? If you converted, what did you need to do to convert? And what did you practice prior to converting?
I am a convert. I basically eased into it with some courses at the University when I was 20 years old. With most Buddhists, especially in the West, there is no official 'conversion ceremony.' One simply 'takes refuge' in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and that's it. Before converting I was an atheist or 'Freethinker' - very much interested and engaged with theological questions, but holding no particular religious beliefs.

3)Within your religion are there degrees of observance (ie. Orthodox,conservative, moderate, liberal)? What are the defining differences between the degrees of observance?
Yes, in Buddhism there are degrees of observance, but they are not well defined or codified. Some Buddhists uses these labels, borrowed from Western religions, in order to clarify their own type of practice.

4)Within your religion what degree of observance are you ((ie. Orthodox,conservative, moderate, liberal) ? Why did you choose this degree of observance?
As a Buddhist in the West, I'm not sure exactly what my degree is. I'm rather orthodox and conservative in some of my understandings of concepts such as karma and rebirth, and moderate in my attempts to perfectly uphold the five precepts.

5)What is the Afterlife within your religion? For example: what happens when a person dies? Are there places for reward/punishment? (such as a Heaven/Hell concept)
In Buddhism, afterlife is generally conceived as rebirth for those who do not attain awakening in this life. Those who lived a poor life here will be reborn in a 'lower' realm as an animal, hungry ghost, or hell denizen (not too pretty). And of course the higher realms correspond with the human, titan, and godly realms. But it's fair to say that these are mainly states of mind, meaning that if we act horribly now, we will be consumed with either painfully desirous (hungry ghost) or angry (hell denizen) minds in the future, whether in a future literal life or not. This explanation also falls within the Buddha's main form of teaching which was pragmatic, psychological, and this-worldly. I believe that for the Buddha there was/is truth to the doctrine of rebirth, but I don't think we're meant to be too literal about it.

6) In your opinion, does everyone make it into heaven/paradise? If they do not, why?
It's not a given, but it IS the mission of thousands or millions of people out there called Bodhisattvas to get everyone into an awakened state. For now, all that holds us back is our own ignorance, fueled by and fueling our greed and anger. Once those are overcome, one is awakened, sees the connectedness of all beings, and vows - if not done already - to bring about the awakening of all others.

7) What makes your religion a good fit for you?
I think it fits in the sense that I've always been a pretty laid back person and Buddhism has a reputation for fitting the peaceniks and 'it's all good man' hippy types. On the other hand it has offered powerful antidotes to my difficulties with anxiety and depression.

8) What are your holy days and what do you do to celebrate them?
Buddhists across the world have a variety of holy days, most particularly vesak, the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. But, like many Westerners, I am not particularly observant.

9) Do you consider people of other faiths to be your friends?
Most certainly, yes. I have had the great fortune of a great diversity of friends in all possible ways.

10) Would you ever join people of another faith to celebrate one of their holy days? Please explain why?
Yes, I would and have celebrated the holy days of people of other faiths. Being raised in a Christian society, Christian holidays such as Christmas are part of my culture. For me, Christmas is about family, joy, and sharing at the coldest, darkest time of the year. It happens to be a time adopted by early Christians and designated as the birth of their savior, but the holiday predates them and is observed in different, yet very similar ways around the world.

11) What are your thoughts on the burka, and Shariah Law?
On the one hand, I believe fully in the freedom of religion, all religions. But on the other hand I believe religion serves to lift people up to be their best selves. Thus for the burka I believe that those who choose to wear it should be allowed, so long as it is done freely with honest understanding of the social and political circumstances accompanying that choice. I have listened to Muslims discuss the burka, pro and con, and I hope that these discussions continue and percolate into the broader populace. Of course there are many nuances to the question, such as children wearing it, and the question of location. Shariah Law is even more complex! As with ancient Jewish or Christian texts, or even Buddhist sutras, I think it may be useful in the formation of laws in some societies. But again, all laws must serve to lead people to greater freedom and independence (or as my favorite philosopher would put it: away from heteronomy - literally 'ruled from the outside' - and toward autonomy, self-legislation).

12) Are women allowed to hold religious office (priest, minister, rabbi, iman etc) in your religion and how do you feel about it?
Yes. In the West, women hold equal footing as leaders in almost all branches of Buddhism (Tibetan being the exception). In Eastern countries, where Buddhism has taken root over the last 2500 years, the religion has mostly adopted the patriarchal structures of those countries. This is shifting though, slowly, mostly due to the influence of Western values in those Eastern countries.

13) Does your place of worship segregate? If yes, how does this make you feel?
No, absolutely not.

14) How much does your religion affect your daily life and how much thought do you give it when making a decision? Does it affect in any way your decision on abortion, gay marriage, etc?
I hope that some elements, such as being able to return to my breath during a heated moment or developing all-pervading loving-kindness do affect all parts of my daily life, even if only minutely. But from the outside, one might not call me particularly 'Buddhist' in my daily activities. Even meditation, the hallmark of Western Buddhism, is generally only a weekly practice for me. On issues such as abortion and gay marriage I would imagine the views of my own family play as strong a roll as my religion does.

15) How would you react/feel if your child wished to marry outside your religion?
I would have no problem with that.

16) In your opinion, if someone is not of your faith, will they go to hell?
Perhaps. What matters in Buddhism is not faith, but actions. Of course faith in such things as karma (that your actions will have consequences) might be essential in the beginning, what leads you on to a future in this realm or another are your choices and the actions that follow. Buddhism, by the way, speaks of acting with "body, speech, and mind," and also asserts that the mind is the most important, as actions (of body and speech) follow it "like a cart follows the ox."

17) Who do you think is not a practicing ----- in your religion and why? ie who in the public domain claims to speak for your religion? Do you agree with them or not?
I'm not sure I understand the first question, so I'll skip on to the second. In the West there are a variety of Buddhist leaders who speak for Buddhism. These range from monks such as H.H. the Dalai Lama and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh to academics such as Robert Thurman or Charles Prebish, to a younger generation of Buddhists such as Rev. Danny Fisher and Vince Horn. These are just some of the ones I'm most familiar with, but many others pop up here and there. Most of them I think I agree with on most things - but I likely gravitate toward them for just that reason, in part. And Buddhism here in the West generally promotes free thinking, so whether I agree or not, as long as I am learning and developing greater insight into the world through these public faces, I am happy.

18) Have you ever been the target of a hate crime? Please explain.
No, fortunately nothing of the sort.

19) Do you ever feel like your religion devalues you?
No, absolutely not.

20) Does your religion give you peace of mind?
Yes, if and when I practice it and bring its principles into my life, I do tend to feel peace of mind.

21) Do you believe in reincarnation? Why or why not?
Tricky question. In the literal sense of "me having lived in a past life and me coming back in a future one" I see no reason to hold this belief. But in a more nuanced sense of a continuous flow of experiences (physical and otherwise), arising and falling away in each instant, then there seems to be something like reincarnation happening all the time. As for the space in between, I'm not sure it's important to how I live my life day to day, so I'm happy to plead ignorance/agnosticism.

I'm glad to participate in this and wish you and your readers peace, happiness, and well-being!

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