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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Eternal Knot and Essential Questions




Since I’ve gotten a decent amount of Buddhist ideas communicated, I thought I’d take a more general approach and use a symbol in Buddhism to talk about a variety of beliefs associated with it. What I speak of is the eternal knot. Its appearance is that of many interwoven strings that create a seemingly endless cluster of bindings. Interpretations of it vary widely, though there are a few I will speak on in later articles, most likely. Consider this a summary of past and future concepts in this series I like to call Buddhist Basics. The endless knot, called shrivatsa in Sanskrit, is one of a group of 7 other symbols called the 8 auspicious signs. They are important in Buddhist culture, especially the Indian from which it began, and Tibetan, where it is of great importance to the people. The symbolism and messages they teach are part of why they are so revered, but also because it is said in lore that they were gifts given to Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and founder of the teachings, when he achieved enlightenment. Regardless, I’m focusing on one because one finds this almost as much as two used more often, the wheel and lotus.

Some of the ideas associated with the eternal knot should be familiar from my previous articles. There is the idea of karmic consequences from “Seeds and Fruits, Actions and Results”.  When you pull one part of the knot, another part moves as well, similar to how the ethical principle of karma works, though it could also reflect dependent origination more explicitly when you view it in that sense, which I spoke on in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” . The infinite nature of the knot could make one contemplate samsara and the rebirth associated with it, talked about in “Rebirth, Not Reincarnation” . Unless you break the cycle of attachment, ignorance and delusion, then you are trapped on the proverbial wheel and locked in the knot. Continuity as the underlying reality of existence is an almost instinctive interpretation that I haven’t related to Buddhism as of yet. When you see the symbol, it is a closed cycle, and similarly, the universe is, for all intents and purposes, a closed system where all events are related to something else. Another interpretation is the dependence upon each other of religious and secular matters. While there is a sense that each focuses on its own affairs, there is inevitably a connection to be made, especially when you consider that politics is worked at with religious fervor many times and decisions of policy are guided in part by religious convictions. Another topic pregnant with possibility is that of the balance of wisdom and compassion, or in another expression, sophia and phronesis. Wisdom, or prajna in Sanskrit, is understood as your ability to discern truth without becoming overly attached to your intellect as the only way to find it, though it certainly is important. Similarly, with compassion, or metta in Pali, you must be able to understand people and be considerate of their feelings and mood without clinging to them as absolute and persistent, when inevitably they will dissipate as any conditioned existence is prone to. Sophia and phronesis from Aristotle’s Greek philosophy are not quite the same parallel, since it relates to speculative and practical reasoning, but it could work well in part, since it connects to prajna’s seeking of absolute truth and metta’s seeking of conventional truth, both of which I spoke of in “Two Truths,One Path” .

The eternal knot, or infinite knot as another expression, is not quite the symbol that has association like the wheel of dharma or a statue of the Buddha (the thin, not the fat one which is a Daoist deity more strictly). These many interpretations might lead one to think there isn’t any consistency in Buddhism, but a diversity of opinion on any symbol doesn’t mean it loses the meaning it has to each individual. It’s when those meanings cease to have an effect or remain in people’s memories that they begin to go away. The five pointed star, for instance, was used in Christianity for a time to represent the five wounds of Jesus on the cross. But today, few Christians could ever make the association of the pentacle with their religion or Islam which also uses it as associated with the Ottomans apparently, but only with Wicca and Satanism. 

The propagation of meaning and ideas that people have discerned from items, symbols and other such representations is a function of our human ability to see patterns and more importantly to associate abstract ideas with concrete objects. A cross makes one think of Jesus, a star and crescent of Islam, and a Star of David with Judaism. But there are other symbols used by each faith. Christians use the ichthys, a representation of a fish with historical background of its association with a Greek expression concerning Jesus’ divinity that corresponds to the spelling of ichthys in Greek as well as reflecting a secret association between early Christians. Muslims use the Arabic character for Allah as a means of simplifying their focus instead of the misinterpretation of the star and crescent’s cultural usage in later Islamic culture and Christian critics connecting the symbol to alleged pagan worship of the moon.  Jews may also use the menorah, reflective of the folklore surrounding the holiday of Hanukkah as well as more ancient uses by Moses in the temple. Any symbol can be misused, such as the swastika, originating in Hindu and Buddhist culture, but appropriated by Nazis in Germany. I welcome many interpretations of symbols and that propagation of memes creates a diversity that, while confusing, is also a benefit to human culture, religious or otherwise. Symbols are art, and we all share an appreciation in some sense of art, even if not the technical jargon that comes with the study of it. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Giving Thanks For Abortion




This post is a bit late for the actual Thanksgiving holiday, at least the traditional day, but after Black Friday’s commercialism and shopaholic excess, I think I should talk about a topic rife with problems that are more practical in scope and less self serving in the goals it seeks to advance.  What I speak of is abortion. I’ve talked about consistency of terms and whether pro life people are actuallypro life instead of anti abortion,  amongst other varieties of this topic. Heck, my very first blog post was on the subject with Tim Tebow and his mom in a pro life/pro choice commercial that was ambivalent as to whether it actually supported choices about reproductive health or just choices towards life. Clearly the issue is important to me, and not because of the anti abortion kernel of “wisdom” that all pro choice people are already born. That goes without saying: a fetus can’t make the choice that abortion is or recognize the process for what it is in any sense until a certain point in development anyway. At most it makes very basic choices as any organic being that is conscious of its own existence will do, even if by pure instinct at first.  But I haven’t had family members or even friends that have directly had to face the issue of abortion. In the South, I’ve noticed that abortion is never seen as anything beneficial and is rarely an option at all. It’s not that we probably don’t have abortion clinics, but they’re either isolated in big cities or otherwise difficult in terms of access, though I admit I’m just speculating on a sub area of the abortion issue I’m not familiar with. I have heard enough and learned enough so far that my general position on abortion has been and always will be pro-choice, which in no way is pro-abortion, contrary to what political pundits would tell you. In the wake of a season that speaks of being thankful for people, I think we should be thankful for something that allows people to give themselves a better future for the family they are more ready for, even if not everyone does it.

I’m well aware of the argument and agree with its premise that abortion shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control, or any sort of procedure done merely for convenience when you are perfectly capable of taking care of a child. Admittedly abortions are probably done for that reason, though I imagine statistics aren’t going to help a lot in a situation where the practitioner doesn’t get such a straight answer from women who are feeling so much anxiety and pressure from their family, friends and society. But abortion is not something you should seek to illegalize or eliminate completely, since it has medical benefits, albeit those are more isolated to ectopic pregnancies and other situations where a woman’s life is in danger and, as heartless as it sounds, sacrifices must be made. Bringing up numbers of how many fetuses have been aborted seems to be easily countered by stats concerning birth rates in the U.S., which by a quick check are not going down excessively, but only in response to economic difficulties many people are having, postponing children until they’re slightly more stable in their finances. It’s different than it was a century ago when America felt it could throw around money and resources like candy without thoughts for the future. It’s not as if I see a significant downturn in birth rate in relation to my own general family, for instance. The number of kids range from anywhere to the minimum expected 2 kids, making an even 4, to 5 or 6 kids, making double that number for a single family from a couple. I myself would be happy with just one, but parenting is the last thing on my mind. Moves to illegalize abortion forget that it is an elective procedure and is not mandatory upon all pregnant women at all. Eliminating it completely would negate the value it possesses in situations that would still be dangerous even if we had technology that would allow for zygotes, embryos, etc to be transplanted or preserved after attachment to the uterine wall. This would reduce abortions to a very small percentage, which, from what I’ve said before, is an unofficial (or official?) position of many pro choice advocates, “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare,”

An irony people could observe with the movement of anti abortion is that it is composed in great or significant part of women who have already had abortions and either regretted it or seem to think that you should only follow their example in every other instance except abortion and not see the hypocrisy they exude in being overzealous for a cause they only fight against after the fact of seeing it as wrong. The view is that abortion is primarily a communal and emotional issue instead of a personal and rational one that it is much of the time, even if it also does have communal and emotional effects on those involved directly and indirectly. The best saying in response to these people that strive to control people’s sex lives and decisions they make with their body is “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one,” It shouldn’t be a matter of popular opinion, it should be an informed decision without pressure from parents, partners or even medical professionals without justifiable reasons, such as economic or psychological considerations.

One of the biggest things that drive the abortion debate is the personhood vs. humanity idea that people constantly bring up. A zygote is argued to be a person because it is genetically unique. But this doesn’t hold water because it is only technically genetically human. Personhood is a bit more complicated than simply having human DNA, since that could apply to any cell. The response is that a zygote, when left alone, will develop naturally. This is based on possibility, which seems to be a big line of argument in conservative positions on these issues. Gay people will make marriage slide further into immorality, and abortion will target racial groups or particular genders as it becomes more and more acceptable. Mississippi brought up an attempted amendment to its constitution that would have made a fertilized egg a person, but it was thankfully struck down, by anti abortion and pro choice people alike no doubt. The goal of the amendment was to challenge something many find fundamentally egregious in the Roe v. Wade decision over 50 years ago: that a zygote, blastocyst or embryo (for the most part) are not considered a person and thus not protected by the 14th amendment. It was decided, from what I recall, that at the 5th month or roughly around 20-22 weeks when a fetus reaches viability, it is considered a person philosophically, medically and legally to an extent. If the state had changed the definition of person to a fertilized egg, anti abortion pundits thought they could overturn the decision through pushing a vote to repeal the decision by the people. Unfortunately, like gay marriage, some things are not solved by a democratic vote, but by a legislative decision that says certain things are included in the inalienable rights the Constitution enumerates or are of such a morally contentious nature that democratic decisions do not reflect the morality or immorality of whatever issue is voted on. An obvious historical example was slavery. It might have been voted otherwise by the American people in each state, so the government wrote a fundamental amendment to the Constitution that made slavery illegal. Personhood is not something we can all agree on and that’s fine. If you either agree to disagree or, more reasonably, remain uncertain as to exactly and precisely when a fetus becomes a person, or when an embryo becomes a person, etc, then you make the discussion that much smoother in that you aren’t touting your position as unquestionable. If we all had a reasonable discussion without bringing personal emotional experiences into it as primary evidence, then perhaps we’d be able to start talking about these philosophically complex issues in a more civil, mature and reasonable way.

Anti abortion, so called pro life advocates, should be thankful (emphasis intended) that people make the choice to not have an abortion instead of pressuring others to choose life and condemn those who make a less popular choice for a better future life. If you think you can provide for your family with a limited budget and are willing to put children in a situation they did not ask for where they are given a lower quality of life instead of sacrificed for a better future life of siblings, so be it. I’m not going to advocate forcing people to have abortions, and that’s where I think I have a moral high ground of sorts. I am not doing anything more than advising people about their possible options and not saying that they should do it because I say so, but because my argument is sensible. If they disagree, it’s out of my hands for the most part, unless there is some explicit relation to myself. And that’s why I’m thankful for abortion, since it is a choice people can make, but also a choice people can decide to not make and bring life into the world. Regardless, life goes on and I’m thankful especially for that. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Seeds and Fruits, Actions and Results




What may be the most explored topic in Buddhist thought and also the biggest stumbling block next to anatta for newcomers is karma. The concept existed in Hinduism before and alongside Buddhism historically in its development in Jainism as well. But Jainism and Hinduism, since they’re atmanic systems, believing that a permanent and individual consciousness survives the death of the body, clash a great deal with Buddhist karmic theory, which is anatmanic, non soul based, in nature. There are also many misunderstandings of it, mostly rooted in an Abrahamic concept of a deity bestowing the world with a natural law of sorts, as well as the principles of “you reap what you sow’ and “an eye for an eye” neither of which completely or accurately reflect what is rooted in a fundamentally nontheistic and non Abrahamic system. To explain karma even briefly within the limit I place on myself in these articles is difficult, since I don’t want to go in unnecessary tangents, but at the same time there will be aspects of the study of karma that I’ll probably skip over for brevity. I’ll again use metaphors as I did with rebirth, so don’t be surprised if I utilize figurative language as opposed to exact and precise philosophical language, which I’ll nonetheless strive to use as much as I can and as clearly as I can.

To explain karma in metaphors is somewhat unclear at times and is much harder to describe discursively, since there’s overlap in part with the Hindu concept that has promulgated much more in the West and is the default understanding most people have of the  idea of “karma”. A relatively simple term to start off with is causality. We all agree on the fact of our actions having consequences. The divide comes with the nature of the consequences and how they’re determined. A theistic explanation will involve God in one sense or another, either explicitly with miraculous events and even with mundane things we take for granted, like the sun rising. The reason I find this framework unconvincing and irrelevant is not only because I find the unfalsifiable nature of the God invoked incredulous but our own actions are reduced to a scope where we have little to no actual control, since the ground of all being, God, is the one sovereign over all things. Our actions have consequences that we immediately recognize at times, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we get away with bad actions, sometimes we aren’t rewarded for our good actions. And in this sense, the karmic theory most people postulate, even without a God in the equation, serves as a cosmic equalizer for justice and injustice. If people get away with something heinous, it’s claimed that karma will reflect back on them in the future or even in a future life, which tends to explicitly involve the supernatural and soul-based theory in Hinduism and Jainism. We want an explanation for the inequality and inexplicable events that happen to us: natural disasters, intentional crimes against our family members or ourselves, and many other good and bad things. But explaining everything with karma in terms of Buddhism has never been the case or what Buddhists practice in explaining causality and the like. There are things Buddhists classify as not related to our volitional actions, which are what karma is referring to as a word. There are things we do that are natural and involuntary, such as blinking or genetic things we can’t do anything about, such as our eye color or some tendency towards alcoholism or schizophrenia. These aren’t things that we deserve by karma, except maybe in Hindu thought, though I imagine even that’s potentially rare amongst more modern thinkers.
There are said to be five types of causality in Buddhist thought, karma included amongst them. Two in particular are very much out of our control, what I would tentatively classify as causality of physics (weather, heat, etc) and causality of metaphysics (the basic occurrence of laws in our universe). The other two are related more to the human condition, but can extend in part to the non human world. The causality of heredity and causality of psychology are potentially more intertwined than we realize in some ways, assuming psychology is in part hereditary and genetic. But taking them separately, hereditary causality affects things we inherit in our genetics. This is how we can explain otherwise confusing results of people’s pairing and breeding. Genetics is scientific and able to be understood even more these days and thus we can see that applying karmic theory to a person’s being born blind, for example, is something even Christianity can agree with Buddhism on to be mistaken. There is the story of the man born blind and Jesus’ disciples ask if this man was made blind by his or his parents’ sin. Jesus answered neither, that this was something out of human control and meant to show the greatness of God. The psychological causality is more complicated and has been visited in my article on dependent origination, “Neither DeterminismNor Destiny”. This is just a slight delving into what can be a subject of study for a lifetime in Buddhism alone, let alone comparative religion of ethical systems and understandings of causality. But I hope this has helped bridge a gap that many might see as very vast in terms of Eastern and Western understandings of things, which I also spoke about in part over a week ago in “Looking At EasternReligion From the West” 

Karma as a term just means action, but doesn’t reflect on every action we do. Some things are benign and don’t reflect something ethical in nature. Eating meat probably doesn’t create bad karma, as it were, which could be understood as bad habits of behavior instead of some nondescript energy that has a negative quality to it. An example from the Bible, which I can’t help but reference both as someone raised Christian and a religious studies major who is curious about religious philosophy, is the idea that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you live a life of violence, you shouldn’t be surprised if you yourself die in a violent way or by violence. Perhaps this isn’t always the case. But karma isn’t divine justice or equalizing right and wrong, because both of these things involve a principle or entity that is anthropomorphic in nature. Humans make ethical judgments, nature doesn’t, nor does the law of karma and vipaka. Vipaka is a concept that isn’t visited a lot in understanding karma, partly because karma is more often understood in Hindu terms, which doesn’t utilize the concept of ripening and fruit as a metaphor for the results of your actions, which much like fruits, don’t all progress at the same rate. In this way, if I had to give a technical explanation of karma and vipaka, it would be that any action that reflects a habit or ethical tendency reverberates and affects others in some sense, though the primary recipient is yourself, even if you manage to get away with murder and theft your entire life. The string of behavior that you generate through these bad actions without even considering the consequences creates a bad seed in yourself that will develop subsequently into a bad fruit that may not be anything that affects you from outside, but merely rots you away from the inside proverbially speaking. Karma and vipaka are, to simplify, principles of act and result that work both externally and internally by context and consideration of the actions themselves. To say someone has bad or good karma is only to claim they are exercising poor judgment of the gravity of their behavior and the results to both others and themselves of those actions performed for various reasons, good or bad.

To reiterate, the idea of karma should not be seen as anything like cosmic justice, since that is reflective of an overly human centered perspective on how the world progresses. Karma is virtually neutral; it doesn’t work like humans think it should necessarily. It follows something closer to nature in that it reflects our own developed habits. When you behave in a way that benefits others, you can benefit yourself, though not always. And inversely, if you behave in a way that hurts others, you can hurt yourself, though not as one might expect. I hope I communicated some of the ideas of karma as I’ve learned about them in my research of Buddhism. Next time will be a study on a symbol called the endless knot. Until then, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is God Both a Deterrent and Distraction?




An issue that comes up often in atheist/theist discussions is whether belief in God is beneficial to theists in any sense beyond their personal comfort or if it’s damaging to them in creating a codependence upon a higher power. The American Psychological Association released a study a month ago that suggests a bit of both. I’m not surprised this seems to be the case and with my curiosity on psychology of religion (even if I still haven’t read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience) I’m intrigued about the ambivalence. The general conclusions they drew were that if you believed in God while doing some activity, there was evidence that you were less motivated to put your full effort in, but if you were tempted by sweets and had God on your mind, you were less likely to eat them. It’s unavoidable that we’ll deal with people that believe or disbelieve in God on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. Our own psychology as it relates to God belief or lack thereof can help us understand others as well in that we might share these tendencies to some degree.

With evidence from the study that God is a deterrent against temptation, people would no doubt use this as a support for how God belief is more beneficial in the long run. But I’d respond along with many that this is repressing instead of suppressing instincts and doing something that the human mind can accomplish without recourse to something that is unfalsifiable by nature. Not to mention there’s an irony of authoritarianism that tinges this sort of motivation to resist urges. If you only do this because you feel someone’s watching that you can’t see, feel, hear, etc, then you seem to be doing it purely out of fear of the unknown. And as with any argument about God, religion and morality, it brings up a more pressing issue: are you saying you don’t do bad things only because you’d feel guilt that God is watching you? So if you could be shown there was no God conclusively, you’d just steal, kill, rape, etc? It doesn’t reflect very good ethical impulses for a person to resist evil merely out of reverence or piety. Even Paul said something to that effect in the Bible. Albeit he reversed it and implied that fear of God is preferable to fear of the law in doing good and being righteous. In the reverse, of course, non believers might be more tempted to eat sweets or such, but at the same time, it’s not as if we can’t be mindful of our bad habits and change them through sheer force of will and further good habits. Our tendency to do bad things is universal; it doesn’t mean that one solution is automatically acceptable merely because it has more consistent results if it requires believing a falsehood.

On the issue that I’d linger on more, belief in God seemingly making people lazy, the obvious reasoning and connection people make is that when you believe you are not completely or mostly in control of things you’re doing, then you aren’t motivated to do as well as if you believed otherwise. In short, the criticism lies with a fatalism that’s partly present in monotheistic thinking, or at the very least implied and dismissed or avoided with clever philosophical and theological acrobatics about the nature of God’s foreknowledge and omniscience as well as God’s plan for its creations to have free will, but not sovereignty. Fundamentally the motivation issue is more important to me because it’s something that has always made me skeptical of especially devout religious people. You can devote yourself to certain causes with great passion, but your motivation isn’t humanitarian or humanist in nature; it’s based on either appearing righteous before God or simply following that God’s commands, neither of which make me or most people think you’re a good person. If you do good things because you feel good about doing them without any hope of reward, you’re a much better person in my book. Religious people can do this, of course, but you still expect some reward, either because of your works reflecting your faith or your faith as the motivation for doing good works. But that seems self serving and myopic in perspective since you’re concentrating on either getting yourself or others to heaven by saving them, witnessing to them, etc. Even charity can have this subtle undertone, though it isn’t always the case, I’ll admit. Some religious people don’t even think about evangelism when they’re being generous to others. But the attempt at any time to use your kindness to other people as a stepping stone to preaching really irks me and seems to actually put a wrench in the process. People would initially see you as kind and then react with disgust at how sanctimonious you are in doing it just to get that chance. By all means, do your charity work, I’m behind you. But underpinning everything with God makes you appear not only to have a holier than thou attitude, but misses the point of what ethics are supposed to reflect in great part, good relationships with other people, even if you disagree with them.

Regardless of if either of these possibilities is true across the board for theists or atheists, I can’t help but see the damaging effects of both for theists in particular. Resisting temptation due to fear of or reverence for a supernatural entity instead of for the sake of practicing virtue for its own benefit is not ultimately helpful for anyone. And I think everyone could agree that not being motivated to do your best at any activity because you affirm that things are to an extent determined not by your own efforts but by an agent outside of your control is damaging. We can all admit that there are things we can’t avoid or control without bad repercussions, e.g. the weather or time. But when you lose desire to diligently work because you put your fate in God’s hands, it not only hurts your relationship with others, but does little for your own work ethic. I’m not saying this applies to everyone, but the mere possibility suggests that if not confronted, people could just accept their laziness due to belief in God as something that they just have to accept in part since they can’t just suddenly disbelieve. No one’s saying you can’t believe in God and still be a hard worker. It’s just that the tendency for abuse of belief in God as an excuse for not working as hard is not conducive to progress in any sense of the word. Being mindful of how your beliefs affect your behavior is crucial and should not be pushed to the side, but made a priority. Even atheists should consider this, not just theists. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rebirth, Not Reincarnation




The Buddhist teaching of rebirth is one of what I would say are two of the most highly misunderstood ideas that have propagated through the West in ways that resemble Hinduism much more than Buddhism. Whenever I speak about Buddhism in relation to the subject of the afterlife and such, I use the term rebirth as opposed to reincarnation, since the latter implies that my individual soul is incarnated in a new body, which is not what Buddhism even remotely teaches. Rebirth can apply across my life and subsequent death much more loosely. We can be said to be reborn in a nominal and figurative sense across our lives. Cells die and are replaced, our mind abandons some beliefs for others, building up knowledge, etc. We are reborn metaphorically as we become part of a new community, as we affirm wedding vows or other important events in our lives. And in terms of our death and birth of other entities, there is at the very least a connection that I’ll explain with a few examples.

The idea of virtual rebirth is not so hard for us to accept, since the experience of a radical change in ourselves is commonly described as a rebirth anyway. The Christian idea of being “born again” is explained in a similar fashion. We change into a different person, but are not literally born physically again. The birth is mental, not unlike when I spoke about dependent origination and how we are born and die in a cycle that stems from our minds in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” Physical renewal is more subtle in that we don’t recognize it explicitly, but beyond the surface, on the cellular level, we retain very little of our original body in a sense, particularly our skin, but other parts of the body as well. So we could easily recognize that we are reborn in one form or another in every moment, be it our body or our minds as we interact with various conditions and causes/effects.  The difficult part of rebirth comes with any enumeration of an actual form of the phenomenon.

When most people think of rebirth, there is probably an instinctual association with reincarnation, if only because there tend to be a few basic theories about the afterlife, one of them closer to Buddhism in saying that an individual person basically ceases to be when they die, associated often with atheism. This is not to say that the elements of that person’s body in particular are annihilated, but that the idea of mind is interwoven with the body, so that in a sense, any individual person is not reborn as another person, but a new birth generates a new person by the basic psychology that Buddhism describes in our grasping for things and seeking permanence. There is no strict word in Buddhism that translates directly to rebirth. The closest term that expresses the reality in a larger context is bhava, literally meaning “becoming”. We are always in a state of becoming, not a static being affected by the outside but not changing in any way as individuals. This sort of thinking originates from existential thought in particular. We are not thought of as beings that simply exist in a constant state, but are in fact always in constant change and assailed by choices that we must confront and deal with the results of. In that sense, there is not any sort of nihilism that would come from believing that you essentially die, but in a sense you survive on as a flame passed onto another candle, or as a seed resulting from a tree becomes another tree. They aren’t the same, but they aren’t absolutely different either. I’m not saying that there is necessarily a strictly materialistic explanation, but from my experience, the best explanation for what happens after death is something like the circle of life from The Lion King. We are all connected. This doesn’t mean our consciousness survives in nature, ala Mufasa talking in the stars, but simply that we are all interrelated by death and life. Rebirth is, if nothing else, simpler, but also more mysterious in a sense than the more direct issue of what the soul is and how it survives, etc in that afterlife theory. If reincarnation or resurrection is true, it only changes particular things I believe. At the least I’d be obliged to recognize reincarnation if it could be demonstrated. But with the evidence I have before me, the only conclusion I have is that I will cease to be ultimately when I die and something else will be renewed or supported through dependent origination that connects in some sense to my decaying corpse and its elements; worms to birds to plants to another person, for example. Even if I don’t relate to a newborn, I sustain another person regardless, even if it isn’t technically me.

There is a basic truth to rebirth, but nonetheless people will find various reasons to disbelieve it, many of which I would find delusional or otherwise mistaken. We don’t like to see things without a lens, the harsh reality that exists immanently. We like to put some barrier between us and that presence, so we generate ideas of souls and other realms. One could point out to me that native Buddhists tend to believe the six realms spoken of in traditional Buddhist cosmology are as real as ours, but I consider myself a secular Buddhist. Those realms are reflections of the human condition in all its diversity. Some of us live like gods or devas, some of us live in torturous squalor, like is described in the hell realm. Any of the 31 realms (not always, but in some traditions) that are supposedly enumerated in Buddhist cosmology can correspond to some manifestation of a possible human life. It’s not only simpler, but it’s more relevant to what we can immediately observe about human psychology. Call me anthropocentric, but the life of a cat or dog is hardly the same as a human. But we can learn from them no doubt. I might confront that in the future.

Rebirth is a process of change, as I said before, reflected in the mark of impermanence that permeates existence. It is also demonstrative of dissatisfaction and non-self, since we are not fulfilled in believing people will survive their death, seeing that we look forward to more existence instead of accepting whatever might be the case, and we don’t truly have any abiding soul or aspect of our self that survives our death, contrary to any claims about our ability to think proving a soul exists or the long debunked experiment supposedly showing the weight of a soul. Regeneration goes on every moment in a sense with our mental and physical states, and even as we die there is a revival of sorts, albeit it doesn’t involve a soul. When anything is born (more precisely conceived), there is a reconstitution of various elements and when something dies those elements dissipate. The comparison of one’s rebirths to a flame being passed from one candle to the next is not only relevant but popular as a metaphor, since each flame is different and they aren’t identical to each other completely, but only in qualities that they have. Each person shares some properties, but ultimately we each have different experiences that develop various parts of ourselves. Some are more educated, some are more skilled, etc. Reincarnation is transmigration of a soul, rebirth is transformation of basic elements in something more holistic than reductionistic. Each part is not reducible ultimately, though there are elements of truth to that. To understand rebirth you have to see the forest along with the trees but focus on the former, not the latter. There can still be karma and vipaka, which I’ll speak about next week, even without a soul, since karma and vipaka are intertwined not with the person as some unified self, but as an interdependent web of actions and results. Some results can happen later than others and thus a person’s birth can be affected in other ways by karmic seeds bearing fruit. The karma is not something completely outside us that determines rebirth, but our own habits and behaviors as related to karma. If you develop bad habits, you will have a bad rebirth (not technically “you”, but you for the sake of simplicity). If you develop good habits, you can free yourself from rebirth, a cycle compared to a wheel that continues to spin because of your karmic actions. Rebirth is a reality that may only be escapable in our minds and in gaining serenity as opposed to actually transcending reality and achieving liberation from the cycle in some quasi mystical sense, but it is also something that can reflect badly in our minds, so it must be understood properly. I hope I aided in that process somewhat. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Looking At Eastern Religion From the West




As someone who has studied and continues to study religion, I find myself getting trapped in the same patterns that the discipline started from, which are decidedly Western and Christian, only one of which I remotely consider myself. The tendency I refer to is considering more Asian or Eastern religions according to the European or Western standard. Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism, Daoism, Sikhism, Jainism and others all fall under something of an umbrella of systems classified as Dharmic; that is, following a path or adhering to a natural law, which is one common translation of the term dharma in Sanskrit. At least two of the faiths I listed are commonly not even considered religions in academic study: Confucianism and Jainism, mostly because they are centered on human activity instead of the supernatural related to the human. This creates an ambiguity about classification and what you include amongst common lists of 12 for most people involved in the study as a whole. Sometimes Buddhism isn’t even considered, since it’s almost as ambiguous about the relevance of the supernatural. There is also a huge swath of diversity within these religions due to the lack of specificity about a sacred or otherwise central text for the religion itself. There are many examples of relatively important historical texts for a background on any of these faiths: Tripitaka (Three Baskets) for Buddhism, along with the Pali Canon in general, the Vedas for Hinduism, the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi for Daoism, and the list goes on. But none of those texts are considered absolutely essential for all people associated with those belief systems. All in all, one has to make at least some distinctions between Western and Eastern religion, even though the term is decidedly Western in origin, meaning another term would be required for the kind of precision that would take away the ambiguity that exists in this conversation. But what term would be best?

They very idea of religious studies as an academic discipline originated in Western culture, from a desire to understand religion in more scientific terms. But the basis of what was understood as a religion came from the Abrahamic traditions, which were the most studied at the time, especially Christianity. To believe was to make specific affirmations and to orient to the supernatural. But even with religions that believed explicitly in the supernatural, such as Shinto and Hinduism, there wasn’t the specificity of Christian creeds and so their exotic nature was simplified so as to be more palatable to Western minds. Fundamentally, this created a difficulty with Confucianism, Jainism and Buddhism, since they were more like philosophies and worldviews without the supernatural. So thankfully this exposure to a different manifestation of what we could call the religious impulse of humanity resulted in Western scholars partly recognizing that religion wasn’t limited to a definition that required the supernatural or a sacred text held to be inerrant or infallible. While not everyone has the nuance to see this, it’s at least possible to consider Buddhism and Confucianism as religions in a nominal sense, even though many scholars would contest this on the grounds that you’re stretching the credibility of the term religion to include things that may be better classified outside of that. The term religion itself is subject to some debate in its etymology. On the one hand we have the analysis by Cicero of re-ligare, to re-read or re-examine. This doesn’t possess the more creed based idea of another popular interpretation that religion is derived from the Latin religare, to bind fast. The former suggests a philosophical aspect, whereas the latter has a mystical element in communion with the divine. That aside, the question remains as to the nature of Eastern religion and whether there’s another term that could work in describing it apart from Western religion’s preconceptions and the partly loaded ideas that result.

Since we’ve partly established that religions in the East are either philosophical in nature and thus don’t qualify as well for the Western definition, or are more syncretic and/or eclectic in their approach to the supernatural, the Western ideas about religion are either barely applicable, such as with Hinduism or Sikhism in the connection to the divine, or virtually irrelevant, such as with Buddhism and Jainism that regard the gods as inconsequential to one’s spiritual development. With this in mind, the recognition that there is both a Western and Eastern religion in taking the two popular etymologies into account could complicate things more than if we simplify the discussion to worldviews and approach the subject with the idea that worldviews can have qualities of either side and not require the term religion to describe either of them. The term worldview admittedly creates some difficulties, since it doesn’t preclude the inclusion of various other beliefs that are more non-philosophical in nature, such as politics and the like. But overall it would enable us to present the differences side by side and also admit that there is some overlap. Some worldviews of Western origin might fit Eastern qualities better, such as Wicca. There are also religions that skim the boundary, such as Zoroastrianism, possessing some aspects of Western religion, such as a sacred text, the Avesta, but also reflecting a dualism that isn’t as present in Christianity with God as sovereign, whereas Ahura Mazda is in conflict with Angra Mainyu in a battle of good versus evil. The category overlaps could continue on for a while, but for the moment, we should admit that the classification is imperfect, but effective nonetheless.

There will necessarily be differences between these two forms of “religion” Western religion is more a matter of affiliation to one specific system or institution (Christianity, Judaism, etc), while Eastern religion is more associated with cultural practices and can be eclectic and syncretic in nature. Western faiths have more commonly associated official texts and creeds, whereas Eastern faiths have a lot of overlap and aren’t so strict in your identification with one and another, since they can harmonize with each other very easily in a sense, as Japan did with Shinto, its native belief system and Buddhism as it came from China, which also did the same thing with its own folk beliefs and Buddhism as it came from India. Even with traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto to an extent, the behavior of believers is not the same and neither is the regard of the believers to the supernatural itself as opposed to society in relation to one’s beliefs. The Western idea of religion that we take for granted is derived primarily from an Abrahamic perspective that saw other belief systems as religions according to a very narrow idea of what constitutes religion in terms of beliefs related to the supernatural, which would’ve excluded Confucianism in the strictest sense, but also consider Chinese folk beliefs a religion of sorts unto itself. The more fluid and dynamic nature of Asian religion necessitates that you consider it within its own cultural sphere instead of under the Western lens that can push out many otherwise compelling and important Asian religions, even minority ones like Jainism and folk religions like Bon. The world religions class you take in college may give you a starting point for discussion, but it won’t necessarily present the belief systems as very different from those that many students were raised in. This will mean many of them have presuppositions about what a religion is supposed to be which will subsequently be shattered with the sheer diversity of Hinduism alone, along with Daoism and Shinto. The differences shouldn’t be cause for alarm, but an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and see that religion is not always how we identify our beliefs, strictly speaking. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Two Truths, One Path




Truth is one of the most important things to us as beings able to contemplate our own knowledge and perspective about the world. There are two schools of thought that have propagated in opposition to each other. The first is a hard type of relativism, as opposed to soft relativism, which I’ll explain in conclusion, which says all truth claims are equal in that they all originate from individuals and thus all have a similar amount of validity to them. This is invalid on its face because truth is not merely a matter of our assertions from different perspectives without considering the conflicts that may exist between each of them. I may see things a particular way, you see them another way and we could be both right, but with many situations, there tends to be one side that has the only correct answer, such as 1+1=2 or other very basic truths and facts. The second position is that of hard absolutism. It isn’t a bad thing to hold to absolute truths in the sense that they are valuable for establishing a foundation. But to hold to them inflexibly and without any sense of distinction or nuance, you become resistant to virtually any kind of change because it threatens the well established tradition that instilled those rigid values in your mind. This is incorrect for a different reason. If you put forth a truth as applicable the same way in every situation, you fail to recognize that in certain cases, stealing, lying, even killing can be permissible, albeit one has to weigh the cause and effect within those contexts, which can only be done by thinking critically about those absolute truths and applying them in a case by case contextual basis. If this is not done, you regress to a repressive and dangerous position that uses the law as your justification instead of considering the principle behind the law itself. In Buddhism, there are said to be two kinds of truth. They are the relative and absolute, or conventional and ultimate for another phrasing. Each of these should be explained in more detail as well as the relationship between them afterwards. The importance of both cannot be overstated to understanding Buddhism as a whole.

With relative or conventional truth, it is not always so clear what is meant.  Perspective is not always the factor as to whether something is right or wrong, some things are such irrespective of whether we perceive them that way or not, albeit with philosophical issues, this is never absolutely certain. With Buddhism, the idea of this first truth is accessibility to everyone. If I want to explain the teachings, I have to first speak in a way any person can understand. This can involve using parables, metaphors and other twists of language as well as colloquial expressions to make any particular point. The idea of no self, for instance, can be explained and not imply any contradiction if I also consistently refer to myself with that pronoun. This doesn’t mean I believe there is some soul that my identity consists in, but merely a way to have a cogent conversation with people who do. Having an open mind doesn’t mean you automatically accept everything as true, but are receptive to new ideas that people have so as to understand them better than if you just threw ultimate truth at them and expected them to believe it without experience or consideration of why their own beliefs are mistaken in some sense. With the truth of dissatisfaction, we can look at it relative to each situation and person and see that it is not always the same everywhere at all times. Sometimes it seems as if some group is doing great and another is failing miserably. Relative impermanence also reflects on how each of us is in a different state and cannot fully understand each others’ positions unless we were that person. We can see impermanence in particular situations, but are not always mindful of it. With no-self you have the obvious individual perspectives we have of ourselves and others which creates diversity in the world. We each have our own existential paradigm we develop as we grow up and interact with others and introspect. To value relative truth is to appreciate perspective and context without making it the final determinant factor in our appropriation of truth as a whole.

With ultimate or absolute truth there is less a sense of specific or rational/discursive explanation. A basic idea of absolute truth is that it is so regardless of one’s belief to the contrary. But this becomes very abstract to minds that commonly require concrete examples. Something being true independently of our perspective also makes it seem very distant and mechanical instead of organic as we ourselves are. In this way, Buddhist absolute truth considers things as a whole to possess an absolute truth as you experience it. The absolute truth is when you see things from a larger perspective as well as the smaller perspective. You neither miss the forest for the trees or the trees for the forest, but see trees and forests as is pertinent to a discussion or situation. Impermanence as absolute truth is that things are fundamentally without any semblance of stasis. As much as things may seem to remain the same, such as a mountain, even that slowly erodes away. Ultimate dissatisfaction is that the states we cling to are not ultimately fulfilling and thus cause us suffering as we linger on bad things and yearn for good things instead of letting things come and go as they will. Meaning comes from within, not from without. And with non-self, there is both the idea that our deaths preclude any possibility of survival after them as disembodied consciousness or the like and that we do not truly or ultimately possess anything that we come into contact with, even our own self perception which is conditioned by particular circumstances outside of our control. There are things we can control and this is where it becomes relevant to the relative. Similarly, with our individual suffering and experience of transience, we can see how our part relates to the whole and how our contribution to the whole is distinct by incidents that aid us in progression towards wisdom and subsequent enlightenment. There is both an abstract and concrete notion of relative and absolute truth through interactions of individuals with the world that can be observed, but not always explained. And even if one attempted it, as said before, it wouldn’t necessarily be effective, since some people still need to let go of particular preconceptions to even consider the possibility of many initially mystifying Buddhist ideas, many of which I’ve explained in previous articles.

There are not precisely two levels of truth so much as two expressions of truth to different minds. The two truths are not hierarchical, since ultimate truth isn’t always best when speaking to large groups or even individuals if they aren’t disposed to understanding truths in different lenses. The two truths are side by side, not one on top of the other. They might even be said to exist within one another, not unlike the idea in Chinese philosophy of yin yang, which has its own origins in the I Ching text. In contrast to the hard relativism and absolutism, you can have a soft form of each in admitting things are relative in some sense, but that there are absolute truths amongst the relative.Ultimate truth in some sense ineffable, but able to be experienced, conventional truth able to be expressed, but not expressing the fullness of whatever it is. You can’t have one without the other in either situation, much like yin and yang. Without absolute truth, the relative truth is merely pandering to people’s dispositions, but without conventional expressions, the ultimate truth is never reached. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.