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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Buddhism: What Do We Know?

Our certainty about the things we know varies on a fairly wide spectrum when one thinks about it. We take for granted the reality of things like a desk chair, our food, other people we interact with. But there are things that are believed in that aren’t necessarily fully thought out, such as our ethics, or even contemplated on as to whether they’re necessary, such as supernatural thinking of one form or another. To focus too much on whether something is absolutely or conventionally true misses the point of what I spoke about in “Two Truths, One Path,” . The fluctuating nature of existence necessitates that we take different perspectives on things, but nonetheless maintain a degree of consistency even in the vacillation. Knowledge is more difficult to remain constant on, since it supports every other action we do. We behave ethically due to beliefs about what is good and bad respectively, things are considered mistaken or accurate because of prior experience and evidence considered together logically, and even logic has a basis in what we consider valid and sound. Buddhism in particular is something that many find to be highly lacking as concerns formal knowledge. Everything seems more based in practice, which varies by the individual, be they monastic or layperson or something in between. With this in mind, it comes to the question: does Buddhism make any real knowledge claims, philosophically speaking?

No formal structure exists across all of Buddhism for karma or rebirth, two of the biggest issues in studies of the philosophy, let alone whether Buddha was simply a wise man or a figure that possessed semi divine powers of near omniscience even before he actually shuffled off his proverbial earthly coil. This creates a lot of ambivalence that I noticed early on when first studying Buddhism in a college environment five years ago. Our introduction to Asian religions course focused on Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion for the most part, so there was more detail put into each of them. A question I recall coming up for Buddhism that reflected issues I spoke about in part with both “Seeds and Fruits, Actions and Results, and “Rebirth, Not Reincarnation” was how a person’s karma can continue on if the person reborn is not the same as they were before? There are a few answers to this, the one I prefer being that karma is more a state of things instead of an individual person. There is such a thing as individual karma in the sense of one’s own actions and results affecting oneself primarily, but actions and results usually affect more people than we realize in one way or another. And this also solves that issue of rebirth in that karma isn’t co-opted by rebirth’s affecting any individual’s identity, subject to impermanence as they all are, particularly at death. Another answer to how a person’s karma might continue on even if the person themselves is subject to dissipation at death in some sense is that there is a stream of consciousness that is very subtly intertwined with the next rebirth, which retains the person’s memories, thoughts, etc. This, of course, brings up the more supernatural and even superstitious aspects of Buddhism as it spread out from India, though there were those that believed these things even within the founding country of Gautama’s teachings.

There is a tendency within lay Buddhism and even ordained Buddhism to follow the school that affirms Buddha was supernatural in some sense and that many aspects of Buddhism that are confusing should be answered with some form of mysterious and transcendent reality, such as Gautama Buddha being able to read people’s thoughts even in past lives, recall his past lives in vivid detail, not to mention the stream of consciousness spoken of before and the actual reality of the other six realms, particularly the lower and upper 2 where entities of a very unfalsifiable nature, however limited in their overall power, exist (hell beings, preta, asura and deva) I’m not saying this isn’t genuine Buddhism in the sense of it developing within cultures that don’t have opposition to a system as long as it can be incorporated into pre-existing beliefs. This is how Buddhism coexists so well with the animistic and polytheistic cultures that it holds high influence in today. The Buddha was notoriously silent on many of these matters, and unfortunately people take his silence as an ambivalent acceptance of the reality of things that he was emphatically against believing in just because of traditions or the like. This vague sense of “divine wisdom” we get from Gautama as depicted in many accounts of his life is what creates much of the mixed ideas that exist in Buddhism as it modernized and was incorporated into such cultures as Japan’s, where everything was believed to have a spirit in it, including mountains and rivers, let alone people and animals. Resolving the conflicts between them through syncretism is a solution, though it only muddies the waters as to what might be considered even remotely original Buddhism.

The Buddhist perspective on knowledge is not absolute in the grandest scheme, but only in those things that are beneficial to us. To know suffering is as valuable as knowing happiness, and knowing they are both fleeting is even more important. What is worth knowing and being confident, not arrogant, about are ideas that have practical applications in everyday life. Not just in isolated academic discussions, but something anyone can talk about in common language. Even if there isn’t always a structured dogma or official teaching in any sense of the word about such things as the principle of karma, derived in part from Hindu teachings that existed in the same culture with similar ambivalence, it doesn’t mean Buddhism doesn’t have certainty on other things. Life is most definitely dukkha, unsatisfactory in our initial approach to it, the cause of it is a combination of craving and ignorance, one can get over this dukkha approach to life and that is through living the eightfold path. There are also the 5 precepts and other traditions that are commonly held to have value across Buddhism, such as meditation and the virtues of metta and prajna.

To say Buddhism is cryptic and mysterious is not inaccurate, but rejecting it based on a standard of credulity requiring strict Western logic can miss the point of the nondualistic perspective that much of Eastern thought, Buddhism and Daoism especially, presents. Simply viewing things through a lens of “either/or” neglects the “both/and” answers we can see if we consider things differently, though not to the extent of throwing reason out the window. But as there are many sides to a diamond, life has many perspectives we can view it through and find different insights that we might not have discovered otherwise. That’s where Buddhism benefits: it seeks out answers wherever they may come and brings things together without reducing it in scale. The holistic nature of it doesn’t mean we neglect reducing things as is appropriate. It’s always a balance with Buddhist philosophy and practice and to come even close to perfect takes a lifetime, if not more in a sense. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Religion Gets A Revamp

Religion in America is a topic that’s been done to death in books like “American Grace” by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but a new work has been put out by a Roman Catholic, Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist. He criticizes various forms of Christianity as it has modernized, such as prosperity gospel as well as the God within philosophy popularized by people such as Oprah Winfrey. I find it ironic that a Catholic is criticizing people for distancing themselves from institutionalized religion and taking on more of a “spiritual” angle in their beliefs and philosophy when the Catholic Church is probably responsible in great part for people not having any real love for organized religion, especially as of recently with the child abuse cover up scandals. Protestant churches can be bad too, in their own ways, but the appeal of the more piety based Christian sect is that it’s not about what you do so much as what you believe, which can create a sense of unjustified entitlement in the wake of having a “born again” experience, which is where people start becoming non denominational, because even the evangelical title is too embarrassing. There are a number of reasons that could be speculated on, but I think it’s relevant to find agreement with the author first before continuing on my tirade as to how he’s actually making the problem worse in a sense and not really solving it by some call to traditional religion.

I agree that there are big problems with the types of “heretical” religion he rails against, though calling them heretical is a bit esoteric. I suppose they would be heretical in the sense of breaking off from orthodox teachings, assuming the Catholic Church is orthodox. But the reasons these are damaging to society is more explicit than, say, traditional Catholicism, which I would argue has its own issues to confront. Prosperity gospel, at its core, believes that Jesus will bless you with financial gain, because it is his will. Of course, it isn’t just given to you without some responsibility on your part. You need a combination of faith and donations to encourage this windfall upon you. The reason it poses such an explicit danger is that is appeals to one of the lowest common denominators amongst humanity, our desire for material wealth and gain. If you tell people that God wants to make you rich, then people can get on board with it much easier than if you just tell them that you’ll be rich if you get involved with a pyramid scheme or the like. God is supernatural, so people can make more “sense” out of the creator of the universe wanting people to be prosperous than being taken in by common snake oil salesmen. But if you are motivated to be religious simply because you think your piety will give you money from heaven, then it’s definitely less sincere than if you want to actually help people out of the goodness of your heart and conscience.  Not to mention that this ridiculous theology suckers money out of otherwise reasonable people, who are drawn in by desperation and feelings of devotion to some God they felt estranged from. This sort of abuse of power is a problem that exists in any religion, but especially so with such an explicitly profit centered message.

The “God within” theology, popularized by many New Age sorts of thinkers, has its own issues, notwithstanding the conflicts with general classical Christianity and monotheism. When you give a person the idea that they are God in a nominal sense or can find God within themselves, it makes them feel a bit more entitled than they need to. It’s one thing to improve self esteem by saying you’re created by God, but to go so far as saying you have God within you in a more grandiose sense borders on a megalomania and egotism usually only possessed by dictators of the ilk of Hitler and Stalin. I’m not saying believers in this are going to commit mass genocide or the like, but it creates the dilemma of where you stop in terms of trying to improve people’s perception of themselves and encourage self confidence. I’m all for this sort of thing, but all good things require restraint and self control along with pride and ambition. It’s one thing to believe you are special in that God has a plan for you, such as with prosperity gospel or even just a notion that “things happen for a reason”, but it takes religious belief a bit too far in the notion that you are God incarnate, albeit not perfectly. The idea seems to be that you must find God by some sort of purification or meditation. A lot of this seems to resemble Hindu ideas, albeit the notion of people having God within for Hindus is more akin to reconnecting to ultimate reality, though there are likely multiple schools of this theology propagated by celebrities and theologians alike. Any sort of Western interpretation of Eastern ideas, such as the Hindu belief of a connection between one’s atman, your soul in a sense, and the Brahman, the world soul, has potential to miss the point entirely or at least place the theistic and transcendent tendencies of the Abrahamic religions onto what are nontheist and immanent traits of Hinduism and the like, though not always. Hinduism is notorious for being one of the most, if not the most, diverse religious systems in the world. You can be Hindu and be atheist, polytheist, monotheist or henotheist, amongst other possibilities. That reflects on how diverse the religious sensibilities of believers in these ideas can be. Not so much with prosperity gospel, but God within can be vaguer in how you interpret it.

This doesn’t mean that I’m supporting Douthat’s claim that we should return to traditional religion, though. It’s just as damaging, though in a much more subtle sense. The damage organized religion in particular does, along with religious thought, permeates culture more deeply than the recent and modern developments that try to draw people in with more palpable and desirable traits, like wealth and self esteem. The authority of a faith tradition that stands through time for one reason or another is stronger and thus more difficult to pull away from. You feel the pull of a community that gives you a sense of purpose even if that purpose is from outside yourself instead of within. There is a need for answers to your questions of where you come from, why you’re here and where you’re going and the church supposedly gives you some sense of satisfaction. It’s not even the hypocrisy of believers that is the largest issue, as that occurs with any set of beliefs one might have, naturalist or supernaturalist. Traditional religion uses rhetoric instead of logic first and foremost. They speak to a commonsensical, yet often misguided, set of ideas we take to be true because they’ve been held as true for a long time and have benefitted people in many ways. This sort of charisma and gravitas pulls people in and even draws them back in after they leave for the simple fact that they give some form of a structured answer to our deepest philosophical questions and psychological needs. But in doing so, there is cognitive dissonance, psychological turmoil and general inconsistency that could be prevented if we didn’t take dogma and faith as our prime authority in life. I’m not saying you can’t be religious or spiritual in some sense and also be rational, but many times we favor the former over the latter in our daily lives, acting on impulse and intuition rather than any sort of deliberation or debate.

There are other issues I could bring up, such as the over saturation of political topics with religious undertones, but it suffices to focus on what traditional and modern religion share in common in order to discredit them both. I don’t have a problem with you holding these beliefs, but if you try to argue that they have a rational basis at their foundation instead of faith and obedience to transcendent authorities you believe in only based on that belief, then I can’t take you seriously. There aren’t philosophical arguments to show the validity of a system that at its core does not use arguments to turn people, but conjecture and fallacies that we are commonly unaware of because of how easily misunderstood philosophy and logic are in the context of theology. If you’re going to make polemics against New Age religion as it has become interwoven with Christian theology in one sense or another, it behooves you to make sufficient arguments as to why classical Christianity based in tradition and teachings that hold up within the sacred texts is better than what is obvious to a fair segment of the population as fabrications and misdirection. Outsiders can’t take the religion seriously if there is nothing competitive about it in relation to their own, or for those who were raised in secular philosophies, the religion isn’t compelling by habits that made them skeptical to religion early on. Bottom line, religion doesn’t get more credibility or authority by how long it has survived, since any good idea is subject to alterations to appease people who aren’t satisfied, or vague retorts that keep the masses quiet and questioning without breaking away from the flock. Even the allegedly 2000+ year old faith of Christianity doesn’t get a stamp of approval because of the influence it has undoubtedly had on philosophy, history and various other disciplines. It has to stand on merits apart from its faith claims, which means it stands on vague Deism that the founding fathers of America respected as natural theology. But as far as classical Christianity goes, it has beliefs that are becoming more and more outdated and struggling to adjust, which explains why we get money grubbing televangelists and inspiring gurus that tell you to look inside for God. Religion poisons everything, but to quote Paracelsus, the poison is in the dose. Even something normally good can become damaging in excess and even things not immediately toxic can wreak damage over long exposure in small doses. Until next time, Namaste and aloha

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pro Choice or Pro Liberty

I’ve been especially critical in multiple articles about whether pro life is a label anyone should use so casually or even at all unless they’re willing to take a position that covers the whole of what is loosely considered life, from pre birth to death. But pro choice is something just as polarizing and I haven’t gotten into any detail about why it’s just as problematic an idea, or at least very simplistic. With pro life, it is implied opponents are pro death, which doesn’t follow at all. It’s even ironic if the opponents are anti war, a leading cause of death in the basic sense. Even if abortion is a form of death, it is far more regulated and safe when done correctly than war could ever be, explicitly involving a direct risk to one’s life and safety. Pro choice creates a perception that opponents are anti choice. This isn’t the case in most examples of people who are pro life. They’re the type who would personally not get an abortion, but would not try to eliminate the option of abortion outright, but merely advise against it. Those that bomb abortion clinics or kill abortion doctors are the exception to anti abortion rights pundits. Though it might not be fair to say that those that are personally against abortion are against it being legal, but want stricter regulations on it, which is fair in the same way that we require proper labeling for alcohol and cigarettes, which many have personal objections to but are nonetheless perfectly legal to purchase when of proper age. The notions of choice and liberty are important to a nuanced distinction between being pro choice and pro liberty.

If you are pro choice in either sense, either personally choosing or not choosing abortion, you value the ability of any other person to make a choice. If you think women should be forced to carry a baby, even if to give it up for adoption, this is on what pro choice creates as the opposition, one who actually does not want a person to even have the ability to choose to have an abortion, by illegalizing or stigmatizing the process of abortion itself. To be pro choice is not necessarily to be pro abortion, but pro choice in the general sense, which conservatives and liberals can support in the commonly held ideal of personal liberty without the government’s intervention. Privacy is inevitably connected with liberty and choices we make, since many choices we make are fundamentally, though not absolutely, private. When those choices are protected by people’s liberty from government intervention, we have more freedom in general without it becoming excessive.

The difficulty people would bring up in terms of the accuracy of the pro choice label is that it seems to only apply to a select few areas, namely: abortion, birth control, marijuana, and a few other areas. In terms of other things, conservatives may bring up government mandates through “liberal” courts, such as energy taxes and the healthcare system enacted by President Obama two years ago. I won’t go into whether they are or are not excessive government intervention, but I agree that consistency is something that should go both ways in political parties. One cannot criticize a pro lifer for also advocating the death penalty and not reflect on whether you are really pro choice in all areas or only when it may benefit you directly. I don’t want to sound like a strong right wing conservative, since those just create more problems than they solve in a similar way that more statist left wing liberals do. Extremes of either side are equally problematic. If you try to suppress things, they only become more desirable to people in their illegality. But letting everything go with vague ideas of what boundaries should exist is equally problematic in that it creates a sort of slippery slope that might actually be taken seriously. If you don’t establish remote absolutes in terms of what is considered damaging to marriage, for instance, the claims that you’d just as soon marry anything to anything else is not completely unlikely, though still a logical fallacy. Maintaining a balance between over inclusivity and over exclusivity is difficult when we have a variety of issues that assault us, abortion being one of those that is very contextual as to when using it constitutes leisure or necessity.

To be pro choice might be a bit too permissive in saying that you value all choices. It’s one thing to value people’s liberty, which works both in restraint and freedom of actions, but it’s another to endorse any choice by a more general idea of what the label implies. You’re free to drive drunk? You’re free to take illegal drugs? You’re free to do any number of irresponsible things? Not at all. Libertinism is not and should not be what people think of in terms of liberalism and liberty. Any good thing is done in moderation, to quote Aristotle, a philosopher who existed in a very different time from ours.

Another inquiry comes to mind from critics of the pro choice position: if you are pro choice, why would you advocate government intervention in many other areas of life, not to mention birth control? With the recent mandate concerning contraception as relates to religious institutions being adjusted to apply to the insurance providers instead of the religious institution itself, it seems potentially counter intuitive to claim you are pro choice, but also want the government to pay for your birth control and thus subsidize your choices. It’s one thing to be used for preventative purposes, but some may very well abuse it for simple promiscuity. I’m not saying this is the necessary progression, but the mindset behind some activism may be in direct conflict with what pro choice, and pro liberty advocates by association, support, which are informed decisions based on the facts and not through societal pressures. Pro choice should not try to enable choices through the government’s aid, but facilitate an environment where people are allowed to make choices, rewarded for good ones, punished for bad ones, and each response appropriate to the decisions made. There shouldn’t be any sort of implication that there aren’t consequences for actions, for better or worse. To make choice something more than a method to facilitate one’s advancement, but also edify one’s character, there must be limits on how far political actions should step into managing choices. Sometimes, choices should be permitted, with reasonable regulations, even if there are those that are morally opposed to it. We’ve done it with tobacco and alcohol, why a sudden opposition to marijuana, for example? And abortion is a procedure that is necessary until obstetrics are developed into science fiction levels of technology to preserve fertilized eggs and the like in artificial wombs. If it is done responsibly and prevented with adequate use of birth control, then there is no reason to fear it as a choice that is abused for malicious purposes or focus on profits instead of people.

If we value such things as our right to control our bodies, our sexual health, what we put into our bodies, etc, then it behooves us to neither be overly strict on regulating the various aspects of life that present both benefits and risks, nor too loose and breezy with letting things just progress as they will and solving the problem as it comes. Being able to prevent eventual problems instead of acting within immediate threats is the mark of a mind that is both able to think on its proverbial feet and also think of the potential issues without clouding present judgment. Such a thing as abortion is reasonably able to be reduced if birth control is taught in schools within reason. No one should interpret this as forcing sexuality in an unhealthy and perverse manner upon schoolchildren. Teaching youth about such things is natural and should be handled with care, I agree. But it should not be left entirely to parents, many of which are very busy and seem unable to manage time with their children beyond leisure and basic manners. Sexuality and the like are pushed back on the system they initially only depended on for education in the academic subjects. If that be the case, educate children about real life as well, in a balanced portion to mathematics, language and sciences. Responsibility is not something only parents can teach. Schools can educate students on this and not be overstepping any implied boundaries. We should never value merely the choices we can make, but those we choose not to make. That is the fullness of choice as it is subsumed within liberty. Until next time, Namaste and aloha