Friday, July 18, 2014

Obama's Hypocrisy on #MH17



From Obama's statement today on Malaysia Airlines flight 17:
Yesterday Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 took off from Amsterdam and was shot down over Ukraine near the Russian border. Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken -- men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Their deaths are a [sic] outrage of unspeakable proportions.
It's funny how the 298 deaths aboard flight MH17 are an "outrage of unspeakable proportions," but the 400+ civilian deaths in Pakistan due to US drone strikes are not similarly outrageous to Obama. (And that's just Pakistan!)

Apparently it's only an "outrage" to Obama if the event can somehow be twisted around to needle the government's enemy du jour, Vladimir Putin. When a disaster can be used to advance neocon and statist agendas to bang the war drum against Russia, it's an outrage. When the US kills some 200 Pakistani children whilst trying to FIGHT THE WAR ON TERRORISM™, that's just peachy.

Let's all shout how horrible Putin is, because some (alleged) pro-Russian rebels (allegedly) shot down MH17 with (alleged) Russian weaponry. Those 298 innocent deaths are somehow worse and more worthy of comment than the violence perpetuated by the United States military as it stabs, shoots, drones, beats, pepper sprays, tortures, and mutilates many hundreds more around the globe, as all governments do.

(And don't even get me started on the logical next step that the US government has already embarked on: assassinating its own citizens.)

I won't belittle the urge of people of conscience to "pray for MH17." But I would suggest that if such people are not also praying for the victims of government aggression at home and abroad, then perhaps some soul-searching is in order.
States are clumsy and inept in many ways, thank God; but they are exceptionally good at wreaking death and destruction.
~Robert Higgs, "The State is Too Dangerous to Tolerate"
Note: The image above is a rare exception to my policy of only using public domain pictures on this site. The picture of MH17 wreckage is from The Guardian, and the drone image is from Pakistan Today. I elected to use these non-public domain sources because: 1) In the case of MH17, there are not (yet) any public domain photos available that I know of; and 2) I could not find any decent military drone images from public domain sources.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Flickers of Meaning in a Meaningless Universe?

I recently bought a copy of Michael Novak's No One Sees God, and have been hungrily devouring it in the days since. Though Novak is a Catholic theologian, he strives to bridge the gap between atheists and the religious, believing that all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to the big questions facing humanity. As a man who has spent "long years in the dark and windswept open spaces between unbelief and belief," he aims to remind believers and unbelievers alike of the "fairly common voyage through the dark" that we are all on. I am currently halfway through the book, and I am proud to consider Novak an intellectual and spiritual companion on this journey.

With this blog post, I would like to share a smattering of questions that No One Sees God has inspired in me. I throw these meandering inquiries and thoughts out there, not in the hopes that I will get any answers, but that you can pause (as I have) and think about these things some more. I suspect that it is questions like these that we will spend our lives seeking the answers to, through the give-and-take of our daily grind.


It seems many atheists, especially the hardcore vocal ones, see the universe we inhabit as being essentially random and absurd. Much of modern science supports this, to be sure. We see a vast history of various bits of matter swirling through space, attracting each other, and combining into stars and planets -- it appears to all come together through chance and dumb luck. Other bits of matter, which somehow have developed a sort of autonomy or intelligence, come together and demonstrate behaviors to perpetuate themselves and reproduce, giving rise to the myriad forms of life we see on Earth today -- this, too, is apparently chance and dumb luck.

I'm not saying the universe isn't this way, on the whole. I'm not saying that science is completely wrong or that anything we see was "designed" by a god. I just have questions to ask. Questions to which I do not have a satisfactory answer at the moment, but which I think any thoughtful being will eventually ponder.

In a universe of such seeming randomness, why should there be a tiny sliver of non-randomness -- that is, thinking human beings? How do you get from the random (the probability wave forms of quantum mechanics; bits of matter running into each other and annihilating each other or combining into something new) to the non-random (hairless bipeds that can think, talk, gain knowledge, transmit it, preserve it, etc.)?

In the cold, dark universe of meaninglessness that we see through science, how do we come to have animals (including us) that have a spark of meaning within them? Some high-level animals demonstrate a sort of "moral code" of helping each other, which of course we can explain away through Darwinism and survival mechanisms. But not all animals show that, and none go as far as humans go. Humans formulate codes of morality, debate them, promote or demote moral ideas, talk about "conscience," carry guilt, yearn for meaning, and strive for such abstract purities as truth and justice.

Why does this world of ours, seemingly, look like this:

______________________/\________________________

Amongst the flat landscape of inanimate, meaningless, and (apparently) random bits of flotsam and jetsam that makes up the majority of our visible universe, why is there that little spike? How can the inanimate and meaningless somehow give birth to the animate and meaningful? How can the cold, uncaring soil somehow sprout a verdant orchard of warm, fleshy beings who strive for compassion?

Similarly, in engaging "secular conservative" Heather Mac Donald in friendly discussion, Novak raises further questions of interest:

Heather is close to the mark when she manifests deep respect for human conscience, for the human quest for truth and justice, and for "innate" drives for goodness and concern for others. The metaphysical questions [are], Where did these drives come from? What sort of world is it in which such drives appear? ... The all-too-visible law of the jungle that marks our universe does not seem to her promising for progress in truth and justice...

This opinion leads me to the question, What is it about humans that makes them so different from other animals, fish, birds? Given an irrational cosmos, whence comes the human quest -- Heather's quest -- for the good and the true?

I'm told that scientists estimate the observable universe contains some 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. Out of those 10^80 atoms, why is it that a relatively tiny handful of atoms should end up comprising human beings? And why, unlike all the other atoms we can see out there, do we have this ability to conceive of such abstract notions as truth, justice, goodness, and compassion? Again, how does a universe of the meaningless give birth to some little spike of the meaningful?


If we temporarily skip over the issue of first causes, there is an inconsistency in how to move on from here. The "secular humanists" (and most other atheists) insist that there is still a moral code worth following. For example, from the Council for Secular Humanism's Affirmations of Humanism:

  • "We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life."
  • "We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves."
  • "We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence."

If the universe is heartless and meaningless, why do these things matter? If I only live once, and if I evolved from a huge family tree of animals that, primarily, survive by hunting and killing and cruelly taking whatever they need -- what is the point of "moral excellence?" If I can't take it with me when I die, and if there is no over-arching truth, justice, and goodness to strive for, then why bother? The disadvantaged and the handicapped will die someday, and I will too, and that will be the end of both of us. Why care? In all likelihood, someday there will be no humans left to remember any of us who lived or anything we did, so goodness in an uncaring universe seems rather futile.

I disagree with many of the Secular Humanist affirmations (e.g. "democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights"), but I respect their desire to cultivate morality and goodness among all people. Still, the questions must arise: Why is morality desirable? How did we arrive at this point where we value morality, if the other 99.9% of the universe that surrounds us is decidedly amoral and indifferent?

Militant atheists insist they can be "good without God" -- like Michael Novak, I have no doubt about that. There are atheists who are wonderful people, and there are Christians that are horrible people. Atheism is no guarantee of being good or bad, and Christianity (or religiosity) is no guarantee either. But, I ask the hardcore atheists, why should you be good without God? Or to simplify the question, why should you be good? You don't have to believe in God to be good, but why be good at all if the universe is meaningless and indifferent?

I don't have an answer to any of this so far, but it's enough to make a person pause. Atheists say the "non-falsifiable" Christian answer ("It's God's will") is useless hot air; I'd similarly say that the non-falsifiable atheist answer ("It's all random and meaningless") is equally useless. It also flies in the face of the observable evidence sitting right here in the chair I occupy as I type this: I am not totally random and meaningless, as far as I can tell.

There is a chair for me to sit on (something not random or meaningless, but assembled with intention), a computer to type and publish with (equally not random or meaningless), and an established language for me to write in and you to read in (ditto). These facts alone defy the chest-thumping of "militant atheists" like Richard Dawkins. Again, they don't necessarily point to a metaphysical intelligence or a Creator, but they do illustrate some flaws in the atheist insistence on metaphysical meaninglessness and emptiness.


A closing thought: whether the militant atheists are right or wrong, I've always found something distasteful about their means of communicating. They firmly adopt the method "discussion" that is prevalent in the modern West: taking up a position and shouting it at others, ridiculing those who don't agree, with no real give-and-take or mutual respect. Though I am not a Catholic like Mr. Novak, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment he expresses over and over in his book:

I do not understand why atheists, deists, and Jewish and Christian theists cannot argue calmly and reasonably about such matters. Mapping out the chief differences, and the obstacles in the no-man's-land between one [paradigm] and another should -- with perhaps an additional case of brandy slowly sipped -- be accomplished in a decade or less. Such a discussion need not convert anyone. But it should lead to a much higher quotient of mutual respect among all three parties than we have seen for many generations now.

Amen to that, Michael. I'm weary of the notion of "conversion," whether by Christians or by atheists. I think one of the most beautiful endeavors we humans can undertake is to ask questions, ponder our lives, and respect each other as we try to do it all together.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Consuming the Social

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of deleting my Facebook account. Having de-activated it in disgust multiple times since 2009, I'm pleased to say that I don't miss it one bit now that it's gone for good. There's a whole laundry list of reasons I despise Facebook, such as the fact that you can't know for sure if your friends will see the things you post (and similarly, that you can't force Facebook to show you everything that a given friend posts if you want to see it all). My main beef with it, though, is a social and cultural one.

Facebook is the ultimate marriage of consumerism and social relationships. Calling it "social," in fact, is being overly generous. With Facebook, we've turned our friends into objects we can consume en masse. We get to be "friends" without having to actually see them, have a conversation with them, or even interact with them beyond the occasional click on the "Like" button. If you remember people lamenting how e-mail was the death of the handwritten, thoughtful letter, how much moreso is Facebook the death of even the most elementary communication between so-called friends?

What little interaction that does remain on Facebook is a consumable object in its own right. How else can you explain the endless stream of selfies, the flood of 317 consecutive photos of someone's sleeping infant, and the "here's what I ate for lunch" posts? I'm sorry, but posting a photo of your Ritz crackers with Hickory Smoked Spam on top, and thereby accumulating a bunch of "Like" clicks, is not the same as going out to coffee or lunch with a good friend. What are these activities on Facebook if not attempts to whore ourselves out for the shallow "Likes" of others? Are these anything more than attempts to broadcast how awesome our lives are, to simultaneously pat ourselves on the back and get virtual pats on the back from others?

I left Facebook because even after filtering out the selfies and the constant play-by-play baby updates, there wasn't much actual social activity left on this so-called social network. If this is the height of social relations in modern society, it is shameful indeed. It's the worst of internet shouting matches...

That’s the wrong word, in fact. There’s little actual inter-action going on amongst most forums, chat rooms, and social media sites. There’s a lot of action coming from a bunch of isolated “I’s” broadcasting out into a world of (seemingly) receptive “its.”

Even amongst groups of people I knew well and who demonstrated the capacity for being thoughtful or contemplative, I would routinely see their discussions (and the ones involving myself) degenerate into shouting matches. Shouting matches with impeccable grammar and multi-faceted arguments, but shouting matches nonetheless. Rather than any inter-action, there was merely the solo actions of two or more people declaring their ideas past each other, akin to two ships passing in the night on the open sea. (link)

... combined with the worst of an echo chamber:

Facebook and social media in general appear to me to be nothing more than I-It echo chambers. “Like” a bunch of people and things that reinforce the likes and dislikes of your “I,” and rarely (if ever) engage in actual thoughtful discussion or open-minded debate with other people (who are in turn “I’s” in their own right, though we generally ignore this).

I won't tell you that you must close your Facebook account, or get off of similar "social" networks online. I will say, though, that I don't miss it at all. I don't miss the wasted time, I don't miss the constant pop-ups on my phone, and I certainly never had any meaningful or memorable conversations on Facebook that I feel cheated out of.

I would encourage you, though, to take a good look at your friendships and see what they're like. Are they Facebook-style, with nothing but a bunch of shallow one-way broadcasts and "Likes"? Or are they something you maintain through attentiveness, thoughtfulness, discussion, and care? Is your social network a garden that you carefully cultivate and tend to? That's my preferred style, and I think that may be the healthier one for humans in the long run.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Enlightenment for Just $19.95 Plus Shipping & Handling

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron contributed a wonderful piece to Tricycle magazine back in 2002: "Shopping the Dharma." She highlighted the consumer mindset as it has manifested in virtually every level of Buddhism and Dharma practice in America. The consumerism extends from the moment we start "shopping" for our spiritual path...
First, we shop for the best product—the best group, the most realized teacher, the highest practice. We go from this place to that, seeking the best spiritual product to “buy.” We want the highest teachings, so we neglect foundational practices.
... to the way we treat our teachers:
Asian Buddhists make offerings to the monastic community to accumulate merit that brings a good rebirth. Looking at them, we Westerners say, “They’re doing spiritual business. They’re practicing dana—generosity—to get something for themselves.” Thinking that we’re superior to Asians following old traditions, we don’t give to the monastic community. Holding to our work ethic, we want would-be recipients to go out and get a job.
This, in turn, affects how the teachers conduct retreats and courses:
At the end of a retreat, someone gives a “dana talk,” saying dana is generosity freely given but that we should think of all we’ve received from the teacher, who has a family, car, mortgage, credit card bills, and needs our financial support. Hasn’t dana, then, become another way of paying for services rendered? Engaging in rigorous mental calculations to determine what amount is reasonable for such services, we miss the point of dana, which is to take delight in giving and to give from the heart.
The consumerism extends even to the time before the teaching takes place, with Buddhism being marketed as a product to acquire:
Notices of dharma events don’t just announce an event, but actively sell a product, in this case the teacher or the teaching... It is the supreme teaching by which previous masters have attained enlightenment. You can receive this for a mere $99.95 plus dana for the teacher. Register early to reserve a seat.
I don't generally read the comments on online articles, because my blood pressure tends to go too high throughout my day as it is. Still, I did find some interesting tidbits in the comments on this article. "kpeterzen" wrote:
It is a reminder for me to read again "Spiritual Materialism". However, Chogyam Trungpa has a softer, more endearing way of pointing out consumerist tendencies that are difficult not to pick up in our culture. This article felt a bit shaming in comparison.
Now, kpeterzen is not explicitly saying that this "shaming" is bad, but I have to assume that's the underlying message. And what's wrong with a bit of shaming, if it is true and just? If you're genuinely doing something unhelpful or, perhaps, downright wrong, who are you to take umbridge at those who call you out on it? Soft teachings have their place, but I believe (as did the Zen teachers of old) that sometimes you need a rude splash of cold water in your face to help you wake up. I think Thubten Chodron is right in a lot of her analysis, but more important is what we do with her words after reading them. "buddhawannabe" said:
Every single word spoke to me and exposed me to places of self-inquiry, both within myself and in my judgments of others.
I'm grateful to the Venerable Thubten Chodron for sharing this teaching. I am dismayed that we stand here, nearly 12 years later, and there's no sign that spiritual materialism or consumerist Buddhism is on the decline. Still, we can't control what others do -- we can only encounter the teachings like this, use them for self-inquiry, and encourage others to look at these topics thoughtfully. In a culture of "single-serving friends" whom we consume as if they, too, were mere objects, the issue of "shopping the Dharma" is definitely one worthy of thought and action.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review - River of Fire, River of Water

About a third of the way through River of Fire, River of Water, author Taitetsu Unno brings in a quote from Shinran:

“To be made to become so” means that without the practicer’s calculation in any way whatsoever, all his past, present, and future evil karma is transformed into the highest good.

This is a book that defies the reader’s calculation. Unno writes in such a way as to defy your desire to gain a quick, shallow, or purely academic understanding of Shin Buddhism. River of Fire, River of Water is not a reference manual for Shin Buddhism with cold, hard delineations and organization. It is a meandering, winding journey that mirrors the Buddhist path itself – and life in general.

I initially found myself frustrated by how each chapter of the book would proceed: it would take your hand and gingerly approach, then circle around, and finally dash away from the topic at hand. Many pages later, you might find another chapter coming in toward the same topic from another angle, this time poking at it, circling around a bit, and then running off toward something else.

I’ve come to realize that this approach is instructive and valuable. Having lived in China for two years in the past and with a large chunk of my family tree being Chinese, I have good reason to believe that this manner of approaching a topic is simply the Asian way. River of Fire, River of Water works something like the Asian mind does: not attacking the subject with microscopes, scalpels, and surgical analysis; instead gently dipping into it and sampling it from multiple angles, to develop a more holistic picture of the topic in question.

Besides revealing something of the Asian style of thinking and writing, I suspect that Unno’s manner in this book is the only way you really can approach Shin Buddhism. It is explicitly not a path of intellectual pontificating or Western-style objective analysis. You cannot do justice to Shin by saying something like, “here is the nembutsu, and people chant it because X, Y, and Z.” You have to do what Unno does: sprinkle in a personal anecdote, and gently associate the nembutsu. Then come back a bit later with some bit of Shinran’s writing, and bring in the nembutsu from another direction. And still later tell someone’s near-tragic family story, and slip the nembutsu in again to highlight another aspect of it.

With this book, Taitetsu Unno has accomplished something wonderful. He’s written a book that doesn’t blast you with hard academic facts; it acts like a friend or a spiritual master (but not a pretentious one) who sits down with you over tea, fosters warm conversation, and lets the discussion wander where it will. His cleverness is in how he brings that conversation gently, almost effortlessly, back home over and over again. Each return is something fresh and never aggressive.

By the time you get halfway through River of Fire, River of Water, you’ll find the most interesting insights dawning on you slowly and organically. These are not things you’ve gained by memorizing what Unno says, or by parroting his words. You’ve unwittingly absorbed them simply by reading the book: seeds got planted in your mind, and they have gently begun to sprout and blossom as if on their own.

This is a beautiful book and a subtle, soulful journey into Shin Buddhism and how it has changed people’s lives.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

True Relationship vs. Single-Serving Friends

A couple weeks ago, I watched a documentary about Steve Jobs, titled One Last Thing. I also started reading a book called Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat. I mention these two seemingly unrelated things because they both illustrate something interesting that leads me down a rabbit hole.

The documentary about Steve Jobs makes repeated mention of how Jobs would go on long walks with one or another of his very close friends. On these walks, they would talk about life, work, philosophy, technology, science, etc. In the introduction to Science, Order, and Creativity, the authors describe how they developed their friendship. They eventually collaborated on this book by going on long walks and talking about those same weighty topics, sometimes into the wee hours of the night.

What Have We Lost?

Perhaps what I’m about to say is not very charitable towards the rest of society, and it may be way off base because of my own biases. My first reaction is that I suspect a lot of people hear about Steve Jobs and his Silicon Valley guy friends going on long walks, and they might wonder in the back of their minds if he was gay. Clearly, two guys can’t go for a long walk and talk about serious stuff without being gay, right? At least, that’s my suspicion about how the knee-jerk modern American mind might react.

I had the same thought about Bohm and Peat – one guy goes on sabbatical for a year so he can travel halfway around the world, take long walks with the other guy, and talk about philosophy all day and all night? That seems queer!

My second reaction relates to the first: it seems these kinds of friendships/relationships wouldn’t be respected by the culture we have today, and these relationships appear quite uncommon. American society doesn’t seem set up for relationships like these to be fostered, much less appreciated and cherished.1 How wonderful it is to have a person to talk with, to walk with, to ponder the meanings of the universe with! It’s so rare to find people who find true value in thinking, ideas, and wonderment. Wonder and thoughtfulness are beaten and bred out of people by authoritarian, spoon-fed schooling and mainstream media brainwashing. What have we lost by not being able to cultivate those one or two special companions of spirit, who we can walk and talk with for hours?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Joys of Being a Foolish Being (凡夫)

I’d like to think I’m an intelligent and pretty well-educated guy. I’m tech savvy, I’m hardworking, and I spend a lot of time pondering spirituality and philosophy to depths a lot of people don’t bother with. Still, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a foolish being. I even take comfort in it, in some ways.

Here, I’m referring to what the Japanese call bonbu (凡夫):

Some of us do not easily awaken to the meaning of life’s evanescence, filled with unexpected tragedies and culminating in death, even if we personally experience them. When we finally do feel a need, it may be too late, because old age limits our physical and mental capacities, illness prohibits any sustained quest, and death obliterates everything. Such people are called foolish beings (bonbu).
~Taitetsu Unno, Shin Buddhism (p.15)

It’s actually not a bad thing to be a foolish being, and we must all be realistic in admitting that that’s what we are at this stage. Besides being slow to awaken to the meaning of life, what is a bonbu?

I’d highlight two characteristics of the bonbu. First:

In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited.
~ Shinran in Tannisho (via Essays in Idleness)

You probably have good intentions, in general. I know I do. Still, we are these conditioned bipeds in a world where eggs break, balloons pop, computers crash, cell phone screens shatter, and people get sick or die. Things don’t always go as planned, and as bonbu 凡夫 we are limited in our consistency, worldly influence, and ability to act on our compassion.

The second characteristic:

Whenever we feel anxiety and experience insecurity, or we become bubbly with success and excitement, we are surely showing signs of a foolish being drowning in samsara, the ocean of birth and death.
~ Taitetsu Unno, Shin Buddhism (p.17)

I get bubbly and anxious. Don’t we all? 12 years on the Buddhist path has earned me many useful tools, teachings, and insights – but I’m still a bonbu. Think of it as being a work-in-progress, or a human being with a little yellow “Under Construction” sign. It’s easy to lose sleep over exciting prospects for the future, or regrets over the past.

This is where it can be helpful to remember that you and I are both bonbu. This morning, I found myself awake before the alarm, my mind chewing on some minor incident at work. My mind, seemingly on its own, was spinning out all these “what if?” scenarios that are most likely blowing the whole thing way out of proportion. Once I caught myself, I reminded myself that I am a bonbu 凡夫. Not only am I a work-in-progress and not perfect, but it’s not in my nature to be perfect now, if ever. That’s not how the human animal is built, and it’s not how this world works.

Once I reminded (re-mind-ed) myself that I am a foolish being of inconsistent and limited capabilities, I immediately could relax. This is the joy of being bonbu: you can forgive yourself for your imperfections and neuroses. They are part and parcel of what it means to be a living human being. This is perhaps the ultimate act of self-compassion: not setting the bar impossibly high, and forgiving yourself for occasionally thrashing around a bit in the ocean of birth and death.