Saturday, 30 January 2010

Narrative verses Awareness in Buddhist Ethics

(cross-posted at American Buddhist Perspective)

While I was in China this summer I tried to explain my ph.d. thesis to one of my travel mates.
"I am examining the underlying structure, philosophically speaking, of Buddhist ethics. I seek first to understand the Buddhist worldview or cosmology -based roughly in the dualism of samsara and nirvana- and then spell out the various injunctions found in the texts that purport to lead one from the former to the latter."

"That doesn't seem to have much to do with people's lives... or ethics," he replied, obviously a bit disappointed.

I realized then that my doctoral thesis will leave out a potentially significant source of Buddhist ethics, namely narrative. If I had said something like, "I'm going to study why Buddhists in Sri Lanka justify war or what the stories of the Jatakas tell us about morality," I have a feeling he would have been more satisfied. This snippit from a recent BBC article about politics helps show why:

Stories not facts

In his book The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen, an exasperated Democrat, tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side.

He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:

Gore: "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.

"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."

Mr Gore was talking sense and Mr Bush nonsense - but Mr Bush won the debate. With statistics, the voters just hear a patronising policy wonk, and switch off.

Unfortunately for me, I love Al Gore - and numbers, and structures, and metaphysics. Stories and sound bytes tend to bore me, especially when they tend toward mere gratification of the speaker or listener. There are of course plenty of exceptions: I do love Buddhist stories and sound bytes like "just let go" or "return to the breath" can be quite powerful when properly applied.

I think my distrust or dislike of narrative comes from how easily it can be misapplied and/or distorted. So when we wish to examine the potential distortion of Buddhism or Buddhist ethics, perhaps narrative is the place to look, as in In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. By Tessa J. Bartholomeusz.

In Chapter 1, "Narrative, Ethics and War," Bartholomeusz follows Stanley Hauerwas's approach to ethics, focusing on the power of religious narratives to shape individual moral decisions. She finds his approach highly appropriate for Sri Lanka, where she finds religious stories take a prominent place in public debate due to a type of "Buddhist secularism" that interweaves religion and politics.

(reviewed by Annewieke Vroom)

Facts, on the other hand, tend to be pretty stable. Sure you can argue them, or push them this way or that, but fundamentally they do not lie.

When I think of "just the facts" of Buddhism, my mind immediately goes to the three marks of existence, the ti-lakkhaṇa: impermanence, not-self, and dissatisfactoriness. It is these three that we seek to "see" clearly or awaken to via insight meditation. The fact that we do not see these (experientially, not intellectually) is what keeps us trapped in samsara. Awareness is the path and the practice and the goal.

This may, however, be an extreme interpretation of Buddhism.

The other extreme would be to say that whatever Buddhists do or say is de facto "Buddhist." If Buddhists justify a war, then the war is "Buddhist." If Buddhists say you don't need to meditate or that there is a permanent existing Self, then these ideas are also "Buddhist." In this extreme there is no legitimate ground for saying a Buddhist has misunderstood "Buddhism" or that this or that Buddhist's practices are in fact not "Buddhist." All forms of criticism (read "critical thought") and that dualistic thing called logic are thrown out the window.

Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, majjhimo maggo hoti?

What do you think, is there a middle path?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

When Science and Philosophy Collide

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

The Higgs-Boson, a theoretical particle which some scientist have speculated give mass to all matter, has become the big new thing within the elite circles of the physicist community. The Large Hadron Collider(LHC), encompassing a 27 Kilometer tunnel straddling under the Swiss and French borders, will be coming on line piecemeal over the next 6-8 months, and finding this Higgs-Boson will become one of the primary objectives of the tests conducted by the Physicists. The Higgs-Boson has been nicknamed the God particle because the theory states it is a particle which never experiences change, and which always has solid mass.

It's no secret that I love science and I love how certain aspects of it fit in well to my Buddhist practice.I was watching a PBS documentary about both the LHC and the Higgs-Boson the other night, in which many of the scientists were expounding excitement over the anticipation of finding this particle, and spoke about the ramifications of it if discovered. One Physicist, grinning ear to ear, pointed to a chair in the room where he was being interviewed, and told the interviewer, “It is important because it will explain what give mass to all things, it is the reason this chair can exist. Without it, this chair could not exist.” As much as I love and respect these kinds of scientific endeavors, the Zen Buddhist in me immediately sprung into verbal hostility at the TV. “Exist?” I huffed out loud, as my girlfriend looked at me like I was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, “Haven’t they learned by now that all things change?” I inquired to her in a somewhat dramatic tone. To which she responded, “Did you take out the trash out yet sweetie?” That shut me up.

From the discovery of the atom to the electrons, protons and neutrons to that of quirks, each step was hailed at the time as being the smallest particle of mass in which all matter is created. And each time, new information and technology soon came to light to show that all these pieces were made up of yet even smaller more baffling pieces. Sometimes, in science, the most significant understandings of the true nature of reality come when a theory is dis-proven and the only thing that is found is just more questions. I love science and its dedication to finding truth and fact, with reason and logic and the ability to accept failure in light of new information. Sure, that chair the scientist pointed to exists, but it exists only in that smallest wisp of a moment before it changes, and more importantly exists only as part of the whole. This isn’t some off the wall, far flung theory; this is the immutable truth of transiency.

I think what worries some scientists is that at some point, all the experiments and equations and logic in the world will not be able to answer some of the most basic yet elusive questions concerning the nature of reality, and hence, must enter into a partnership with more philosophical understandings. Putting our finger on the ultimate nature of existence with ideas, equations and theories is like chasing our own shadow. We can see it, know it for what it is, but can never seem to catch it no matter how far and how long we chase it. Indeed, the only thing that really separates that chair and the scientist is, in fact, his mind.

I feel this isn't much different than the fear of some who hold fast to a static view of the world, those who see the world in black and white, who place blind faith over experience. It's amazing when you think about it, 2,500 years have passed, and people are still arguing over those same stubborn views of materialism vs nihilism. And no amount of calculations nor blind beliefs will ever be able to live up to or deny the answer of the middle way.

Perhaps, I should take out the trash now.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

God and The Fundamentalist's Problem with Time

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

Time is nothing more than the measurement of change. Just as a ruler measures length, a thermometer measures temperature and a scale measures weight, time is merely a tool, a human concept to help us parse the endless cycle of change into weeks, days, hours and minutes to help us in our everyday lives. Even science has shown time to be nothing more than other dependent, conditional on, and relative to everything else around it.

I see what scares a lot of the fundamentalists Christians is this need to fill that gap left by our concept of time with something absolute, something beyond time. If you have spent any amount of time meditating, you probably have some deeper insight into this concept of time and have experienced the futility in believing in absolute beginnings and absolute ends; and it is certainly a damn scary feeling. Fundamentalists I think also feel this fear, as they take such stubborn refuge in our dualistic mind, and they always find they are frightened by the change that surrounds them on a moment by moment basis. They, I imagine, on very conscious level in protection of self, take harbor in their concept of a God creator, to fill that gap of time, to fill those burning questions; "Well if God didn't make me, why am I here? Who created the universe? Why is something here instead of nothing?"

Once we can go beyond this concept of time, realizing that a better understanding of the true nature of our existence can not be answered by beginnings nor ends, we can move past this fear of falling into that dark abyss of not being. Perhaps, if they asked themselves if they can truly feel God inside them, then maybe God was never separate from us after all.

I invite all my Christian friends to explore Buddhism with an open mind, knowing that Buddhism does not ask one to relinquish their beliefs as a prerequisite to practice. Perhaps it is this, that frightens so many of your fundamentalists friends concerning Buddhism. However, do not believe me and do not believe them, but find out for yourself with an honest and open mind.
Job 9:20-21 - If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.  Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul: I would despise my life.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Shocking Increase in the Use of Illicit Buddhism

There is a new plague sweeping this nation, a silent epidemic ravaging our land, destroying our loved ones, our families and friends and tearing the fiber of our society wide open. It’s called Buddhism and it’s definitely real and it's definitely unrepentant and unforgiving. This scourge called Buddhism is known by many different street names such as Zen, Nichern, Theravada, Vajrayana, The Path, The Dharma or The Way and it has its roots in the deep dark and shady past of ancient India.

The man they call the Buddha first synthesized this terror around 500 BC and until recently it has been confined to a small portion of the population. But somehow, something went wrong. The word got out and buzz words and phrases enticing our loved ones in like ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’, ‘we are what we think’ and worst of all ‘come and see for yourself’ have been heard cropping up all over this great land.

Buddhism is worse than meth, its worse than heroin and almost as bad as marijuana; and it must be stopped at all costs.

What can you do?

Here is a list of problems that could indicate that a loved one of yours could be using Buddhism without your knowledge. Be careful not to automatically assume, however, that Buddhism is the problem. You'll need to sort out with your loved ones exactly what the problem is and try to identify any Buddhist use, perhaps with the help of a family counselor or psychologist or a Fox News pundit. Keep in mind that even if there is no Buddhism use going on yet, there is always the possibility that a loved one could be drawn into the sick twisted world of loving kindness, contemplative meditation and self-reflection.

Personal changes that could indicate signs of Buddhist use in a loved one:

  1. Increased awareness of surroundings
  2. A propensity to sit in quiet introspection, sometimes for long periods of time
  3. Behavior problems such as bowing, and repeating ‘red flag’ words like Thank You, Please and Metta
  4. Losing interest in the past or future; Obsessive amount of time spent in the present moment
  5. A sudden influence of a new crowd, tough street thugs known as Roshis, Lamas or Venerables
  6. Personality changes – Gradual loss of fear, hostility and attachment to material items
  7. 'Cushion Ass'
  8. Loss of interest in activities such as materialism, racking up debt or shopping at The Gap
  9. Increased forgetfulness of self
  10. The bizarre tendoncy to start a personal Buddhist blog even though there are hundreds out there
  11. An unhealthy attraction to squirrels, and a bitter loathing of Badgers
  12. The freakish ability to hold in farts for hours 
  13. Chronic Wedgies
  14. The weird ability to come up with circular questions that have no answers (this should not be confused with politicians)
  15. A disturbing trend towards becoming more ‘green’, eating less meat and discussing worldly issues
  16. An increased frequency of referring to people as ‘sentient beings’
  17. Increased feelings of hope, understanding, peace, acceptance and unconditional love
  18. A disconcerting drive to be awake, which has been known to cause problems such as sleep issues, herpes or loose stools
  19. Flat Butt
  20. A total hatred of Huey Lewis and the News
Things to look for:

Meditation Dens – Also known as Med. Dens, Zendos, Sanghas or 'my bedroom floor'. Loved ones may spend large quantities of time either at home or at a common area spent practicing these deranged black arts and rituals of Buddhism. These sick Med Dens are sometimes adorned with scary Asian shit, like gongs, statues, NASCAR posters and yes, even Asian people.

**Do not attempt to approach a Buddhist on your own, they have been known to hug people, say pleasant things and smile at random.**

Look for Buddhist paraphernalia such as cushions with a well worn ass marks, small statues of some Indian fellow and a debilitating addiction to purchasing Buddhist books. Prayer beads, candles, prayer bowels (yes, I see now I misspelled bowls) and incense have also been known to be found in the 'Med Den's' of these sick depraved people. We can consider any of these items as a strong sign that Buddhist activity has been perpetrated recently.

Random Koan tests might be necessary to rule out the use of Zen. A popular koan test is to ask your loved one what the sound of one hand clapping is. If he or she answers with a smile and says some nonsense about hand and sound being no different, then there is a strong possibility your loved one has been affected by Zen. This is the worst of all the Buddhist strains.

If you do not act immediately, your loved one may be lost forever. He or she may be driven to even more hardcore afflictions such as Yoga, Vegetarianism, Empathy or even worse, realizing happiness. The true nature of one’s existence is nothing to screw around with folks. Be alert, be watchful and be afraid…be very afraid.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Brit Hume Speaks out Against the Buddhist Faith

Edit: I think there are some wondering why waste our breathe on this, why waste our effort. Its true Fox News loves the attention, its gets viewers. And what will Fox News think about a few thousand Buddhists writing in? They will chuckle and this precisely why we should be so upset. Fox gets millions of viewers, millions of people who watch for a multitude of reasons, and many of these people will inevitably nod their heads in agreement without knowing why.

Could Hume get away with saying something like this about Jewish people or Black People or the Muslim Faith? You betcha he couldn't. Why should he be able to skate away scott free when speaking about Buddhists? Because we are only 3 or 4% of the population in the US? Hell NO! Sometimes we do have to speak up, sometimes right speech is getting in someone's face saying, "hey you can't say that about know nothing at all about us!" Sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe, even if that means showing some red once in awhile. Because if we don't.....well....I think you all can figure that part out.

I already forwarded this to a few news organizations, perhaps you all can forward this story as well to ones you know. All it needs is a little push to get the word out that Buddhists aren't going to tolerate bigotry.

Here are those emails again:

There are already several posts up today, which have already done a wonderful job exposing Brit Hume for the Religious bigot he is. Here are just a few of the links so far, more to come. Edit: Sorry, I can't keep up, there are another dozen or so blogs and websites talking about this. I'll get them up as soon as I can. Check out Elephant Journal's hilarious piece on this.

My Buddha is pink
ZenDirt ZenDust 
Dangerous Harvests
Notes From a Burning House
Danny Fisher
The Raw Story
Hardcore Zen
About Buddhism

"He is said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."

I urge everyone to follow Bitterroots suggestions and email Fox News at and respectfully ask for the on air apology to all Buddhists or Mr.Hume's dismissal from Fox News all together. There is absolutely no excuse for what he said and we have come to far in this country and this world to stand idly by while an ignorant political mouthpiece spews hatred and intolerance.

Mr.Hume, please, excuse yourself from your position at Fox News. You all wonder why Fox News is criticized at the mouthpiece of the far right, well look in the damn mirror my friend. As the political centrist I am, it honestly frightens me, how someone who is supposed to be so in tune with the goings on in this country has such a large stage to spew hate, animosity and a grievous lack of understanding concerning someone's faith.

Mr.Hume, you are a disgrace to all Americans.

(Cross Posted at the Reformed Buddhist)