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“Help! She’s Going About It All Wrong!”

SUMMARY:  The importance of having the right beliefs in order to attain spiritual enlightenment is grossly over-emphasized both in Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

(About a 5 minute read)

I have a friend who, in my esteemed opinion (esteemed by me, at least), is going about it all wrong.  By “it”, I mean spiritual enlightenment, of course.  She’s going about it all wrong.

Not that I myself am an authority on spiritual enlightenment.  The closest I ever came to it was that time I saw Terri’s breasts in the moonlight.  My friend — who is not Terri — has never shown me her breasts despite incessant hours of begging on my part and hence, I don’t know yet if she’s a reincarnation of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, or not. But even if she is, she’s going about it all wrong.

Continue reading ““Help! She’s Going About It All Wrong!””

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If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman

(About a 3 minute read)

If I were a theist and believed in gods, I would be an insufferable theist.

Indeed, my opinions might be a tad insufferable already.  At least, I think that could be a reasonable conclusion based on the number of encouraging emails I get from my loyal readers that include a pic of someone’s buttocks, along with the usually brief message, “Thinking of you, Paul!”.

Continue reading “If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman”

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Why Fools Point at the Moon

(About a 7 minute read)

It is a charming, ancient conceit that fools are secretly the wisest among us.  Everyone has heard that somewhere or another.  It is pervasive not merely in Europe — home to the court fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear — but worldwide.

Every culture seems to recognize the truth of it.  In Europe, fools are fixtures at the court of kings.  In the far East, they are sages.  In Africa, they are sometimes deities who wear multi-colored hats.  And among the Native American nations, they are Raven and Coyote. Jung would recognize the fool as an archetype of what he believed was the “collective human subconscious”.

But why do humans so often think wisdom is a property of fools?  It is easy to see why we ascribe it to wise men and women, but why specifically to fools?  What does the fool actually represent to us?

Continue reading “Why Fools Point at the Moon”

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Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

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Two Monks, Two Religions, and a Tale of White Lace Panties

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Mathew 5: 27-29, New International Version

It is all but certain that Mathew 5:27-29, with its strongly worded suggestion that hell awaits those of us who lust,  has both terrified and dismayed more than one newly post-pubic boy or girl.  At that age, one is scarcely in control of one’s lusty thoughts, let alone one’s lusty desires.

Even though I am now 54, I still have a distinct memory of a moment in middle school when I was absolutely seized by the entirely accidental, one-second-long, sight of a classmate’s white lace panties.  If at that instant a bolt of lightening had struck me, I would not have noticed the additional shock.

It seemed to me at the time that it took ten minutes before I could again think.  And my very first thought afterwards was embarrassingly geeky: I thought of Mathew and wondered how anyone — anyone! — could be expected to control their sexual feelings.

Although it was a trivial event, it played a large role in shaping what I thought of Christianity during middle school and high school.  I had until then fervently embraced Christian ideals — or, at least, what I understood at the time to be Christian ideals — even though I was most days an agnostic.

But I began to suspect the ideals might be hopelessly impractical, and I turned an increasingly skeptical eye towards them.  By the time I began reading Nietzsche at 15, I was pretty well prepared to accept the notion that Christian ideals were not the Alpha and the Omega of values.

Strange how so much seems in hindsight to have ridiculously depended upon the second-long sight of someone’s white lace panties.

Of course, there are varying interpretations of Mathew 5: 27-29.  A lot seems to depend on how you interpret the Greek,  epithumeo.  It is commonly translated along the lines of “to lust”, or “to lust after”, which seems to suggest to many of us that merely desiring to have sex with someone out of wedlock will land us in hellfire.  And those of us who think that way appear to be in good company.  John Calvin, for instance, wrote, “This teaches us also, that not only those who form a deliberate purpose of fornication, but those who admit any polluted thoughts, are reckoned adulterers before God.”

Other folks interpret the passage more kindly.  Some argue that epithumeo should be translated as “a strong desire”, “to desire greatly”, or “to long for”.   And a few go so far as to suggest that, taken in context, it means, “to covet”.  In both instances, the notion seems to be that only an unusally strong or covetous desire will land you in hell.

Yet, regardless of how the passage should be understood, it is a pretty safe bet the passage is quite often understood to condemn those of us who have any desire at all for sex with someone to whom we happen not to be married.  C. H. Spurgeon almost joyfully writes:

So that the unholy desire, the lascivious glance, everything that approximates towards licentiousness, is here condemned; and Christ is proved to be not the Abrogator of the law, but the Confirmer of it. See how he shows that the commandment is exceedingly broad, wide as the canopy of heaven, all-embracing. How sternly it condemns us all, and how well it becomes us to fall down at the feet of the God of infinite mercy, and seek his forgiveness.

On the surface, at least, Christianity seems to raise quite a racket over the notion that our thoughts are absolutely crucial to our moral standing.  Yet, the notion that thoughts — mere thoughts — can be of great consequence to us was not entirely new by the time of Jesus.

The author of Matthew might have been the first person to stir hell into the mix, but the Buddha is alleged to have said some similar things 500 years before him.  For instance:  “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” Again, “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.”  And, last, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.  When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

To me, that last quote is the most significant of the three I’ve presented here because it tells us the benefit of guarding our minds against negative thoughts.  That is, a pure mind, free of negative thoughts, finds “joy”.  And, although I suspect that word “joy” is quite possibly a poor translation, the idea remains that some sort of happiness is to be had by cultivating a pure mind.

If we may now compare the Buddhist notion with the Christian one, we see certain similarities.  First, there is the idea that our thoughts are not merely idle, but have real consequences for us.  Both the Buddhists and the Christians seem to agree on that.

Yet, in the Christian case, as commonly understood, the consequences are potentially devastating: Eternal hell.  Naturally, I wish to say to Matthew, “Lighten up! Those were rather nice panties.  And besides, it was an even nicer person who was wearing them.  For that,  I’m going to hell?  Could you be any more absurd?”  Of course, the Christian emphasis on hellfire is distasteful, unless your aesthetic sense rivals that of a wolverine.

In the Buddhist case, the consequences are much less grim, if no less serious.  Instead of eternal hell, there is dukkhaDukkha is most often translated as “suffering”.   And, while it has that implication, I prefer to return to its original meanings.  There are three that I know of.

First, the word was once used to denote a lose fit between a chariot wheel and its axle, such that the wheel wobbled.  Second, the word was once used to denote a poor fit between a potter’s wheel and its stand, such that the wheel screeched when turned.  And, last, the term was used to denote a dislocated shoulder or hip.  The common meaning to all three cases is something like, “out-of-jointedness”.

Of course, there are many words to describe the consequences of that out-of-jointedness, “…including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.”  Or, perhaps, in other words, “hell on earth”.

If, when comparing the Buddhist and Christian notions of what negative thoughts lead to, you squint very long and very hard, the two notions can seem remarkably similar.  Especially, if you broaden the Christian concept out from its narrow reference to sexual desire, and instead think of the concept as encompassing any poorly managed desire, whether a poorly managed desire for sex, or money, or power, etc.   And after that,  you can take the Christian concept of hell and declare it is a mere metaphor for suffering on earth.   In the end, after all that intense squinting, the Buddhist and Christian notions might seem pretty much the same.

That’s a lot of squinting, though.

I have a little story that illustrates to me one of the most important differences between the Buddhist and Christian views of negative thinking.

Some long time ago, I came across an Evangelical Christian website that was busy conducting an informal survey on the subject of, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  The question brought to my mind a Zen tale of two monks:

[The monks] were travelling when they came to a swollen stream. Standing in the road beside the stream, wondering how she might cross, was a beautiful young woman. Without hesitation, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her across the stream. She thanked him and went on her separate way. The two monks then travelled on together for several hours, until the younger monk, deeply troubled, could no longer remain silent. “Brother, aren’t we forbidden to have any physical contact with women?”, he asked. Replied the older monk, “I put her down several hours ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Now, the word, dukkha, in addition to all the other many ways it can be translated, can also be translated as “clingingness”, or “emotional clingingness”.  And, when we hear the tale of the two monks in light of that fact, it might become apparent to us that the younger monk was clinging — emotionally clinging — to the young woman long after she was gone and out of his life.  While, of course, the older monk had both physically and emotionally let go of her several hours ago.

To my mind, that tale illustrates that, to the Buddhist, the real problem is not simple sexual desire, but rather, sexual desire that is clung to, that is nursed, that is dwelt on, that is cultivated, and thus sustained beyond its natural course.

Put differently, it is not, perhaps, the thought itself that makes it negative, but our all too human tendency to emotionally cling to the thought that makes it negative — a tendency that, unfortunately, can often lead to “… suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration“.

Last, it seems to me that the Christian concept of negative thoughts, understood in its broadest possible sense, all too often leads to the notion that others should take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings.  The Evangelical website phrased it as a question, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  But why should that even be a question?  From a Buddhist perspective, we — and we alone — are responsible for our emotional clingingness.

At any rate, it’s early in the morning, the birds are singing, and it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

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The Two Most Important Causes of Human Religiosity?

Thirty-five years ago, I signed up for a college course in comparative religion because, as a hopelessly idealistic 18 year old freshman, I figured religion in general would last for 10 more years, then die out, and I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about before it was gone forever.

Of course, I could not have been more wrong about something. Looking back, I had made — not just one — but at least two cognitive mistakes.  First, I was thinking of religion as mostly a primitive attempt to explain things — a proto-science.  That is, I had bought into the ancient and outdated notion that folks had invented the gods  in order to explain what caused thunderstorms, diseases, love, and other such catastrophes (however much outdated, that notion is still around, though).

That first mistake led directly to my second cognitive mistake: I believed science could and would replace religion because it seemed natural and inevitable to me that truth would replace falsehood.

In other words, I thought (1) religion largely offered us little more than false explanations for things, and (2) true explanations would inevitably displace false ones.

Nowadays, I think I have a somewhat more accurate view of how we humans came to be religious animals.  In fact, I think there is more than one cause of our religiosity.  But one of the things I do not think played much of a role in the evolutionary origins of our religiosity was any need to explain things.

It might be true humans are an animal that feels some need to explain things, but I do not believe that need gave rise to human religiosity.   For one thing, religions in general seem to place much more emphasis on the antiquity of their beliefs than they place on their explanatory power.   But if religiosity arose as an explanation of things, then wouldn’t that be turned around?  Wouldn’t people be much more inclined than they apparently are to demand that their religious beliefs accurately explain something?

Today, I think there might be as many as a dozen reasons humans are a religious animal.  But I think, of those dozen reasons, two are by far the most important.

First, I think  Theory of Mind offers us a powerful explanation for how religiosity originated in our species.  “Theory of Mind” is a name for the human tendency to assume that other people, besides we ourselves, have minds.  The polar opposite of  Theory of Mind would be the notion that we (i.e. you yourself) are the only thing in the universe with a mind.  If one wants to know how we humans evolved religious behaviors, then I think one could do much worse than to study how we humans evolved our Theory of Mind.

The second most important cause of human religiosity, so far as I am concerned, is the mystical experience.  The mystical experience occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while awareness yet continues.  If you are passionate enough about mysticism to be interested, I have written about that mystical experience on this blog, including in my post on the vital topic of How to Marry a Beautiful Woman by Discussing Mysticism“.  I firmly believe the post should be required reading in all kindergarten level courses in comparative religion.

Near as I can figure out, a large proportion of mystical experiences involve what can be described as “an experience of god”.  But even those that do not involve “an experience of god” tend to have a wee little inspirational effect on people.  I, for one, can easily imagine any and all mystical experiences as likely to inspire religious behaviors.

Those are my best guesses these days for how human religiosity came about.   Perhaps oddly enough, if either one of those guesses is true — let alone if both of them are true — then human religiosity is not going to die out of our species any time soon.  In fact, if those guesses are true, a strong case can be made for the notion that humans will be religious so long as humans are Homo sapiens.

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“The West Talks, The East Walks”

In spiritual matters, the West talks, the East walks.  Of course, that’s a gross simplification, but it is to some extent true enough.

For instance: The thing that impresses me most about the official morality of the Roman Catholic Church is how the theology of it — the theoretical basis for its morality —  is this vast and imposing Gothic cathedral constructed of incredibly elaborate logic and reasoning.  The Cathedral is set for all to see on the top of a large hill.  And people do see it — at least now and then — and they are often duly impressed, even intimidated, by what they see.

But who lives there?  Who actually lives in a Cathedral?  I know plenty of people worship in them, but I don’t know of many people who actually live in them.

I think that is too often the case with official Roman Catholic morality — it is an ideal.  Even when it somehow impresses us, awes us, it remains an ideal.  We might venerate the ideal, but we do not live it.

But how many Zen masters do you know of who are that merely idealistic?

I had occasion to wonder about all of that yesterday — after reading a post by the always acidic PZ Meyers.

If, when it comes to criticisms of religion, you are accustomed to the 5% or 10% acid solutions that you might find, say, on this blog;  or even if you are accustomed to the 30% acid solutions that you might find in the writings of Richard Dawkins, then it is still possible you might have no concept whatsoever of the fuming concentrations PZ Meyers is capable of.

Yesterday, I read one of the mildest posts I’ve ever seen PZ Meyers write about religion.  And I will quote from that post in a moment.  It is so mild only an exceptionally thin-skinned person would be offended by it.  Yet, please don’t visit his blog expecting that weak level of acidity to be the norm.

The background here is that Meyers got hold of a lavishly reasoned blog post by a Roman Catholic theologian, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., on the question of whether “unnatural sexual acts” are  “moral to use as foreplay”  prior to intercourse? In answer to the question,  Conte states:

The expression ‘that use which is against nature’ refers to unnatural sexual acts, such as oral sex, anal sex, or manual sex. Saint Augustine condemns such acts unequivocally. He even states that such unnatural sexual acts are even more damnable (i.e. even more serious mortal sins) when these take place within marriage. For God is even more offended by a sexual mortal sin that takes place within the Sacrament of Marriage, since this offense is not only against nature, but also against a Holy Sacrament.

Now, I have in the past seen Meyers take a passage like that one and rip apart its logic, prior to turning like a hellcat on the author himself.  But yesterday,  Meyers was gentle in his response:

Dang. Well, at least Augustine didn’t explicitly forbid rubber wetsuits, fuzzy handcuffs, vibrating crucifixes, octopus, ceiling-mounted swings, clamps, chocolate pudding, flavored lubricants, Wonder Woman costumes, rubber chickens, exotic headware, whipped cream, video cameras, Silly String, roller skates, trampolines, nitrous oxide, balloon animals, feather boas, ball gags, or bungee cords, or I might be going to hell.

So, I had a laugh, and that probably should have been the end of it.  But it was about then I was possessed to visit Conte’s blog.  Now, it has been decades since I read much theology, and I had forgotten how elaborate, intricate — almost ornate — it can be.  Still, it was for awhile interesting enough.

Yet, I don’t think I can sustain such an interest.  Conte’s theology seems to me speculative, ridiculous, and irrelevant: As an example,  consider his remarks here:

The two consenting adults argument is rejected by Catholicism, not only on sexual ethics, but also on ethics in general, because sin is first and foremost an offense against God. You can sin against God without apparent harm to another person. But from the point of view of faith, sin does do harm to self and neighbor, even if that harm is not readily apparent.

I think such notions are largely groundless.  Any college sophomore could come up with something just as speculative. At best, those notions seem to me ideals.  But even at that, they would be someone else’s ideals.  That is, it is not an ideal of mine to, say, take it on faith that “Sexual Act A” harms both me and my neighbor despite there is not a shred of evidence that is the case.

Yet, if you accept Conte’s argument that he is fairly representing the mainstream thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, then you can easily enough see how such thinking might lead to the Church asserting that, say,  gay marriage harms both gay married couples and their straight neighbors even though there is not a shred of evidence suggesting that is the case.

Someone who was so inclined could easily write a book responding to that one paragraph.  But to me, the bottom line might be that Conte’s theology — at least what very little of it I’ve read — quite often seems as poorly grounded in logic and evidence as when a kid says, “Let’s pretend…”.   The difference might be, the kid knows on some level that he’s merely pretending x is the case.  But does Conte know he’s pretending x is the case?  Does the Church know?  Does the flock know?  And does it really matter that anyone knows?

Roman Catholic morality,  as represented — or possibly misrepresented here — by a tiny sampling, seems to be an ideal.  Granted it is supported by elaborate reasoning, but it is still an ideal.  And, as I’ve tried to point out, such ideals are like cathedrals: However much we might venerate them, most of us don’t live in them.

“The West talks, the East walks.”  Oversimplified as that is, I fear it will be true to a surprising degree so long as the West relies on unrealized theologians while the East relies on realized masters.