Saturday, July 9, 2016

Save Your Apocalpyse


Apocalyptic mythology permeates nearly every aspect of American culture. Our obsession with guns, militias, and zombies all subscribe to the idea that the world is going to end, or nearly end, leaving a chosen few to inherit the earth. In Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, the universe has a definitive beginning and end. This is inherent inside of a religious system with a Creator.

Buddhism isn't concerned with beginnings and ends; it's concerned with now. In Buddhism, history is beginningless and endless. There's no need for a God if Creation is not a concern or priority. The present moment becomes the focus of our attention, not the past or present.

This tacit assumption that the universe began and will end influences the way that people live and view themselves. For instance, if the world will someday end--either by divine decree, solar flash, or human destruction--then the present can easily devolve into a field for salvation or hedonism. After all, if God is going to end the world and judge all of us (as Christianity asserts), then I had better get working on saving my soul lest I wind up in hell.

(On the other hand, if we think that the world is wrecked, dying, and will someday be dead--a secular, apocalyptic view--then I might as well enjoy the time I have remaining. This is a form of solipsistic nihilism in which nothing really matters because it's all going to end, and by "all" I mean the world, civilization, the collective human party.)

These doomsday scenarios often lead to the belief that we need saving. Of course, salvation is a common theme because of Christianity's emphasis on it, but it also pervades secular mythology. It's in the water supply, so to speak. Take popular culture's obsession with superheroes. In most of these stories, humanity relies upon some exceptional individual to save the planet. This is a direct variation of Christ's Second Coming--the savior who redeems us all.

I reject this idea, both on a collective and individual level. Not only do we not need some god-like person to lead or save us, we don't need saving!
It's precisely the idea that something is wrong with us--that we are lacking something--that leads us away from this present moment. People speculate on a remote, hypothetical past and dread (or prepare) for an equally imagined distant future because they assume that there is more to life than what's in front of them.
Deferring the present moment marks the introduction of religion and metaphysics, both of which Zen can be seen to eschew. Zen doesn't posit some theoretical substratum like Plato's forms; what you see is what you get. Reality is immediate and intimate, so much so that even one moment of mindless thinking can lead you miles away from what's actually in front of you.

People posit metaphysics when they too busy thinking to pay attention to what's in front of them. What do we hear, see, smell, taste, feel? These are real. Notions of souls, gods, Creation, and the apocalypse are beyond the sphere of experience (at least mine), and therefore are speculative.

There's nothing wrong with speculation or imagination (it's one of the wonders of the human brain), provided we know that we are doing it. I enjoy a good film or book as much as anyone else; however, when I put the book down or turn off my TV, I know that what I have read or seen is fictional.

The problem occurs when people don't realize that they have subscribed to belief systems. Genesis, apocalypses, sin, and salvation are can be un-examined assumptions that many people take for granted as given facts. It's those givens that can be the most dangerous.

As a people, we don't need saviors or a single leader to lead us to an imagined promised land or Eden (think Trump's "Make America Great Again"); we need engaged citizens. We don't need saving; we need fair political change for all members of society. We mustn't prepare for some imagined doomsday with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, but build and repair economic, political, and social infrastructures that will insure a better and fairer world tomorrow.

For more on this subject, see Kurt Spellmeyer's Buddha at the Apocalypse 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Anger is a Good Teacher

Anger--both ours and other people's--can be a powerful teacher. I'd like to believe that I'm an open-minded person, critical thinking yet not overly judgmental; however, when I'm confronted with other people's views that differ from mine, my own intolerance becomes glaringly visible.

I go online and am confronted by the vile, hateful things that people say and do. I'm thinking of the terrible violence of ISIS, the Israelis and Palestinian conflict, of the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ann Coulter.

The Buddha said that the world and all of our senses are on fire; they are burning with greed, hatred, and ignorance. When we are confronted with--or experience--someone else's anger, naturally we get angry ourselves. This anger can reveal aspects of ourselves that we ordinarily don't like to admit exist.

For instance, when some sexist oaf utters an ignorant comment about women or a degrading slur about homosexuality, I feel a surge of indignation. Why, I want to shout, are people so close-minded?

But if I turn that criticism inward, I can see the boundaries of my own tolerance.
Other people's intolerance and ignorance reveal my own. The more I study my frustration with others, the more evident my own prejudices become. 
Anger can shed light on areas of our personalities that we'd rather not confront. Humans are all hypocrites to some degree; some people are just better at hiding it than others (even from themselves).

When I'm being honest with myself, examining the rough edges of my own prejudices, am I as open and compassionate as I think that I am? No.

Anger reveals our flaws, expectations, and limitations. Unlike in other forms of Buddhism where anger is viewed as a fetter to be uprooted, in the lineage of Zen that I practice, all phenomena can be our teachers.

The more intimate that we become with our emotional triggers, the more freedom we have to choose whether to act on them. We can learn from the anger in the world, both from others and ourselves.

Knowing oneself means knowing all aspects of oneself, not just the pleasant parts.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What's the Point? - Dharma talk

This question haunts human existence, mainly because we are so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of means and end. We do certain things, like go to work and brush our teeth, with specific goals in mind--earn money and avoid cavities, for instance. But Zen teaches us that there is another way to live, in which every moment is complete in itself. Nothing is a means to an ends, but rather an expression of the ultimate moment--Now.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It's Not Islam

Many Americans (and Westerners in general) believe that Islam is a violent, savage religion. They may not openly admit it, but that's their tacit opinion. Some, however, like Donald Trump, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris, are very vocal about their condemnation of Islam.

As my last post explained, Buddhism refutes the idea that anything can exist on its own; all phenomena are empty of self-existence. There is no thing called Buddhism, America, Earth, burritos, or humans. These are convenient terms that we ascribe to the limitless, interconnected swath of reality that defies definition.

Likewise, there is no thing called Islam. There are approximately 1.6 billion people on earth who identify in some way as being Muslim, but their definitions vary broadly. Some may be nominal devotees who simply pay lip service to their religion in the same way as many Christians do in America (only attending church on Christmas and Easter, if at all). Others may be cultural Muslims, while still others may be...

And on the list goes until we eventually arrive at militant fundamentalists whose actions most commonly are seen to represent Islam. Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently made a great comparison: right wing jihadist are no more representative of Islam than the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity.

But what about all of the violence that the Koran advocates? skeptics contest. 2,821,364 people are killed in the name of God in The Bible, yet we don't see any major vocal condemnation of Christianity and Judaism. This includes genocide and butchery of the most savage sort.

As an example: I have been watching Vikings, the History Channel's drama series, and was shocked to watch as a woman had her ear cut off because she committed adultery. No, she wasn't a Viking, but a Christian. Her punishers were too. In fact, they read the punishment from the Good Book as they severed her ear. Lucky for her, they stopped with one ear, for the full punishment included cutting off both ears as well as her nose (Ezekiel 23: 25)! Yet no one identifies that bloody, literal interpretation of scripture with Christianity and Judaism.

My point is this:
Burnings at the stake, mass slaughter, enslavement, genocide (all of which have biblical and historical precedents) are no more representative of Christianity than ISIS is of Islam. 
For those who then argue that Christians don't commit these horrible crimes, but Muslims do, I say, "No they do not. Anyone who claims to kill in the name of Allah (Arabic for God) is not a Muslim. They may claim--or sincerely believe--that they are, but they are not. At least not in the same way as peace-loving Muslims are." Most Muslims do not subscribe to literal interpretations of Sharia Law any more than Christians and Jews believe that adulterers should have their ears and noses cut off. 

Which brings us back to where we began: there is no Islam. For convenience's sake, journalists and politicians might call ISIS "radical Muslims," but for convenience's sake I will also say that the term "radical Islam" is an oxymoron. There are no radical Muslims, for the moment people become militantly radicalized they are no longer Muslims; they are radical militants

Again, I am playing with words because words and concepts are both malleable and potentially constrictive/destructive. Buddhism reveals that words are ultimately incapable of capturing the ever-fluid, complexity of reality; yet, paradoxically, they can liberate or enslave us. It's our choice whether to see clearly--free of bias, prejudice, fear, and anger--or become ensnared in the thorny entanglement of blame and hatred.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and the Delusion of the Self

Today Britain ratified seceding from the European Union, another Western attempt to insulate itself from the rest of the world. America has its own strain of this same politics, embodied by Donald Trump and white conservative nativists. Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again" is code for "Make America White Again," in the same way as Britain's exit from the EU is an attempt to make Britain British again. There is also a not-so-subtle Evangelical agenda at work here to make the U.S. Christian again (as if it ever were).

In all of these cases, the movement towards isolationism is motivated by fear, greed, xenophobia, racism, and outright hatred. Trump and his British equivalent, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, galvanize support for their campaigns and political agendas through fear mongering, race baiting, and perpetuating this myth that there is some "America" or "Britain" to preserve. There isn't. Countries, like human beings, are composites of many different factors--parties, forces, groups, institutions, and agendas. To subscribe to the notion of a single America is delusion, one that flies in the face of post-modernist and Buddhist thought alike.

There is no single self inside of people, no CEO or President who makes executive cognitive decisions. What we casually call the self is a shifting matrix of overlapping mental, physical, and emotional processes which interact with one another, as well as with our entire environment. Likewise, there is no single Buddhism, Christianity, Wall Street, Islam, or America. Each is a catch-all term to refer to groups that share, for the purposes of convenience, similar qualities, values, or attributes.

Trump, Johnson, and Bill Maher all have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that there is no single...anything. Bill Maher, known for his reoccurring indictment of Islam, makes the same mistake as Trump does; namely believing that there is one Islam. There isn't. Islam is not a single entity, which for some reason Maher cannot understand.

There are many different groups of people who claim to be Muslim, many of whom vary enormously ideologically. In terms of ethical values, I think that it's safe to say that your average Muslims resemble Christians more than they do fundamentalists who claim to be Muslim.

Trump can't recognize that and neither can Bill Maher, Boris Johnson, Ann Coulter, and many of their followers. It's worth noting that even if Trump and his ilk did realize this, they have a vested political interest in perpetuating the myth--they win votes by scaring people into thinking that their nation and religion is under attack.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Leave Your Ideas at the Door

I was talking to a Protestant friend of mine and he said that in his faith there aren't any rosaries or crucifixes as there is in Catholicism; there is just you and God. Unlike in Catholicism, where saints can act on our behalf, his form of Christianity stresses a direct relationship between the worshipper and God.

I can relate to that directness--the lack of an intermediary--through Zen. In Zen, language and concepts are seen as intermediaries sometimes standing between us and our experience of unfiltered reality. Reality is always present, one unified whole that only appears fragmented because of human thinking.

"Buddha" means awakened one; it describes someone's state of mind who sees through the cultural and linguistic veils that make the world look conflicted and irreconcilable. Ideas and concepts can be useful, provided we don't confuse them with the reality they are designed to represent. Just as our thoughts of an apple aren't actually an apple, our thoughts about people are not who they truly are.

Thoughts are only thoughts. They are representations of reality, not reality itself. Trouble can arise if our thoughts about the Buddha, enlightenment, God, seduce us into believing that they are no longer thoughts, but themselves real. Then people argue, fight, and even kill to defend their ideas.

All labels are provisional. From a Zen perspective, it's just as preposterous to argue over what to call an apple as it is to quarrel over whose version of God is correct. None are--they're all just ideas! If you want to know an apple, smell or eat it. Cut out the intellectual middle man--names, labels, judgments, and so on--and experience reality unfolding right now. Not in some abstract future state, but right here, right now: what do you hear, smell, taste, feel, and see?

That's real.

In a sense, Zen is like my friend's Christianity, minus God. For me, there's no need for any intermediary like God--either as a creator or as an expression of the unified world that we live in. The heat filling my room on this early summer's day is enough. So is the white glow of my computer screen and the chirping from the birds outside. Introducing another idea--be it divine or prosaic--is like adding the peanut butter label to a peanut butter sandwich. Not only is it unnecessary, but it gets in the way of my lunch.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What do we know about crows? - Dharma talk

We don't need to take our thoughts that seriously. In fact, the world would be a much more peaceful place if we recognized that thoughts are only thoughts.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.