Death by religion

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today are suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks it has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

The Thinker by Rodin

Many of us ex-Catholics tend to share a guilty secret: we still keep up on Vatican news. This is because if you are born a Catholic, whether you like it or not it leaves a big imprint on you. You try to tune out Catholic news and pretend the church’s actions don’t matter, or at least doesn’t affect you. But you can’t help yourself and tune into Vatican news stories, such as the first papal tweet. Being such an enormous institution with about a billion members across the planet, what happens in Rome is bound to make news. So it certainly was newsworthy when recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the first pope to do so since 1415. The pope sites his declining health as a reason to resign. Naturally some Vatican watchers expect there are ulterior motives to this resignation, and coincidentally shortly thereafter an Italian newspaper published a lurid article on alleged gay sex scandals within the Vatican.

And so in mid March the College of Cardinals, 57% of who were appointed by Pope Benedict, will meet in Rome to decide who the next pontiff will be. Upon abdication, Benedict promises to disappear and devote himself wholly to prayer. It’s unclear what he has to pray so much about, and some of us would like to know. From recent statements he suggests shenanigans within the Vatican is much on his mind. Maybe its incestuous nature and intrigues became too much for him. Apparently he could not even trust his own butler, who ratted confidential papers to the press.

It’s hard for us on the outside to get a sense of what is going on inside the Vatican.  Depending on whose rumors you give credence to, it’s either nothing at all and business as usual or the Opus Dei clerics are duking it out the modernists. So far Opus Dei has been winning all the papal elections. That may change but Benedict has hardly proven himself to be a moderate. Betters would be wise to bet on more of the same. In an insular institution like the Catholic Church where those who can vote for pontiff have to be appointed by the pope suggest that creeping modernism will have no home in the Vatican, although gay sex within the Vatican may be as old as Opus Dei.

I ask myself increasingly if any of this really matters. In some ways it certainly does matter. The Catholic Church is a Jekyll and Hyde institution, capable of great Christ-worthy deeds while being guilty of unspeakable atrocities. I have witnessed the power of Catholic charities. Specifically back in the 1980s when we had a foster child, she was being managed through Catholic Charities. They did good work and arguably work that no one else would take on. So many religions talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. One cannot say that about the Catholic Church, through affiliates like Catholic Charities and the many Catholic hospitals out there.

Then there is the Edward Hyde part of the Catholic Church, proof positive that absolute power corrupts absolutely: children sexually, emotionally and physically abused, sometimes with the cooperation of the state, such as occurred for decades in Ireland at church run laundries. There wayward or suspected wayward women worked as slaves in cloistered workhouses. The reaction to these decades if not centuries of scandals seems to be a watered down set of apologies, but little in the way of actual recompense. The church seemed much more concerned about covering up these abuses so the institution is not sullied than addressing them and preventing them from recurring. Actual restitution if it comes at all comes from civilian courts, and not from the church. And actual prevention might involve empowering the laity to oversee the clerics, something the church is loath to do.

There are lots of reasons for declining church attendance, at least here in the United States. Surely any parent reading about what the Catholic clergy have inflicted on innocent youth should be reticent to place too much trust in their local priest, particularly where accountability mechanisms are so weak. That should explain some of the drop. But much of it can also be explained as the institution has less to offer people that they find of value. It’s hard to put a premium on genuine salvation, but that does not seem to be on the mind as much of Catholics these days, who seem more concerned about getting through this life than some nebulous promise in the next life.

Increasingly Catholics are simply exercising selective deafness, tuning out those edicts they think are silly (such as on premarital sex, birth control and gay marriage) and tuning in those that feel less ephemeral, such as the church’s charitable institutions like Catholic Charities. The church, like most denominations, preaches a one stop shopping method for living and salvation. For the most part these days the laity seems to want their Catholicism a la carte instead. They figure if it works when they go shopping, why can’t it work with religion as well?

Of course there are plenty of traditional Catholics who like the prepackaged solution that the Catholic Church offers. That is the essence of a faith: to accept aspects of beliefs that a rational person might say are ludicrous. As a percent of total Catholics, these traditional Catholics are a declining share of the whole. This suggests, at least for the foreseeable future, that Catholics are likely to decline as a percent of the religious overall. Over a period of decades, particularly here in the United States, more Catholic churches may close due to lack of adherents. Those who remain are more likely to be orthodox but like Hassidic Jews, appear more bizarre to the rest of society.

One of the selling points of Catholicism is its claim to know eternal truths. It offers moral certainty in an uncertain world. And yet real life keeps crashing down on the Catholic Church, as it is an institution managed by flawed people, made worse in its case in that these flawed people are also highly and haughtily insular. While I am convinced that after two millenniums the Catholic Church will likely be around for another millennium, I am convinced its power is waning. It wanes not so much in the size of its congregants, but in its ability to control the behavior of its congregants. On some level it must change so it becomes more relevant to those it preaches to, or it is doomed to drift toward being a sect instead of a denomination.

I will guiltily watch the color of smoke rising from Vatican chimneys next month, but I am wondering when the next papal election comes around after this whether it simply won’t matter to me anymore. It is already mattering to me less than it did when Pope Benedict was elected.

When I cast around looking for beliefs on which to anchor my life, I see the certainty that Catholicism sells as simply false, and worse, dangerously false. There is no certainty about anything in our universe, with the exception of the laws of nature. I think the Buddhists are the only ones who got it right: everything in impermanent. To the extent that we can live a truly happy life, we first have to accept that.

Thoughts on Buddhism, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

I have finished reading Buddhism for Dummies. I now at least feel like I can have a semi-informed opinion on Buddhism. I may be wrong. Reading Buddhism for Dummies and thinking you have an informed opinion on this ancient religion may be like flying across the United States at 35,000 feet and feeling you have a pretty good idea that you understand the country.

But I can also relate real-life experiences attending a half-dozen services with my wife at the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Burke, Virginia. At least at this temple the members are uniformly nice and harmless people. Perhaps they are saddled with as much baggage as the rest of us but they really do seem a lot more serene than most people I meet. They are also friendly and respectful. Unlike other religions where men in suits are anxious to have coffee with you after the service, I found none of this at this temple. Like my religion Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism is a come as you are no pressure sort of religion.

That is not to suggest that Buddhists are entirely out of the proselytizing business. Once enlightened, out of a spirit of compassion Buddha traversed much of northern India preaching his dharma. Upon his death, his followers also spread far and wide to preach the dharma too. However, I don’t think you ever have to worry about anyone leaving Buddhist pamphlets in your door or knocking asking you if you are enlightened.

Buddhism is centered on meditation. While meditation can relieve a lot of human suffering, by itself I do not think it offers a panacea. Following Buddhist dharma gives no assurance that in the next life you will be living in bliss. Rather it suggests your next life will be a lot like your current life, at least in the sense that you will be wrestling with the same sorts of issues. However, they claim that through techniques like guided meditation, you can discover your inner spirituality and through lots of study and practice anyone can achieve enlightenment.

You can be both a Christian and a Buddhist and it is not necessarily a contradiction. Guided meditation techniques pioneered by the Buddhists are useful for anyone, regardless of whether they are even religious. At its core, Buddhism is about eliminating human suffering through attacking its root causes, not in achieving salvation. If like most human beings you suffer, there is little reason not to give Buddhism, or at least meditation a try. It’s not like it has to cost anything. Many Buddhist temples will offer guided meditation free to all comers, or you can pick up a book and try to learn it by yourself

If there is a theology to Buddhism, it is that reincarnation happens. Not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but clearly, the vast majority of them do, otherwise they would not be so concerned about the karmic consequences of their actions. Most karma acquired during a given life is not addressed during the same life, but is carried forward into the next life for you to stumble through again until you get it right. In this sense, for those who prefer religions that are salvation-based, Buddhism is a big disappointment. If you believe in salvation, all your bad karma is pardonable by some higher authority upon death. In most cases, you are expected to be earnestly devoted to the beliefs and practices of the faith in order to achieve salvation.

For those who believe in salvation, getting into heaven is like getting past the bouncer at a club. If you are not too obnoxious, the bouncer lets you through. To the Buddhist (well, except a few like the sect my wife belongs to) you get into the club when you are spiritually ready to enter. In actuality though you are already a member of the club, since you are already divine in the sense that you have an immortal Buddha nature, you just have to get in touch with it. Achieving enlightenment sounds a lot like an alcoholic deciding to put down the bottle and embrace sobriety. When you achieve enlightenment during your mortal life, you pass through the door (nirvana). Out of compassion, many who do achieve enlightenment elect to reincarnate to help others also achieve enlightenment. For those who believe in salvation, there is little point in going back to an earthly life to wrestle with sinful mortals. You leave all that behind.

Part of meditation amounts to self-psychoanalysis. The theory goes that if you ponder a personal problem long enough, you can see it from all its various sides and permutations and know how to resolve it. The other part of meditation is to learn to exist in the moment. I personally am skeptical on the value of the self-analysis part of Buddhism, but I do see value in learning to exist in and appreciate the moment. People like me who perhaps spend too much time thinking about the future may end up missing the joy of being alive in the present. As Buddha taught, while death is inevitable, suffering is not. If you can develop a state of mind where you can revel in the now, you can spend less time worrying about the future. If you can master this, then it alone will do a lot to relieve your personal suffering.

I think the evidence is clear that Buddhism is one of the best major religions on the planet. As evidence, observe the behavior of Buddhists. Over 2500 year, have Buddhists caused any wars? They have not, as best as I can determine. Have they fought internecine wars to achieve dominance of one sect over another, such as have happened between Catholic and Protestant or Sunni and Shiite? I do not believe so. Do they go around hurting other people? All people hurt other people at times, sometimes inadvertently, but overall Buddhists take great pains to avoid being in the hurting business. They strive to be always mindful of what they say and do and the consequences of their actions. No other religion that I can see is doing as much to generate real harmony. Moreover, by their nature, they are not materialists. They tend to be natural environmentalists, vegetarians and eco-friendly. It takes a really tortured soul to hate a Buddhist. How can you hate someone who gives no offense?

If you think you are free to muddy up this world in order to achieve your salvation, Buddhism is not for you. However, if out of compassion you want to make this world better for everyone, including yourself, as well as all the other creatures on the planet, Buddhism might well be for you. If you are less concerned about slipping through some pearly gates in some amorphous next life then in relieving your suffering and the suffering of your fellow men, Buddhism is for you.

What is to dislike? Well, it may be just my Western orientation, but there is a fair amount of mysticism in Buddhism. The ringing of a gong, the smell of burning incense and the frequent use of chants do little to me to make me feel spiritually connected. There is also a strong belief in the nobility of celibacy, at least among the clerics. Sex is generally frowned upon for those who have or are trying to achieve enlightenment. I guess you are supposed to have transcended such earthly pleasures.

For me and for many of us of Western orientation, a religion like my Unitarian Universalism may be a better fit, while achieving similar aims. However, if your religious orientation is more spiritual than religious, if you feel more human-centered than salvation-centered, and if compassion is at the center of your being then Buddhism should feel very natural.

Thoughts on Buddhism, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

Since my wife recently became an official Buddhist, I thought it was time to start learning a whole lot more about Buddhism. Since there is a Dummies book for just about everything, I have been reading Buddhism for Dummies, which is a surprisingly good introduction to Buddhism. I am about half way through the book.

While I expect to remain a Unitarian Universalist, I am finding nuggets I about the religion that I think are just brilliant. What I really like about Buddhism is that it grasps the central problem of human angst. It also has practical advice on how to address it. Our central problem is quite simple: we are aware that we are going to die someday, and our awareness of our death terrifies us.

How on earth (as opposed to heaven) do you deal with this knowledge? Since we are self aware, it is entirely natural to ponder death and its meaning, if any. It doesn’t take much pondering before you realize that death is both inevitable and inescapable. It is also completely natural to not to want to accept this reality. It is somewhat unnatural to deliberately orient a religion around our impermanence.

I am agnostic on whether Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) actually achieved enlightenment or not. Like all religions, Buddhism requires some measure of blind faith. There are many thousands if not millions of living Buddhists who will claim that they have achieved enlightenment through various Buddhist spiritual practices. Enlightenment sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, not to mention a really cool experience. Whether Buddhists have acquired genuine enlightenment, or are deluding themselves, or are charlatans I cannot say. In any case, even enlightenment does not absolve you from death. Buddha was very clear on this. It is one of his fundamental truths: material things are by their nature impermanent, and living things most of all. So you too are impermanent and therefore must die someday. Therefore, the wise human lives his life fully cognizant of his or her impermanence and its implications and orients their behavior around this truth. This may not be surprising but Buddha was the first person to frame a philosophy of living around death, and this was some 2500 years ago.

Having accepted this, Buddha then wrestled with the next question: why do we suffer and what can be done to relieve suffering? His answer in brief: we suffer because we crave attachments to worldly pleasures. We do not understand that our selfhood is really a delusion. Suffering ends when you are freed from desire, or put more simply when you accept that there is really no “I”, just “we”. When you understand this intellectually and emotionally you experience enlightenment, and your suffering ends. When you make this leap, you understand that relationships are what really matter. Thus, you can use your time on what really matters: living, practicing compassion, learning dharma (Buddhist teachings) and spreading enlightenment. In spreading the teachings of Buddha, you help minimize all human suffering.

Another reason to like Buddhism is that some 2500 years later it still feels empirically correct. It has needed no updating for modern times. This feels true despite all we have learned in the meantime.  To me, this is amazing. While theologians still argue about how many angels can fit on the head of the pin, or whether we need Jesus as an intercessor to experience God, or whether there is or is not a heaven, Buddhism offers grounded answers to life’s incessant questions. It does so by turning around our angst-filled questions about life. It’s not about whether you are saved or not saved, whether you are living in accordance with God’s murky laws or not, it’s about your suffering as well as the suffering of all other human beings on the planet. We as we exist in this life are what matters and collectively we are all capable of reaching a place where suffering ends. We don’t have to die in order to escape our suffering altogether. In other words, we can sort of have heaven here on earth, at least for ourselves, and potentially for everyone.

Buddhism does not necessarily deny the presence of a divine force (except possibly to suggest we are divine if we understand our Buddha nature). Instead, it draws our attention square on where it belongs: to the human, our nature, and our joint suffering as a species. In short, it is a human-centric religion, not a God-centric religion. Moreover, because humans today are largely the same people physically and spiritually that we were 2500 years ago, the enlightenment Buddha allegedly found still works today as a solution today. It is not a formula for happiness based on some absent deity’s assumed wishes, but a formula for genuine happiness based on our 46 unique chromosomes.

Admittedly, Buddhism is a hard sell, particular in our secular and increasingly materialistic world. It may have been a much easier sell when human lived more uncomfortable lives. While we may be more comfortable, I doubt we live less tormented lives than we did 2500 years ago. We still struggle with weighty issues that probably make us at least as miserable as we have always been. We may have fancy distractions like cars and computers, but they rarely leave us any happier. Buddhism offers solutions that appear to be grounded in our human experience, not in reading God’s murky tealeaves.

I am still parsing my way through what are arguably the mystical aspects of Buddhism. I am trying to figure out if these aspects of Buddhism perturb its essential message. It seems curious to me that while Buddhism acknowledges our mortality, many if not most Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. They take steps in this life to ensure that their next life, if any, places them closer to enlightenment. This might be due to a Hindu influence on Buddhism, since the religion was born in India. Hinduism of course has reincarnation as a fundamental tenet. Some sects, like Pure Land Buddhism (which my wife subscribes to) sounds very much like Christianity, as it is premised on the promise that all those who have absolute faith in Amida Buddha will achieve enlightenment and will find rest in the Pure Land.

I will provide more thoughts on Buddhism later.

Who should we trust now?

The Thinker by Rodin

Lordy, Walter Cronkite is gone. Nearly thirty years after he retired as anchorman for the CBS Evening News, the most trusted man in America has regrettably gone to meet his maker at age 92. What amazed me is that even though Cronkite had been largely off camera for thirty years, his passing has inspired genuine grief from millions of Americans. It seems like more people are mourning Cronkite’s passing than Ronald Reagan’s. Cronkite should have faded from our memories by now but for many of us he looms large and singular all these years later. One thing you hear repeatedly is that America will never trust anyone again as they trusted Walter Cronkite.

If you want to be the most trusted person in America, it helps if you have little competition. Cronkite thrived in television news in an age when you had three networks and thus only three choices for your evening news. Cable was just emerging in the 1970s and cable news did not appear until CNN was born around 1980. Today with so many ways to acquire our news, many of them new, it is hard for any individual today to stand out they way Cronkite did. Few of us even bother to watch network news these days. The whole idea of TV network news is almost obsolete.

Cronkite seemed singular but in reality, he followed in the footsteps of the late Edward R. Murrow, who spotted him as a war correspondent in London during World War II. Murrow made it possible for us to place our trust in Cronkite because like Cronkite, America trusted Murrow. I was not old enough to watch Murrow live on television, but I was certainly aware of his legendary influence growing up. I suspect that even those under thirty who never saw Walter Cronkite behind his desk at the CBS Evening News felt his presence.

We trusted Cronkite not only because he looked trustworthy, but he was born in an age when journalism was a highly ethical career, where facts mattered and where professional duty required impartiality. In our new media age, some of us now place this level of trust in certain news bloggers. In fact, few bloggers are impartial, but many are voracious consumers of the news. A talented few have minds like Sherlock Holmes and can sift through vast amounts of information to discern the truth. A couple of bloggers that I deeply respect include Marcy Wheeler and Andrew Sullivan. Neither Marcy nor Andrew though would qualify as traditional journalists but rather interpreters of the news gathered by others. Cronkite, like all journalists, was a person with his own biases that only occasionally leaked out in the form of editorials. Cronkite though was not afraid to investigate an issue, although while anchorman he delegated most of this work to his staff. He was an imperfect perfectionist, always striving to provide America with the best-informed information available on a particular news day. It was reflexive in him and we could tell. That is why America trusted him. We never got that sense about his replacement Dan Rather. At least Cronkite could tell us, “That’s the way it is,” while all Rather could come up with was a pithy “Courage.”

Cronkite proved that trust must be earned in order for it to be placed. Cronkite earned the trust of millions of Americans through his fanatical devotion to objectivity and insistence on quality shoe-leather journalism. What was neat about Cronkite is you never got the sense that he had a bloated ego. On camera at least, he came across like someone out of a cold shower: relentlessly measured and sober. During the scary years of The Cold War where the stakes were often life itself, you could not trust much, but you could trust Uncle Walter.

Who should we place our trust in now, if anyone? It is unlikely that we will ever see that level of trust again in a television journalist, simply because to have it you have to have both a very large audience and be a journalist at your core. Technology has made the former very hard to acquire, and journalism as I studied it in the 1970s is almost gone. More of us are comfortable having our news served to us with spin, be it from the obviously right-wing Fox News or the obviously left-wing MSNBC. CNN claims to hold the middle ground yet populates its shows with cast of characters paid to show their biases. The closest I can find to high quality journalist on CNN is Campbell Brown. She is much nicer to look at then Uncle Walter, but even she is no Uncle Walter. On the radio, National Public Radio has some terrific hosts, but they are faceless. Hosts like Robert Siegel sound terrific but are faceless. You cannot stare them in the eye and get a sense of their soul, like you could with Walter Cronkite. Nor is it clear how much of what they present on the air they direct. Uncle Walter was in charge of the CBS Evening News. On NPR, it appears the producers direct the work.

The Washington Post asked prominent and not so prominent Washingtonians who they think should inherit Cronkite’s mantle of trust. The results were pretty disturbing and included Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart (please!) I like Barack Obama too but before I put Cronkite levels of trust in him, I would like to see how he did with four years as president. Oprah is energetic, empathetic and certainly filthy rich. Do I trust her to provide the insight and informed judgment needed in the 21st century? Not a chance, even if she did do much to make Obama our first African American president.

I can think of some non-journalists who I think can rise to Cronkite’s level of trust. These are typically people who tell us uncomfortable but true things about ourselves and our world that we do not necessarily want to hear or take to heart, but which we know in our heart are nonetheless true. And they have also earned a level of trust through actual deeds.

My number one choice is Nelson Mandela. He spent twenty-eight years in prison for his convictions and has a moral authority probably second to none in the world. Mandela, 91, while a great moral authority, does not claim to have any special understanding of the United States and our particular situation. Yet he is probably the most singular, inspiring and trustworthy living worldwide figure since Mohandas Gandhi. In many ways, I think he surpasses Gandhi, who himself was a very peculiar man. As I learned, in the process of trying to make things better Gandhi often made things worse. Mandela is a gentle and compassionate soul whose moral leadership moved the toxic Apartheid state of South Africa into a modern pluralistic state. In the process, he has inspired and revered by billions worldwide.

My number two choice would be the Dalai Lama. Popes come and go, some better than others and some worse, but the Dalia Lama (whoever he is in his latest incarnation) is consistently compassionate and demonstrates a saner and more sustainable way for human to live and the world to thrive. Buddhists though rarely get much respect because they are so unnoticed. Yet Buddhists are often full of great insight and wisdom. To my knowledge, Buddhists have never caused any wars and have always strived to live simply and compassionately. Like Mandela, the Dalai Lama has little to say to America that we want to hear, nor is he vested in the issues of our day.

My number three choice is actually my number one choice because he lives among us. He is a surprising choice because during the years that Americans got to know him best, he was not terribly popular. His name is Jimmy Carter. He is often telling America things that we do not want to hear, but he speaks with great moral authority, is grounded in our culture and our values and has the humbleness that Cronkite manifested on camera as well as a compassion for all suffering people.

What is truly great about Jimmy Carter though is that when he speaks we know in our hearts that he is right. He is right, for example, when he told us that Israel is engaged in a slow genocide on the Gaza Strip.  President Carter is now 84 years old. Given the actuarial tables he will probably not to be with us much longer. For those of us who find it hard to trust in a nebulous god we can neither see nor feel, we look for examples among us of the best that we can be. For myself, I can think of no better person to place my trust in now that Uncle Walter is gone than in Jimmy Carter.

May Jimmy, like Uncle Walter, live a long life. May we Americans learn much from him in the time we are fortunate to have him with us among the living. Like Walter Cronkite, we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.

An experiment in mindfulness, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

In my last post, I discussed what I learned from a Naikan workshop where we focused on just three questions. The first question was: What have I received in the last twenty-four hours? I learned that for me, as well as most of us, blessings are abundant. Life is not the bed of nails that many of us perceive it to be, but more like a comfortable mattress. If my life were a mattress, it might have a few lumps in it but they should be easy to ignore. It takes work for many of us to perceive that we receive much more than we give. Periodically contemplating your blessings, as I did last week, helps put your life in perspective.

Having realized that I was blessed in so many ways, the teacher gave us a second question: What have I given in the last twenty-four hours? Here are some of my gifts that I scribbled down on paper:

  • I gave my seasoned guidance to my employees. I hope that it was actually good guidance but there is no way to tell for sure.
  • The notes I recorded during a conference call
  • The thought and creativity I applied to my job
  • My labor in general, which hopefully made the world a bit better place and for which I was well compensated
  • My cat, as usual, received a belly rub on our bed before I retired. From his purring, he was obviously grateful.
  • I shut the blinds to our bedroom windows so we could have some privacy
  • I turned up the heat because we were getting a bit chill
  • My wife got my companionship watching TV
  • I dished out more than a few I love yous to immediate members of my family, including the feline
  • I spent about an hour in the morning doing the family bookkeeping
  • I put my daughter’s dishes in the dishwasher
  • I took out the trash
  • I listened well (I hope) to my wife as she expressed her thoughts and feelings
  • Not to be too crass, but I contributed my salary. I am by far the family’s major breadwinner. Without my income, my family would have fewer modern amenities to enjoy.

We had the same amount of time to write down what we gave others but when we were done, we quickly noticed that that our list of gifts was far smaller than our list of items that we had received. Few things on my list amounted to much. Yet, in spite of my limited contributions I received far more than I got.

The last question was the hardest: What trouble or difficulty have I caused in the last twenty-four hours? I found it hard because I do not like to dwell on my failings and imperfections. The instructor asked us to record any small inconveniences we caused on our list. If we cut into line ahead of someone, that inconvenienced someone. If we dodged our way through traffic in order to make it home a minute sooner, we likely caused other drivers to check their driving. When I contemplated my own failings, I found some I was uncomfortable even putting down on paper.

I know I can be perceived as domineering or arrogant even though, of course, I rarely perceive myself to be this way. To the extent that I am, I certainly regret any hurt feelings I might have caused. Fortunately, since the period was limited to twenty-four hours, there were few egregious things on my list. My minor transgressions included:

  • I spurned letting the cat on my lap because I was deeply into the middle of doing something on the computer. At the time, I thought that was more important than my poor feline’s impulsive desire for my companionship.
  • My daughter had rearranged her bedroom and was anxious to show it to me. Rather than rush up the stairs to see it when I got home, I made her wait several minutes while I unpacked myself and sorted the mail. I could have been more sensitive to her feelings.

What do exercises like this mean? It means whatever we want to glean from it. However, I did find it useful to spend a couple hours doing nothing but engaging in focused introspection. I am definitely more mindful now of how life has showered me with so many blessings. Some I can say are the fruits of my own labors. While I am grateful for my job, it would not be possible without education, and my education did not just happen. While I had to work at it, I was also blessed with parents who provided stability and encouraged me to learn, teachers who poured out their knowledge and passions, and society that demonstrated its values by spending tax money so that I could attend school free. In 1987, I spent a week in the Philippines. There I saw children running around in the streets. Back then (and it is likely still this way today) schooling was available only to those whose parents could afford it for their children. The children I saw were impoverished and spent most of their days trying to eke out a slightly higher standard of living for their families. The boys watched cars of wealthy foreigners like me, or tried to sell cigarettes. (They also smoked them.) Too many of the girls, once they were in adolescence, worked in bars and sold their bodies for money, even though they were still minors. Fleets of horny U.S. sailors took advantage of the opportunity. What a blessing that I was spared that sort of childhood!

I also learned that while I had my transgressions, overall I am a decent human being. If I do not cause much trouble, perhaps it was because life has largely treated me kindly, so I saw little reason to cause trouble. For me, for the most part life is truly good and rewarding. I am blessed because I received much of it without asking. I learned that my problems were not so much mountains as they were molehills, that life can be a great gift, and that I am fortunate and lucky to be alive at this time and in this place.

An experiment in mindfulness, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

I am not a Buddhist, but lately my wife has been wading hip deep into Buddhism. For as long as I have known her (and that’s a quarter of a century) she has been proudly unchurched. She praised the Lord by sleeping in on Sundays. This summer though she did something totally unexpected. This was especially startling given that she is the most predictable and habit bound creature I have ever met. She started attending a Buddhist temple. Moreover, she liked it so much that she has become a member.

She came to the belated realization that Christianity has never temperamentally agreed with her. Even my Unitarian Universalism, which has its roots in Christianity but really cannot be considered Christian, felt too church-like for her. Yet, like all of us, she felt some spiritual tuggings. One day this summer, they reached the point where she could no longer ignore them anymore. She decided that if she was going to have a spiritual home, it would have to be something really different. At least for us Westerners, Buddhism is really different. We Westerners are conditioned to follow religions where you slavishly follow some holy book (generally The Bible) and holy man (generally Jesus) who claims to be the only path to God. While Buddhism is silent on God, it speaks many volumes about human suffering and how to alleviate it. It is an inward focused religion that concentrates on the here and now, rather than an outward focused religion such as those that predominates the Western world. I plan to write more on Buddhism when I feel a bit more informed.

Saturday though found me at the exceptionally pleasant Ekoji Buddhist Temple (the temple my wife decided to join) that sits among the trees in gloriously suburban Burke, Virginia. Just as Christianity is broken up into numerous denominations, so is Buddhism. This temple practices Jodo Sinshu Buddhism, a denomination that was born in Japan and which seems more laidback and less dogmatic than other forms of Buddhism.

I was there with my wife to attend a Naikan workshop. In the workshop, you have an opportunity to engage in some focused self-reflection. As you can imagine, Buddhists have many ways to engage in mindfulness, which to my non-Buddhist mind amounts to self-reflection. A Naikan workshop is another form of mindfulness. Fortunately, for this exercise no chanting, bell ringing, incense or contemplating of your navel was needed. All you needed was some paper and a pen, which were thoughtfully provided, along with a free lunch.

We were asked to contemplate three questions. The first was, What have I received in the last twenty four hours? For most Americans, unless they won the lottery they would probably say nothing. As I put my own list together, I realized what most Buddhists realize: that I am surrounded by a universe that provides me with bountiful blessings and gifts. The problem is that we learn to take them for granted.

In thinking of my blessings, I started with the basics. I live in a house instead of on a street corner. It is heated and cooled to within a narrow range of temperatures so that I feel continuously comfortable. Inside my house is pretty much all I need, plus the people that are most important to me. There is my wife, who loves me in spite of my eccentricities and well as my loving and affectionate daughter. We also have a five-year-old cat, which we adopted two years ago. He gives me the gift of his presence by sitting on my lap several times a day and purring contentedly.

My house though is part of an interconnected society that also provides me with many blessings. There is the newspaper that lands on my driveway and which for thirty-five cents or so provides timely and relevant information on my world. There are our toilets and the sewage system, which magically removes the disagreeable aspects of being a human being. There are our faucets, which magically provide limitless clean and potable water. There is also this iMac computer that I am using to write this post, and the high speed Internet service we enjoy.

It is true that I pay for these privileges but that they happen at all and are so routine is practically miraculous. In my fifty plus years on this planet, I remember going to sleep cold perhaps twice in my life, and that was because I was silly enough to go on a winter campout with the Boy Scouts. I have been spared so much discomfort and misery. Yet had I been born a thousand years earlier, this kind of misery would be commonplace. In fact, had I been born a thousand years ago, the mortality statistics would suggest I would already be in my grave.

Nor have I ever known hunger. Certainly, I have been hungry, but I have never suffered for a want of food because it has always been there. Moreover, the food that I consume is plentiful, abundant, cheap and easy to acquire. Buying food sometimes feels miraculous. How is it that I am able to purchase blackberries in November? As I wrote down the blessings I had received in those last twenty-four hours, the list spanned many pages. Here are some:

  • Unsolicited hugs
  • Sex
  • At work, someone just showed up and emptied my trash can
  • Someone also cleaned the restroom I used so it didn’t smell
  • In fact, unlike my house, the building that I work in is virtually always clean. The windows are generally clear of grime, the floors are polished, the furniture is dusted, the elevators work flawlessly, and in the basement there is a cafeteria full of convenient, tasty and nutritious food.
  • There is a lovely and bucolic view out my office window, which looks southwest over a canopy of trees. On a clear day, I can see the Shenandoah Mountains. I can also watch airplanes arrive and depart from Washington Dulles airport.
  • My office, with an actual door I can close and real walls. Most of my career was spent in a cubicle. Four years later, I still appreciate and marvel at this gift.
  • Watching an episode of Battlestar Gallatica on DVD with my wife (although it has to be one of the most depressing shows ever filmed!)
  • I slept soundly on a comfortable mattress
  • I had a nice, nutritious breakfast full of foods that I love
  • I got to surf the Internet
  • The temple provided a free lunch just for attending the seminar. (The black bean soup was to die for!)
  • My blue jeans were so comfy
  • My health, which I take for granted, but without which many of the blessings I experience would lose meaning

Why is it that despite having so many blessings showered on us on a daily basis so many of us feel so disgruntled? Why are we whining so much? Why are we so unhappy? As our instructor pointed out, for most of us the universe provides us far many more blessings than we actually give out in return. The blessings begin at birth and follow us magically through childhood. Someone gave us birth, nurtured us, changed our diapers and made sure we did not foolishly jump off a cliff. Should we not feel these constant blessings? Should we not wake up every day happy and grateful at how pleasant and ordered our lives are?

Perhaps we should but most of the time, we do not. We have been hoodwinked into a philosophy that says good is never good enough, so we must always aspire for better. The desire for better makes us inured to the numerous blessings we receive every day.

We were asked to put our thoughts down on two other questions. I will tell you about them in future posts.