He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Praying with Icons: Sophia the Martyr

Pray for us, Saint Sophia, that we might be granted
the holy courage which before the emperor showed
forth from the example of thy daughters who bore
faithfully the bloody burden of a martyr's death for
the sake of Christ our God who loved us unto death.

Pray for us, Holy Martyr, that just as you suffered
from a broken heart after burying those you loved
in this life, we might allow our hearts to be broken
and humbled so that we will receive God's spoken
words and be drawn into the eternal life of Love.

O Lord, we ask you, the Father of Life whom we
freely worship unto ages of ages, that our death,
like Saint Sophia's, will be a witness of fidelity
to Your holy Son, the Lamb of God, each breath
sending forth prayers to You who are our Hope.

Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon of Sophia the Martyr and her 3 daughters who were also martyred for their faith.  You can get this icon from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery via their website bostonmonks.com.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Praying with Icons: Saint Mary of Egypt

Pray for us, St. Mary of Egypt, that we would,
after leaping into the abyss of our sinfulness,
be granted by God the source of all that's good
an opportunity to find a worthy life of holiness
which is truly humble and pleasing to the Lord.

Pray for us, holy ascetic, that we might be free
of sinful passions as we follow your holy path,
fasting and praying to conquer those greedy
lusts of the flesh which will bring down wrath
from Heaven unless God's mercy be upon us.

Pray for us, model of repentance, that we who
also have need of the Cross of Christ will find
our way to make the long pilgrimage through
this life and be protected by Our Lord's kind
and loving Hand from the attacks of demons.

Lord, we ask you, the Father of life whom we
truly worship unto ages of ages, that our death
will be the holy end to our lives by which we
emulate blessed Mary of Egypt, every breath
sending forth prayers to You who are our Hope.

Note:  The above picture is one I took of an icon purchased from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery at bostonmonks.com.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fair Questions: Why doesn't science show that Buddhist monks are less afraid of death?

Recently, I was pointed to an article in Newsweek which described a study that was done to test the hypothesis that the Buddhist belief that the self (as we generally think of it, a persisting reality) is an illusion would result in Buddhist monks having less fear of death compared to lay Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

This hypothesis was thoroughly falsified.  The Tibetan Buddhist monks actually reported more fear of self-annihilation upon dying than any of the other groups.  And in the test of selflessness (which should be a result of practicing the Buddhist focus on impermanence), they were actually less selfless than others.  This was an interesting day for science, and it's always nice to see a hypothesis falsified, because that's scientific progress.

The researcher quoted in the Newsweek article seemed quite surprised by the results.  I worry that this is largely because the researcher doesn't understand Buddhism very well, though I could be very wrong about that.  My own grasp of Buddhism is better than the average Westerner (as you can see from my extensive writings on it), but is certainly not complete.

At the very least, you can read in the paper they wrote after the study that the researchers relied on knowledgeable Tibetan Buddhist scholar-monks to calibrate their survey questions and understand the degree to which the answers conformed to standard Tibetan Buddhist teaching.  That's good methodology.

I do have some suspicions about the possible causes of the research results with regard to the Tibetan Buddhist monks being less selfless than the lay Buddhists in Tibet and Bhutan.  I also have some suspicions with regard to the fact that they appeared to be more afraid of self-annihilation.  Regarding the fear of self-annihilation, I think they need to do a comparable study with other Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists (both lay and monastic).

The reason I suggest that they should do more research with other Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists is that the Mahayana tradition generally and the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism specifically has some beliefs that are different from Theravada Buddhism which are relevant to how one would view death.

In Mahayana teachings, there's a strong emphasis on buddha-nature and Buddhahood, and actualizing Buddhahood would cause one to essentially live forever as a bodhisattva. Monks are traditionally considered to be the ones most likely to reach that state (as you can read here), and they would have the most to lose by self-annihilation upon death.  On the other hand, lay Buddhists have to be resigned to the high probability of suffering a long time (perhaps millions or billions of years) on another plane of existence, so self-annihilation might not look so bad from their perspective.

Theravada teaching tends to more emphasize the cessation of existence within the cycle of saṃsāra (being reborn over and over again and suffering for all or most of eternity).  From that perspective too, self-annihilation could look pretty good.

Another important point with regard to the selfishness of the monks when presented with the life-extending medicine is that traditional Buddhist teaching places monks and care for the basic material needs of monks very high on the moral priorities list because they are the most likely to become enlightened and escape saṃsāra.  Therefore, one might have less incentive to extend the lifespan of someone who is very likely to die and be reborn in a naraka and suffer for millions or billions of years before getting another chance to be a monk and gain the opportunity to escape saṃsāra.

That said, there may be a deeper and simpler reason that serious Buddhist practitioners who meditate often would be more attached to their own continued existence.  During deep meditation, one can find a tranquility or a bliss which far surpasses the banality of daily life in the quality of experience.

One can also notice that while there is no self in the way that we typically think of it as a persisting psychological reality, there is something which is aware of the contents of the psyche, and that something is what remains with us even after a deep meditation which changes us so dramatically that we can no longer pretend that there is a persisting psychological reality which is the ground of our being.

It is this something which is aware that presumably persists through the endless cycles of death and rebirth known as saṃsāra, through both the terrifying and torturous narakas and the highest heavenly planes.  One would guess that Buddhist monastics would be highly cognizant of the fact that this something which persists through life after life, if it were to cease, would mean the cessation of their own being, and their chance at living on as an enlightened bodhisattva.

While none of them would believe that a simple lack of a persisting psychological reality (known popularly as the self) is anything to fear because meditation would make it obvious to them that it is not anything to fear, they might be quite fearful of the final cessation of that something which is aware.

After all, they've developed a closeness with it through meditation that most people never develop.  They may have become attached to this something through long familiarity, and it may be wrenching to consider losing it forever, this truly persisting thing without which we would not experience bliss or tranquility (so far as we know).

I'm not saying that any of these beliefs or experiences are necessarily causally related to the greater fear of death or the selfish behavior of the Buddhist monks.

I don't know with certainty why Tibetan Buddhist monks would have a greater fear of death than lay Buddhists or members of other religions in the same geographical area.

But I do think the researchers need to consider the complexity of Buddhist beliefs when thinking about these experiments and what they measure.

Related: What is the role of the Sangha in Buddhism?

By Stephen Shephard - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fair Questions: Should Christians take yoga classes?

It's been a while since I've read any articles from Matt Walsh, but this one was shared with me recently, and it has created quite a controversy, as much of his writing does.  In this one, he makes the argument that Christians should not, generally speaking, participate in yoga.

I'll be very candid about my own situation with yoga:  I have never taken a yoga class, and don't see much point in starting now.  I have a very nice stretching routine of my own that leaves me loose and limber and strengthens the muscles.  That said, I have studied it from a religious perspective and have a basic understanding of its spiritual implications and its relationship to Hinduism.

See Related Podcast and Post: The Yoga of Krishna

Based on my familiarity with the religious side of yoga and my traditionally-minded Catholic faith (which I share with Matt Walsh), you might understandably assume that I agree with him that Christians should avoid yoga in general.

But I don't.  That said, I do think he makes a better argument than most Christians who take an anti-yoga stance, and that Christians should take this argument seriously.  Also, he correctly points out the poor reasoning for participating in yoga that is commonly utilized by Christians to justify their choice, and that's worthwhile.

First, let's examine some of the bad arguments made by Christians against yoga.

1.  Performing yoga poses is inherently a Hindu spiritual practice regardless of your intentions, and regardless of your spiritual state it will draw you into contact with demonic activity and/or cause you to be worshiping pagan gods.
2.  Yoga is a practice of a pagan religion and participating in it is risky because it could lead you to explore pagan religions and eventually convert to one of them.

Argument #1 is, to put it mildly, patently absurd.  If that were true, any child playing around performing odd animal poses after being inspired by visiting a zoo would accidentally fall into the worship of pagan gods/exposure to demonic activity when they happened to be in a pose used in yoga classes.  This is not an argument that, on its face, has any real merit to it.

Argument #2 has some merit to it, but within limits.  It's certainly true that exposure to Indian religions, whether via yoga classes that emphasize Indian spirituality or visiting a Buddhist temple, can lead people to grow interested in those religions and move away from Christianity.  That is a good point to make.  On the other hand, many yoga classes are so secularized and stripped of traditional Indian spiritual meaning that this risk becomes very, very low.  A devout Christian attending these highly secularized kinds of yoga classes probably has basically zero risk of converting to an ancient Indian yogic tradition.

Matt Walsh makes a slightly different argument.  He asks us to consider that, if it's the case that there are other forms of exercise that give us the same benefits and aren't embedded with or drawn from Indian yogic traditions, why not just do those forms of exercise instead?

My guess is that most Christians who do yoga do so for a couple of reasons.  For one, it's very popular right now and classes are widely available.  Pilates classes are just not offered as often as yoga these days.  Exercise classes that are widely available will get more people attending, so if Matt Walsh wants Christians to do other exercises, probably one of the most useful things he can do is take concrete steps to make alternatives to yoga classes widely available.

For two, many people seem to find it genuinely therapeutic and physically healthy once they try it, or they do "hot yoga" because it's a fitness challenge.

For three, some people do it because they are interested in exploring other religious traditions.  These folks are probably the ones that Matt Walsh and other Christians who speak out against yoga are most worried about, and that's completely fair.  Those are the folks they should be most worried about.

But he and others are not just worried about the folks who are interested in exploring other religious traditions.  He makes an additional argument to support the claim that performing yoga poses is inherently a Hindu spiritual practice regardless of your intentions.

It's a pretty good prima facie argument, and I want to address it.  Walsh claims that:

"The whole point of yoga is that you can't sever its physicality from its spirituality. That's literally the definition of yoga. It would seem that a "non-spiritual yoga" is a contradiction in terms. It's like trying to make G-rated porn. Either its G-rated or its porn. It can't really be both. Either it's yoga or its non-spiritual. It can't really be both."

To his credit, this was true at one point.  In fact, for most of recorded human history, it was true.  That's because for most of human history, what people meant by the word "yoga" is the general category of the kind of spiritual practice Walsh is describing (albeit somewhat overly simplistically).

But in comes our consumeristic American culture with its ability to de-sacralize and de-spiritualize almost anything to make it palatable to as many people as will pay for it.

Does anyone really imagine that people who wear rosaries as a fashion statement are participating in a Roman Catholic contemplative spiritual practice whether they intend to or not?  Does anyone really imagine that people who have Byzantine icons of Our Lady (solely because they think it's a nice painting to hang on the wall that matches the decor) are necessarily participating in Eastern Christian veneration of icons?

Does anyone take seriously the idea that Western atheists who practice forms of Buddhist meditation strictly for its therapeutic benefits are actually attaining enlightenment via non-clinging as the Buddha instructed?

I certainly hope not.  The challenge here is understanding that there are multiple meanings of these words.  What a practicing Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition means by "meditation" and what a Western atheist means by "meditation" are two different things.

When someone who wears rosary beads as a fashion statement says the word, "rosary" what they're referring to is a bunch of beads and a cross or crucifix in a particular configuration.  When devout Catholics say the word, "Rosary" what they're referring to is a contemplative form of prayer that they practice regularly in which they use beads to help count the prayers.

In the same way, when people who are focused on yoga as a spiritual exercise use the term "yoga" what they mean is not all the same thing as those who only know of "yoga" as extra-challenging stretching techniques.

So when Matt Walsh claims that the definition of "yoga" is such that it's an inherently spiritual practice, that's true for the traditional definition of yoga, but not for the new consumeristic American definition of yoga.  And so his argument there really doesn't apply to the latter.

All that said, I would not encourage Christians to take yoga classes.  I would, however, encourage Christians who do take yoga classes to consider Walsh's question about why we don't just use alternative exercises.

If it's just because the yoga classes are all that's available and you value the group exercise, then that's fair enough.  If you as a Christian have an attachment to Eastern religious traditions and want to do it for that reason, then it's probably best to do some soul-searching and prayer to discern God's will.

The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.