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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Rocks from the Garden

As I've mentioned before, the first dollar I earned was given to me by my grandfather for helping him gather rocks from his garden.  Removing rocks from the garden was an endless task.  During each planting season there were more rocks to be removed; this is the natural state of affairs when living in the mountains. 

It's not that the rocks were growing up from the ground or falling from the sky.  The rocks were always there, and the process of tilling the ground so that it could bear good fruit was revealing the rocks to us which were already there.  We just hadn't worked the land enough to see those particular rocks until that moment.  It was always worth it to remove the rocks when we found them to make room for more plants in the garden to grow in the rich soil.  Over the years, the garden became more and more bountiful in its yields as the gardeners grew in experience and wisdom, and also as they removed more rocks.  The vegetables and fruits grown in the garden just got better and better in quality and quantity as time went on.

I tend to think that our lives are much like that garden in the mountains.  I often wondered why the fruits of my life seemed to be meager when I was younger.  I didn't understand why the garden of my life was in such sad shape.  I have realized since then that I just wasn't treating the garden of my life very well.  I had a lot of rocks (and maybe some boulders) just resting there on top of the rich soil; plenty of rocks were underneath it too.  I was not putting in the necessary work each day to take care of the garden of my life.  I rarely tilled the ground.  I watered it sporadically.  I let the weeds grow at will.

The garden of my life is providing much better yields now.  I got to this point by pulling out the first rock: my attachment to pleasing food.  Removing the first rock enabled me to get under the second rock: my unhealthy attachment to leisure activities.  Removing these rocks has enabled me to remove many more, and it has now cleared up my garden so that I can work on the biggest boulder: my pride.  I am still pushing it out of the garden, and I may have to keep pushing it for many years.

Another benefit of removing those rocks is that I have room to plant more good habits in the rich soil they had been covering.  My good habits (i.e. healthy eating, regular exercise, balanced sleep, hard work) have been producing much better yields in my life.  I am more generous; I am more patient; I am more loving.  The fruit of virtue is its own reward, and I have been enjoying the first tastes of it.  God willing, I will continue to remove the rocks in the garden of my life and plant more good habits until virtue flowers at all times.

My grandfather had a magnificent garden when he died, but the most magnificent part of his life was the fruit of that life.  His incredible virtuous conduct towards his fellow human beings was a testament to what a good gardener he was when it came to tending the soil of his soul.  May we all tend to the soil of our souls as carefully as he did, removing all the rocks we find and planting good habits in their place until our lives shine forth as an example of what a powerful light our lives can be in a world of moral twilight.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fair Questions: Why Give Up All Addictions?

Yesterday, I was speaking with one of my coworkers, and she was disappointed that I was no longer playing Words With Friends, a popular word game very similar to Scrabble which is available on mobile devices from the Google Play store.  I explained that I had gotten rid of it permanently from the device because I had been trying to remove all addictions from my life.  And in truth, I was addicted to playing Words With Friends.  I was compelled to check it frequently for my opponent's moves, and I would check it when I should have been doing other things (i.e. work, homework, working out) instead. 

I was addicted to the game because I find problem-solving deeply rewarding, so playing against a few challenging opponents or finding the biggest possible score opportunities in less challenging games was quite psychologically gratifying.  There is nothing wrong with this sort of thing when it is done in moderation.  When it becomes a habit and a compulsion, it is time to take a cold hard look at the behavior and evaluate its utility.

Aside from the practical issues of avoiding the waste of time which should be spent more productively, when we form habits we are choosing to shape our future selves.  Habits are what carry us through our daily lives; and they carry us through the trials and tribulations of life.  Our habits are the foundation of our character; we are our best selves when we choose the best habits and our worst selves when we choose the worst habits.  As a result, I am very conscientious about which habits I choose to pick up and which habits I choose to relinquish.  I strive to retain my best habits and let go of my worst habits.  In the place of my bad habits, I seek to build new habits which lead me to be a better person.

Was playing Words With Friends leading me to be a better person?  No.  So it was time to let it go and spend that time previously devoted to it in inspirational and spiritual reading which does help make me a better person.  I have been reading from the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, excerpts from the Upanishads, and an anthology of the Pali cannon of Buddhism instead of playing a game.

The benefit of removing an addiction isn't merely the opportunity to increase in virtue, but also to grow in freedom.  We are not very free when we can only choose what the ego compels us to do.  The ego only gives us the option of doing what we like and avoiding what we dislike.  In conquering our addictions, we gain the ability to do what we dislike and avoid what we like; we build up the freedom to choose our actions based on something other than our childish whims and base desires, which is the freedom that gives us the space to reach heroic virtue through truly selfless acts of sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Shedding our addictions is the process of removing the burdens which chain us to the lives of quiet desperation in which we so often feel trapped by our own inclinations.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Remembering My Grandfather

I was born in the mountains.  My first memories are of playing in a holler between mountains, getting dirty beneath the porch with my toys and imagination to help me in my adventures.  I remember running up and down the steep slope with my cousin, laughing and enjoying the carefree fun only possible for children and those like children.  I remember planting a tree on the side of the mountain.  I remember earning my first dollar for helping my grandfather pull rocks out of his garden.  The rocks in the garden were a perpetual reminder of the mountains, mountains my grandfather lived in for his entire life. 

He was born in the mountains, raised in them, and came to love them.  The mountains are the place where he worked as a coal miner for many years.  The mountains are the place where he got married.  The mountains are the place where he somehow survived a drop of a hundred feet.  The mountains were the place where he hunted and fished and had family picnics.  The mountains were the place where he grew wholesome foods in his garden, tended to the livestock, and raised his children.

He did leave the mountains on occasion to visit us after we moved away to the South, but he always returned to them faithfully.  And so did I, during the summers and winter breaks; I still love the mountains to this day.  They are my spiritual home, a place of serene retreat from the insanity and inanity of modern life into the simple and hard-working life of those who thrive in the mountains.  There is a cleanliness and beauty to that life that is unexpected by those who see how physically grueling and dirty the work of the mountains often is for their denizens.  All the time spent on the work necessary to survive while cultivating a vibrant family life may produce lots of dirt on the body, but in doing so it leaves much less time for dirtying up the spirit.

My grandfather was a country preacher, the pastor of the local Church of Christ, a small house church with none of the fancy electronic devices, musical instruments, or giant crosses that so frequently  characterize contemporary American Christian worship.  He studied his Bible often, and it was the one thing he always brought to church with him along with his reverence for Communion, delivering a simple sermon each week; I never heard a sermon that wasn't focused on living out the life of Christian conduct.  It was a life he lived amazingly well.
"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Micah 6:8 KJV
He was a man who acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with God. I hope to someday be even half as virtuous a man as he was while he lived with us. He was a Christian in the most important way possible; he truly imitated Christ in the way he treated others with unfailing love, heroic generosity, and gentle patience.

In the Bible, the mountain is often the place where a person encounters God, and my grandfather encountered God many times on the mountain.  He encountered God in the shelter provided by the mountains, in the food grown in the mountain soil, in the family he shepherded, and in the lifelong work it created for him.  He came to live on the mountain in a spiritual sense, enjoying a closeness with God that was evident in the way he treated those around him.  He will now be buried in the mountains, and I hope he continues to live on the mountain in the presence of God.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Protestant Intuition: Hypocrisy & Truth

The Protestant Reformation was truly a powerful movement in both the religious and secular spheres.  It upended centuries of accepted Christian belief in the authority of the Catholic Church to teach the Christian faith and govern the faithful.  This was of course taken advantage of by the political figures of the day in an effort to consolidate their own power or reduce another's power, but the real power of the Protestant Reformation was not in its political consequences; it made a much deeper change to the mindset of the cultures of the day and strongly influenced later cultures with that mindset.

Protestant thought is usually recognized by Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura (2 of 5 Solas), a general rejection of the Catholic Church, and a strong work ethic.  I was brought up as a Protestant, specifically in a Bible-believing, no instruments in worship, no alcohol, and incredibly loving and generous family.  There are many things I value from that upbringing, especially the example of how to live virtuously and not engage in self-indulgence.  I hold fast to those, especially now that I'm a bit older and I've learned how much better it is to live life that way.

One of the things I have since discarded from that upbringing is an intuition from which the Protestant Reformation inevitably flows.  Famously, the Reformation began with the 95 Theses, a collection of grievances against the corrupt practices and abuses going on among Catholics.  While it started there, it certainly did not end there.  Martin Luther couldn't get past the sins of his fellow Christians.  He went on to later break with the Church not just in his disagreements with corrupt practices, but in fundamental ways with its ecclesiology and scriptural exegesis.

I suspect that we can all understand what drives that leap.  When someone does something heinous, there is a natural inclination to distance ourselves from the sort of person they seem to be, including their beliefs.  We might be more skeptical of their beliefs which we would normally agree with because we often operate on a tacit assumption that our actions guide our beliefs in a straightforward way.  Thus we would view the beliefs as the cause and the heinous acts as the effect.

The arguments which rest on this intuition are plentiful and ubiquitous in debates between Catholics and Protestants as well as debates between Catholics and folks who take the atheist or agnostic positions.  They typically take the following form: "The Catholic Church/Catholic person(s) performed [insert immoral act(s) here]."  These arguments are usually posed as if they present a serious hurdle for believing that the Catholic Church could be correct in its teachings.

Many Catholic apologists respond to these arguments by trying to clear up factual inaccuracies and misunderstandings that tend to accrue around these arguments.  It is quite understandable to want to get the facts straight, but it's not an effective counterargument.  Even after removing the factual inaccuracies and the misunderstandings which grow from a tendency to impose modern values and concepts on ancient cultures inappropriately, we are still left with the cold hard fact that many Catholic Christians in positions of temporal power have made mistakes (some of them quite heinous).

Instead of side-stepping the issue, I propose that we address it head-on.  The intuition is that moral failings are a good indicator that what a person or organization believes is not true, and we all know that intuition isn't true from our own life experience.  Do you believe that the things you believe (at least most of them) are true?  Do you ever fail in serious ways to live up to your ideals?  Have we not all hurt those we love?  Have we not all failed to set aside our own egos and do what we should to help them?  If we are willing to believe that we can still hold true beliefs despite our numerous moral failings, then why is it so hard to believe that a group of our fellow human beings could do the same?

Most Protestant Christians rightly understand that simply practicing good morals does not entail doctrinal correctness.  After all, they believe that even the most virtuous Catholics are seriously in error on matters of doctrine.  Even a tree which bears good fruit may not be in possession of truth, and to the extent that we are all trees who have borne fruits both good and ill, I hope that in the same way, my Protestant brothers and sisters can also realize that sin (no matter how grievous) does not keep either their churches or the Catholic Church from having the fullness of truth.

While the topic of the moral failings of Catholics should be addressed by those who have committed wrongs by seeking forgiveness and practicing genuine repentance, those moral failings have no bearing on whether or not anyone's beliefs are true, including the teachings of the Catholic Church.  The issue of whether Catholic teaching is true would have to be addressed by other means.

For more on Protestant Intuitions, see part 2 of this series here.

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Backwards Thinking, Forward Lookers

For many months now, I've been observing a trend among the more politically aware and trying to find an apt label for it.  I ultimately decided to call it backwards thinking, and a recent example of it compelled me to write a response.

Backwards thinking is the imposition of one's less abstract conclusions upon one's more abstract moral framework.  I call it backwards thinking because it defies the sequence in which our worldviews should unfold.

Our worldviews grow like the kernel of an operating system or like the seed of a plant.  The seed is our core values, and our core values bound our moral views in the same way that axioms bound the results of the inferences made from them.  Those moral views bound our political views in the same way that the inferences from the axioms bound further inferences made from them.  Our political views are a special case of applied moral values; we have to apply our moral values while taking into account that the political framework has a specific purpose not shared by the individual moral actor and that this political framework needs to serve people who do not share our values.

One example of a helpful application of our moral values to a political framework is egalitarianism, which flows from our moral value of fairness.  In order to serve the needs of everyone effectively, the polity must not be as discriminating as an individual can be in their own personal decisions.  This is why egalitarianism is so useful in the context of the body politic (e.g. public services and agencies).  This becomes a problem when we think backwards and try to apply egalitarian ideas to other kinds of institutions.  Should we try to force hospitals to hire approximately as many male nurses as female nurses and female doctors as male doctors?  Should we try to force the KKK to accept African-American members?  Should we make American Atheists accept Hindu members?

Some people would respond in the affirmative.  Others would be very uncomfortable with the idea.  For both groups, the issue rest on the question: how do we decide?  What is the standard we apply to reach a conclusion about when applying egalitarian principles is appropriate and when it is not?  One easy way of demarcating between the two is to reserve egalitarian principles for the public sphere and leave the private sphere free to leave egalitarian principles out of their decision-making.  The difficulty with this in the context of the legal system of the United States is that the private sphere is no longer completely free to eschew egalitarianism.  For example, private companies would be sued (successfully) in civil courts for refusing service to certain ethnic groups.  The cultural value of fairness was expressed as egalitarianism in the context of the law, and then that specific expression of fairness was imposed back onto the culture from which it came in the form of law with the force of law.

As someone who believes strongly in the usefulness of egalitarianism as applied to public agencies, it would be tempting for me to say that we ought to apply it to everything.  But I recognize that not every organization functions well with egalitarian structures.  Expert associations, trade associations, private businesses, religious institutions, and the military would have very serious problems if they were to embrace the strong sort of egalitarian ideals I embrace with regard to public agencies.  Expert associations can't just admit anyone as a member, or the entire purpose of their association is defeated, and the same would apply to trade associations.  Private businesses rise or fall on the competence and ability to navigate company culture of their employees, and so making seemingly fuzzy decisions about who best fits into that culture is actually very useful for them, which can become unpopular when cultural differences break up along ethnic lines.  Religious groups are usually concerned with fulfilling whatever the mission of their group is, and they may have a legitimate reason to decide not to associate with people of other religions or to serve only certain groups of people in accord with that mission.  The military would fall apart completely without a well-defined system of rank and continuity of command.

Consistently applying principles we apply in a political context to other contexts might be appealing because we feel strongly about them, but we need to seriously consider the consequences of this backwards thinking before engaging in it and avoid the error of thinking that egalitarian principles work in every context despite the evidence that they really do not.

Related:  Can women be priests in the Catholic Church?

As an example of how this backwards thinking can work, one of my friends proposed that the next Pope of the Catholic Church should be a woman.  He wanted to impose the egalitarian ideals of his political philosophy onto the source of his moral thought, the Catholic Church.  Given the requirement that the person elected Pope be an ordained priest first, the answer to the question of whether or not the Catholic Church can have a woman as Pope rests on the question of whether or not women can be ordained as priests.

At this point, my erstwhile egalitarian friend might point out that there was a woman who was Pope, and her name is Pope Joan.  Unfortunately, that is likely a factual inaccuracy, as even our well-read atheist friends agree that Pope Joan probably didn't exist.  And the contemporary group Roman Catholic Womenpriests is not recognized by the Church as having valid orders.

Lacking a historical precedent to suggest an answer in the affirmative, let's consider what our current Pope (known for his statements about better treatment of women by the Church) has to say about the notion of women priests.  One of the things that he mentions is clericalism, which in this case refers to the view on the part of some Catholics that a cleric has a power which makes them more equal and more worthy than their brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pope Francis (like many other Church authorities) rejects this view of the relationship between the clergy and laity.

This is probably why the egalitarian arguments don't ultimately prevail for him; only if we assume that priests are truly more equal or more worthy than other people does it even make sense to suggest that there is an inequality worth ending via the application of egalitarian principles.  Because the Pope and the Church do not think that this is the meaning of priesthood, they cannot make sense of the claim that women would need to be priests in the interest of equality.  Those who argue in favor of women in the priesthood are ultimately proposing an inequality that doesn't exist and then insisting that we abolish it.

To give a simple example of why this sort of vision of inequality doesn't make sense, let's consider a restaurant which only hires women as servers and has only ever hired women as servers since the woman who started the business first hired a server.  Does the fact that they would refuse to hire me as a man make me unequal to women?  I don't think so.  In fact, I would give the benefit of the doubt to the restaurant and surmise that they are holding fast to the wishes of the original owner and that they probably have legitimate reasons for their policy.

While many of us who have egalitarian ideals consider ourselves forward-looking or forward-thinking in proposing these kinds of egalitarian reforms, some of us are actually becoming quite practiced in a backwards thinking quite at odds with the evidence-based worldview we purport to favor.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Fair Questions: Was the Buddha an Agnostic?

During a brief exchange with a classmate just prior to my Japanese class regarding the subject of religion, my classmate asserted that the Buddha was an agnostic.  For many years, it has consistently annoyed me that so many Westerners like to pretend to themselves that the Buddha totally agrees with their perspectives rooted in the traditional Western philosophical distinctions between plain old belief and knowledge (true justified belief or something even stronger, perhaps an added indefeasibility criterion).

First, we need a working definition of an agnostic.  Let's start by examining the question answered by agnosticism: Do we know that there is a deity in the sense that we know other things of which we are certain? OR Is it possible to know that there is a deity?  These are epistemological questions, and the agnostic answers them in the negative, claiming that either we do not know or that we cannot know whether or not any deity exists.

Many agnostics treat their response to this question as an answer to the ontological question: Is there a deity or set of deities?  Agnosticism does not in fact answer this question, but atheism (along with theism and deism) does answer this question, and most Western agnostics are atheists in the sense that they would not answer this question affirmatively.  Some would, but agnostic theists and agnostic deists are much less common than their agnostic atheist counterparts, probably because epistemology is a bit of an obscure branch of Western philosophy and most people don't have enough formal training in it to parse out the distinctions involved.

There are only two ways in which I can imagine the Buddha being an agnostic: in the sense that he believed that we either cannot know or do not know that deity or deities exist while still believing in them and talking about them (agnostic theism) or in the sense that he believed that it doesn't matter (practical agnosticism from rational ignorance).

It's most likely that the Buddha would have been practically an agnostic with regard to Western conceptions of deity.  He does not seem to be a fan of metaphysical speculations because they are often a distraction from attaining the cessation of suffering, so he might have just moved on to what he considered more useful questions as seen in the discourse below.

Buddha:  "Suppose, Malunkyaputra, that a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and family are about to call a doctor.  'Wait!' he says.  'I will not let this arrow be removed until I have learned the caste of the man who shot me.  I have to know how tall he is, what family he comes from, where they live, what kind of wood his bow is made from, what fletcher made his arrows.  When I know these things, you can proceed to take the arrow out and give me an antidote for its poison.'  What would you think of such a man?"

Malunkyaputra: "He would be a fool, Blessed One.  His questions have nothing to do with getting the arrow out, and he would die before they were answered."

Buddha:  "Similarly, Malunkyaputra, I do not teach whether the world is eternal or not eternal; whether the soul and body are the same or different; whether a person who has attained Nirvana exists after death or does not, or whether perhaps he both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not.  I teach how to remove the arrow: the truth of suffering, its origin, its end, and the Noble Eightfold Path."

And in another place...

"What do I not teach?  Whatever is fascinating to discuss, divides people against each other, but has no bearing on putting an end to sorrow.  What do I teach?  Only what is necessary to take you to the other shore."

It's likely that the Buddha, given his reliance on direct experience and rejection of rationalism as well as a healthy suspicion of traditions and authorities contemporary with him, would share some of the skeptical traits that tend to characterize Western agnostics.  But his rejection of rationalism (rooted in his distinctly Eastern philosophy of the mind) and his acceptance of direct experience without the use of the modern scientific method to counterbalance it would likely put him very much at odds with them in key ways, as we see in the quoted discourse from the Pali Canon below.

 "Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of the speaker, or because you think, 'The ascetic is our teacher.'  But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are unwholesome; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering.' then you should decide to abandon them."
This all leads nicely into the answer to another question.

Related: Was the Buddha an Atheist?

This is a popular Google search question, and the Wikipedia article on the subject is actually pretty good.

The Buddha may have been technically an atheist specifically with regard to Western conceptions of a monotheistic omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent creator deity, for example.  He does not seem to be a fan of metaphysical speculations because they are often a distraction from attaining the cessation of suffering, so I think it likely that he would have viewed some of the theological richness of Western religions somewhat askance and seen it as a hindrance to following the Eightfold Path to cross the River of Sorrow and come to the other shore.

Calling the Buddha an atheist in the sense that he did not have any beliefs in any sort of god is probably wrong.  My readings of the Pali Canon suggest that the Buddha and his disciples accepted certain kinds of theistic claims with regard to Brahma. Specifically with reference to devas and asuras (gods and demons), it is fairly clear that they are a standard part of Buddhist cosmology.  The below quotes from the Dhammapada help illustrate how routinely theistic concepts are invoked in Buddhist teaching.

"Even the gods praise the bhikshu who is contented and lives a pure life of selfless service."

"But who can blame those who are pure, wise, good, and meditative?  They shine like a coin of pure gold.  Even the gods praise them, even Brahma the creator."

"Even the gods envy the saints, whose senses obey them like well-trained horses and who are free from pride."

Add to this the frequent references to Mara the tempter demon, and the idea that the Buddha was comparable to the Western materialist and scientific realist who reaches atheism as a result just can't be maintained with any credibility.

"Therefore I say, dig up craving root and all, as you would uproot birana grass, if you don't want Mara to crush you as the stream crushes the reed on its banks."

"This is the path; there is no other that leads to the purification of the mind.  Follow this path and conquer Mara."

"All the effort must be made by you; Buddhas only show the way.  Follow this path and practice meditation; go beyond the power of Mara."

Related: Did the Buddha Believe in Hell (or Heaven)?

One of the other claims I have heard made (several years ago in the workplace) is that there is no hell in Buddhism.  This is pretty flatly contradicted by the recorded teachings of the Buddha, as you can see below in the following quotes from the Dhammapada:

"If one harms the innocent, suffering will come in these ten ways. They may suffer grief, infirmity, painful accident, serious illness, loss of mind, legal prosecution, fearful accusation, family bereavement, or financial loss; or their house may burn down, and after death they may be thrown into the fire of suffering."

"He who transgresses the central law of life, who speaks falsely or scoffs at the life to come, is capable of any evil."

"Some are born again.  Those caught in evil ways go to a state of intense suffering; those who have done good go to a state of joy.  But the pure in heart enter nirvana."

Additionally, the following quotes show a pretty obvious belief on the Buddha's part that there is an afterlife for those who have practiced right conduct in their lives.

"Misers do not go to the world of the gods; they do not want to give.  The wise are generous, and go to a happier world."

"In this dark world, few can see.  Like birds that free themselves from the net, only a few find their way to heaven.  Swans fly on the path of the sun by their wonderful power; the wise rise above the world, after conquering Mara and his train."

As a disclaimer, it is also fairly clear that the sorts of suffering and joyful afterlife states discussed by the Buddha, while they may be very long, are ultimately cut off by rebirth in which the person has another chance to attain Nirvana.  The naraka of Buddhism is not quite the same thing as the eternal Hell of Christianity or Islam, nor is it quite the same thing as the Sheol of Judaism or the Hades of the Greeks.

In the end, it's extremely difficult to reach the conclusion that the Buddha would accept the Western notions of agnosticism, atheism, or scientific realism that so many who have only a superficial understanding of Buddhism would like very much to attribute to him.

By Hintha - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11359793

Note: The above is a depiction of Mara tempting the Buddha.