The Quotable Nick and Norah

From the movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which I adored. Here they briefly discuss the Jewish principle of social justice, Tikkun Olam or “repair the world.”

Norah: “There’s this part of Judaism that I like. Tikkun olam. It said that the world is broken into pieces and everyone has to find them and put them back together.”
Nick: “Maybe we don’t have to find it. Maybe we are the pieces.”

The Quotable Mordechai Kaplan

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.

A powerful defense of Humanism

Michael Lind of Salon recently wrote an article critical of Paul Kurtz’s new “Neo-Humanist Manifesto” which calls for a new planetary humanism encompassing an allegiance to humanity as a whole, planetary institutions and a new global agenda and critical of Secular Humanism in general. Frankly, I like most of the Kurtz manifesto but a commenter known by the alias smallpackages offered a powerful riposte in defense of secular humanism as an entirely acceptable and appropriate worldview for our time. Given a year to fashion such a response, I could not have come close to saying it so well:

What you miss, as a big picture and in the fine-grained details, is that humanism, which can contain faith or no-faith, is not the “opposite” of belief. It is a whole other thing. You could make a credible counter-argument that a manifesto is nothing but a creed of course, and you would be right. But that’s why you cherry-picked that manifestation, as it were, and did not account for the publications, debates, books, productive lives — the whole complex mess and literature of the 200-year-old humanist tradition in America. Because it suited your simplistic duality portrait.

The Humanism of Ingersoll, Twain, Einstein, Sagan, and Kurtz is not anti-religion by definition. It is a recognition that religious belief is but a subset of the whole of human experience and culture, and that it contributes so much and no more. And that when we set aside the fixed dogmas and morality finishing schools of all small r religious traditions — Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Marxist, Reaganism, et al — we find meaningful lives and positive values emerge, quite naturally.

You are correct about this apish world. My in-laws are optimistic, for Holocaust survivors, but from them I gain a pretty stark idea of who and what we really are, given poverty, nationalism, religious extremism, and just plain barbarity, unleashed. And on a local level, I can notice daily examples of the cruddy way we all are.

But you are way too selective, in order to grouse. The overwhelming fact of human existence is not our capacity for brutality, as obvious and terrible and constant as it it is. It is how billions of us are still HERE. And we all get up every day and co-operate, regardless of the minor, superficial differences of faith or no-faith. Personal ethics are manifestly intrinsic, and tested daily, by all that is average and ordinary, across cultures. Kurtz and others are asking us to shift our focus, to see ALL of it, not just the blindered, passion-play-fable architecture imposed on us from childhood. When we do this, we do not become less moral. We understand morality without sentiment or discoloration. And that effusive feeling in his words, that sense of glory and beauty in our human abilities, that he celebrates? It’s real.

It is a worldview centered on the realities of the present and a faith focused on humankind that is as real as any other. Very nicely said smallpackages!

I don’t know

Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. –Thomas Huxley

Concerning God, the afterlife and other questions beyond the ability of humans to ascertain empirically I think the most honest approach is Agnosticism. “I don’t know” is a humble and honest answer in the face of a universe that is vast and potentially infinite and a human condition that is unfair, sometimes absurd yet immensely captivating in its mystery. My faith is centered on people and on a quest for self-knowledge, for flourishing and for unity. It is lessened by the bad choices that harm others and create dissension within the family that is our species and is strengthened by the good that we do that alleviates such harm and reminds us of our common heritage and our common destiny. It is strengthened by raw curiosity about almost anything and a constant re-discovery of beauty. When I am alone and at rest and not tempted to adopt some public persona that pleases others…which I suspect is the stance I will take at the final rest as well…I more often think on such questions with excitement because of the universality of the uncertainty and how it is such an equalizer in human affairs.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

Tricycle Magazine, a Buddhist monthly, has an interesting interview with the head of the Nichiren Buddhist lay group, Soka Gakkai International or SGI: Daisaku Ikeda. SGI is one of the major forces behind the rise of Buddhism in the West and has had my interest for some time because of its concept centering on a “human revolution” as the modern expression of the Buddha’s teachings on enlightenment.

You have recast the teachings of the Lotus Sutra in terms of a process you call “human revolution.” The first part of that term gives expression to your philosophy of Buddhist humanism. But there’s also revolution. What are some of the more revolutionary aspects of Buddhism as taught by the SGI, and how does religious humanism spark that kind of revolution? Buddhism is inherently revolutionary. I can’t think of anything more radical than enlightenment. It is both a return to our most natural state and a dramatic change. To quote Nichiren, “There is definitely something extraordinary in the ebb and flow of the tide, the rising and setting of the moon, and the way in which summer, autumn, winter, and spring give way to each other. Something uncommon also occurs when an ordinary person attains Buddhahood.”

The expression “human revolution” was made famous by President Toda. It is a way of expressing the idea of enlightenment in contemporary language. In Nichiren Buddhism, enlightenment always impacts society. Through an inner, spiritual transformation individuals can awaken to a genuine sense of the sanctity of life. This counters the disregard and mistrust for life that is at the root of what is wrong in contemporary society. This inner change is thus the basis for realizing both individual happiness and a peaceful society. Again, in Nichiren Buddhism the two are never separate.

In terms of the individual, Mr. Toda explained it this way: “Human revolution isn’t something special or out of the ordinary. It could be as simple as someone who had been lazy and uninspired becoming enthused and committed. Or someone who hadn’t been interested in learning putting themselves into their studies. Or a person who has struggled with poverty becoming more stable and comfortable in their life. Human revolution is a change in a person’s basic orientation in life. And it is the transformation in awareness caused by Buddhist practice that makes that possible.”

Empirical Buddha

In an opinion piece over at SEED Magazine David Weisman examines the remarkable compatibility between recent findings of neuroscience and the tenets of Buddhism. With a thesis that explores this quandary: “How did a religion over two millenia old come so close regarding the mind?”

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree. How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.

The quotable Ralph Waldo Emerson

A little pantheistic thought from the Sage of Concord:

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”

The Oversoul, 1841

Happy Bodhi Day

This is the day that many Buddhists celebrate as Bodhi Day. It was on this day in 596 BC that the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Buddhism has the ability to adapt to any culture where it becomes a presence. It picks up the customs and bits of the culture around it. The Buddha expounded that we should, as Buddhists, fit into the neighborhood in which we live, not make a spectacle of ourselves or do anything that draws undue attention.

Read more:

The eighth day of the twelfth month is known as Rohatsu to Zen Buddhists. It is an annual occasion to focus on Siddhartha Gautama’s Enlightenment and to hopefully help further efforts to bring about our own enlightenment.

Zen koan: The movement of mind

From the 13th century book of koans called “The Gateless Gate” found in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.

Two monks were watching a flag flapping
in the wind.
One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
Huineng overheard this. He said,
“Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

Philip K. Dick: Looking for the prison key

Just finished reading a snippet from Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis and found an interesting definition that he presents. Dick terms the common aspects of the human condition as the “Black Iron Prison” which have two important components: Ignorance and Slavery. His definitions of these two terms are slightly unconventional in the sense that they refer to actions perpetrated on the individual by him- or herself as in ignorance being suffering from self-delusion and slavery as in ‘dominance by causality’. The second was the most interesting to me because I had in my thinking recently told a friend that the most powerful prison is the one we daily create and reinforce for ourselves…but I had not continued the line of thinking to better explore the tight confines and limited horizons that most of us surrender to when lazily going through the “habits”.

I loved this snippet because it connects to the Buddhist emphasis on awakening not only to the conditionality of all things generally but to the conditionality of your present situation. And it is so obvious, isn’t it but we seem to forget as we engage in the routine and the habits that we, perversely, are eventually in need of some kind of anamnesis (loss of forgetfulness). It is an important reminder that your life as it is right now is the sum of past choices you’ve made and to some extent the consequences of choices made by those you know and many that you don’t. This conditionality is the prison and awareness and understanding of it is the means to awakening and eventually true freedom. Well that is my layman’s interpretation, take it for what you will.

Buddhism and Pantheism or “I just was…for a little while”

I have been through the cafeteria of religiosity through and through…from my Catholic upbringing to Islam, Judaism, other forms of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, Secular Humanism and think that I have finally come to a resting place with a mix of Buddhism and Pantheism. It comes closest to speaking to what moves me and seems worth reverence. So who converted me? One of those people was George Carlin. Just before his death he spoke with Terry Gross and described his view on the molecular connection between everything which a somewhat pantheistic view:

Terry Gross: “Is there anything you do turn to to help provide a sense of meaning… or where you fit in or what are you doing here?”

George Carlin: “Some time ago I figured out with the help of some reading that I can’t recall now that, if it’s true that we’re all from the center of a star, everything atom in each of us from the center of a star, then we’re all from the same thing, and even a coke machine or a cigarette butt on the street in Buffalo are made out of atoms that came from a star. They’ve all been recycled thousands of times as have you and I. So, if that is true, and I am everywhere in the universe, in an extended sense, and therefore, it’s only me out here, so what is there to be afraid of? What is there that needs solace-seeking? Nothing. There’s nothing to be afraid of, because it’s all us. So, I just have that as a backdrop, and I don’t have to go to it or think of it consciously. I’ve kind of accepted the idea that I’m perfectly safe and that life, nature, have waves and troughs, ups and downs, left and right, black and white, night and day, fall and winter, positive and negative. Everything has an opposite. If I have a bad time, I’ll have a good time coming. If it’s a good time, I’m prepared to have a bad time to sort of pay for it. So, nothing really upsets me.”

Terry Gross: “…It’s kind of like a mix of narcissism and mysticism.”

George Carlin: “The trouble is, we’ve been separated from being that universe by being born we’ve been given a name and an identity and being individuated and separated from the oneness, and that’s what religion exploits…”

Looking inward and looking outward simultaneously. The Buddhist emphasis on awareness coupled with the pantheist emphasis on a reverence and respect for the world in which we live and are a small but rare and majestic part seem like the right mix.

Readings-Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

I am currently reading David Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century which examines the unprecedented brutality of the last century. It is a powerful argument for the development and application of ethics (applied ethics) to efforts to restrain our innate tendency toward such brutality and toward efforts to honor the dignity in every single human being. Great quote below from a review of the book by William Schweiker, professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago:

Glover does not spare us the details of a century of untold blood and savagery, yet his main focus is on a reality that he believes lies beneath the horror—the fading of the moral law. “The idea of a moral law external to us may never have had secure foundation, but, partly because of the decline of religion in the Western world, awareness of this is now widespread. Those of us who do not believe in a religious moral law should still be troubled by its fading.”

Throughout most of Western history people have believed in some kind of moral order within which they made sense of their lives. Morality was justified religiously through the idea that human beings are created in the image of God, or rationally through such ideas as the notion that all humans have the capacity to know the good. These justifications are not lost to us, Glover contends.

Whether the phenomenon is called the death of God, the modern disenchantment of the world, the loss of a background of value, or the failure of an ethical attitude toward nature, Western people’s sense of a moral order to which they can, may, or must conform has diminished. Indeed, many consider the very idea tyrannical—a denial of the individual’s right to free choice. The escape from a morally deep world was undertaken in part to celebrate freedom and to energize human creativity. Since classical moral realism—the idea that moral values are rooted in objective reality and so have fact-like status—has vanished, we need other sources to direct human life and combat barbarism. This is the moral challenge that launches Glover’s book.

happy vesak 2010

For those that celebrated it last night, will celebrate it tonight or in the coming days, Happy Vesak! My favorite reading, the Mettā Sutta:

(photo credit: flickr user Pagoda Phat Hue)

He abides, having suffused with a mind of loving-kindness
one direction of the world,
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth,
and so above, below, around and
everywhere, and to all as to himself;
he abides suffusing the entire universe with loving-kindness,
with a mind grown great, lofty, boundless and
free from enmity and ill will.