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The life that is happy is in harmony with its own nature. This can only come about when the mind is in a healthy state and in permanent possession of its own sanity, robust and vigorous&...ready to make use of the gifts of fortune without being enslaved to them
The highest good is an indomitable forces of mind that, strengthened by experience, shows itself in action as calm, profoundly generous and concerned for the welfare of others.
I quoted these words from Seneca’s essay “On the Happy Life” in a philosophy class today. No sooner had they left my lips than a student had her hand in the air. She said “Seneca can’t be right. Science has proven that all of life is selfish.” I suggested that it is unlikely that science has proven any such thing, although it is possible that some individual scientists have interpreted some of their observations as meaning that life is at some level a selfish enterprise. The student frowned and said she had heard in a science class that science has proved that nature is essentially selfish and that caring for the welfare of others is unnatural. It is not a bad idea, I said, to question authority figures, even science professors—I had to add, of course, that she should not just take my word for it that questioning authority figures is not a bad idea.
Seneca was a Stoic. Part of his conviction is that human beings are part of the world of nature and that nature is orderly. That which makes all of nature orderly is part of everything that is within nature, including human beings. What makes human beings orderly is reason. What makes nature orderly Seneca called the divine. When human beings use their reason, he said, they are using that part of themselves that is divine. Divinity is not something to be admired from afar and worshiped and admired. It is something to be, something to enact.
George Fox, founder of the Quakers, spoke often of what he called “that of God in everyone.” Some Buddhists held the conviction that each of us has as our essential nature a tranquil and compassionate mentality, just like that of the Buddha. What George Fox called that of God in everyone these Buddhists called Buddha-nature. Seneca was not alone in his convictions.
Whatever it may be called by various traditions, there is a peaceful state that most of us can reach by being still and turning off the chattering narrative that provides a running commentary to most of our experiences. One can learn to find that peaceful state. Since finding that state is the deepest happiness one can attain, and since one can learn to find it, it follows that happiness is a skill that, like any other skill, can be acquired. Perhaps it can be taught. Perhaps not. When words come out of that peaceful state they may encourage others to find that same state within themselves. When that takes place, then one is answering to that of God in another.
Let the silence resume.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 02/18/2009
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René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy with the observation that he is aware of mistaken views he has held in the past.
It is now some years since I detected how many were the beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had constructed on this basis...
No doubt most of us have had the same experience and so have learned to doubt what we now believe on the grounds that we have been mistaken before. But there is also another experience, namely, that of discovering that what we once believed we still believe, but on looking back on our former holding of the belief, our grasp then seems tentative compared to our grasp now. We might feel like saying “Yes, I knew it then, but I really know it now.
More than two decades ago I attended an interfaith meditation workshop at which Buddhist and Christian contemplatives led participates through contemplative exercises of various kinds. A Christian contemplative nun named Sister Benedetta led participants through a meditative exercise based on the 14th century text of unknown authorship entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This was my first exposure to the text, and I immediately loved it.
The premise of The Cloud of Unknowing is that God is entirely unknown to us. God cannot be reached either through the intellect (by, for example, reasoning as Descartes did in his Meditations), or by imagination. God cannot be pictured, described, or understood; God cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. And yet there is in most people a yearning for some kind of perfection, a refuge to which one can turn to express gratitude for one's joys and lamentations for one's sorrows. In short, God is entirely hidden from the human seeker by a Cloud of Unknowing. That cloud can be penetrated, says the text, only by love. One cannot know God at all, but one can love that which is entirely unknown and unknowable.
Making contact with God through a love of the unknown is possible only for those who have no further pretense of knowing or understanding. In the language of the text, one must put everything behind what it calls a cloud of forgetting. One must forget, at least for the span of a period of meditation, all the indoctrination one has received, all the worldly concerns one has, all the aspirations one has cultivated, all the education one has acquired. With a mind utterly still and silent, one must simply wait. Often one waits in vain. Nothing shows up. Sometimes one's waiting is rewarded with a feeling of love about which it is impossible to know for sure whether it has poured in from the outside or is flowing out from the depths of oneself.
The practice of the Cloud of Unknowing is deceptively simple. The mind is stilled by the repetition of a syllable. The anonymous author of the 14th century recommend a simple word like “love,” but other words will do just as well. Whenever one's thoughts intrude into the silence, then one gently puts those thoughts behind the cloud of forgetting. One can imagine the cloud below oneself. One can imagine the intruding thought as a physical object that one holds out at arm's length and simply lets go. On being let go, the thought drops through the cloud below and disappears from view.
Practicing the Cloud of Unknowing immediately seemed a good thing to do when I was first introduced to it. It still seems a good thing to do. The only thing that has changed over the years is a slow-burning but persistent conviction that the world as we have come to know it, and human civilization as we have learned to call it, are not likely to survive much longer. The way of living we have become accustomed to will surely perish eventually, if only because it is not sustainable. We are depleting almost all the resources that sustain life. Alongside the conviction that the world as we know it is on its last legs is a conviction that a better world could take the place of the world we know, but that this will happen only if we make a concerted effort to forget.
The Cloud of Unknowing recommends forgetting all worldly ambitions for material possessions and for praise and approval. It also recommends forgetting all the indoctrination we have received along the way. That is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Most important of all is forgetting all the stories we tell about ourselves, all the biographical details that the ego cranks out to give itself significance and to diminish the significance of others. It is important to forget our nationality, our ethnicity, our connections to other speakers of our mother tongue, our tragedies, our sufferings, our losses, our gains, our joys and our laughter. These things can be abandoned for the span of a meditation session that lasts as long as it takes a stick of incense to burn down. Can they be forgotten for longer? Can they be forgotten forever?
The mystical tradition of Christianity interprets the crucifixion of Christ as the model for the death of the ego, the taking up of permanent residence on the other side of the cloud of forgetting. The crucifixion of Christ can bring about the salvation of only those for whom it is an internal and essentially private and person act of dissolving what we modern people call the ego. It is only when the crucifixion takes the form of shattering the foundation upon which the sins of pride, envy, greed, gluttony, anger and lust are built that anything like salvation takes place. If that crucifixion does not take place in billions of minds, the earth will soon enough be just another sphere of lifeless rock captured in the gravitational field of a slowing dying star.
Had you hoped for a brighter future? A land of milk and honey? Angels and trumpets and clouds of glory? Forget it.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 02/27/2009
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A post on E-sangha Alert asks whether anyone is a member or has any opinion about the FWBO. Having been ordained as Dayāmati Dharmacārī on January 26, 2000, I qualify as someone who belongs to the organization. I'm not sure I qualify as anyone who has an opinion about it. As much as I can, I avoid having opinions about Buddhist or other religious organizations, whether I belong to them or not. That said, I think there may be a misconception and a fallacy to be cleared up in the post in question. Let's begin with the misconception. That post quotes one Anders Honore as saying:
the fact of the matter is that [the FWBO's] teachings are still founded on the thoughts of a sexually criminal mind, who deliberately violated his precepts and whose misconduct in general is too well reported to be put down to the personal grudge of a few belittled souls.
The teachings of the FWBO are based on the thoughts of the Buddha, whose mind was not, so far as I know, sexually criminal. The FWBO draws upon materials from the Thevavāda canon and from a variety of Mahāyāna texts and gives its members the freedom to choose whichever style of going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha suits their conditioning. Nearly all practitioners do mindfulness of breathing meditation and loving kindness (mettābhāvanā) meditation; in addition to those practices, ordained members of the order typically undertake a visualization practice on one of the buddha or bodhisattva personalities. The FWBO is not aligned exclusively with any of the paths (yānas) but strives to embrace all of them as valid and capable of leading a serious practitioner to enlightenment. It would be inaccurate to describe the FWBO as anything other than a legitimate form of Buddhism that has made an effort to avoid sectarianism and has striven to make adaptations to the social conditioning of modern people.
Now a word is in order about the fallacy in the statement quoted above. The name of the fallacy is the genetic fallacy. It consists in making the false assumption that if the founder of an organization was flawed in some way, then the organization itself is flawed in the same ways. So, for example, let us say that the founder of a corporation called Monumental Motors was a megalomaniac with paranoid tendencies. If one falls prey to the genetic fallacy, one would conclude, unreasonably, that Monumental Motors makes flawed vehicles or that those who drive the products made by Monumental Motors are prone to paranoid megalomania.
The founder of the FWBO, Sangharakshita (born Dennis Lingwood), is without a doubt a controversial figure in various ways. Many question his judgment. It does not follow from this that the thousand or so ordained members of the FWBO, or the tens of thousands of men and women who practice in FWBO centers, are prone to the same questionable behaviors as the founder of the organization. Increasingly, members of the FWBO are unlikely ever to have met the founder of the organization. What they are more likely to have done is to have read his books and found them an inspiring approach to Buddhism, or to have been inspired by members of the order.
Unlike many Buddhist organizations (but like most Japanese Buddhist orders), the FWBO is not primarily a monastic order. There are some celibate order members, but celibacy is not required. Many order members, like myself, are married and earn livelihoods doing secular work, but regard the primary focus of their lives to be doing dharma work. All of us that I am aware of strive to live simple, uncomplicated lives and to put compassion into practice in as many ways as possible.
I cannot speak for others. I can only speak for myself when I say that my experiences with the FWBO have been positive. It has come to my attention that there are people whose experiences have not been positive. Those who do not find the organization to their liking tend to leave and follow other paths. Some, when they choose to leave, cut their ties with former friends in the order; some do not. This is as it should be, I think. What makes most sense to me is that people use their common sense when affiliating with any Buddhist or other religious organization, and that they listen carefully to their own instinctual feelings and stay if the feel comfortable and leave if they do not.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should say that in addition to being a member of the Friends of the Buddhist Order, I am also a member of the Religious Soicety of Friends (Quakers). In both organizations, friendship is a principal spiritual practice. Like everyone else that I know of, my practice of friendship is imperfect. My aim, in the years I have remaining in my life, is to get a little better at being a friend.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 03/02/2009
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Looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are all swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory, and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.
If George Fox had never written anything else, the words in a letter to Lady Claypole (Elizabeth Cromwell, the second daughter of Oliver Cromwell) would be evidence of Fox's profound insight into human nature. Condemning those who fail in various ways is a sure route to being captured by failure. When the mind focuses on sin, it can never break free of sin; it lives in a world of awareness of sin, and this world is cramped and stifling and ultimately unsustainable. Literature is filled with stories of preachers and ministers who specialize in pointing out the sins of others and who eventually fall into the very sins against which they preach most passionately. One need not turn to fictional literature for such stories; they can also be found regularly in the daily news.
Fox's words to Elizabeth Cromwell are more than a warning not to become too obsessed with the failings of others lest those failings become one's own. It also has the positive advice to look at that which makes shortcomings known. Fox calls it the light that discoversin modern English we would say “reveals”these sins, corruptions and distractions. That inward light, which corresponds in part to what we might call conscience, shines equally on all sins, corruptions and distractions, including one's own. When the light is shone on one's own failures, it also reveals the way to stop failing. Nothing more is required than to stop doing whatever it is that is blocking success, and whatever that may be, it is obvious to anyone who recognizes that he or she if failing.
Probably all of us have become habituated at least to some degree to making excuses for our own failures. We know what we should do, but somehow we think we cannot help doing it. In talking about inability to act, the Chinese philosopher Mengzi said there are two situations in which a person says “I cannot.” As an example of one situation, Menzi gave picking up a mountain, tucking it under one's arm and jumping across the ocean. This task is physically impossible, so it is legitimate to say that one cannot do it. As an example of another situation, Mengzi gave the example of helping an elderly person find firewood. Helping out in such a situation is something anyone can do, so when one says “I cannot help,” what one is really saying is “I do not choose to help. I do not wish to help.” One of our greatest tragedies as human beings, says Mengzi, is that we fail to distinguish between these two ways of saying “I cannot.” We deny our own unwillingness to be humane, benevolent, kind and helpful when being that way would be slightly inconvenient or would distract us from the immediate pursuit of some transitory and essentially meaningless pleasure or bit of fun. We fail to be ashamed of our own selfishness.
The light that discovers our own unwillingness to act on love also reveals everything that it is necessary to do to quit failing to act on love. All that is needed is to act on love. And all that is needed to do that is to stop thinking only of oneself. It is that simple.
An effective way to avoid being aware of one's own selfishness is to focus on the selfishness of others, to see their failures and shortcomings. But being blind to one's own failings is the only benefit that comes from focusing one's vision on the sins of others. And that benefit is so piddling and empty that it should be easy to forgo it in favor of the enormous benefit of seeing one's own failures, seeing the way out of them and then taking the way out.
For better or for worse, I see what I must do to be fully at peace. Can I do it? Yes. Will I do it? Suffice it to say, there is no good reason not to.
A longer excerpt from Fox's letter to Lady Claypole is found in an online version of his Journal.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 03/23/2009
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Various traditions around the world have advocated cultivating universal love. Buddhist texts such as the Mettā Sutta say that nothing is more noble in this world than loving all being as a mother loves her only son. The Chinese philosopher Mozi says that one should love every older person as one loves one's own father, and every younger person as one loves one's younger brother, and every country as one loves one's own. Various theistic religions say that one should try to love as God loves: without favorites and without conditions and without expectations of reciprocity.
On more than one occasion when I have advocated some version of universal and unconditional love, I have been challenged. Some say it is not desirable for a human being to have such love. Others say it is impossible for a human being to love everyone unconditionally and equally. In what follows I shall explore whether universal live is desirable; and, If it is desirable, whether it is possible; and finally, even if it is not possible, whether there is a point in striving anyway for unreachable goals.
The argument that universal unconditional love is not desirable goes something like this. Love entails forgiveness; unconditional love entails accepting people and other living beings just as they are, with no expectation that they be otherwise. But some actions are so heinous that they should never be forgiven, nor should the people who have committed them. To accept a serial rapist or a sadistic torturer or a genocidal tyrant would be monstrous and contrary to everything we normally mean by love.
The objection just stated seems to rest on a confusion between forgiving persons and forgiving actions. One can easily forgive a person without forgiving or condoning every action the person has done. Parents do this sort of thing all the time when they lovingly remonstrate with their child. Quakers have a tradition of what they call spirit-led eldering, which amounts to lovingly helping a person get over an obstacle to realizing his potential of being the best person he is capable of being. It is based on the recognition that no one ever completely outgrows the need for benevolent parenting. In Buddhism, the obligations of a mentor and a disciple are exactly the same; each undertakes to help the other follow the Buddhist precepts, and each remonstrates with the other when behavior falls short of the ideal. To accept rape, torture or genocide would be monstrous. But to fail to provide loving help to someone whose circumstances have led him to such conduct is no less monstrous.
Another objection to the very idea of universal love is that loving every living being would diminish one's love for parents, siblings and offspring. This objection is apparently based on the assumption that everyone has only so much love to give, and if one gives it out to everyone, then no one will receive as much as if she were the sole object of the lover's love. As everyone who has ever loved knows, however, that assumption is false. Love has the mysterious feature that the more of it one gives, the more one has to give. The experience of those who cultivate universal love is that their love for friends and family actually increases rather than diminishing.
Some people argue that it is impossible to give unconditional love to everyone and that it is certainly impossible to love everyone as a mother loves her only child. Some make this claim because they have tried and failed. Others offer a priori arguments. One such argument is that only God can love everyone and that human beings who try to do what only God can do are falling victim to the sin of pride, or, at best, are sure to be disappointed as a result of failing to do what they set out to do. Yet another argument is that it is impossible to love what one does not know, and since it is impossible to know every living being, it is impossible to love them.
Of those arguments, the a priori claims are of course the least compelling. Not much is gained by making untestable claims about the nature of God. It is true that setting out to do something that turns out to be impossible can lead to a kind of disappointment, and, if one lets oneself indulge in self-deprecation. one might even suffer a blow to one's self-esteem. The claim that there are more beings than one can possibly know is, of course, beyond question. It is not, however, required to know someone to have love for them. Having love of the sort advocated here is a readiness to be open and receptive to whomever one does happen to encounter.
The most persuasive of the arguments is the one based on experience. As someone who fails daily to cultivate unconditional love for all living beings, I am ready to concede that loving everyone equally and without preconditions is beyond my capacity. In effect, it is impossible for me to do.
In mathematics there is the useful concept of an asymptotea limit that can never be reached but toward which some function tends. I see the Buddhist concept of nirvana as something analogous to an asymptote. Nirvana is defined as the complete eradication of all negative and counterproductive psychological traits. I doubt that anyone has ever attained such a state. At the same time, I see it as the right direction to be heading. I had rather be reducing the number of counterproductive traits rather than to be increasing them or being content to stay forever at the stage of progress I have made so far. Similarly, universal love is an asymptotic goal. I had rather be increasing the number of beings I love and improving the quality of the love I can offer them than to be reducing the number of beings I love or loving them with an ever more inferior kind of love. In short, the theoretical or practical impossibility of reaching a goal does not make the goal any less worthy of pursuit.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 04/02/2009
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The Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (11301200) recommended in an essay on reading that a young person should read widely to gain a broad education, but an older person should select a few works to read again and again. He recommended reading slowly and carefully, word by word, reflecting on each phrase. This practice of slow and careful reading is akin to what medieval Christians called lectio divina.
The Christian contemplative classic called The Cloud of Unknowing recommends inspirational reading. Anyone seeking an intimate familiarity with higher things (by whatever name one wishes to call them) does well to recall that few of us have within ourselves all the resources necessary to succeed fully in our pursuits. We benefit by being exposed to the wisdom of others. But blindly following others as authorities is no less a folly than ignoring the good that others have to offer. To make the wisdom of others fully our own, we must ingest it very slowly. Having taken a small helping, it is best to digest it well before taking more.
The kind of reading one does as part of one's prayer and meditation practice is almost exactly the opposite of how one reads as a student. Students are usually assigned absurdly large numbers of pages to read. They are forced to skim rapidly, with the result that not much sinks in. Modern education breeds superficiality. It takes most students the better part of a lifetime to break all the poor reading habits they are forced to acquire on their way to getting a degree. It takes some effort to become properly uneducated so that, after getting a diploma, one can finally become properly educated.
The works I find myself reading again and again in my older years are The Cloud of Unknowing itself, the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the essays of Xunzi and Mengzi, the Suttanipāta, the Bodhicaryāvatāra and a selection of essays by William James, especially “The will to believe.” Recently I have come across some early Quaker writings that, if breath keeps pouring into my lungs, I am inclined to read over many times in the future.
The particular list of what is read is of interest mostly to myself. How it is read should be of much wider interest. Read slowly. Read with an open heart. Let the words work their way into the core of your being, and let them do there whatever they will do. The results are bound to be as surprising as they are wholesome.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 04/16/2009
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There is nothing more terrifying than one's own mind.
There is no greater source of comfort than God.
What is God but one's own mind?
The first of the above claims is a paraphrase of a Buddhist dictum. The second is a fair representation of a belief found in numerous theistic religions. The third is not a claim but a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question, in which case it could be worded as the claim "God is nothing but one's own mind." This third claim could be made not as a metaphysical statement but more as an epistemological observation: "The only thing one can know of God is that part of God that can squeeze into the confines of one's own mind. All the rest is perforce beyond one's ken." Treat the question in whatever way suits your temperament.
The point of quoting the two claims and the question is to state what is increasingly obvious to me: one's own mind is both the source of one's greatest fear and one's greatest comfort. The mind is both that to which one can go for refuge and that from which one feels a need to be a refugee. My own mind conjures up everything that terrifies me, and then it releases me from that terror by conjuring up something to protect me from the terrifying images it has created. The cycle continues unpredictably, sometimes amusingly and sometimes annoyingly. (Amusement and irritation, of course, are also created by the very mind taht creates the things that are found amusing and irritating.)
Folly takes many forms. One form it takes is the belief that the mind is somehow under one's controlthat one can volunteer oneself out of fear by thinking more clearly, or by meditating or by praying. As one who does a fair amount of thinking (clearly, I hope, at least on good days) and meditating and even a little bit of praying, I have observed that nothing is predictable. Sometimes meditation "works" and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes prayer provides relief, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes thinking is lucid, and often it is not. No practice can be known in advance to be effective. When things go well (that is, when terror goes dormant for a while, or when peace and tranquility arise or when love floods the heart), then one believes that whatever one was doing before things went well must be the cause of things going well. Or, if one honors the common religious taboo against taking credit for things going well, one may regard going well as an instance of divine gracea gift, a charism. If one is otherwise conditioned or indoctrinated, one calls it all a matter of blind luck.
Whatever one calls it, all but the most foolish agree that there is not much of a correlation between what one sets out to achieve and what actually comes one's way.
At the moment, I am very much at peace with the fact (if it really is a fact) that I have very little control over how I perceive things at any given moment. Peace of mind is a creation of the mind no less than terror, envy, hope and solace are creations of the mind. They come. They go. I just watch.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 05/02/2009
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Years agodecades agowhen people rose to give vocal ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship, it was common for the speaker to quote a passage from the Bible, or from the essays of Emerson, or from Leaves of Grass, and follow it with some reflections that brought out the meaning of the quoted text and its relevance to some situation at hand. That type of vocal ministry has become less common these days. A more common message these days is a first-person account of something the speaker has recently experienced or has been thinking about. Speaking in the first person was at one time less customary than it has become now.
The change in the style of vocal ministry in Quaker meetings seems to be a reflection of a change in American society in general. People seem to speak much more about themselves these days than used to be the case. They want to tell their storynot just any old story that could have happened to anyone. People are very much at the center of their own universes these days; everything revolves around them. One sometimes gets the impression that not much else really matters except that person who is at the center of his or her universe, making comments on all the things rotating around the center. These are egocentric times.
Quakers are encouraged to speak what the spirit urges them to say, and it is not uncommon for the spirit to relate things to the speaker's own experiences. Quakers are encouraged to speak from their own experience and understanding rather than merely offering reports of what others have said and thought. The locus of authority is one's own inward light, the particular refraction of light that has worked its way through the prism of one's own life history. So there is nothing at all blameworthy in first-person narrative in vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. For something to be a truly spirit-led ministry, as opposed to a simple report of something interesting that happened on the way to the meetinghouse or an account of something amusing that the cat did yesterday, it should have some sort of universal dimension. It may be about oneself, but it should also be about others as well. It should be something that, in Quaker idiom, speaks to their condition as well as to one's own.
Needless to say, not every message can or should speak to everyone's condition. There is a reportedly a belief among some Muslims that there are so many religions in the world because there are so many kinds of people with so many different needs and perspectives that God must constantly provide new ways of reaching all of them in their diversity. Even God cannot find messages that speak to the condition of everyone. How much less can a Quaker minister impart such a message. That said, even if a message cannot be expected to speak to everyone, it can be expected to speak to others in the room than the speaker.
When someone else rises to speak in a meeting for worship, one sometimes has the initial feeling that what is being said is irrelevant to one's own conditioning. Rarely is it the case, however, that a spoken word, however falteringly delivered or apparently pointless, cannot become the basis for fruitful reflection by nearly everyone who hears it. In the final analysis, the old saying is perhaps true that the spirit makes no mistakes.
These are first-person times in America. These are times of self-centeredness and self-absorption. That is just how things have become for now. But why?
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 05/16/2009
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For a couple of decades I gravitated toward organizations that had a feature I wished could be eliminated and replaced with something closer to my idea of how organizations ought to be. The feature I wished to eliminate was a warp in power, an exercise of authority that was usually presented as spiritual wisdom but was more often than not just a manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Will to Power. The idea I had of how religious organizations ought to be run was forged by my experience in early adulthood with The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I kept wanting to find something like a Buddhist group run along Quaker lines. What I repeatedly found was Buddhist groups run by megalomaniacs surrounded by fawning sycophants.
There is no point in naming names or dragging reputations through the mud. Nothing of value can be gained from that exercise. Let it suffice to speak in generalities about the sort of thing one can find in the several traditional religious organizations coming from Asia.
There are teachers to be found whose life experiences consist mostly of being taken care of by adoring disciples. There are teachers who spend the last forty years of their lives never so much as cooking a noodle, washing a dish, laundering an undershirt, ironing a robe, planting a seed, pulling a weed, lifting a burden, carrying a load or pushing a cart. They are surrounded by people who do all those things, and to those people who do the work the teachers offer what they call spiritual advice. But of what use to a person who must toil like a slave is the spiritual insight of a master whose only work is to tell slaves what they should do to keep him happy?
There are teachers who have immunized themselves from all forms of criticism and feedback. They do not have conversations. They deliver monologues. They do not listen. They speak, often at great length and with little regard or consideration for the time of those who must listen to them. Ironically, a favorite theme of such teachers is that worldly time is an illusion and that being aware of time is a sign of attachment and ego. Anyone who feels that his time is being wasted is immediately made to feel ashamed for being worldly and small-minded.
The Quaker William Penn once observed how much time is lost if one rises to speak in a Quaker meeting and says more than is necessary. Suppose sixty people are present in the meeting. If the speaker continues speaking for one minute more than was necessary to say what needed to be said, then one human hour is wasted. If a minister delivers a dry and lifeless twenty-four-minute sermon to a congregation of sixty people, he wastes one entire human day. (Not long ago, I calculated that a very repetitious and uninspiring talk I was listening to had wasted about two and a half human days. By giving ten ninety-minutes talks to forty-five hearers, this teacher could waste almost exactly a human month.)
There is no doubt that a good deal of time can be consumed by a group of thirty or sixty equals trying to arrive at a decision. What is the difference between a group of equals consuming time by trying to arrive at consensus (or Quaker unity), and a minister consuming time by delivering a monologue to which his congregation is a captive audience? There are several differences, but the principal one is that there is very little of the master-slave dynamic in a society of equals, whereas in the authoritarian monologue there is very little else going on but the domination of a group by an individual bent on exercising his will to power.
George Fox and other early Quakers used to walk into Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Puritan church services and challenge the preachers. The Quakers were often repaid for this kind service by terms in prison. Drawing attention to the imbalance in power between clergy and congregation in this dramatic way was no doubt as excessive as it was effective. That notwithstanding, I do find myself wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be held captive. After all, all one need do when a preacher goes on beyond his light is to stand up and walk out.
Slaves, get up on your feet and walk away from your masters in whatever form they take: swami, guru, lama, priest, bishop, cardinal, presbyter. I recommend it. I predict you will not regret being without an all-too-human lord and master. You will, to be sure, make a few mistakes. But they will be your own, and they will be a small price to pay for the freedom of finding your own light in your own way.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 06/07/2009
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The number of things I can't remember is fortunately much larger than the number of things I can't forget.
Among the events of my life I can't forget is one that took place when I was around eight years old. I had a friend named Billy who lived across the street with his grandparents. His grandmother was a woman who laughed easily and smiled even more easily. His grandfather rarely laughed or smiled. Every time I saw him he was lying on the sofa reading a well-worn Bible. Every Sunday the grandparents got dressed up and took Billy, also all dressed up, to church. Since my family did not go to church (unless someone was getting married or buried), I could rarely find any playmates on Sunday morning. I had to wait until Billy got home from church and got out of his dressy clothes and into something that he could risk getting dirty in the course of the rough play that delights males aged eight.
One day—I can't recall whether it was a Sunday or some other day—Billy and I came indoors for a drink of water and found several very serious-looking adults sitting around formally in the living room. Even Billy's grandfather was sitting up with the Bible on his lap, rather than lying down reading it as was his wont. Billy was told to sit down, and I was briskly ushered out of the room and asked to wait in Billy's room while he talked with the adults. Accustomed as I was to the strange behavior of adults, I was nevertheless taken aback by the unprecedented urgency with which the adults seemed to require Billy's company. The atmosphere in the house indicated that something terribly serious needed attending to. Since Billy had already suffered the misfortune of being forced to take piano lessons, I knew that could not be the urgent business at hand. I could only imagine that some favorite aunt had died, or that Billy was going to be whisked away to an orphanage.
Billy had a collection of enviably good toys in his room, and normally I could have amused myself for hours in the absence of Billy and in the presence of all those toys. On this occasion, however, I could not bring myself to play. I just sat on his bed and felt the tension rise in the form of an accelerating heartbeat and a prickly feeling at the back of my tongue of the sort I got when I was quite sure a monster was hiding in my closet at bedtime. My shortness of breath assured me that something terrible was afoot.
After what seemed a very long time, Billy came into the room. He looked very shaken, pale in the face and trembling. Then he began to sob. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that the adults were from his church and that they had come to examine him to determine whether he had been saved by his faith in Jesus Christ. The diagnosis was not positive. He had shown no signs of the kind of faith necessary to save a lost soul. The prognosis was uncertain. If some sign of salvation should appear, then there might be some hope. Otherwise, it looked pretty much like an eternity of damnation for poor Billy.
As Billy told me about the cross-examination he had undergone in the living room with all those dour adults dressed in dark clothing, I found myself struggling to find a frame of reference in which to put this story. I lacked any of the indoctrination necessary to help me interpret it. Every aspect of the story was so unfamiliar to me that understanding was out of the question. All I knew was that my friend was sobbing and terrified and at least temporarily beyond any form of consolation that an eight-year-old friend could provide. I had no idea what to do or say.
Billy was apparently not saved from eternal damnation, but I was saved from the temporary discomfort of witnessing his unconsolable fear. The very adults who had cross-examined him and found him wanting came into the bedroom and told me I should run along now. I knew that “Run along now” was the default command issued by adults who wanted children out of the way but could not think of an explanation for why the current situation required the absence of children. In this case, I should hasten to clarify, the absence of children was not required so much as the absence of one child, namely me, and the presence of the unfortunate Billy.
Confused and bewildered, I hung my head (and would have put a tail between my legs if I had had one) and somehow got myself through the living room and past all those unsmiling adult inquisitors before they could determine the no doubt sorry state of my own soul. I fumbled the living room door open and bolted out into the fresh outdoor air and filled my lungs with it as someone might do after being trapped for days in a collapsed mineshaft.
Billy and I never spoke about the incident. No mention of it was ever made again. The next time I saw Billy's grandmother she was smiling with her indomitable good nature. The grandfather was back on his sofa, lying down as he read the Good Book and took in its good news, his face relaxed into its natural scowl.
Unable to talk about the incident with anyone else, I was left to figure out for myself the question that would not leave my mind: What kind of people would do this to a kid? Who would tell a charming, freckle-faced boy with a room full of wonderful toys that he was probably facing an eternity of damnation?
The question remains with me to this day. Unanswered.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 06/25/2009
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Everyone who has studied the religious philosophies of India is likely to be familiar with the concept of the kaliyuga (the age of strife), described in vivid detail the epic literature as a time when general public morality has broken down to such an extent that violence and corruption is the norm. Buddhist literature also describes a time when morality will be so rare that not only will people not aspire to be good, but the very idea of goodness will be forgotten.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the twenty-first century could be described in the same terms as the kaliyuga delineated in the Hindu epics or the age of degeneration described by the Buddhists. The eras described in the Indian literature is much worse than anything we are experiencing today. On the other hand, it does feel as though societies around the world are slowly drifting in the direction of the sort of moral breakdown described in such graphic terms in ancient Indian literature. Greed, hatred and delusion seem to be waxing rather than waning. Perhaps it always seems that way, no matter when one lives.
Perhaps the descriptions of degenerate times in ancient literature are descriptions of what is fairly constant in human condition. Perhaps, as such religious teachers of various traditions have taught, there will never be liberation from the effects of greed, hatred and delusion this side of the grave.
What, aside from wringing one's hands, can one do? These days I find myself thinking about those religious philosophies that promote the idea that the world we experience is mostly a product of our own thinking. Those who see the world mostly in terms of sin and its punishment or of a struggle between cosmic forces of Good and Evil do seem to live in a cramped and uncomfortable world that threatens them. Those who see the world mostly in terms of opportunities to grow and heal seem to live in a more spacious and congenial world that nourishes them.
If those appearances are at all accurate, they raise the question: to what extent are any of us able to choose the way we see the world? Can one simply decide not to see the world in terms of sin and its punishment and opt instead for a less disturbing way of seeing the world? The answer, I think, is a carefully qualified Yes.
The doctrine of karma has always made sense to me; at least, one of the many ways of looking at karma has made sense to me ever since I first read about it. The view that appeals to me is one that says our every deliberate action reinforces a tendency to act in a similar way again. In other words, every action reinforces a habit. The collection of all of our habits is known as character. And the kind of character one has exerts a strong influence on how comfortable one is in the world. Habit can be broken, but the longer one acts in a particular habitual pattern, the more difficult it is to break the pattern. If one has the habit of passing negative judgment on others, and if one makes no efforts to break the habit, one is much more likely to perceive oneself as belonging in a dangerous and evil world than if one made successful efforts to cultivate alternative habits of thinking. One the other hand, if one consciously cultivates the habit of being kind and friendly, the likelihood of acting cruelly or passing negative judgments on others is reduced. That is how many Buddhists discuss karma. It makes sense to me. I have developed the habit of thinking of human experience in those terms.
The Buddhist view of karma described above does not leave much room for grace. It does not leave much room for the view that human beings are vitiated by negative tendencies that they are powerless to overcome through their own efforts and that they must therefore hope for an undeserved gift of grace from a higher power. On the other hand, it does seem as though some people do acquire such destructive and counterproductive ways of thinking that they lose the capacity to reverse the direction of their habits. The idea of the kaliyuga is that the human race could collectively fall into such negative and counterproductive habits that hardly any individuals would have the wherewithal to turn those habits around. It is a sobering reminder of the momentum of habit and character.
When offered a sobering reminder, it is not a bad idea to reflect on it soberly.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 07/24/2009
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A conception of the world arises in you somehow, no matter how. Is it true or not? you ask.
It might_ be true somewhere, you say, for it is not self-contradictory.
It may be true, you continue, even here and now.
It is fit to be true, it would be well if it were true, it ought to be true, you presently feel.
It must be true, something persuasive in you whispers next; and thenas a final result It shall be held for true, you decide; it shall be as if true, for you.
And your acting thus may in certain special cases be a means of making it securely true in the end.
The steps outlined above by William James in his collection of lectures entitled A Pluralistic Universe suggest, as he goes on to explain, that we human beings arrive at convictions through a series of steps that are not at all logical. Rather than arriving at our convictions through a series of logical steps, he says, we all tend to climb what he calls the “faith ladder” to a psychological sense of certainty. We become sure that what make makes sense to us, given our own private experiences and the ways we have been indoctrinated, must be true.
The next step after that is often to raise the alarm that those to whom different conclusions make more sense must be in the wrong, and therefore are in need of being corrected. In the most drastic cases, those who prove themselves to be incorrigible and who persist in their erroneous thinking may come to be deemed dangerous and in need of being eliminated. It takes little familiarity with human history to see how much physical injury and death have been inflicted by some people on others out of a conviction that the victims of the violence were holding dangerous views. The irony of the act of inflicting violence on people who are seen as dangerous rarely manifests itself to those who are themselves victims of their own sense of certainty.
What precautions can one take against becoming certain that one is right? There are a few that come to mind. Perhaps you can think of more.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 08/14/2009
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When Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, or perhaps someone else, played a role in planting a bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, he apparently felt that he was justified in killing people, since they were deserving for some reason to be punished. When members of al-Qa'eda carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, they were convinced that no innocent people had died. The vary fact that the people who died were either at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center was seen as evidence that the victims were acting against the ways of God and therefore deserved to be punished. The duty of a lover of God, the reasoning seems to go, is to punish those whom God hates and God hates evil-doers. Using exactly that reasoning, the Bush administration initiated the invasion of two sovereign nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the grounds that they were harboring evil-doers who were working against American interests, and therefore against God.
The depiction of God as a wrathful deity who punishes all those who displease him is well represented in the sacred literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was allegedly because God so despised the people of the land of Canaan that he authorized the Hebrews to invade the land of Canaan with an aggressive brutality that today would be called genocidal. Later, the some of the Hebrew prophets were convinced that the brutal assault on Zion by the Babylonians was a natural expression of God's anger with the Hebrews for their allowing pagan elements to become mixed with the religious observances demanded by God of his chosen people. The Book of Revelations in the Christian scriptures outlines the suffering that will be inflicted on the enemies of God. The Qur'ān warrants the punishment of apostates and the rough treatment of infidels. The claim is made, at least in Islam, that the god of the Hebrews and the Christians and the Muslims is one and the same. This one God is unambiguously punitive. Those who do evil cannot expect to be treated gently.
The punitive God, however, is by no means the only one described in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture. God is also constantly described by the Hebrews as “slow to anger” and “merciful” and “compassionate.” In all three traditions God commands the descendants of Adam to care for orphans, widows, the poor and the powerless. Through (or, for a Trinitarian Christian, as) Jesus, God warns people about to stone an adulteress that the first stone should be thrown by one who is free of sin; no one throws a stone. And Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pas judgment, less judgment be passed on them. John the Evangelist identifies with God as love. The Qur'ān frequently uses the epithets “The Merciful” and “The Compassionate” for God.
It may be less difficult to believe that The Torah, the Gospels and the Qur'ān are all outlining the same characteristics than it is to believe that all those characteristics belong to a single deity. It is difficult to see how the angry, jealous and punitive nature that we read about is some scriptural passages are to be reconciled with the loving, merciful and forgiving nature encountered in other passages. Of course, no one is perfectly consistent, so there is no reason why God could not be as complex and full of contradictions as any human being. The practical problem for human beings arises when they have to decide which of the natures of God they are going to emulate. Should a human being strive to be demanding of perfection and punitive of all who stray into error, or would it be better to strive to be loving and forgiving?
There is no way to answer this question for everyone. Rather, everyone must arrive at his or her own answer. Having arrived at a provisional answer, the next question to ask is whether the answer one has arrived it is divinely guided in some way or whether it comes from other promptings.
If one's inclination is to be an instrument of divine vengeance and to wield “the terrible swift sword” of God's wrath, it is worth asking whether one has been chosen to carry out this punitive role or whether one is acting out of one's own conditioned fear and prejudice. It also worth asking what the consequences might be of being mistaken. What if, for example, one is mistaken in the belief that God wants one to assassinate an abortionist or go to a crowded bazaar and detonate explosives strapped to one's body? How will one rectify the error? Can one rectify such an error?
If one's inclination is to be merciful and compassionate and to be an instrument of divine love, it is equally worth asking whether one's intended actions are truly spirit-led or whether one is acting out of cowardice or moral laziness or a desire to be liked by one's fellows. And, as in the other case, it is worth reflecting on what the consequences might be of being mistaken. If one were mistaken, would this be an unrecoverable error, one that would lead to certain damnation?
If one cannot be certain of the source of one's promptings, on which side is it better to err? It is better to err on the side of being too forgiving or on the side of being too harshly punitive? Which sort of error, if an error there be, is least likely to violate the injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself and treat others as one would like to be treated?
What seems most likely to me is that most people, if they are acting in an inappropriate way, would rather be remonstrated with and shown a better example to follow than to be stoned to death, shot or bombed. It is difficult for me to see in what way those punishments could be construed as any kind of love. They are certainly hard to see as expressions of love of one's neighbor. For me, they are equally difficult to see as expressions of love of God. If such actions were to be delightful, or even acceptable to God, then I would have to wonder whether I would be willing to continue my relationship with such a God. I think not.
And because I think I would not be willing to approve of a deity who would require that those who love him mutilate or kill those who are perceived to be enemies of the Good, I am also inclined to think that all passages of scripture in which God commands, for example, that disobedient sons be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death or that citizens of a neighboring country should be put to the sword for their idolatry, are not the words of God at all' rather, they are the words of frightened, greedy or deluded human beings seeking to justify destructive actions by pretending that those actions have the stamp of God's approval.
I may, of course, be mistaken. But if I am, it is a mistake with the consequences I am willing to live. And if the mistake is one that forfeits reconciliation with God, I am willing to live and die with that condition.
Where do you stand?
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 08/23/2009
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Like many other people today, I watched the funeral service for Senator Ted Kennedy. Like a good many other people, I was struck by the constant references to his faith, and to his drawing inspiration from the gospels and the Hebrew prophets. His long career as a public figure working for the poor, the mentally ill, the physically ill, immigrants seeking to improve their lives, the downtrodden was all inspired by Christian teachings. Similarly, his work for racial desegregation and for a full equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their race, their religion, their political convictions or their sexual orientation bore the unmistakable stamp of his Christian values in general and his Roman Catholic values in particular.
Ted Kennedy called himself a liberal. What he called his liberal values were so intimately tied to his Christian values that it is difficult to imagine anyone being a Christian without also being a liberal. But one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, for liberal values are also at the heart of being Jewish, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Buddhist, and Sikh, and Jain. It is difficult to imagine anyone being truly serious about any of the world's religions without being deeply committed to the traditional liberal values of protecting the poor against the wealthy, the weak against the powerful, the feeble-minded against the clever, the humble against the mighty, the peaceful against the warlike, the few against the many. It is impossible for me to imagine being a sincere practitioner of any religious tradition without being committed to what Catholics during the Second Vatican Council called the preferential option for the poor. That is, whenever there is a struggle between the rich protecting their vested interests and the poor struggling for a basic livelihood, and fundamental human rights, and dignity, and equality of opportunity, one should always side with the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. That is the message the prophets of Israel brought. It is what Jesus of Nazareth taught. It is the message of the Qur'ān and the prophet Muhammad. It is a central theme in the teachings of the Buddha. It is what Confucius and his followers repeatedly sought to implement. It is also what humanism is all about. These are the basic values not only of the religious but also of many agnostics and atheists.
A word that many people don't like to use because they find it too nebulous in meaning is spiritual. Some people use the word to refer to espousing the core values of the world's religions without necessarily buying in to the rituals and the dogmas of any those traditions. That is one way of using the word, but it is not entirely accurate, for that usage suggests there is a dichotomy between being religious and being spiritual. That is, however, a false dichotomy. While it's true that people who prefer never to go inside a church or temple or synagogue or mosque can be spiritual, it's also true that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can all be spiritual. Just as one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, one need not avoid organized religion to be spiritual. Just as liberalism embraces all the religions, and many ways of thinking that are not at all religious, so does spirituality.
It would not be going to far, I think, to suggest that spiritual and liberal overlap in meaning a great deal. They are not synonymous. But they are close enough in connotation that people who are allergic to one word can use the other without being too badly misunderstood.
I am among those who will miss Ted Kennedy's tireless crusades for the poor and the powerless. And I am among those who know that the word crusade comes into English from the Spanish and from the Latin word for cross. A crusader carries the cross into his battles. Ted Kennedy did that brilliantly and unfailingly. One need not be a Christian to feel grateful to him for doing that. One need only be spiritual. And in being spiritual, one cannot help also being a liberal.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 08/29/2009
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Huge cathedrals and basilicas always plunge me into a complex web of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I almost always find myself feeling peaceful and serene in the vast spaces under the vaulted ceilings, and I usually feel appropriately inspired by the iconography. If a cathedral is very old, I invariably feel a connection with the dozens or scores of generations of worshipers who have been there before me. All those feelings are just what magnificent cathedrals are meant to evoke.
On the other hand, there is a part of me that rebels against the possibility of being dependent on externals for any kind of religious feeling. After all, I come from a long line of Protestants who were so wary of external symbols that they sometimes physically destroyed them. The actions of those iconoclasts, of course, betrayed a deep attachment to abstract ideals that was every bit as pernicious as the dependence on concrete externals they so feared. I am fully aware of that, and that awareness blunts the the edge of the sword of my instinctive rebellion against institutional structures.
Less easy to moderate is the sense of uneasiness I always feel around anything grand. Huge buildings, highly ornamented vestments, well-crafted religious artifacts, magnificent thrones, bejeweled scepters and crowns and rings are invariably costly and therefore sponsored by the exceptionally wealthy and powerful. It is impossible for me to see such things without being reminded of all the poor who have borne the heavy burden of providing goods and services for the powerful. Even when the wealthy are generous, the very possibility of their being generous is almost always bought at the expense of those who come to be in need of generous aid. I have a difficult time escaping the conviction that there is something indecent about some people amassing as much wealth as several thousand ordinary people could amass by putting all their fortunes together. Using that wealth to sponsor the building of magnificent cathedrals and temples and splendid vestments for priests and the monarchs they bless does not offset the indecency of acquiring such an imbalance of wealth in the first place.
A few days ago I sat in Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Despite trying my best to get in touch with the inward light that my Quaker practice is based upon, I simply could not get past the distraction of the flashes of the cameras of thousands of tourists who ignored the many signs requesting them not to use a flash if they took photographs. There was hardly any sense of the sacred remaining in the cathedral. But perhaps one cannot expect much of the sacred to dwell in a cathedral in which kings and emperors were once crowned; the secular has always been a persistently invasive presence in that particular cathedral.
My own inability to get beyond external distractions to make contact with my internal guide distressed me and made me feel shallow and somehow inadequate. I found myself longing for the quiet and simple Quaker meetinghouse where my wife and I normally worship when we are in our home town. The Zen Buddhist side of my mentality brought forth images of masters tearing up sutras and burning wooden Buddha statues, not out of contempt but to show that in the end we have only our own inner resources to draw upon and cannot rely on anything else. My Zen background also delivered a sense of being ashamed for being so dualistic in seeing the sacred and the secular as antogonistic opposites.
Outside the cathedral, after my unsuccessful essay at meditating, I blended into the crowds of curiosity-seeking tourists from all over the world and the local pickpockets honoring a long tradition of striving to make a dishonest living. For a moment I felt like a character in a Victor Hugo novel. A brief fantasy of swinging from the belfry like Quasimodo passed through my consciousness. My wife became in my eyes the lovely Esmeralda with whom the unfortunate hunchback of Notre-Dame was enamored.
We went across the street together, Esmeralda and I, and there we ate baguettes with cheese.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 09/14/2009
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On October 3, the people of Leiden celebrate the end of the Spanish seige of their town in 1574. It is a day of tremendous celebration, for the ousting of the Spanish was eventually followed by the liberation of the entire Netherlands from Spanish rule. It is a day for celebrating freedom.
This year's Leidens ontzet (Leiden's relief), as the festivities of October 3 are called, was a time for celebrating America. It was four hundred years ago, in 1609, that a group of English dissidents moved to Leiden, after spending some time in Amsterdam. Most of these people worked in the cloth industry in Leiden, which was at that time a major center for manufacturing textiles and for shipping them out to other places throughout Europe. The English textile workers lived in Leiden until 1620, when they embarked for Delft. There they purchased a ship called Speedwell to sail for the new world. The ship proved not to be seaworthy, so it was traded in England for another ship called Mayflower and that ship made it to America on November 21, 1640. The pilgrims, as they came to be called, celebrated their freedom in the new world with a feast. The Dutch point out that the feast was modelled on Leidens ontzet and that what Americans came to call Thanksgiving is a Dutch holiday imported to America by the English pilgrims.
The decision to make the journey to America was made at a church in Leiden called Sint Pieterskerk. That church, built sometime around 1100, was already five hundred years old when the pilgrims worshiped there. Buried under the floor of that church was John Robinson, who played a key role in helping the pilgrims make the decision to leave the Netherlands for America but was unable to make the journey himself. Also buried there are relatives of some of the pilgrims who did make the journey. The gravestones are still on the floor of the church, but the bodies were removed and placed in a cemetary some time ago.
On October 3, 2009 my wife and I attended a thanksgiving church service at Sint Pieterskerk. It was a moving experience for me, because at least three of my ancestors worshiped there during their years in Leiden. Two of my ancestors, Francis Cooke and William Bradford, were Englishmen who lived in Leiden and took The Mayflower to America. Another ancestor was Moses Symonson, a native of Leiden who eventually went to America, but not on the Mayflower.
As I listened to the church service, all in Dutch, and struggled to understand what was being said and sung, I could not help wondering how my ancestors had felt as they worshiped in that same place. What went through their minds? What did they believe? (A clue is what is written in the Mayflower compact.) What would they think of all the people in America who are their descendants? If they had been able to see into their future and see our present, what would they think of what America has become? Perhaps if I could understand Dutch better, my mind would have been more on the sermon and less on my own wandering fantasies and imaginings.
Leiden was also visited in the 17th century by George Fox and William Penn, two of the early Quakers. I am not descended from either of them, but I am a Quaker and therefore regard myself as a spiritual descendant. Not a day goes by when I do not think about the fact that I am probably walking along streets well known to the pilgrims and the Quakers who were here. In the greater scheme of things, of course, it is meaningless, but in the small world of my own mind these things take on a significance that I don't expect anyone else to share.
With the exception of special services on holidays such as Leidens ontzet, Sint Pieterskerk is no longer used as a church. It is a secular building now, a venue for concerts and other cultural events. Like so many of the grand cathedrals and basillicas and churches in Europe, it is a relic of another age, a time that modernity has buried, both for better and for worse.
Just a few meters from Sint Pieterskerk is the building that served as Leiden's jail. In the courtyard outside the jail public executions used to take place, often to the delight of onlookers. Capital punishment is a phenomenon that modernity has left behind for the better. People are no longer executed in the Netherlands; perhaps someday they will no longer be executed in the United States. What modernity has left behind for the worse are windmills, sailing ships, and machines that were driven by human muscles instead of coal and petroleum and uranium. In Leiden, more than anyplace I have lived before, most people get around on foot and on bicycles rather than in automobiles. Perhaps someday people in the United States will rediscover the power of their own muscles to do whatever work is really necessary to do.
Frankly, I have never been much giving to praying for things. But in Sint Pierteskerk on October 3, 2009, I prayed that America will someday become the place the pilgrims dreamed of when they set out for Leiden on their way to Plymouth rock.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 10/07/2009
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In the first of his lectures on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1907, William James suggests that there are two kinds of philosophical temperament, which he calls the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tough-minded are those who have a tendency toward empiricism. They trust their senses. They are content with a variety of sensations and with a plurality of fields of inquiry, each with its own questions and theories. The tough-minded feel no strong urge to arrive at a single “theory of everything.” The tender-minded, in contrast, gravitate to the intellect rather than the senses, and they seek unifying theories and a single metaphysical principle that unites all the varieties of beings and sensations. The tender-minded are also inclined to dogmatism and to a sense of discomfort with what cannot easily be fit within their unifying frameworks.
In the final of the eight lectures on Pragmatism, James turns his attention to Pragmatism and religion. Again, he notes two prevaliing trends in religion: a tendency to absolutism in some contrasted with a tendnecy to religious and moral pluralism in others:
So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough. Many persons would refuse to call the pluralistic scheme religious at all. They would call it moralistic, and would apply the word religious to the monistic scheme alone.
It is not merely that the tender-minded prefer absolutism and dogmatic certainty, says James. The very idea of pluralism is repugnant to the tender-minded.
There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme. Pluralistic moralism simply makes their teeth chatter, it refrigerates the very heart within their breast.
Pluralism is closely associated with Pragmatism. The heart of Pragmatism is the notion that true differences in opinion must result in differences in action. If two people have a disagreement on some issue but would act the same way no matter how the dispute might be resolved, then the dispute is merely a logomachy—a war of words only. Rather than using the words “true” and “false,” Pragmatists prefer to speak of propositions as having or failing to have agreement with reality. What it means for a blief or proposition to be in agreement with reality is just that if the belief is acted upon, then it will have expected results. If I am thirsty and drink the contents of a cup and my thirst is slaked, then the belief that the contents would slake my thirst were in agreement with my sense of reality. Beliefs, propositions are instruments by which a person gets from one experience to another. Given that there are often several beliefs that have the capacity to serve as instruments for successfully getting to an expected experience, it would make no sense to say that there is only one belief in agreement with reality; it makes little sense, in other words, to say that there is only one truth.
When Pragmatism is applied to religious doctrines, it turns out that not only are there many paths to salvation, but there are also many goals that can be described as salvation. So while it may be the case that many religious traditions promise some kind of salvation, it does not at all follow that all religions are promising the same salvation. The beatific vision described as the salvation for which Roman Catholics strive may not at all appeal to the Buddhist striving for nrivāṇa, and one Buddhist's nirvāṇa may not appeal at all to another Buddhist. The religious pluralist is not in the least bothered by this, for he has no expectation that all people should have the same ultimate goal.
I am both a religious and a moral pluralist. It is probably this fact that makes me quite comfortable with both Quakers and with Buddhists, and with several varieties of each of these. It is my pluralism that makes it possible to call myself both a Quaker and a Buddhist.I have no wish or need to convince others that this approach to life makes sense. Given one's temperament, religious and moral plurlism either makes sense or it doesn't. James was probably right in saying that for some the very idea refrigerates the hearts within their breast. Perhaps the most one can ask of such people is that they at least recognize that they are sharing a planet with people whose mentalities are constructed other than theirs and that there is no evidence that this fact is plunging the human race into disaster. If anything is proving unworkable and disastrous, it is the conflict that comes about when those whose dispositions incline them more toward absolutism and dogmatism attempt either to impose their wills on others or to rid the world of those who have other absolutes or those who have no absolutist tendencies at all.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 11/08/2009
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It is said that Sri Ramakrishna used to tell his disciples that devoting time to healing the world is like trying to straighten a dog's curly tail. No matter how much one may try to straighten a dog's tail, it will always revert back to being curly.
There are times when Ramakrishna's words sound to me like an invitation just to let the world go on its own course and not to wear myself out striving to do the impossible. I hear the words as advice to take care of my own spiritual well-being, let others take care of theirs, and hope for the best. At other times it sounds more like an invitation to keep tirelessly at the task of trying to make things a little better and never to wipe the dust off my hands and congratulate myself for having completed the task. After all, the fewer people there are who make an effort to make a positive difference in the world, the less the chances the world will spontaneously straighten up and follow a course of wisdom and justice. On the other hand, a great deal of what has gone wrong in the world has come about precisely because of some people zealously applying their solutions and trying to save a world whether the world wanted to be saved or not. The pendulum of my attitudes toward activism sway slowly back and forth, showing no signs of finding a stable resting point.
There are profoundly discouraging signs that the dog's curly tail will yield to no efforts at all to straighten it. Senator Dodd proposed a bill in the US Senate that would put limits on how high the interest rates on credit cards can be until such time as new regulations take effect. The bill died before it could even be debated, reportedly blocked by Republicans. No spiritual tradition in the world recommends usury; most prohets and philosophers throughout history have condemned it in no uncertain terms. And yet Senators, probably fearing a loss of campaign funds from banks and other financial giants, side with the wealthy and powerful rather than with those who are suffering from the usurious rates the giants are charging.
Cardinals, bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, swamis and lamas should be making it abundantly clear that the inaction of the senators is a shameful betrayal of every religious tradition in the world, and the followers of those religious leaders should be informing their representatives in no uncertain terms that politicians will not be getting the vote of sincere Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists until they liberate themselves from their addiction to the backing of major corporations and return to the business of providing legislation designed to promote the welfare of the people.
That the politicians are not being denounced by religious leaders for betraying their promise to serve the people is a sign that religious leaders themselves ae betraying their promises to care for their flocks of believers. A silent pulpit in a time of injustice becomes part of what makes that injustice possible. There are, to be sure, people making themselves heard. But there is nothing like the quantum mass of outraged voters filling the streets that it takes to bring about change in a country the size of the United States. There are nothing like numbers it took some decades ago to bring an end to racial segregation and the unconscionable war in Vietnam. The hounds of heaven, those who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, are sleeping on the porch. Perhaps they have themselves become dogs with curly tails.
It times like the ones we are going through now, it is mighty tempting to become a quietist, to retreat into the comfort of isolation and solitary prayer and meditation. It is tempting to focus on another world, a better world to come along when one has been released from active duty in this one. It is tempting to visualize heavenly realms and pure lands and distant paradises while the world outside rots and stinks. It is even tempting to retreat to a peaceful valley somewhere and to wait until the times have changed, thinking “When the parade comes along, I will join it.”
If no one marches now, then when and where will there be a parade to join?
Those who would continue robbing little people by tempting them into debt, and then by charging exhorbitant rates to enslave them, and then by forcing them into bankruptcythose robbers are counting on you and me to give up the struggle for achieving a fair and just world. They are counting on us to shrug and say “Oh well, I guess some dogs just have curly tails, and I should just learn to love curly-tailed dogs.”
Can they count on your support?
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 11/19/2009
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My childhood memories of American Thanksgiving still give me stomach cramps. It was a day of serious overeating, usually in the company of relatives, who gathered around the table in the early afternoon and stayed there for hours, talking and laughing and eating. Rarely did I have the sense to stop eating when I had had enough. There were too many flavors to sample, almost all of them far too rich. Sometimes the menfolk would excuse themselves from the table and go watch a football game on the television while the womenfolk retired to the kitchen and washed dishes for several hours. The men, forgetting that they had already eaten as much in one meal as a healthy person comsumes in a few days, would devour snacks washed down with beverages (brought to them by the women, of course). Thanksgiving in my home was a secular feast. Secular feasts, unlike most religious feasts, are rarely preceded by a period of fasting, and rarely accompanied by a spirit of giving thanks (even for the women who did all the work while the men did the important service of complaining about the decisions of quarterbacks). Rather, they are celebrations of overindulgence.
It was not until I moved to Canada as an adult and began celebrating Thanksgiving with Canadians in early October of every year that I realized what an atmosphere of patriotism was present in American Thanksgiving. I noticed its presence in American Thanksgiving because of its absence in Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving was not simply a scaled-down version of American Thanksgiving in which the menfolk watched hockey instead of football; it had an entirely different feeling about it. For one thing, I had the impression that Canadian children did not prepare for their Thanksgiving Day by studying the prehistory of their country for several weeks and retelling all the myths upon which patriotism is based. When I was a child in school, it was routine to draw pictures of Pilgrims wearing tall hats and buckled shoes and shooting turkeys with blunderbusses and sitting around with Indians and learning all about how important it is to plant fish in the soil to fertilize the newly planted kernels of maize, in exchange for which useful information the Pilgrims shared the useful information that it was only through the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ that human beings (even savages) could be saved. The religio-patriotic dimension was altogether missing in the Canadian Thanksgiving environment—something for which I was deeply grateful. Never having been one for patriotic sentimentality, I find it very easy to spontaneously give thanks for its absence.
When I was young and secular, patriotism seemed merely silly to me. I had not yet learned of any country on the earth that was worth feeling grateful for. (Ironically, that changed when I discovered Canada and found myself loving a country that was completely indifferent to my, or anyone else's, affections. I loved Canada precisely because I was not constantly being reminded that I ought to do so.) As I became older and less secular, I began to see patriotism as diametrically opposed to spirituality. Love of country came to feel like a terrible distraction from the truly important things in life. It came to feel like a kind of collective ego-mania, a way to fool oneself into thinking that one had concerns for something bigger than oneself through celebrating a country for no good reason than that the country was one's own. As a critic of all forms of war conducted for whatever reasons, I found I could not feel anything but shame for the country in which I had been born and nurtured, for that country was constantly involving itself unnecessarily and without provocation or justification in war after. The incessant preparedness for war that my native land was engaged in, the building of nuclear stockpiles, the use of napalm against innocent non-combatants, the use of cluster bombs, the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, the history of slavery and of genocidal wars against native Americans—all this managed to kill any feelings of gratitutde I might have had to be associated with such a dark and confused land.
I am more mellow now than I was when I was half as old as I am now. I am no less a pacifist. I am no less convinced that patriotism is a terrible distraction from things of real importance. It still strikes me as obscene to practice gluttony when a fifth of the world's population is underfed. But I have learned to lighten up, to eat more lightly, and to be more grateful for being nourished by the inner light than angry at the outer darkness. While I still feel profoundly saddened by the thought of all the turkeys who are sacrificed every year to feed American thanksgivers, I am no longer angered by it.
Celebrating Thanksgiving by myself in the Netherlands today (a country that takes credit for having taught the English pilgrims to give thanks every year while they lived in Leiden for a decade before heading for Massachusetts), I heated up some bok choi and ate it with some aged Gouda cheese on an Italian ciabattina and a glass of Belgian beer. And now I shall curl up with a good article on Buddhism written an Arab. And I shall give thanks for the rich diversity of humanity, a richness that knows no national boundaries.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 11/19/2009
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On Friday, 4 December 2009, on The News Hour Jim Lehrer read out the guidelines of what he calls MacNeill/Lehrer journalism.
Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.
It occurs to me that several of those guidelines could serve a general guidelines for educators and for everyone else who communicates for a living. Come to think of it, they would serve as good guidelines for those who communicate recreationally. Here are those guidelines stated in a more general form:
Speech guidelines, in my experience, are the most difficult to follow, because speech is so subtle. Unless one has a stutter or a speech impediment, it is so easy to speak that words often escape from the lips before they have been properly inspected for suitability. And yet, when one thinks of the power words have to shape people's beliefs, to influence their emotional states and to urge them into action, it is difficult to think of anything more important in human life than mindfulness in using language.
Posted by Richard Hayes to Out of a living silence on 12/06/2009
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