Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for the ‘Philosophical basis’ Category

A liberal by any other name

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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.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 21:01

Taking precautions against certainty

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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 then—as 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.

  • Be careful of the company you keep. We all have the tendency to keep company with people who agree with us on most matters that we take think are important. This no doubt leads to pleasant social interactions, but it is not the best way to guard oneself against a false sense of security in one’s convictions. Better is to seek the company of a variety of people with different backgrounds and to listen carefully to their accounts of what they have experienced and how they have interpreted their experiences.
  • Read widely and actively seek out a diversity of perspectives from the news and opinion media. If you find yourself agreeing with most of what you see on Fox News, try watching Bill Moyers or Now on PBS, or listen to Amy Goodman on NPR. Conversely, if you watch mostly PBS and listen to NPR, broaden your horizons by taking in something like Glenn Beck on Fox News. Read both The National Review and The New Republic. Rather than taking sides on the conflict in the Middle East, seek out both al-Jazeerah and Haaretz.
  • Actively seek religious diversity. If your inclination is to stay away from organized religion, try going to a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a Buddhist or a Hindu temple. Talk to people. Find out what is important to them. Ask questions. If your habit is to go to religious services regularly, try going to the services of a religious organization that promotes views different from your own. Or talk to someone whom you know or suspect to be an atheist or an agnostic. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices and your fearful ignorance.
  • Take some courses at a local adult education program or a community college or a university. Learn something new. Look into something you never even knew existed before.
  • Try reading some William James. He wrote so many books and essays that it may be difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, it does not really matter. Everything he wrote is full of intelligence and insight, and he was an excellent stylist. If you get nothing else out of it, you are likely to get some joy out of reading beautifully written English (often liberally sprinkled with German, French, Latin and Greek words and expressions, because he respects your intelligence and knows you occasionally like to read something besides Surfing the Web for Dummies.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, August 14, 2009 at 13:03

Kaliyuga

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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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, July 24, 2009 at 10:50

Spiritual power warps

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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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 18:52

Universal love

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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.

Is universal love desirable?

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.

Is it possible to love everyone?

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.

Is there any point in striving for unattainable goals?

In mathematics there is the useful concept of an asymptote—a 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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 11:34

In harmony with its own nature

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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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 16:15