Out of a living silence

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The puzzle of religious identity

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A while back a clinic at which I had an upcoming appointment called me to ask questions in preparation for my visit. One of the questions was “What is your religious preference?” The question took me my surprise—of what medical relevance could that possibly be to an otorhinolaryngologist? Do the nostrils of an evangelical Christian look different from the nostrils of a Zen Buddhist?

What took me even more by surprise than the question was that I answered it quickly and without hesitation. More surprising yet was my answer: “Quaker,” said I.  After the call ended, I reflected on the fact that for several decades my response to that question, on the rare occasions it has arisen, has always been “Buddhist.” Why, after decades of identifying as a Buddhist, did I spontaneously have a different answer?

As I began to think about this, I began by reflecting on the fact that I have dual citizenship, being a citizen of the United States by birth and a citizen of Canada by naturalization. For years I carried two passports. When entering the United States I always showed my U.S. passport, and when entering any other country I showed the Canadian passport. When traveling outside North America, I always thought of myself and identified myself to others as Canadian. Now that both passports have expired, I don’t travel outside North America. I now live in the United States again and vote in local and federal elections whenever the opportunity arises, but despite exercising the rights of a citizen, I cannot easily think of myself as a citizen of the United States or any other country. I have ceased to believe in countries; they are at best a conventional conceptual structure that I reject but to which practical life requires some degree of acknowledgement, however reluctant.

My attitude toward religions that have names is parallel to my attitude toward countries that have names and borders. The most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your religious preference?” would be the same as the most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your citizenship?” The answer to both questions would be “None.” And yet, I do have membership in two religious organizations, both of which I maintain. I have no preference of one over the other. It has mostly been through force of habit that when asked I tend to tell people I’m a Buddhist.

So why did I recently answer the question of religious preference differently? As I thought about this further, it occurred to me that I have always seen myself as a pretty substandard Buddhist, at lest by traditional criteria. I don’t particularly like or get any inspiration from Buddhist rituals. I don’t really believe anyone has ever attained nirvana, which is traditionally said to be the complete eradication of the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana is also traditionally said to be the cessation of rebirth, but I have never believed in rebirth in the first place. As far as I am concerned, everyone who manages to die has attained the end of consciousness and has no worry of being born as an animal or a ghost or a denizen of any of the hells or paradises cooked up by the common human reluctance to face oblivion; it follows from my convictions, if they are true, that either everyone attains nirvana, or no one does.

I find it impossible to believe that anyone has ever existed who can accurately be described by the fulsome praise embedded in the formulaic description of the Buddha: “noble, fully awakened, perfect in knowledge and conduct, knower of the world, unmatched teacher of gods and people” and “the best teacher on two feet.” Are there any gods to be taught? Can anyone who is a teacher of people be called unmatched or the best? Surely there are countless thousands of very good teachers, people whose advice it would benefit almost anyone to follow. Why single out one good teachers as the best?None of the traditional praise of the Buddha makes much sense to me.

All told, if being a Buddhist entails going for refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma (which, as an item of refuge is understood as the ultimate goal of nirvana) and the Community, I fail to go for refuge to at least two out of three of the traditional Buddhist refuges. Truth be told, I don’t even believe in the community as it is traditionally understood by Buddhists, namely, as the community of noble persons, those being the people who have eradicated various false views, sexual desires, anger, pride and various other afflictions. My belief is that if one is born human, one dies human and is human every moment in between birth and death, and being human inevitably involves having an amygdala and all the “base” and “animalistc” mental states that originate in that part of the brain that human beings share with other deuterostomes.

By now it must be clear that I fall short of all traditional expectations of what it means to be a Buddhist. So how could I ever have thought of myself as a Buddhist at all? The answer to that is that one key teaching of Buddhism has made more sense to me than any other teaching anywhere, and that is that all internal and external turmoil arises from the presence of greed, hatred and delusion, and the more those afflictions are subdued, the greater the odds of feeling some degree of comfort while alive. While it is true that many philosophies incorporate that same key teaching in one way or another, it just happens that I first heard that teaching clearly articulated by Buddhists, so it is to Buddhism that I habitually give credit, even while acknowledging that Stoicism, along with most if not all of the world religions, and humanism deserve equal credit.

I suppose I thought of myself as a Buddhist because in my own mind it was the standards of Buddhism of which I was most conscious of falling short. I’m quite confident that I am equally far below the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, but what stood out in my mind, because of the accidents of who got to me first to shape my thinking, was my being below the standards of Buddhism.

What changed recently, I think, is that I have been reading quite a bit in recent months about the Quaker notion that one’s life—the way one lives—is the only real testimony to one’s faith. I admit to being very weak in any kind of faith, but if I did have any of it to give testimony to, I think I’d prefer to give testimony to it in the specific ways that liberal Quakers do, namely, by manifesting integrity, simplicity, peace, equality and community (or at least as much of community as an introvert like me can face). As I look at the reality of how my life has unfolded, I stand convicted of having manifested those ways of testimony rather poorly. And it is, I submit, because lately I have been far more conscious of being a substandard Quaker than of being a substandard Buddhist that I blurted out that my religious preference on that day was Quakerism.

I still do not see what possible relevance my or anyone else’s religious preference has to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Perhaps I should have answered that I am a secular humanist with a deviated septum.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 11, 2019 at 15:05

Posted in Buddhism, Quakerism

Convicted

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“Nothing can convict me of sin but the evidence in my own heart. From this evidence there is no escape.”—Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748 – February 27, 1830)

A term often used in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is “convinced Friend,” which is explained on the Quaker Jane website as “someone who experienced a convincement (either quickly or evolving over time) and chose in adulthood to join a Friends Meeting.” A convincement, in Quaker terminology, is what others might call a conversion experience or metanoia (μετάνοια), a sudden or gradual transformative experience that results in a change in the direction of one’s life. A convincement, however, is more than that. It is also a feeling that one has been convicted, as of a crime, and that one is therefore a convict, imprisoned for the time being. This recognition of one’s shortcomings, one’s failure to live according to one’s highest ideals, often results in one’s being less prone to the negative judgment of others for their shortcomings, as is expressed beautifully in the poem of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) entitled “Forgiveness”:

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

It would be difficult for me to point to any one experience in my life as a convincement, but early in adulthood a number of circumstances led to important changes in direction and alterations in perspective. A chance encounter with a collection of writings by the Stoics had an immediate effect on me, not so much one of making me change direction but of realizing that others had already said better what I was struggling to say about my outlook on the world. Not long after that, in the early months of 1967, I happened to attend two reading groups at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Golden, Colorado, one that was reading Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates and another that was reading several Buddhist writings. Reflecting on those readings had the effect of making me decide that I had completely lost all sense of belonging in the United States—there was hardly anything about the direction the country was taking on those days that seemed reasonable or moral to me—and that realization led to buying a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Oddly enough, I was convinced in those days that I was a Communist, and Winnipeg was a place with a number of Communist bookstores and members of various Canadian Communist parties. It took relatively little exposure to those people to make me realize I was not one of them after all. Fortunately, during those early days in Canada I also came into contact with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Despite a lifelong aversion to any kind of religion, and perhaps especially to anything Christian, I found myself so moved by the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the decency of Friends that I began to think it might be time to reconsider my antipathy. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship for several months, I was both impressed by the quality of what was said when Quakers rose to give testimony in meetings and resistant to the notion that these communications were from where Quakers officially said they were from: Spirit. Whenever I heard an inspirational message in meeting for worship, a little voice in my head would say something like “That’s John speaking his own carefully reasoned ideas. It’s not Spirit talking.” I am not sure why it was so important to me to make that distinction in those days, but with time that little voice stopped insisting on saying that sort of thing. Perhaps a factor in my little inner voice’s change of diction was the fact that in those days I wrote fiction or poetry nearly every day, and many times would look at what I had written and would ask myself “Where did that come from? My muse? My unconscious? Reasoning? Spirit? Or does it really matter where it comes from? There it is.”

In those early days in Canada I was in danger of being overwhelmed by my anger with the United States and that country’s seemingly insatiable craving for enemies to blame and countries to invade. On a visit to a bookstore in Lethbridge, Alberta, I stumbled upon a copy of Edward Conze’s little tome on Buddhist meditation, which reminded me of how well I had responded to the Buddhist readings in the Unitarian-Universalist church in Colorado. I bought the book and hit upon a description there of a contemplative practice aimed at cultivating friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), and it was immediately clear to me that that was what I had to do. I had to change my attitude, quit being angry with perceived enemies, begin finding something to love and respect in everyone, and that practice was just the tool I needed to do the job that needed to be done. Fifty years on, I still do that exercise regularly. Practice, I have come to notice, does not necessarily make perfect, but it can at least make a little better.

Now in the early years of my eighth decade as a human being on the planet Earth, I am still not entirely comfortable with such concepts as sin or evil. Those are not categories that readily come to mind as I look at the external world or at the internal mindscape. What does come to mind is some notion that “things ain’t what they spose to be” and that ameliorative measures could be taken. As Hicks said so well, from the evidence of one’s own heart there is no escape. It is that evidence that convicts. And once convicted, one has no choice but to reform.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 12:55

Posted in Quakerism

Tagged with , ,

Convinced atheist

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The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.

Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.

  • Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
  • Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greeter than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
  • Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by being keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
  • Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.

As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?

Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.

In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 09:18

Posted in Faith and practice

Freedom

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When I was a girl growing up in Syria and Saudi Arabia, I used to dream of someday living in the West, so I could experience all the freedoms that exist in Western societies, especially for women. When I finally got the opportunity to study in the West, my biggest disappointment was seeing how people squander their freedom of speech. There are so many things that one could talk about, but 95% of the conversations I heard among my fellow students were about food and sex and buying things. (Afra, a former student at McGill University, reflecting on her four years as an undergraduate)

Some of the most meaningless words are also the most emotionally charged. One of the most vacuous words commonly used in American society is also one of the most explosively emotional: “Freedom.” Anyone who has seen an automobile from the state of New Hampshire has witnessed the enigmatic slogan stamped on the license plates, “Live Free or Die.” The form of the phrase is that of an imperative sentence, a command that one must either live free or die. But if the only alternative to living free is death, then it is reasonable to ask whether while alive one has the freedom to choose not to live free. Apparently not, at least in New Hampshire. The command seems to be firmly rooted in self-contradiction and therefore meaningless, but that makes it no less capable of stirring emotions into a pointless frenzy of enthusiasm for an abstract idea that few people bother to think about beyond registering some sort of positive response. “Hooray for Freedom! Whatever it is, I’m all for it!”

Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between two kinds of freedom, often informally called freedom to and freedom from. In an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ian Carter writes this about positive and negative liberty:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

It seems fairly clear that when the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America wrote of freedom, it was positive liberty that they had in mind. They were preoccupied with having the capacity to make decisions collectively that reflected the realities of life on the North American continent, and they hoped to make those decisions independently of the will of the King of England and the British Parliament.

Those early Americans who opposed the new constitution, on the other hand, were preoccupied with individual liberties, the negative liberties such as the absence of constraints on individual behavior. Those who opposed the ratification of the newly written constitution were called anti-federalists, and they had their greatest strength in New York, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas, but they were also well represented in New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts (which in early days included the present state of Maine). The anti-federalists were vehemently opposed to the idea of a President of the United States, which they feared would evolve into a position hardly distinguishable from that of a monarch. They opposed a centralized federal government, favoring instead strong state governments, which were perceived as less likely to abridge the freedom of individuals to do what they wanted to do without governmental restraints. The anti-federalists tended also to oppose taxation, which they viewed as an instrument of tyranny, and therefore a threat to individual liberties. Many of the concerns of the anti-federalists found their way into the first amendments to the Constitution, called collectively the Bill of Rights. While initially skeptical of the prospects of successfully writing provisions that would limit the degree to which a government, whether at the federal or the state level, could interfere in the private life of a citizen, even such strong federalists as James Madison eventually came to see that without this concession to anti-federalists there was no hope of the new constitution being ratified. And so the Constitution originally written in 1787 came to have a Bill of Rights in 1789. (People who call themselves Constitutional originalists should probably take care to specify whether they favor the original constitution of 1787 or the amended Constitution of 1789. And when they heap praise on the so-called Founding Fathers, they should probably specify whether they mean strong-central-government federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton or the states-rights anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Robert Yates, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee and James Monroe.)

Most of the religious systems that have evolved in India—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—are also preoccupied with freedom, but their focus is not so much on freedom from constraints imposed by governments as on limitations imposed by one’s own damaged psyche. The human mentality, they say, is damaged by vicious tendencies such as greed, hatred and delusion. These vicious tendencies imprison the person who has the them. One who is in the throes of attachment to acquiring and holding onto possessions, power, recognition and approval is no more free than an addict to walk away from the pursuit of these ultimately unsatisfactory commodities. One bound in the chains of hatred is not free to interact productively with other sentient beings (or with a God whose nature is supposed to be unconditional love. One wearing the fetters of unwarranted assumptions and prejudices is not free to explore avenues that lead to truth. As pitiful as the condition of one encumbered with greed, hatred and delusion may be, it is, say most Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, precisely the condition almost all human beings are in. As individuals, they say, most of us are in those conditions because we live in societies that are based on the cultivation of collective greed, hatred and delusion.

The kinds of social and political freedom that many modern Americans seek are diametrically opposed to the kind of psychological freedom that Indian religio-philosophical practices are designed to cultivate. For many modern Americans who are obsessed with freedom, what they seek is summed up in the words of a character played by Peter Fonda in a forgettable 1966 motion picture called The Wild Angels:

We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man. We want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.

Freedom, in this view, means not freedom from greed, hatred and delusion but exactly the opposite. It means freedom to act without constraints—even the constraints of self-discipline—on one’s greed, hatred and delusion. That this is so becomes clearer if one looks at the kinds of freedom from government interference that many people are calling for these days:

  • Deregulation. The self-proclaimed freedom-lovers say they oppose governmental regulations that were designed to protect the environment from degradation wrought by the extractive and manufacturing sectors of the economy, regulations that were designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices, and regulations that were put in place to protect the health and safety and economic viability of workers. Ridding the nation of environmental regulations, safety regulations and minimum wage and worker safety regulations would, so the argument goes, allow the economy to grow and provide jobs. In short, people who advocate for less governmental regulation are seeking to guarantee the right to be greedy, the right to acquire wealth without any regard whatsoever to the consequences that acquisition may have on others.
  • Right to bear arms. It may have made sense in a time when people shot squirrels for their dinner to make sure that governments did not limit access to efficient methods of killing game, but it is dangerous and ridiculous to extend the right to bear arms to include assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill human beings rather than squirrels. Some argue that the right to bear arms is meant to give people a method of overthrowing tyrannical governments. The assassins of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy no doubt thought in those terms. In her recently published autobiography, Condoleeza Rice staunchly supports the right of all citizens to bear arms with her claim that if the state of Alabama had required the registration of firearms, Bull Connor would have confiscated all the weapons of African Americans, thus making it much more difficult for them to achieve freedom from the limitations of racial segregation. Given that it is impossible either to shoot someone or to threaten to shoot them without wanting to eliminate them from one’s life, and given that the definition of hatred is the desire to eliminate what one finds unpleasant or obnoxious, those who cling to their second amendment rights are in effect seeking to guarantee the right to be hateful.
  • Right to do what one wants to do. Not everyone wants to do stupid and dangerous things, but many do. While it may be quixotic to try to protect people from their own folly, many laws are designed to promote public safety. Laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles are examples of such laws, as are speed limits, laws against driving while using cellphones, laws requiring pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, laws requiring vehicles to signal before making turns and so forth. Laws requiring people to carry various kinds of insurance (including health insurance) and to pay into the Social Security system are other examples. People who find such laws offensive are seeking to guarantee the right to be foolish. It may seem harmless enough to allow people to be foolish, but rarely is it the case that the fool is the only one who suffers the consequences of his own folly. Causality does not honor the fictitious boundaries of personal identity; the consequences of actions leak out into the world at large. While it is undeniably true that many governmental regulations seem stupid, it should be borne in mind that most of them came into being because there are so many dangerously stupid people to govern.

While I am sympathetic to those who would prefer not to live in tyrannies and totalitarian states, or even in small towns in Nebraska where one’s every move is monitored by well-meaning busybodies, I have not yet managed to be sympathetic to the American craving for undisciplined and excessive lifestyles. If demanding pointless forms of personal freedom to be greedy, hateful and deluded is un-American, then I am not at all unwilling to be considered un-American. My preference is the kind of freedom that the Buddhists (and sober-sided Quakers) have taught me to seek.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 16:27

Posted in Faith and practice

Stewardship

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What are we doing to ensure adequate water, food, shelter, education and respect for those who do not have ready access to these blessings? Are we informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment? (Faith and Practice. Intermountain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2009, p. 139.)

For the vast majority of Americans—I cannot speak for the people of other countries—the answer to the second question in this Quaker query is No. No, we are not informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment. I would like to think that if we were informed, we would choose to live different lifestyles.

I have a hunch there are a lot of people who know that people would choose to live differently if they were better informed. How else can we account for the millions, even billions, of dollars that are spent every year to make sure that most people are misinformed? Just to tie one example, it is impossible to know for sure how many people are lured into believing that America’s economic future depends on finding and extracting petroleum, coal and natural gas in the United States and Canada, and that these extracting industries will create millions of jobs for Americans right here at home, and that the principal obstacles to America’s energy security and independence are regulations aimed at protecting the environment. Given, however, that Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain has said that one of his first acts as president would be to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency so that Americans could get back to work and become energy-self-sufficient, and given that Herman Cain according to USA Today is today the leading Republican candidate in Iowa polls, there seem to be people (at least in Iowa) who buy into the persistent efforts of such organizations as America’s Power to persuade Internet users and television viewers that deregulation and increased energy production is the only sure path to America’s economic recovery and future prosperity.

There are some questions that Herman Cain and his supporters are not asking but should be asking.

  • What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue to burn coal to generate electricity?
  • What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue burning oil to propel automobiles, airplanes, trucks, trains and ships over great distances?
  • What impact will it have on the health of wellbeing of America’s closest neighbors and America’s more distant neighbors if we continue to consume energy at current levels?
  • What impact is the way human beings are now living having on animals and plants?
  • What will the planet be like twenty-five years from now, when today’s toddlers are young adults? What will it be like in fifty years, when today’s toddlers are middle-aged? How many of today’s toddlers will live to be seventy-five? What kind of future will there be for those who must live in the world to which the current generations are laying waste through our collective reliance on energy produced by something other than our own muscles?

America’s economy is fueled entirely by dissatisfaction. To some extent, dissatisfaction is natural for human beings; philosophers have been pointing out for millennia that being dissatisfied is one of the things we do best. But much of today’s dissatisfaction is carefully cultivated and manufactured. Every time, for example, that Apple produces a new operating system for its computers and mobile devices, the Apple Corporation extends an invitation to all users of Apple products to be dissatisfied with the toys and tools they already have. This year’s line of apparel is an invitation to be dissatisfied with what is already in our clothes closets. If people were to become satisfied with what they already have, quite a lot of the economy would collapse. Civilization as we know it would come to an end.

There are few things that I am more eager to see in my lifetime than the end of civilization as we know it, and the collapse of an economy based not on the provision of the necessities of life but on the creation of desires for goods and services we could all very easily live without, and without most of which we would in fact be much more content.

It is long past time for a revolution that brings capitalism to its knees and that utterly destroys the monstrous American culture of selfishness and greed that has grown like a cancer on this once-beautiful continent. The beginning of that revolution is not going to be the firing of shots or the planting of bombs, nor is it going to be the gathering of crowds shouting slogans and carrying banners. The next American revolution can begin only with a blossoming of individual personal contentment. Contentment with plain, nutritious, locally grown food. Contentment with plain clothing, sufficient to offer protection from the elements. Contentment with conversation and with singing with our own voices and dancing on our own legs. Contentment with watching birds and insects and plants being born and living and dying. Contentment with using our own bodies as our only vehicles. Contentment with talking to friends in the house next door. Contentment with our own breathing and the beat of our own hearts. Contentment with the laughter of children. Contentment with dogs and cats.

If a radical contentment with what is within our own bodies and right under own very noses would seize us all, we could give up our craving for laptops and mobile devices with their highly toxic lithium batteries. A joy with encountering reality would quickly replace our craving for virtual reality. If a content with moving at the speed of living organisms are to overtake us, we would quickly lose our craving for automobiles and airplane flight.

America has been conquered by barbarians driven by greed, who have enslaved us with their unnecessary toxic environment-destroying energy-consuming products. We are the barbarians who have conquered us. There is a way to get the country back. Stop buying their products. Start resisting their lies. Begin by taking a deep breath and looking around and noticing how much of what you have you could easily do without. Be free.

Ask: why did the author of this blog posting use a poisoned Apple MacBook laptop computer to send a message on the energy-wasting Internet to encourage people to consider simplifying their lives?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 16:36

Posted in Faith and practice