Out of a living silence

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How to feed an ego

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For the past few weeks the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called Ideas ran a three-part series of programs entitled Have Your Meat and Eat It Too. Themes that run through all three installments are the methods of so-called factory farming and all the distortions that large scale agricultural operations feed into the economy, the environment and the political climate of the countries in which it is practiced. There are examinations of the influence of pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies that produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and giant low-price retailers such as Wal-Mart and large fast-food chains such as McDonalds that force prices paid to farmers to such low levels that hardly anyone in small-scale agriculture can make a livelihood any more. Rarely have I heard the word ”unsustainable“ used so many times in a span of three hours.

Episodes two and three both have discussions of the ethical and environmental and health implications of a vegetarian diet. Suffice it to say that it is not obvious that a vegetarian diet is unambiguously indicated as the best way to stay healthy and preserve the environment, although everyone agrees that the current dietary proclivities of Americans are both unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. Unfortunately, American dietary habits are finding their ways to other parts of the world as well, making obesity one of America’s principal exports.

One of the observations that most caught my attention in these discussions was made by a woman who was a vegan for 20–30 years and eventually changed her diet to include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on an identity. It is carrying all the baggage of a persona that must be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of what most Buddhist (and other spiritual) practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one’s attachment to a particular identity.

And, said this former vegan, whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.

Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term moha, which means the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially. As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

All these observations of the vegan in recovery intrigued me, because they spoke to my own experience. In the early 1990s I became convinced that veganism was the only morally defensible diet for an environmentalist and a Buddhist dedicated to the project of reducing the suffering of the world. I entered into a year of living fanatically. I found myself welling up with disgust when I saw people put a few dribbles of milk into their afternoon tea. As for people who put a spoonful of honey on their yeast-leavened bread, I regarded them as morally equivalent to genocidal maniacs. I exaggerate for effect, of course, but I really did find myself hating the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that entered my mentality shortly after I began to eschew all animal products from my pantry and my wardrobe. It was as though I had suddenly become a patriot or the member of some marginalized tribe fighting for ethnic survival. It was as though I had become the follower of a quaint religion that forbids marrying outside the faith and associating with out-group folk for fear of ideological contamination. (My readings of the history of Quakerism have informed me that the Society of Friends went through a long period of avoiding, as much as practicality would allow, contact with non-Friends—a decidedly unfriendly attitude.)

To some extent even insistent ideologically driven vegetarianism promotes epistemological warping, but not, in my personal experience, to the extent that ideologically driven veganism does.

One of my cultural heroes was Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the constitution of India, the world’s largest democracy. Amdbedkar was born into an Indian caste that was regarded as untouchable. Despite having earned two PhD degrees from universities outside India (London School of Economics and Columbia University), Ambedkar was still treated for much of his life as a person whose presence would contaminate the purity of high-caste Hindus. Eventually attitudes changed somewhat, and Ambedkar got at least some of the recognition he deserved. One of his writings was a monograph in which he tried to discover the history of the institution of untouchability in India. His thesis is complex, but an oversimplified version of it is that Hindus and Buddhists became involved in a protracted rivalry of self-righteousness in which each religion tried to depict itself as more concerned with ethical puirity than the other. One of the many foci of attention, said Ambedkar, was diet. Over the centuries, Hindus and Buddhists tried to outdo one another by excluding more and more from their diets. The logical conclusion of this was what we now call veganism, a diet in which no animal products whatsoever are eaten, worn or used. The Untouchables, said Ambedkar, were descended from Buddhists who did not participate in the extreme Buddhist practice of veganism. In fact, they were cattle ranchers. When Buddhism disappeared from India, said Ambedkar, the formerly Buddhist cowboys were rejected by Hindu society and, unlike more educated Buddhists, were never reabsorbed into Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s theory of the history of the Untouchables is highly speculative and, like all speculative theories, questionable. That notwithstanding, the literary record of Buddhism clearly supports his claim that there were Buddhists who advocated a vegan diet so adamantly that they claimed all self-proclaimed Buddhists who did not follow a vegan diet would go to hell for aeons because of their hypocrisy. The argument was that no one who claims to be compassionate would ever eat meat, or consume milk or honey (since both of these products are stolen from the species that produce them) or wear wool (stolen from sheep) or silk (which requires the killing of silkworms). Few tracts in the history of religious literature are as fanatical as Mahāyāna Buddhist writings that insist on total avoidance of all animal products. The tone of those texts is self-righteous and contemptuous of all who make choices other than the ones advocated by the texts. That they had the potential to marginalize and denigrate meat-eating and wool-wearing people is undeniable. It is not at all a pretty picture and hardly lives up to the reputation for tolerance that Buddhists have often had in modern times.

In the early 1990s at a Canadian academic conference on Buddhist philosophy, I wrote a scathing denunciation of the fallacious argumentation found in the vegan sections of various Buddhist texts. Because I was then climbing out of my own descent into a fanatical form of veganism, I no doubt was as offensive to reason as the texts I was denouncing. I recall the moderator of the panel I was on offering an embarrassed apology to the audience for my performance. At the time, I laughed it off, but now I look back on that panel with chagrin. In trying to recover from the fanaticism of my dietary ideology, I was still participating in the very tone of intolerance that I found so objectionable.

What is especially embarrassing to me is that I became so defensive of a persona—of an ego—in the name of Buddhism, a tradition that had always made as its cardinal teaching that all we do to maintain our personas causes pain, conflict and discomfort to self and others. It is small comfort to realize that I am probably not unique in having become so zealous that I ended up exemplifying exactly the antithesis of the path I was so zealously striving to follow.

Unlike my own previous discourses on veganism (both for and then against), which were polemical diatribes, the Ideas program on meat-production and meat-eating is admirably balanced and offers the best arguments both for and against vegetarianism. The programs are exemplars of careful research and dispassionate exploration. My guess is that most listeners would emerge from them with a recognition that many of the opinions they have held on the topic before were overly simple and insufficiently nuanced.

TheIdeas program chased up a rabbit in the labyrinth of my memory. In my grandparent’s sparsely outfitted apartment, the dining room walls were bare except for a framed exemplar of the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

When my grandfather died, my mother gave me that framed exemplar and apologized profusely for giving me something that might offend my vegetarian sensibilities. I explained to her that the prayer was written in the 17th century, when the word “meat” was metonymic for food, in much the same way that “meal” is in current English, or “go-han” (rice) is in Japanese. So when a 17th century family sat down to have their meat, they often ate bread and ale and perhaps a piece of cheese. But that is really beside the point. The point, which I acknowledge with shame, is that my mother recognized in me the stink of possible intolerance toward those who did not follow my chosen diet.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 20:50

Posted in Faith and practice

Why is migration made illegal?

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There is a term in Buddhism, yoniśo manaskāra, which is translated in various ways, such as “principled thinking.” What the term refers to is focusing one’s attentions on the roots of a situation rather than on the superficial aspects. When one is trying to solve a problem or to heal an illness, then the expression means getting to the root causes of the problem and tending to those rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms. The opposite is ayoniśo manaskāra, which, of course, means thinking superficially, that is, dealing only with the symptoms and failing to tend to the root cause of a malady. Most of the avoidable forms of distress in human life, according to most Buddhist analysis, stems from the persistent tendency that human beings have of reacting to unpleasant effects rather than at eliminating causes.

One of the many examples of reactive, superficial thinking in the United States these days is the way many people are dealing with the fact of people crossing the southern border of the United States from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California to seek employment. On one level, this is not a problem at all. Mexicans and Central Americans need work, and plenty of American business enterprises need workers. Mexicans are, as a rule, work hard and amply repay those who hire them. Mexicans who work for wages in the United States pay taxes and make social security contributions. Their overall contribution to the economy of the United States is substantial. By working in the United States at wages that are low by American standards but high by Mexican standards, Mexicans can send enough money back to their dependents and relatives to support them. There are many winners and few losers in this system. So what is the problem?

One problem is that the United States gives work permits to far fewer migrant workers than are required to maintain the work force that businesses in the United States need to supply their goods and services at affordable prices. This means that many workers are working without the necessary paperwork and are therefore technically not conforming to the law. When hundreds of people are not living in conformity with a law, then the community has a crime problem. When many millions of people do not operate within the requirements if the law, the community probably has poorly designed laws. If, for example, a law were passed making it illegal to brush one’s teeth before noon, millions of people would ignore the law. The law would be difficult to enforce, for many reasons, not the least of which being that it is a pointless law that serves no obvious purpose. Similar observations can be made about current laws governing the citizenship of those who work in the United States. The laws cannot be enforced for a variety of reasons, one primary reason being that there is no good purpose served by restricting who can work in the United States.

A law that cannot be enforced is a danger to a society, because it lays down the conditions for people having contempt for the law a a whole, and contempt for a government that would pass a foolish law in the first place. Much of the contempt that one finds for the Congress of the United States stems from the passage of laws that are not enforced, or are not enforced even-handedly, or are not enforced simply because they are impossible to enforce. The current immigration laws are no far out of line with reality that their inevitable non-enforcement makes people angry, disrespectful of the law as a whole, and contemptuous of legislators who, for whatever reason, fail to replace unworkable laws and regulations with viable counterparts. That America’s immigration laws are unworkable is made abundantly clear by the fact that thousands of people per day cross the borders without the legally required work permits and find gainful employment that is technically not legal for them to do. As the National Rifle Association has reminded Americans repeatedly during the past several decades, if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws have guns. Similarly, if working is outlawed, then outlaws will find work. As American should have learned when the constitution was amended to make drinking alcohol illegal, professional crime syndicates thrived by making alcohol available to those who wanted it. Nowadays, professional crime syndicates are thriving by smuggling people from Mexico into the United States, then prospering by blackmailing the very people whom they have smuggled into the country. People who want nothing but to earn an honest livelihood are forced by circumstances into dealing with gangsters, who then put their victims into a sitaution remarkably similar to slavery. Much of that criminality, and the violence that accompanies it, could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen signing into existence a well-considered and realistic law allowing the number of workers who cross into the United States to seek employment to come closer to the number of jobs there are to fill.

Having more workable immigration regulations would, however, still be addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes. A deeper solution to the pseudo-problem of workers working without proper documentation would require looking more carefully into the question of why people migrate in the first place. Even without doing any investigation at all, one can know that people migrate from places where no work is available to places were work is available. When life becomes difficult or impossible in one place, people move to places where life is possible. Mexico’s economy has traditionally been a labor-intensive agricultural economy. As a result of many factors, one of them being the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified in 1994, it is much easier for commodities to cross the borders that separate the United States from Mexico and Canada than it is for people. It is easier for corporations to set up operations in a foreign country than it is for workers to sell their labor in a country other than the one in which they have status as a legal resident. The impact of the agreement on Mexican workers has been harsh. In some cases, multinational corporations have acquired lands that were once agricultural and put them into other uses; in other cases, lands have been acquired by agricultural operations that are highly mechanized and require less human labor. The result has been that agricultural workers no longer have as much agricultural work to do in Mexico. Some displaced agricultural workers manage to find low-paid employment in the industrial sector producing goods, most of which are exported to more affluent nations. Others become street vendors or temporary workers. Still others end up working for organized crime syndicates. An increasing number are simply unemployed; according to a Reuters news report, the unemployment rate in Mexico hit a fourteen-year high in October 2009. The government-sponsored unemployment insurance plan is unable to compensate all unemployed workers at a level that sustains life, so workers have few options available to them. Fortunately, there are employment opportunties in the United States and Canada, but unfortunately the bureaucracies in both countries pose formidable obstacles to Mexican workers seeking work in any North American country other than Mexico.

The plight of Mexicans and Central Americans is not simply an economic and political problem. It is also a moral problem, and a spiritual problem. It is worth asking whether the NAFTA treaty serves human beings as well as it serves corporations—whether it serves peasants as well as it serves stockholders. If it does not, it is not a moral document by the moreal guidelines of any of the world’s religions. Economic injustice is never moral. Any form of spirituality that does not work to address immoral situations is unworthy of being called spiritual. Any solution to a problem that involves punishing the victims of injustice by presenting them with even more hardships than they already have as a result of being victims of injustice is immoral and offensive. That so many people are deprived of the conditions that make honest and dignified work possible for them is in itself shameful enough. That shame is compounded by the superficial pseudo-solutions of sending more guards to the border to keep migrants from crossing to areas where work is available to them, or by building walls and fences, or by empowering local police authorities to inquire into whether foreign citizens are legally in the United States. The president of the United States, the United States Congress, the governor of Arizona, and the state legislature of Arizona have all done there part to compound the injustice and to increase the shamefulness of allowing a tragic situation to continue.

It is time to stop manufacturing ineffectual superficial solutions to a problem that exists in the first place because of short-sighted policies. It is time to look beneath the surface to the roots and to have the spiritual courage to act accordingly. Meanwhile, all you who have supported policies that compound the suffering of others, be ashamed.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 17:26

Posted in Faith and practice

Dreams

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It is not only because I am a sentimental old fool that I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes every time I hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech brought me to tears even when I first heard it as a young man of eighteen on August 28, 1963. It is a speech I never tire of hearing. My only mild complaint about that particular speech is that it has overshadowed dozens of other brilliant speeches that Dr. King delivered. As a pacifist, I have always especially appreciated his powerful critique of American conduct in Vietnam—and of war in general—as a method of solving problems. It always seemed to me that Martin Luther King, Jr presented not only the best of Christianity but the very essence of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a pacifist living in a country that has been at war or on the brink of war almost my entire life and in which arguably the most often-heard religious tradition is Christianity, I have long been interested in Christian attitudes toward war. Perhaps the best-known scholastic attempt to arrive at a set of criteria for when conducting a war is within the moral guidelines of the Christian religion is the so-called Just War doctrine of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. In December 2009 on the PBS News Hour, David Brooks and Mark Shields took a look at President Barack Obama’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize for peace. In the context of that discussion, Shields offered a quick summary of Christian Just War doctrine and showed that few of the criteria for just war are met in the current American occupation of Afghanistan. Among the criteria of a just war are the following:

  • “The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.” The operations in Iraq obviously failed to meet that criterion, but so do the operations in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, nor do the Taliban. While members of al-Qaeda might like to carry out further attacks, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so from Afghanistan. Qaeda is not a nation but a nebulous network of individuals. Fighting such a network with the kind of military equipment and personnel that are usually used when nations fight other nations is doing very little, if anything, to protect anyone from imminent danger.
  • A war is potentially justified according to Christian teachings only if arms are not “used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.” Presumably the purpose of sending military personnel to Afghanistan in the first place was that it was believed that the masterminds of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were hiding somewhere in that country. The mission was to find Osama bin Ladin and bring him to justice. Repeatedly during his campaign to be elected president, Barack Obama criticized President Bush for getting distracted from the mission of pursuing Osama bin Ladin. So far, more than 1500 Americans and coalition allies have died, along with several thousand Afghan civilians. It would be hard to argue that the use of tanks, missiles, bombers, fighter bombers and nearly 70,000 troops is proportionate to the needs of bringing a handful of men to justice.
  • “The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.” It is difficult to quanitfy such things as benefits and harms, especially “expected” as opposed to actual harms. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the amount of benefit could outweigh the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure, and the enormous monetary cost of waging this war.

President Barack Obama has shown signs of being aware that the way to an African American’s being in the White House was paved by the work of Rev. King and those who marched by his side during the 1960s civil rights campaigns. That President Obama admires the legacy of Rev. King is evident in what he says. It is heartbreaking, therefore, that President Obama does not heed the peaceful Christian message of Rev. King. It is impossible to know for sure what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have to say about President Obama’s campaign in Afghanistan. I imagine he may have said something similar to what he said in his famous 1967 speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

Rev. King went on to say this:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission—a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.

One can only hope that President Obama is using this national holiday to read and reflect on the speeches that Rev. King delivered on the issues of peace and justice. It is not too late for the president to deliver some of the promised change we can believe in, but time is fast running out. As Bob Dylan said: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 17:05

Posted in Faith and practice

A light Thanksgiving meal

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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.

Eet smakelijk.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 14:46

Posted in Faith and practice

The dog’s curly tail

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It is said that Sri Ramakrishna Swami Vivekananda 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 bankruptcy—those 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?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 15:03

Posted in Faith and practice

Sint Pieterskerk

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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.

To learn more about the pilgrims visit the Pilgrim Archives website. To learn more about the Mayflower and its passengers, look at the Pilgrims Hall website.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 14:09

Posted in Faith and practice

Will the real God please stand?

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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?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 17:00

Posted in Faith and practice