Monday, December 29, 2008

Confession of an indifferent sports observer

Noam Chomsky once observed that professional sports in America have the effect of keeping the minds of American citizens distracted from important issues. The culture of following sports teams and caring about which ones win and which ones lose is part of a larger culture of distraction and superficiality; sports can be part of the phenomenon of what Neal Postman discussed in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

I still recall vividly the moment at which I stopped being interested in spectator sport. I was in high school at the time and was attending a home game of my high school's football team. Like everyone else in the stands, I was yelling and screaming and cheering our team to victory. My heart sank every time the home team fumbled or had a pass intercepted, and I became ecstatic every time the home team moved closer to scoring another goal. Quite suddenly I felt as if I were being lifted out of my personality and given a chance to look at myself as an external observer might see me, and I was overwhelmed with how utterly silly it all was. A moment later, as I settled back into feeling as if I were within myself again, I realized I actually did not care at all who won the game. If one side wins, I thought, the other side will lose. No matter what happens, someone will go home disappointed. I stopped cheering. I sat down and watched the rest of the game without caring in the least which team won. I have never cared which team wins a contest since then. Not caring who wins a game makes games pretty dull viewing, so I have spent remarkably little of my adult life watching sporting events. For a while, when I was first in Canada, I watched hockey on television from a detached perspective. It fascinated me. It seemed to me like ballet interrupted by occasional fist fights.

A friend of my parents was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Second World War. He had a German surname and spoke German fluently. It came to his attention that when German-speaking American prisoners of war were returned to the United States, they were carefully cross-examined to see whether they really were Americans or were English-speaking German spies posing as Americans. The rumor was that one way of identifying genuine Americans was to ask them questions about sports. Who played shortstop for the Red Sox? Which teams played in the 1937 World Series? Who held the American League record for stolen bases? My parents' friend hated sports and had no idea what the answers to any of those questions were. He lived the war dreading being interrogated by Americans; he was sure they would conclude he was a spy. That story has always stayed with me; like my parents' friend, I have been confident that I would fail a quiz on sports with drooping colors. I didn't even know who O.J. Simpson was until somebody told me he was already famous as a sports hero before he went on trial as a result of being accused of murdering his wife.

My attitude toward sporting events carries over to my attitude toward wars. I really do not care at all who wins a war. To be more accurate, I don't believe anyone ever wins a war. Wars have plenty of losers, and they are found on all sides of the conflict. They have no winners. Those who believe a war has been, or can be, won suffer from delusions. I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Sports waste time. Wars are much more serious. They waste life and property and resources. Despite the dramatic difference in the magnitude of the disaster involved, sports have much in common with wars. Competitive sports prepare the American psyche for war. It feeds the American tendency to love winners and to see losers as, well, losers. It is difficult to imagine a pacifist society in which football or basketball had more than a handful of fanatical followers. (It is worth recalling that the English word “fan” is a shortened form of the word “fanatic.”

So here comes New Year's Day. I used to hate this holiday more than all others. Everyone I knew was busy watching football games on television. It was for me the loneliest day of the year. Now that I'm a bit older, I have learned to like my own company much better and can easily spend the day reading books, taking walks, enjoying the trees and birds and squirrels or tidying up my desk to make room for the clutter of another year. The clutter always arrives. It's one thing I know I can count on.

Whether you are a sports fanatic or not, I wish you a Happy New Year. May all your favorite teams all win, whoever they are.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Friendship without frontiers

If one takes a look at the outline of the state of New Mexico, where I grew up as a child and now inhabit again as an old man, it is pretty clear that the boundaries of the state were established by some cartographer taking out a straight edge and drawing three straight lines and one jagged line made of straight segments. In a state full of natural geographical features—mountain ranges, river valleys, basins, calderas, deserts and prairies— there is not a single natural boundary dividing New Mexico from its neighboring states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Chihuahua. Perhaps because of this, early in my childhood I developed the notion that boundaries are mostly artificial, arbitrary and dispensible.

As I made my way through adulthood, my childhood conviction was reinforced at every turn. When I lived in Canada it was obvious that the boundary between Canada and the United States was completely artificial and corresponded to nothing in the world of nature or the world of human cultural geography; and the same could be said of the boundaries between most of the provinces. The same can be said of the boundary between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. To take any of these boundaries as grounded in anything but the arbitrary decisions of treaty-makers would be folly. An eagle flying high in the air, or a wolf chasing a bison, no doubt has a clear sense of terrain and knows very well what modifications in behavior are required by differences in landscape, but neither eagle nor wolf nor bison has the faintest sense of where one nation begins and another ends. No animal needs a nation. I am convinced that the same is true of human beings. Not only do we not need nations, but we would probably be immeasurably better off without them.

It is not only national boundaries that do more harm than good. All the many boundaries that we human beings make have more pernicious than salubrious consequences. Racial and ethnic categories with their inevitable (and inevitably arbitary) boundaries, religious boundaries, boundaries that divide one social class from another or one level of education from another—all these do little good and considerable harm. And yet human beings seem to take them seriously enough to devise all manner of ways to demonstrate just which side of a boundary they are on. People define themselves as individuals by associating themselves as members of a group by such boundary markers as style of dress and headgear, hairstyle, cosmetics and ornamentation, tattoos, dietary restrictions, sexual taboos, and marital regulations concerning the number of spouses one may have and what gender a spouse must be or what religion a spouse ought to be. The only universal human taboo is that against being oneself in a relaxed and natural way.

In December of every year, I find myself feeling especially heartsick about boundaries. Zen Buddhists separate themselves off from other Buddhists by celebrating the Buddha's enlightenment. Jews celebrate, among other things, their distinctness from other peoples through Chanukkah. Christians celebrate the birth of a man whom they claim to be the only son of God and the sole way to enter God's kingdom, thus making a boundary between themselves and those who hold other equally absurd beliefs. All these boundaries that become manifest in December remind me of the strongest conviction I have, namely, that making boundaries is no way to live on a planet with limited resources and on which success can be achieved only by harmonious cooperation among all peoples and between human beings and all the other species that live here.

If I must have a religion, it is friendship, and friendship by its very nature knows no bounds and has no limits. It is universal or it is not friendship at all. David Gwyn expressed very nicely how I have always thought about friendship:

Friendship is perhaps the most universal (yet least defined) relationship of covenant faith. Friendship disregards religious, ethnic, economic, national, and all other boundaries. It subverts idolatrous concentrations of power and authority.

December, the month of so many fractures and ruptures in the human family, is when I am most deeply aware of how much I value friendship, and of how rare friendship is in a world of sectarianism, denominationalism, factionalism and other manifestations of the will of human beings to doinate and control rather than to love and nurture.

The first day of winter (which for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere took place this year on December 21) marks the time when light begins to gain on darkness. It is in a sense the rebirth of light. Light symbolizes friendship, love, harmony and all those qualities that make life sustainable. This year Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, began on the same day. Christmas comes a few days into the season of renewed light. Being a person whose boundaries are all porous and permeable membranes, I celebrate all these holidays, and the Buddha's enlightenment, in spirit with all my friends, and I take this time of year to give thanks (to whom or what I do not know) that no one anywhere is not within my circle of friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have a subversive Christmas

In David Loy's collection of essays entitled The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, there is an essay called “Pave the Planet or Wear Shoes?” Toward the end of that essay, Loy observes that if a religion is a set of views and values and their corresponding practices that plays the greatest role in giving shape to one's daily life, then the principal religion in America is consumerism. When one considers the huge amount of time and money devoted to making Americans crave some product they don't really need, and the amount of time and money Americans spend working for the money to buy those products, shopping for them, protecting them once purchased, storing them and eventually disposing of them, Loy may well be onto something.

I recently assigned Loy's essay to a class in Buddhist philosophy. After saying a little about Loy's work and this particular essay, I broke the class up into small discussion groups and asked them to discuss several questions I had provided for them. One of them was a question about Loy's claim that consumerism is the prevailing religion in today's America. It was interesting to hear students talking about various products they had no idea how they could possibly live without. The products at the top of their list were all things that did not exist ten years ago—products that I have lived without for my entire life and probably will never have a hankering to own. If consumerism is the religion of our day, my students would appear to have taken the catechism classes and had their Confirmation. With only one or two obvious exceptions, most of them are not exactly true believers—most of them seem to reject the ideology of consumerism when it is stated in plain language, and they know it is in some way not cool to be materialistic. But if not believers, they appear to be at least observant practitioners.

The Christmas season is upon us, and it has been evident to many observers ever since I can remember that Christmas in America is much more about the practice of materialism than about anything that opposes, or even questions, it. A few American Christians manage to get worked up over what some of them call a “war on Christmas,” but their main target is not rampant consumerism, but rather merchants and advertisers who prefer to call this time of year “the holiday season” instead of The Christmas Season.

For most of my adult life I have been striving, with only limited success, to ignore the impulse to exchange material gifts and commercial Christmas cards with people I love. I have also struggled with the question of whether it makes sense for someone who does not consider himself a Christian to celebrate Christmas at all, and, if so, to be so resistant to celebrating it as the most holy day in the religion of American Consumerism and so insistent on celebrating as a an important Christian holy day. It is unlikely that I shall resolve any of these issues before my consciousness fizzles out. They are too complex to resolve easily, and frankly not important enough to me to spend much time worrying about.

In the spirit of giving that does not further spread the disease of commercialism and consumerism, my gift of choice this year is an Ubuntu Linux operating system for all my friends who have computers. Everything about Linux in general sits well with me. For one thing, Linux operating systems, and the software that runs on them, are completely open source. That is, they are distributed for free along with the computer code used to build them. There is in principle nothing commercial about a Linux operating system. The only aspect of Linux that can be commercialized is putting together a distribution, which includes the operating system and software packages and a smooth-running installation protocol. Strictly speaking, it is only the installation protocol, and protocols for updating software, that can be sold for profit. There are several commercial distributions.

My reason for specifying Ubuntu Linux is that even the installation protocols are distributed for no cost whatsoever to anyone who requests them. All one has to do is to go to the Ubuntu Linux web page and click on the link entitled Get Ubuntu to begin a download or order a DVD to be sent anywhere in the world free of charge. If one prefers to buy a CD or DVD, that option is available, too. If one wishes to support the Ubuntu movement by making a financial contribution, or by helping to develop or test new products, there are links for all those opportunities as well. Ubuntu is all about community and sharing.

My mother used to intone the mantra “You get what you pay for,” which usually meant that anything that is available at no cost is probably worthless, or close to it. In the case of Ubuntu Linux, nothing could be farther from the truth than that mantra. Ubuntu Linux is very hard to beat as a computer operating system and collection of software programs that will do anything that can be done by commercial programs. Linux rarely crashes; I have experienced two crashes in ten years of using it daily. For a variety of reasons, it is rarely disturbed by viruses; it is, in the first place, constructed so as to be inherently secure, but it is also, unlike Microsoft, a system with few enemies who feel motivated to write destructive viruses to disturb it. Despite viruses for Linux being very rare, there are strong virus protection programs, just in case. In ten years of using Linux, I have never had a virus or Trojan horse or worm. I have lost almost no time to breakdowns or to problems requiring extensive troubleshooting. As the Ubuntu people like to say, Ubuntu Linux “just works.” In contrast to the early days of Linux, using Ubuntu Linux requires very little computer expertise of the user. If one chooses to become expert, there is ample documentation and help available. Almost everything about Ubuntu Linux can be tweaked until one's computer fits one's work habits and aesthetic tastes and quirky personality traits like a glove.

Like most (if not all) Linux distributions, Ubuntu Linux can be loaded on a computer that runs some other operating system. If one chooses to install Linux on a computer that uses some version of Windows, for example, then every time one boots up the computer, one will be presented with a choice to start up either Windows or Linux. When I first installed Linux ten years ago, I installed it alongside Windows. After a couple of years I noticed that I never chose to boot Windows, since everything I could do there I could do better on Linux. Eventually I took Windows off my computer. Since then when I have purchased computers, I have bought them with Ubuntu Linux installed as the sole operating system. My story is a common one.

The bodhisattva who put up the initial funding and organizational genius that makes Ubuntu Linux possible is a man named Mark Shuttleworth. Even if one is not at all interested in trying Ubuntu Linux out, it is interesting and inspiring to read The Ubuntu Story. It is a tale of how life could be if it weren't for individual and collective manifestations of greed, hatred and delusion.

There are alternatives to the religion of consumerism. It is worth considering taking a subversive step or two to undermine consumerism and replace it with humanity and sanity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

The last Thursday of November is set aside in the United States as a day for giving thanks to whomever gratitude is to be given. This year I find myself wishing to express gratitude for several features of the nation in which I was born and in which I have once again, after a long absence, taken up residence. In giving thanks for the gifts of the United States, I find it impossible not to give thanks to all the peoples of the planet earth without whom the United States would be meaningless. This year I am feeling particularly grateful for the following:

  • E pluribus unum. I am grateful for the diversity of people who have made their homes in the United States and who have enriched the nation through their presence. I value the contributions of the Afghan, Albanian, Algerian, Angolan, Apache, Argentine, Armenian, Assamese, Australian, Austrian, Bangladeshi, Belgian, Bermudan, Bhutanese, Blackfoot, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Canadian, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chilean, Chinese, Chinook, Chippewa, Choctaw, Colombian, Comanche, Congolese, Corsican, Costa Rican, Cree, Creek, Croatian, Crow, Cuban, Cypriot, Czech, Dakota, Danish, Delaware, Dutch, Ecuadorian, Egyptian, English, Estonian, Ethiopian, Fijian, Finnish, French, Gambian, Georgian, German, Ghanaian, Greek, Guatemalan, Guyanese, Haitian, Hawaiian, Honduran, Hopi, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Inuit, Iranian, Iraqi, Irish, Iroquois, Israeli, Italian, Jamaican, Japanese, Jordanian, Kenyan, Keresian, Kiowa, Korean, Kuwaiti, Lakota, Lao, Latvian, Lenape, Liberian, Libyan, Lithuanian, Luxembourgian, Macedonian, Malaysian, Manchurian, Maltese, Mexican, Mohawk, Mongolian, Moroccan, Nakota, Narragansett, Navajo, New Zealand, Nicaraguan, Nigerian, Ninnuock, Norwegian, Ojibwa, Osage, Ottawa, Pakistani, Paraguayan, Pequot, Peruvian, Philippine, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Rwandan, Salish, Samoan, Saudi, Scottish, Seminole, Seneca, Senegalese, Serbian, Shoshone, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, South African, Spanish, Sri Lankan, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian, Tanzanian, Tewa, Thai, Tibetan, Tiwa, Towa, Turkish, Ugandan, Ukrainian, Uruguayan, Ute, Uzbek, Venezuelan, Vietnamese, Welsh, Wichita, Yemeni, Zambian, and Zimbabwean peoples, and to the many peoples whose names I have neglected to mention. I value the contributions they have made to the literature, the music, the cuisine, the philosophy, the religion and the wisdom of my home and native land.
  • The First Amendment. I am grateful to the framers of the Constitution of the United States, and especially to those who formulated the First Amendment:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    I cherish the genius of those who saw the value of having a nation without any established religion, a nation in which every resident is free to practice any religion or none without fear of persecution or interference, so long as the practice of a religion does not abridge the rights and freedoms to others to do as their conscience dictates. And since the rights outlined in the First Amendment have been challenged at various times, I am grateful that the Supreme Court of the United States has consistently found against encroachments on these freedoms.
  • The Fifteenth, Nineteenth and Twenty-sixth Amendments to the US Constitution. The fifteenth gave the right to vote to all citizens regardless of race; the nineteenth made women eligible to vote; and the twenty-sixth lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. Had these amendments not been ratified in 1870, 1920 and 1971 respectively, we would probably not be looking forward to the inauguration in January 2009 of the first African-American president. May Obama be the first in a long series of presidents that reflect the diversity of the United States.
  • Our North American Neighbors. I am grateful that the country in which I live enjoys a harmonious and peaceful relationship with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, two countries that I esteem and value in their own right.
  • The National Park System. I am grateful for the foresight and wisdom of those who established and who maintain the National Park Service and the US Forest Service. I am grateful that there are still wilderness areas where wildlife can flourish and remain unmolested by the human exploitation of their habitat. The area of the United States in which I feel most at home is the Southwestern region, which is rich in national parks and national forests that help preserve an extraordinary variety of natural habitats and places of astonishing beauty.
  • The Twenty-second Amendment of the US Constitution Thanks to the amendment, ratified in 1951, that places a limit on how long one person can serve as president, I shall be among the 80% of the country that will be rejoicing that this will be our last Thanksgiving under the presidency of George W. Bush. It will probably be years before the full reckoning can be made of all the damage his administration has done to his country and to the whole world, and we won't be knowing until a few decades from now how much of that damage will turn out to be irreversible.

After writing these expressions of gratitude, I went back and reread my Thanksgiving message of 2007 and note that I was feeling grateful for almost exactly the same things then. And so I add one further expression of gratitude: I am grateful that all the things I treasured last year have survived one more year to be treasured again this year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The bright side of economic collapse

When I was in my final semester of high school in 1963 I took a required course in American government. The teacher was a young man who had recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. He was much too smart, and much too liberal, to be teaching in a high school in the suburbs of Denver in which all the brightest kids were Young Republicans, and the more ordinary students were obsessed with winning state championships in football, basketball and track. Most students found him an unbearable nerd. I loved his ability to shake up my limited world view.

One of the biggest grenades this teacher (whose name I am ashamed to have forgotten) lobbed into my Weltanshaaung (a word he taught me) was his insistence that money is not backed up by anything but faith in, well, money itself. A dollar is worth a dollar only because people keep thinking it is worth a dollar. A dollar is a fiction that liberates people from having to trade a bushel of apples for a garden hoe in some bartering transaction. If someone has a bushel of apples, he can sell it to me for a handful of dollars, and then he can buy something he really wants from someone else; he doesn't have to settle for the garden hoe I happen to want to get rid of. But what makes the entire system work is just faith in the system.

This no doubt oversimplified explanation of how money works drove me crazy. I hated the idea that anything could depend on something as fickle and friable as faith. Faith was for religious fanatics who believed in all kinds of spooky realms and unlikely fantasies about the dead being resurrected and everyone's sin being atoned for by the death of one man on a cross two millennia ago. I wanted economics to be built on a more solid foundation. I wanted something tangible, like gold, or at least granite, to be backing up the American dollar. Somehow or other, however, I got used to the idea that money is essentially a fiction that has value only as long as people continue to believe that it does. I never liked this economic reality very much. I just got used to it.

Events of the past few months have reminded me of what I learned about money in my senior year in high school. Not being an economist, I understand nothing about money in sophisticated terms. I see all financial things through the eyes of a child. So what the current economic situation looks like to me is that a bunch of greedy financial people thought they could get very rich indeed by making loans to people who were not likely to be able to pay the loans back. As people around the world began to see how much money was being lent in ways that even faith could not support, faith crumbled. As a result no one has as much money as they used to think they had. And the money they do have will not be nearly as effective in helping them acquire the goods and services they believe they want, because of two things. First, money loses purchasing power as people lose faith in it. And second, when money loses purchasing power, people stop producing the goods and services that they used to provide. So even if people still have money, there won't be as many products to buy with it. For one person to be able to go on a cruise, he has to find a few thousand other people who want, and can afford, the same luxury. When there is no longer a critical mass of people seeking luxury cruises, cruise liners will stop running. All the money one has saved up cannot buy a product or service that has ceased to exist.

There is in all this something that I cannot help thinking is going to end up making the world a much better place. Commodities, even the so-called green products, tend to create conditions that degrade the environment. An ordinary automobile that meets American fuel efficiency standards carrying two passengers consumes about one gallons for every 55 passenger mile. In contrast, an intercity bus uses about one gallon for every 330 passenger miles; a train consumes about one gallon for every 328 passenger-miles; a hybrid automobile carrying three passengers uses about one gallon of fuel per 165 passenger-miles; a commercial jet airplane uses one gallon for every 20 passenger-miles; a cruise ship uses one gallon for every 17 passenger miles. So as the economy tanks, and more people walk or bicycle or take buses or trains, the total amount of fuels consumed will decline dramatically, leading to a reduction in greenhouse gases, and that can only be good for the environment.

Another positive outcome of a failing economy is likely to be a dramatic decline in the production of highly toxic products such as computers, mobile telephones, televisions and other electronic products that no one really needs. Their increasing availability has created terrible waste disposal problems around the world, especially in the poorest countries. As economic factors force people to wean themselves from these instruments, the environment is likely to improve.

Perhaps the best outcome of all of an economy in which faith-based financial instruments have lost their value is that people will one again discover the satisfaction of working for each other instead of for money. Communities based on real human values are likely to re-emerge. An economy in which a person's wealth is measured in terms of how much he can lend a hand to help others and provide their needs could well replace an economy in which wealth is measured in terms of how much one can hoard. An economy based on genuine needs rather than artificially created desires would be a welcome change.

Life is so complex that the only thing one can be sure of is that not much that happens will have been expected and accurately predicted. Perhaps none of the changes that I would welcome will take place. Still, it is no more inherently risky to hope for the best than to have faith in the value of fictitious money.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

As civilization winds down

The ancient Chinese had the sensible belief that when unexpected unnatural events occurred, they could be taken as a sign that Heaven was angry and that the government should be overthrown by the people. Comets, eclipses of the moon, calves born with two heads or five legs and prolonged droughts (or serious floods) could all be taken as signs of a need for regime change. (I suppose melting polar ice caps, huge accumulations of plastic junk floating in the middle of the ocean, and the extinction of large numbers of flora and fauna might also qualify.) Native peoples in the Americas often have stories of warning signs of the end of human civilization and impending doom, many of them involving erratic animal behavior.

To me one of the clearest signs that civilization is coming to an end is that old people no longer act their age. When I was a child, old people acted old. They dressed like old people. They sat in rocking chairs. They laughed at the antics of kittens and grandchildren. They recited Biblical passages they had memorized. They wheezed. Their hair was grey, and then white, if they had any at all. Their hands were cold. Women had moustaches. Hardly anyone lived much beyond 70. Old people started to smell funny, and then they got weak and spent most of their time in bed, and then they died. That, it seems to me, is what being old should be like. I do not like the way old people are nowadays.

When I was huffing and puffing (and, yes, wheezing) on an elliptical trainer at the local YMCA yesterday (something my grandfathers never did when they were 63, because in their day the YMCA was an association for young Christian men), I happened to see a news story on the television that the YMCA puts in the gym to help people avoid looking at the beautiful mountains through the huge picture windows as they exercise. The story claimed that the Mexico City government has passed a new policy to give free Viagra to all men over 70. When I saw that, I muttered my favorite prayer: “Oh, for Christ's sake!”

When men get old they don't need to have erections. Not having an erection is not a dysfunction. There is no such thing as erectile dysfunction syndrome. It is just being old. It goes with wheezing and having white hair and needing suspenders because you can't find a belt big enough to go around your waist. It's normal. Like having wrinkles and sagging cheeks and a double chin. That's part of being old. Viagra, Botox and Grecian Formula are signs that people have forgotten that they really should be acting their own age. They are signs that human civilization is coming to an end.

Cell phones and iPods are also signs that human civilization is on its last legs. Earlier this week I was a little late getting home and decided to take a bus rather than walk. As I sat on the bus, I noticed that I was the only passenger who wasn't fiddling with a cell phone or an MP3 player. Everyone else had plastic stoppers in their ears so they could hear the music being played by their iPods. Everyone looked pretty much like a corpse from the neck up: expressionless faces showing no sign of life. The only signs of life were fingers and thumbs frantically and impatiently pecking at tiny keys. Now young people being impatient are showing their age. That's a good sign. But they are not talking to each other or trying to get the attention of the opposite sex or making rude comments about the old men on the bus. That's a very bad sign.

Given what I have seen of what people seem to think civilization is, I will not miss it when it finally falls. I already have a couple of good rocking chairs. And I have a teapot. That's all an old man needs in the way of material possessions. The only thing else he needs is to remember to zip his fly now and then, just in case a visitor comes around.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

It tolls for thee

The fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all. The merchants of these things, who were made rich by her, will stand far away for the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning; saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, she who was dressed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in an hour such great riches are made desolate.’ Every shipmaster, and everyone who sails anywhere, and mariners, and as many as gain their living by sea, stood far away, and cried out as they looked at the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like the great city?’ They cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her great wealth!’ For in one hour is she made desolate.

The Revelation to John 18:14–19

The above text from what is commonly called the Book of Revelations is describing the fall of Babylon. To the readers of its day, however, it was not only describing the fall of Babylon, but also predicting the fall of Rome, most probably the fall of the Emperor Nero. For persecuted Jews and Christians to speak directly of the fall of Rome during the height of Roman power would have been so politically provocative as to be suicidal. Speaking of the fall of Rome could only be done by speaking of the fall of another detested enemy of the Jews from a past era. Conjuring up the horrible memories of the Babylonian captivity that a previous generation had suffered was a veiled way of reminding readers of a similar tragedy in the lives of the intended readers.

The generation of readers who suffered persecution during the time of Nero eventually slipped into history. The text written for them, the Apocalypse (or Revelation) to John, survived. In a sense it outlived its urgency. Its survival raises an interesting question to later generations who inherit it as a piece of presumably inspired canonical scripture.

As many interpreters of texts from the past have pointed out, there is no single meaning to a text. The meaning the text had for its author(s) is one meaning—it may well be a meaning that no later generation can fully recover. Its original meaning can be compared to a mathematical asymptote; it is a limit that can be approached but never quite reached. But the meaning of a text is by no means limited to the meaning it had for its original author or authors. Layers of meaning are constantly being added as circumstances change. This is why there can never be a definitive or final understanding of a living text. Texts are dynamic and forever shifting from one generation to another, and from one interpreter to another within a generation, and from one decade to another in the life of a single interpreter. With all those cautions in mind, let me play at finding meaning in the above passage from The Apocalypse to John.

First, it would be a mistake, I think, to read the text from the point of view of the authors. After all, they were not writing the text for themselves, but for their intended audience. In the case of the text under discussion, it was no doubt meant to give some kind of comfort to those who were being subjugated by an overwhelming power. It was meant to be read by those who were being left out of the wealth and comfort and luxury—the dainty and sumptuous being enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful.

To put the issues into the terms of today's society, the text was being written not to comfort the elected politicians and the prosperous executives of international corporations and those who lived on inherited wealth made by their ancestors, but to comfort those people whose land has been taken from them and those who have been enslaved and those who must beg, or work at substandard wages, to eke out a living for themselves and their families. It is a text of comfort to, among others, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants whose countries have been devastated by wars the Americans in positions of political and economic power have visited upon them

If John's Apocalypse has the purpose today of bringing comfort to the counterparts of the disenfranchised Jews and Christians experiencing neglect or subjugation during the time of the Roman empire, what is its meaning for the counterparts of the Romans? What is its purpose for the likes of wealthy and powerful men such as George W. Bush, John McCain, John Kerry, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey and T. Boone Pickens? It could mean something like this:

The day is fast arriving when the “fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all.” And not only will you be mourning the loss of all that used to comfort you, but so will those merchants who became prosperous by catering to you in your hours of self-indulgence. Prepare for torment, weeping and mourning.

The text is not an invitation to be smug and self-satisfied with one's prosperity. It is not a text of congratulations to the wealthy and powerful for having God on their side.

Reading the text through a mind conditioned by Buddhist teachings, I am inclined to see the text as a reminder that all conditioned things are impermanent, and those who have become addicted to impermanent things are in for suffering, probably much sooner than they think.

The sunset was beautiful tonight. It did not last. The waxing moon is shining through my window. Whose is it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thanksgiving Day 1963

As I watched tears streaming down the faces of black and white people in Chicago just as they heard the long-awaited announcement that Barack Obama had been declared as the elected president of the United States, a personal memory that had been festering for forty-five years came to the surface.

The memory was of a bitter cold Thanksgiving Day in 1963. On that day I had made plans to go with a friend of mine to a good restaurant in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town in which my friend and I were both freshman at Beloit College. When we got to the restaurant, the maître d'hôtel pulled me aside and quietly informed me that my friend could not be seated in the reastaurant, because his presence would offend the other guests. My friend was a black student from Kenya. The feeling that came over me on that occasion was one of a deep shame for the country in which I had been born—a country in which I had lived my entire life listening to many, perhaps most, of my white friends making insulting comments about Negroes (as Africans and African Americans were then often called when people were trying to be polite), and about Jews and about Asians and about Mexicans (as Americans with Spanish surnames were usually called in those days). My family's culture was deeply at odds with the tone of racism that permeated America in the days of my youth. The prevalent cultural values of my home and native land were embarrassing to me, filled me with shame, made me angry and plunged me into despair. In 1963 I never dreamed I would live to see the day when an African American would be elected president of the United States. Therefore, like hundreds of millions of other people around the world, I wept with joy when the announcement was made last night.

There was not much to feel thankful about on Thanksgiving Day 1963. Just six days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. And Kennedy's presidency had been an ordeal for many of us who believed in peace and disarmament and who were alarmed by what Eisenhower had dubbed the Military Industrial Complex. Kennedy's presidency was not necessarily the beginning of America's tragic transition from a nation to an imperialistic power, but it accelerated us along that trajectory. The Kennedy years plunged us deeper into an unrealistic paranoia about the putative evils of Communism and Socialism and into a patriotic conviction that somehow America had an obligation to make the world free. The Kennedy years had been, with only a few exceptional moments, mostly unpleasant to people with my convictions. The brutality of the way that unhappy presidency ended only puncuated the tragedy that the United States had become.

The election of Barack Obama feels to me as though a curse has been lifted. It is as though an evil spell has been broken—a spell that was cast during the 1960 presidential campaign, a campaign in which there were no positive options in the race for president, a campaign in which the Americans were presented with having to choose the lesser of two evils: John Kennedy or Richard Nixon. That curse of having to choose the lesser of two evils has been with this country ever since. With the exception of the candidacy and presidency of Jimmy Carter, the American people have not been offered a wise and insightful and capable presidential candidate by either of the two most powerful political parties. For the past eight years the American people, and the entire world, have suffered under the policies of a man who quickly secured for himself the distinction of being the most disastrously destructive president the country has ever had.

In the interest of honesty I must confess that Obama was at the bottom of my list of preferences for a Democratic candidate. Early in the race I supported Dennis Kucinich. Then I settled for John Edwards. Then I supported Hillary Clinton. When only Obama was left, I reluctantly supported him, despite strong temptations to vote for the Green Party candidate, 100% of whose policies I could enthusiastically endorse. Obama's foreign policy makes me nervous; it is far too militant for my tastes. He is not nearly socialist enough for me. He believes in the death penalty. He does not endorse strong gun control. He does not favor same-sex marriage. I cannot imagine him dismantling our nuclear arsenal or closing all American military bases on foreign soil. On most issues that matter most to me, he is too far to the right, and in matters on which we agree I do not see him as a president who will push hard enough to achieve good results quickly. But for all that, he is, to my mind, not simply the lesser of two evils. He is the first presidential candidate since Carter for whom I have felt I was casting my vote for him and not just against his opponent. (Again, to be honest, I have voted for a presiential candidate only twice in my life. The 2004 election was the first one in which, at the tender age of 59, after thirty-six years of residing in Canada, I cast a vote for anyone for any office in an American election. In that election I voted for the lesser of two evils.)

On Thanksgiving Day 2008, I will celebrate the prospects of finally seeing a black family in the White House.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Preparing America for Democracy

Like everyone else in the world, I am waiting to see what the results will be of the 2008 elections in the United States of America, elections that the media never tire of reminding us are historic. I cannot help hoping the way the elections were conducted this year will soon be history—something we tell our grandchildren about someday but that we never again have to experience.

When I voted, there were six candidates for president on the ballot, three of whom I had never heard of. Of the three I had heard of, all were clamoring for some kind of change. Clearly America loves to see itself as a nation that is ready for change. Here is one change I am ready for: I am ready for democracy to come to America. I do not think that will happen until a few other changes are made. Here is a short list of those changes:

  • No more paid political advertisements! Every newspaper, television and radio station should be required to donate an equal amount of time and space to every political party fielding a candidate. If that arrangement would be too onerous on the media, then let the government compensate all the media outlets for the time or space used. What is essential is that every citizen be given a chance to hear what every candidate has to say and that no candidate be advantaged by having access to a large amount of money or disadvantaged by a lack of money. Ideas and principles should determine elections, not money.
  • Voting should be done on a holiday. Elections should take place either on a weekend, or election day should be declared a federal holiday, a day on which no one, except for operations considered vital for maintaining an orderly society, is required to work or to lose pay for not working. Again, if the expense of paying workers for a holiday is too burdensome for corporations and small businesses, the government should provide funds. The point is that no one should miss the opportunity to vote because of fear of losing wages, missing a class and being punished for failure to show up for work or class.
  • Child care should be provided for voters with children. There is no reason a single parent should miss an opportunity to vote because of having children to mind. A parent should be able to spend a modest amount of time standing in line and voting without worrying about his or her children. The expense of qualified child care at voting sites should be provided by the government.
  • All voting should be done on paper ballots and counted manually. There is no reason people need to know the results of an election on election day itself. Newly elected officials do not take office until about ten weeks after election day. If it takes three weeks to tabulate the results, nothing is lost. Manual counting of paper ballots is much less likely to be tampered with than any form of electronic counting of ballots cast on electronic voting machines or marked on paper ballots and then scanned.
  • All federal elections should be scrutinized by United Nations observers. This is routine in fledgling democracies and in areas of the world where there is a history of corruption and fraud. If Americans prove that they are capable of holding free and fair elections, then the scrutiny could be relaxed in years to come.
  • Automated telephone calls should be banned. This ban should be put in place not only during election season. No one should ever be put in a position of answering a telephone and having to listen to a recorded message. Recorded messages are dehumanizing.

These recommendations hardly exhaust the changes that must be done in order to pave the way for a meaningful democracy in the United States, but they would be a start. (In a previous posting I recommended that no person be allowed to vote until he or she has passed the same citizenship test that naturalized citizens are required to take. So far this recommendation has been ignored.) If this blog has any readers, and if any of those readers have further ideas, please post further suggestions as comments to this posting.

Now I am ready to watch the farce of this year's election unfold.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Clearness process

This past week I underwent what is known in Quaker circles as a clearness committee. A clearness committee is a group of elders, usually chosen by the person seeking clarity on some issue, who meet with a person seeking to clarify his or her thoughts and feelings about some spiritual matter of importance. If, for example, a Friend feels led to undertake some project or pursue a course of action, but is not entirely sure whether the leading stems from an abiding conviction or a transitory whim, the Friend may request that a clearness committee be formed. It is customary for a person to seek a clearness committee when seeking membership in a particular meeting. (The only way to become a Quaker is to become a member of local meeting that has been authorized to admit new members.) The clearness committee I had this past week was to examine my request to be made of a member of the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

My situation was complicated by the fact that I am a dharmachari in the Western Buddhist Order and that I wish to remain one. This meant that I first had to contact my mentors in the Western Buddhist Order to determine how they would feel about my being a Quaker and whether they would see my becoming a Quaker as a repudiation of Buddhism in general or of the Western Buddhist Order in particular. The principal issue to be explored there was whether I myself experience any kind of conflict between my Buddhist convictions and practices and my Quaker convictions and practice. I do not. Asked whether I can even imagine anything coming up that would feel like a conflict in my mind, I respond that I cannot.

The next step was to meet with a Quaker clearness committee to explore whether the Albuquerque Society of Friends sees any obstacles to my being both a practicing Buddhist and a convinced Quaker. The four elders with whom I met could see none. They recommended, therefore, that my application for membership be approved by the meeting as a whole. If no one has any serious objections, their recommendation will be followed.

Both to those who know something about the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and to those who know something about the history of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), it might come as a surprise that my intentions were approved by both organizations. Historically, the WBO has discouraged dual membership, and people have been advised to choose whether they wish to be part of the FWBO or part of some other Buddhist organization; serving two masters has not been seen as practicable. In the FWBO it has generally been assumed that it is entirely impossible to go effectively for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha while also practicing a non-Buddhist path such as Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The Quakers, it is well known, were originally a Christian reform movement, deeply convinced that Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Puritans had all corrupted the original teachings of Jesus Christ and had failed to follow Christ's example; their task was to return to a pure and uncorrupted form of Christianity. Being a faithful follower of Christ did not, for early Quakers, entail going for refuge to the Buddha. So one might well ask how a Quaker can be a Buddhist and how a Buddhist can be a Quaker. The answer is that things change. When people are open to change, they need not become stuck in patterns of belief and practice that were considered essential in the past.

In my own case, the Quaker meeting to which I applied for membership is part of the minority of Quakers that are universalist liberals and who feel free to draw inspiration from any and all spiritual traditions. One is every bit as likely to hear a liberal Friend quoting the Dhammapada, Gandhi, Laozi, Rumi or Walt Whitman as to hear quotations from the Bible or George Fox or Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to hear liberal Friends confess that they never read the Bible and find the Bible off putting, confusing and counterproductive. Liberal Quakers are a now a minority within the Society of Friends. The majority of Quakers are evangelical Christians with a rather aggressive missionary agenda. The largest concentration of Quakers in the world is in Kenya, a country in which American evangelical Quakers have been particularly active during the past several decades. It is close to a certainty that a Buddhist applying for membership in an evangelical Quaker meeting would be rejected.

How have liberal Quakers strayed so far from the roots of their Christocentric spiritual ancestors? The key to understanding this lies in remembering what George Fox and the first Quakers meant by being a disciple of Jesus Christ. They certainly did not mean being Biblical literalists. On the contrary, one of the most often quoted verses from the Bible in early Quaker testimony was "The spirit gives life, but letter killeth." George Fox was chided by priests and theologians of his day who pointed out that he could read neither Hebrew nor Greek. He responded by saying that all human beings participate in the “inward light,” that was the spirit that gave rise to the words in written scripture. We can all gain access to the source of all scriptures if we learn to still our minds, open our hearts and listen carefully to the still small voice that guided the prophets and Jesus Christ and the desert fathers. That same still small voice has spoken to people throughout history in all parts of the world. It need not speak in the same way to all people.

If one begins with the conviction that it is possible to understand the Bible only if one first listens to the spirit that resides in all people in all places, it is a short step to realizing that it is not necessary to understand the Bible at all. All one need understand (or try to understand) is the spirit that manifests in thoughts, dreams, imagination, fantasy, creativity, prayer and meditation, that inspires poets and revolutionaries and visionaries and gives stability to elders and caution to conservatives. Yes, one might find some passages in the Bible that agree with one's voice, but one may just as well find some passages in the writings of Zhuangzi, Nagarjuna or Sangharakshita that are congruent with the leadings of the inner spirit. No scriptural tradition is privileged. No scriptural tradition, and indeed nothing that any human being has said, is without potential spiritual value. No scripture will speak to everyone. No scripture will speak to no one. No one will find no guidance from somewhere.

There is, of course, a potential danger in openness, and especially in an uncritical and naive openness. The typical human mind conjures up quite a few half-baked whims and crackpot delusions in the course of an average day. Not every dream is significant; not every fantasy is as insightful as the sermon on the mount, or the words of the Dhammapada, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. Everyone needs a good editor. A good poet is one who does not publish her poorly crafted poems. A good photographer is one who never shows his bad photographs. A good visionary is one who does not share her every wild idea.

Who is the editor who helps a free spirit sort genuine leadings of the inward light from delusional enthusiasm? That what friends are for. It is not a good idea to embark on an open-ended, open-minded, open-hearted search for truths without the companionship of carefully chosen good friends. It is perhaps no accident that the two organizations through which I ply my spiritual trade are the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Without all these Friends, I would surely be, in the language of George Fox, “mazed in notions, gadding abroad from the truth and liable to disorderly walking.”

I wish thee clarity in thy seeking.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Meeting for worship for business

The author of a comment on a previous posting reported that he had heard that Quakers do not believe in voting, because they believe that God decides all things. This observation puzzled me, and I responded that Quakers tend to be quite engaged in the political process. Only later did it occur to me that what the author of the comment had been referring to was Quaker meetings for business, not to political elections. He was quite right in noting that in Quaker meetings for business within the Quaker organization, there is no voting. There is no voting, because there are no motions made during a meeting for business. There is nothing to vote on. This no doubt sounds mysterious to those who have never attended a Quaker meeting for business (more properly called a meeting for worship with attention to business). In what follows I shall try to describe how Quakers conduct business within their monthly meetings for business within the Society of Friends.

In meetings I have attended, the custom is for the clerk of the meeting to set an agenda of items to be discussed and decided. Agenda items are suggested to the clerk throughout the month and so arise from the concerns of members and attenders of the meeting for worship. The agenda of a business meeting is usually posted before the meeting so that those who attend the business meeting have an idea of what is going to be discussed. Like every other Quaker meeting for worship, the meeting for worship with attention to business begins in silence. Friends typically take advantage of the silence to settle their minds and, as far as it is possible, to leave prejudices aside so as to consider each concern with an unbiased mind. After several minutes of silence, the clerk will introduce an item on the agenda, perhaps inviting the Friend who submitted the concern to express the nature of his or her concern. Once the subject has been introduced, Friends again enter into silence to consider the concern. As they are moved to speak to the issue, Friends will rise to express their insights into the matter under discussion. Usually no record is kept of any of these expressions of insight. Eventually, after as much discussion as seems sufficient, the clerk of the meeting will “try a minute.” That is, the clerk will try to summarize what the collective will of the meeting is. To put the matter as Quakers usually put it, the clerk tries to express where the spirit has led the members of the meeting. Either the clerk or a recording clerk will write this minute down and then read it aloud. If the minute as formulated by the clerk or recording clerk seems to have captured the spirit of the meeting, the members will approve the minute. If any Friend feels the minute has not adequately expressed the sense of the discussion, recommendations will be made to alter the minute in some way. The approved minute is then recorded in the archives of the Meeting.

Perhaps needless to say, there is not always consensus on an issue. A Friend may disagree with where the spirit has led the rest of the Meeting. If so, that Friend will discern whether he or she feels a strong need to stand in the way of the decision expressed in the minute. If the Friend stands in the way, the minute is not acted upon. It is acted upon only if there is approval of everyone at the meeting for business. It is rare for a Friend to stand in the way of a spirit-led decision. Occasionally a Friend will ask that it be recorded in the minute that he or she dissented from the decision but has decided to stand aside rather than blocking the decided action.

A Quaker meeting for business is quite different from a meeting run according to Roberts Rules of Order. The minutes approved rarely mention the name of anyone involved in proposing the concern or in discussing it. Only if a Friend requests that his or her name be recorded as dissenting from the rest of the Meeting will any specific name be recorded.

The kinds of issues typically discussed at a Quaker meeting for worship for business can be quite varied. Someone who has been attending the meeting for some time may ask for membership. An attender or member may ask to be married in the care of the Meeting. The Meeting may decide whether to send a letter to the local newspaper on some social or political issue, or whether to make a financial donation to some charity. It may decide to form a policy on whether to allow same-sex couples to be married under the care of the Meeting.

The Quaker way of making decisions takes a good deal of time and therefore seems inefficient to some. It would probably not work very well for a group larger than a few hundred people to make decisions in the spirit-led way. It would be difficult to run a nation by Quaker business procedures. So when it comes to being citizens of a nation, most Quakers vote for candidates to public offices along with everyone else. If the candidates elected decide to do something that individual Quakers find highly objectionable (such as deciding to go to war), then individual Quakers will make their own decisions about, for example, whether to refuse to pay taxes and to go to prison instead. Quakers have a long history of choosing to go to prison on matters of conscience. Such decisions are made by individuals after considerable reflection, prayer and consultation with other Friends. About such decisions more will be said later.

My own experience with Quaker meetings for worship business has been enriched in recent years as a result of my serving as recording clerk at the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Serving in this capacity has taught me a good deal about listening carefully and without judgment. Listening carefully has in turn taught me something about speaking and writing more carefully.

Friday, October 03, 2008

America's debt to her military

As America, pulling the world along with it, plunges ever deeper into a financial crisis and as politicians feverishly struggle to make cosmetic repairs to the symptoms of a broken economy, it is sobering to observe how little attention has been given to the root causes of the problem. Surely one of the root causes of the credit crunch is that the increasing national debt has got out of control. And surely one of the largest factors in America's national debt is the enormous amount of money spent every year on an overgrown military that has long outlived its usefulness.

John McCain has said that if elected president he would repair the failing economy by lowering taxes and aggressively scrutinizing every branch of government except the military for wasted expenditures that could be eliminated. This is like a surgeon telling a patient he is going to go into the body and remove every organ except the one that has been invaded by a malignant tumor. The most obvious source of wasted expenditures is the military. Unfortunately, not even Democrats (with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich) have the courage to point this out. The military has become a cancerous tumor that no one is willing to talk about in polite company.

The principal justification for the military, given by those who defend the resources poured into it, is that we live in a dangerous world filled with countries that want to harm us and that are eager to destroy our freedom. What this line of rationalization fails to acknowledge is that no one in the world has any desire to destroy American freedom. The reason America has enemies is not because it is a constitutional democracy, but because it interferes in the affairs of other countries and maintains a military presence in so many countries. According to an article on George Mason University's History News Network, in 2004 the United States had more than 700 military bases in about 130 countries. A more recent story published in 2007 puts the number of bases at 737 and the number of United States military personnel around the world at more than 2,5000,000. The cost of maintaining such a network of military establishments is as unnecessary as it is astronomical. It is a cost that has been bleeding the American economy to death for decades and that has done far more to increase our risks of being attacked by hostile forces than it has done to provide national security.

In her vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin made the claim that America uses its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. This seemed to legitimate America's nuclear arsenal in her mind. The implication was that other countries that have, or aspire to have, nuclear weapons would have the weapons for reasons other than deterrence and defense. Yet, as former Iranian president Mohammed Katami pointed out, there is only one country in the world that has actually used a nuclear weapon in warfare: the United States of America. It is not unreasonable for nations toward which the United States government has shown strong disapproval—if referring to a country as part of an axis of evil counts are strong disapproval—to feel vulnerable and in need of defense. If it is reasonable for the United States to have more than 10,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled, it is not unreasonable for Iran to aspire to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent against being attacked, especially when a Presidential candidate has said that preemptive military strikes against Iran are “not off the table.” and has repeatedly mocked his opponent for saying he is willing to negotiate with Iran without making Iran's abandoning its nuclear program a precondition for diplomatic talks.

As John McCain might say, “It's time for some straight talk, my friends.” It is time for the United States to disband its nuclear arsenal entirely. It has long outlived its usefulness (granting, for the same of argument, that it ever had any usefulness) and serves now only to bring unnecessary alarm and anxiety, not to mention terror, to the rest of the world. It is without a doubt part of the reason why others feel they have no option but to attack the United States and its allies. America's nuclear arsenal is not a deterrent to war but a provocation to attacks by people who desire nothing more than to be left alone to live undisturbed by an imperialistic superpower.

Disbanding America's nuclear arsenal is a necessary step to take in ensuring world peace, but it is not sufficient. America must also disband its 737 military bases on foreign soil and reduce its military to much lower levels. Canada maintains an armed force of 62,000 personnel. Canada's population is about one-tenth of that of the United States. A force that size is sufficient to defend Canada's land mass, airways and coastline, all of which are considerably larger than those of the United States. A force ten times that size would be more than adequate to defend the United States. The United States needs no more than around 625,000 military personnel, approximately 25% of what it now has.

If America's nuclear arsenal were disbanded, its foreign bases closed down and its personnel reduced by 75%, much of the huge drain on the American economy would disappear. Money saved could be used to increase foreign aid, thereby creating good will and dramatically decreasing the incentive of others to attack us. Other savings could be used to provide needed services to America's own citizens and residents. Desperately needed repairs to the country's infrastructure could be made. Education and health care could be dramatically improved.

John McCain's plan to maintain the most costly institution in the country—the military—while reducing the tax resources by which that bloated institution is paid for, is a prescription for disaster. That he makes such a proposal shows that he may be heading down the path of senior dementia that diminished the effectiveness of Ronald Reagan during his lackluster presidency. That his Democratic opponent has not been more aggressive in pointing just out how bankrupt a militaristic America has become is almost as great a source of concern. The change America needs does not seem to be just around the corner.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How to be a Quakerly Buddhist (maybe)

Normally I am opposed to mixing religious traditions. Whether or not this resistance is well advised, I tend to trust that a system of doctrines and practices that have grown up in an organic relation to one another have a greater coherence than any system of beliefs and practices I could develop in the course of a single lifetime. I trust the collective wisdom of the human race better than I trust my own wisdom, and I trust the process of correcting mistakes that human beings do collectively more than I trust myself to correct my own mistakes. Moreover, I am convinced that different religious traditions simply focus on different problems, and therefore have different goals and that their differences in practice and doctrine reflect those different perceptions on what it is about human life that is broken and in need of repair. It rarely works to take a practice out of one tradition and its perception of what is wrong and to put that practice into another tradition that is trying to be a solution to a different problem. Given all this, it is odd that I find myself believing (perhaps falsely) that I am both a Buddhist and a Quaker. And yet that is what I believe, and I guess I owe myself an explanation.

My first exposure to a Buddhist account of what is unsatisfactory about life as most of us know it seemed to me just about exactly right. So did the account of what could be done to improve life, or at least improve my own approach to it. My first reaction to hearing a Buddhist account of all this was to feel thrilled that others saw things as I did and that I was not alone. In a way, I was still very much alone, because I could not find very many people in my cultural setting who were as thrilled with Buddhism as I was. So I could find no human teachers. I learned as much as I could from books, and I read as many books on Buddhism as I could get my hands on, and I tried my best to arrange my life in accordance with Buddhist teachings.

One of the first Buddhist teachings I recall encountering more than forty years ago were these words from the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred... Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

These words said (and still say) just about everything that lies at the base of my attitudes toward war, toward philosophical disputes, toward partisan politics, toward religious sectarianism and toward community life. We are all mortal, and as far as we know this one life is all we have, so why waste this one life harboring grudges against those whom we perceive as aggressors? Why waste time passing judgment on those who think and act differently from how we were conditioned to act? Why invest time and energy and other resources in defending what I have been conditioned to believe is mine to own? Why not instead radically question the very idea that anyone actually owns anything? Why not see nations as dangerous abstractions that probably cause more harm than good and that stand in the way of healing festering ruptures in the body of the human race? Why not see being human as a dangerous abstraction that ruptures our relationship with plants and animals and the seas and the soil and the air? In short, why approach life hatefully, seeing myself in an antagonistic competition with others? Why not approach the world by being in love with it? Why not think and act like a Buddhist?

Christianity seemed to me as hopelessly muddled and confused as Buddhism seemed clear and insightful. Most of the Christians I knew about at the early stage of my adult life were mindlessly patriotic, and many were openly racist. Since patriotism and racism were as far from my own values as it was possible to get, I had no use for a religious ideology that tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, those attitudes. I kept as much distance between myself and Christians as I could keep, thereby probably depriving myself of many a beneficial friendship. Looking on it now, I would have to say I acted as if I hated Christians, which was an odd thing for a person who was trying to live without hatred to do. I was young.

As luck would have it, the first group of people I encountered whose lives were obviously far more in harmony with Buddhist principles than mine was were Quakers. Were they Christians? I had a very difficult time figuring that out. They talked about Christ quite a bit, but it was obvious that what they meant by that was not at all what I had learned that most Christians believed. It has taken the better part of my adult lifetime to get some sense of what Quakers might mean when they talk about Holy Spirit and Christ and the Inward Light and “answering to that of God in everyone.” I think I have some idea what I mean by those things, but I'm probably not entirely sure about even that.

Here's a confession. When I first went to Quaker meetings forty-one years ago I mostly did Buddhist meditative exercises. The Quakers were for the most part silent, so meditating in their presence was not hard to do, and I quickly learned to put up with the fact that every now and then somebody stood up and said something. I listened to what was said and then got back to my Buddhist practice. I did that for years. I now believe that was a foolish thing to do and that I surely would have got much more from Quaker meetings if I had done my Buddhist meditations somewhere else on my own time and attended Quaker meetings with a more open heart and mind. I was young for a long time.

It cannot be postponed any longer. I really do have to say something about “answering to that of God in everyone.” As I see human beings, everyone who is alive and everyone who has ever been alive, has acquired, either through birth or acculturation or some combination of those, a mixture of drives and motivation, some of which make for harmonious and happy living and some of which make for disruption and miserable living. No one is purely harmonious, and no one is purely disruptive. In other language, no one is entirely good, and no one is entirely evil. Even the most depraved person has some wisdom and compassion and some capacity to love and to manifest some kindness. All those harmonious and productive and positive and ennobling drives—what some would call the good or the virtuous in a person—are what I call, for the sake of convenience, that of God in the person. And answering to that of God in everyone means focusing as much attention as possible on those bits of goodness in every person, no matter how feeble those bits of goodness may be or how rarely they may manifest. Focusing on those ennobling characteristics rather than on the more vicious characteristics is answering to that of God. Answering to that of God makes it possible for me to find something to like in everyone, and it dramatically decreases the chances that I will dismiss anyone as evil or useless or worthless. It increases the likelihood that I will regard everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy. To see everyone as a friend all of the time is my goal. As I get older, I am somewhat closer to that goal than I was as a younger man, probably because of so many others who have kindly answered to that of God in me.

A Quaker meeting, especially among unprogrammed Friends, is a ritual of sitting in silence and waiting for a Spirit-led communication. As one sits in silence, puts the business of life aside, lets the mind settle by setting aside beliefs and prejudices and presuppositions, one can become quite open to listening to those thoughts that percolate into awareness from somewhere by somehow bypassing the ego. A lot of those thoughts, of course, are only half-baked bits of fantasy, dreamlike fragments of impractical temporary madness. Best not to give voice to them. Every now and then, perhaps once every month or so, a thought may arise that feels coherent and perhaps even somewhat worth sharing. Such thoughts, having leaked in past the ever-vigilant ego, which wants nothing to seem out of character, often feel as if they came from someone else. Often before one has given the matter any further thought, one is standing up and speaking aloud, often with a racing heart and with trembling hands and voice. It is not for nothing that people who rise to speak are called quakers. The convention is to say that these thoughts that come from something like the unconscious and not from the ego are Spirit led. I don't mind using such language to talk about something I scarcely understand. I guard against the trap of thinking that by using an expression I am understanding what I am talking about.

The more one is sitting in a Quaker meeting doing a programmed Buddhist meditative exercise, the more one is shutting oneself off from the experience of being a Quaker. One cannot listen to the silence if one is filling the internal silence with mantras and prayers. This is not to say there is no use at all for silent recitation of prayers or for doing some mindfulness of breathing to still the mind. Usually at the beginning of every meeting for worship I go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and do a quick review of where I stand with respect to the ten Buddhist precepts. And then I look around to see who is present and who is absent, and I take notice of anyone who seems to be afflicted in some way, and I think of how they might be comforted in the affliction and assess whether I am in any position to take part in the process of offering them the comfort they need. And then I still my mind (which is rarely a difficult thing for me to do these days) and listen.

Aside from going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, which I do out of lifelong habit and out of sincerity, I try not to let any Buddhist ideas or practices intrude on Quaker practice. It turns out, I think, that behaving as a practicing Buddhist ends up being pretty well indistinguishable when viewed from the outside from behaving as a practicing Quaker. When I refrain from killing a cockroach or say something to try to bring a bit of cheer to a weary heart, is there any point in deciding whether the cockroach was spared because of Buddhism or because of Quakerism? Is my attempt to be truthful a Buddhist or a Quaker attempt at truthfulness? Does anyone care what label to put on it? If so, let them do the labeling. It's not my job.

If following a path required me to kill or steal or tell lies or treat people abusively, it would obviously conflict with both my Buddhist and my Quaker practice. But nothing in my Buddhist practice conflicts with my Quaker practice, and nothing in my Quaker practice conflicts with my Buddhist practice. So why decide which practice is which?

That is as close as I can get to explaining to my own satisfaction how I can be both a Buddhist and a Quaker without mixing the two together.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In praise of melancholy

For most of my adult life I have agreed with the Buddha that the project in life is to eliminate unnecessary kinds of disappointment (dukkham), and I have understood that the best way to avoid disappointment is to reduce expectations. The principal teaching of Buddhism has always struck me as a comprehensive hypothetical claim: If one hopes to reduce disappointment, then it is a good idea to reduce expectations. Seeing the teaching in this way has given me the flexibility to decide which kinds of disappointment I am unwilling to have. There are some kinds I don't mind having. This raises the question: if one does not mind being disappointed about something, then is it possible to be disappointed about it? But that question does not interest me right now. What interests me now is which kinds of mental states usually called painful are worth the pain of having them.

Buddhist texts tend to have a standard list of disappointments: aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. Modern psychology has other potentially disappointing psychological conditions: depression, anxiety, obsession and so forth. It could be argued that all these conditions are disappointing if one would rather not experience them. If one would rather not be old, then getting old is a vexation to the spirit. If one would rather not die, then the inevitability of one's death is unwelcome news—perhaps so unwelcome that one chooses to believe in eternal life. Of course, if that belief turns out to be false, and if one somehow learns that it is false, then one might be disappointed after all.

What I am interested in exploring here is a kind of painful psychological condition that is worth the pain or trouble of having it. It goes by various names, but the name I like best is melancholy. I use the term as it is used in one of my favorite books, Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places by James Hollis. Hollis, a Jungian analyst, argues that some of our psychological conditions that feel uncomfortable are also the conditions that are in the long term most productive. Among these uncomfortable psychological states is melancholy, which he sees as one of the most lively of the dismal conditions.

Melancholy can be seen as the condition that comes from the realization that life could be otherwise than it is, that with some effort the world could be significantly better, but that we keep missing the boat. Paul Simon wrote in his song “Train in the distance”: “The thought that life could be better Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” That life is not better makes one sad. If the sadness is intense enough, it may put one into action to make things, or at least something, a little better.

If one does not feel quite a bit of melancholy during the election season in the United States, then one is perhaps not paying much attention. Perhaps no two people are melancholy for exactly the same reasons. My own personal melancholy comes from some of the following considerations.

  • I have a conviction that it would be possible for politicians to campaign by simply discussing what they think they would like to do and how they would like to do it. That is not what most of them do, however. Instead, they talk about such abstractions as character and leadership style, with a special emphasis on how their opponent seems to have bad character, bad judgment and an unappealing style.
  • Another thing that makes me melancholy is a strong suspicion that much of this campaigning, ugly as it is, is going to persuade people to vote one way or another, but their votes will not be counted accurately. (It may be worth taking a look at an interesting documentary called Uncounted). )
  • This year it makes me melancholy that millions of people are struggling economically and much of this struggle is being made worse by the reckless policies of corporate executives who have been running corporations that are now being bailed out; our government is apparently more interested in tending to the needs of billionaires than in providing security to ordinary people.
  • It makes me melancholy that there are still so many who believe that there is such a thing as winning a war. I would more content if everyone were capable of seeing that there are only losers in wars, that some losers are individuals who die or are injured or who can never look in life the same way after witnessing unspeakable barabarity, and some losers are nations, and that in some way or another every human being on earth loses something important every time there is an act of violence.
  • It makes me melancholy that very few people on earth are living economically and environmentally sustainable lives, and the inevitable result of all this unsustainability will be disasters that might have been avoided if we were not as a species so motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.

It is said that Buddhism walks on two legs: wisdom and compassion. Compassion in Buddhism is defined as an active response to affliction. If one does not see the sufferings and afflictions and pain and despair all around the world, then there is no hope of anything being done to provide relief. Relief will come only when enough people find their sadness unendurable. Without melancholy there can be no compassion.

There is a Quaker dictum that there is no point in praying for anyone unless one is willing to do what is necessary to improve their condition. If there is a God, and if God is responsive to the sufferings of beings as insignificant as humans, then surely the only way God can respond is by using our arms and legs and bodies and brains. Therefore, the most effective form of prayer is to be active in relieving whatever suffering is close enough to be evident. It is rarely necessary to look very far to find someone in need of relief from their suffering.

Melancholy is to be treasured, at least until it is no longer necessary to motivate us into action. There is no reason to believe that suffering is in such short supply that melancholy is not necessary to motivate one to try to relieve it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On being truly pro-life

One of the problems with using a label such as “Pro-life” is that it implies that others are in same way anti-life. It is not obvious to me who the anti-life people are supposed by those who call themselves pro-life to be. Even morticians, whose livelihood depends on people dying, are probably not accurately called anti-life. So if no one is really anti-life, then everyone is pro-life, and the label turns out not to be very informative. So perhaps what we need to do is to explore just what it means to be pro-life in a meaningful way.

The most meaningful way to be in favor of life is to be opposed to terminating lives, and to be opposed to the conditions that lead to premature death, and to support those conditions that improve the quality of the lives that are preserved. So a minimum criterion for being in favor of life would be to oppose capital punishment, war, and conditions that lead to war (such as doctrinal inflexibility, intolerance, hatred and lust for power, territory, markets, natural resources and cheap labor). And to be truly in favor of life would be to favor all forms of life and so would include opposition to killing animals for food or clothing or sport, since all such killing is unnecessary for maintaining human life. A pro-life political candidate, then, would naturally oppose hunting, fishing, and a carnivorous diet, in addition to those things already mentioned. A truly pro-live candidate would also be opposed to human activities that lead to environmental degradation and to the destruction of habitats that support wildlife.

Being in favor of enhancing the quality of the lives preserved by opposing those things that end lives prematurely would naturally include supporting a strong social safety net that would provide for those who have fallen into circumstances that make it impossible for them to earn their own livelihoods. Since human beings are born with very few instincts and therefore must learn almost everything necessary for their survival, being pro-life would also consist in being strongly in support of all kinds of educational institutions. In an ideal society, everyone considers everyone else as part of a large family. Caring for the members of one's family means providing them education, wholesome forms of recreation, nurturing in times of illness and injury, and security in old age. In looking for a meaningfully pro-life candidate, one would look for a demonstrably strong commitment in the form of a record of being effective in providing for the well-being of every member, without exception, of, at the very least, the entire human family, and, at best, of the entire family of living beings.

In the United States there are political candidates who label themselves pro-life who do not show signs of showing a strong commitment to desisting from war, from hunting and fishing, from raising animals for food and clothing, and from harvesting resources in ways that have a minimal destructive impact on the environment. It is not obvious that these people are significantly pro-life. What many of the people who call themselves pro-life really are is anti-abortion.

Not many people are enthusiastic about abortion. Nearly everyone would like to see some kind of limits placed on the procedure and would like to find a way of distinguishing between circumstances in which it is acceptable and those in which it is not. A question that everyone must answer is what is to be done when the procedure is done when the circumstances do not warrant it.

At one logical end of the spectrum on the question of warrantability are those people who believe that abortion is never warranted under any circumstances whatsoever and who regard all abortion as being tantamount to murder. People who take this position, that abortion should be regarded as one of the classes of murder, must be prepared to say exactly who should be seen as guilty of committing the crime, and what the penalty should be. Should the mother of the aborted foetus be charged with murder? Should the person who performs the procedure be charged with murder? If the person is to be charged with and tried for murder, should the sentence upon being found guilty be the same for the abortive mother and the abortionist as for one of first-class murderer? In states that still have capital punishment, should an abortive mother and an abortionist both be sentenced to death? Or, since demanding two deaths for one might seem an odd way to be pro-life, in these cases does “pro-life”mean being in favor of life imprisonment for the abortive mother and the abortionist?

Unless one has carefully sought out a response to the question of what a just sentence for a crime should be, one is unwise to be in favor of making an action criminal. Not everything that one finds immoral or inadvisable in some way can be translated into a reasonable law, a reasonable law being one that can be enforced and that offers some sort of penalty that can be justly opposed. When a reasonable law cannot be crafted, then we must be content with moral persuasion and argumentation. When, for example, the ethical vegetarian comes to the realization that it makes no sense to sentence someone who eats a Big Mac to be executed by a firing squad, or even to be incarcerated for the rest of her life, then that vegetarian must find a way to be content to a life of trying to persuade other human beings of the moral virtue in avoiding the taking of innocent life and the pursuit of a lifestyle that is meaningfully pro-life.

The most effective way to persuade others in matters of morality, I find, is to begin by creating an atmosphere or mutual trust and respect and love. When trust, respect and love are lacking, moral discourse loses all meaning. Unfortunately, in the time of political campaigns, mutual trust, respect and love are not in evidence. In their place we find accusations and recriminations, usually based on half-truths or even outright lies. Unless one has a conviction that truth is the bedrock of morality, it is difficult to make a convincing moral argument. Alas, it is a rare politician in our culture who demonstrates with his or her words and actions that truth is a high priority.

I would love to find a candidate who is pro-life in all the ways I have mentioned. I would gladly cast my vote for any woman or man who demonstrated impeccable and unflinching honesty, and who shared my core values of being opposed to war, the conditions that lead to war, the death penalty, hunting and fishing and the exploitation of animals and the destruction of the environment and who actively worked for providing everyone in the human family with at least basic education, health care and security in old age.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Why no one can deliver the change they promise

National political conventions always fill me with a dreadful uneasiness and make me ponder whether the planet earth will be destroyed before intelligent life is found on it. The group ritual in which people collectively arouse themselves into teary-eyed states by intoning platitudes and partisan slogans and by skillfully demolishing caricatures of their opponents' positions reminds me that in politics fallacy nearly always trumps intellectually honest argumentation. Even when on those rare occasions when I am predisposed to like a candidate, I fall away disgusted at the spectacle of that candidate speaking at a national convention as people jump to their feet and raucously applaud every half-truth until they are hoarse and wave placards until their arms rebel in fatigue. If any kind of good government followed these dismaying circuses, I might be able to face them with more equanimity. But good governance rarely ensues, nor can it be expected to come out of such mass displays of thoughtlessness.

The longer I live, the more plain it is to me that individual human beings have no fixed nature but instead are mostly chaotic bundles of social and biological conditions over which no one has any control. As human beings we fancy that we choose our beliefs and practices with care and for all the right reasons, that we select only the best of friends and influences, but in fact none of us has more control over our behavior than a fallen leaf going over a waterfall. No evidence has yet presented itelf to me to incline me to believe that there is any intelligent force that has any more control than we feeble human beings have. As human beings we invent plenty of deities, but they all turn out to be as self-absorbed, foolish, cruel and petty as the worshipers who invent them.

If the individual human being is foolish, then a collection of human beings is folly multiplied. Families, clans, tribes, nations, intensional social groupings, congregations, sanghas, gangs and corporations are rarely more than small-minded individuals who temporarily band together in hopes of magnifying their capacity to carry out ill-conceived schemes without much regard at all for the negative consequences that collective folly can produce.

There is hope for some individuals to make small improvements in their character by an intense and protracted turning inward to face their own inner demons. Some people who are engaged in such efforts can derive some degree of encouragement from others engaged in a similar effort, and one is fortunate to find such encouragement—and tends to find more of it as it is less needed.

Revolutions fail and turn sour because people usually seek liberation from the wrong things. They believe they need more freedom to do what they want to do. Usually they would benefit from less of that kind of freedom. The sort of freedom they need is freedom from their own longing, hankering and striving.

Society as a whole will never improve until a critical mass of individuals gain freedom from their own inner beasts. Do not expect change to come to the political arena until people are so transfromed that they no longer require governance from outside.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Praying for everyone's troops

On a car parked in the lot of a mega-church near my home I spotted a bumper sticker that said “Want Our Troops Home? Then PRAY!” That seemed like good enough advice, so here is my prayer.

May every nation that has any troops stationed on foreign soil bring those troops home immediately so that no nation has any military personnel anywhere but on its own soil. May every nation that has any military installations on any foreign soil close those installations. May every nation that has military vessels at sea outside its own territorial waters bring those ships back to its own harbors or at least within its own waters.
May all military personnel be returned safely to their countries, and may they be joyfully reunited with their families and loved ones. May all artillery, missiles, warheads, land mines and explosive devices be safely dismantled. May all lust for territory and for the leverage of power over human beings and other sentient beings be eliminated from the mentalities of those who govern and of those who are governed.
May all those who undertake military service in order to free themselves from poverty, debt and systematic social and economic disadvantage find alternative ways of rising to positions of safety and dignity and the esteem of their neighbors and fellow citizens.
War is a condition of collective incompetence arising from the failure of individuals to be contented. Therefore, may individuals learn to be contented. May those who succeed more quickly than others in finding contentment teach others what they must do to find their own forms of contentment.
War often arises out of a fear of those whose ideas, practices and values are different from one's own. Therefore, may all people learn to embrace variety rather than to fear and loathe it. May all we human beings learn to tolerate everything except governments who would lead us into war. May those who would lead us into war be gently removed from positions of decision-making power.

I am not sure whether this is exactly the prayer that the owner of the car in the parking lot of the mega-church had in mind, but it is my prayer. And I thank the person who put that bumper sticker on his or her car for taking the time to remind me of the importance of taking the time to pray for what is truly important. May all beings be contented.