Monday, April 25, 2005

Zen Prayer?

My friend Chris emailed me this: "... I've often wondered about the logic behind a Zen prayer. Zen and other branches of Buddhism are atheistic. Buddhism is an atheistic philosophy. Why do Zennists pray? Who do they pray to? That doesn't make sense..."

I agree, in a way. It doesn't make sense if we consider 'prayer' to be 'to' another being, ie. a Deity. Zen is basically Atheistic (nothing in Eastern religion is perfectly clear-cut). They certainly don't believe in a 'creator' God like that of Western monotheism. But they're probably going to believe in a 'Pure Land' resided over by a 'radiant, pure, enlightened being' like Amitabha/Amida, the future Buddha of the West. And they'll certainly believe in 'Buddha-Nature', the idea that our true nature is innately pure and radiant, and that it is our mistaken understanding of things that obscures this true, luminous, already enlightened nature.

So, back to prayer. The 'prayer' that a Zen practitioner does is perhaps an attempt to come closer to realizing his/her own already-enlightened nature. A prayer will generally be used to offset some imbalance the practitioner sees in his/her own life, such as a strong, unhealthy attraction to something (thus praying for contentment and to see the impermanence in all things) or an aversion (thus praying for good toward or appreciation of that which he/she is adverse to).

So, perhaps in Zen style, we can say a prayer of good-will to GW Bush, Osama Bin Laden, or whoever else out there we feel excessively repulsed by. And we can say a Zen prayer for equanimity in the face of alcoholic, gluttonous, or improper sexual opportunities.

For me... well, may I be earnest in my studies these next few weeks and hopeful for the health and good fortune of the new Pope, Benedict XVI.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ratzinger, a distressful moment for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Marxists, Homosexuals, Pro-choicers, and the world

It has been interesting to watch the recent events in the Vatican, having myself left Catholicism and having only ever known one Pope, John Paul II.

03 May,
(note, I've removed a paragraph here that disparages the election of Ratzinger)

As with many things I'm quite skeptical; though I am trying to be less cynical about Catholicism and Christianity in general (the cynic denies claims and refuses to investigate, the skeptic holds judgement until after investigating).

From the Pakistan Daily Times:

In 1997, Ratzinger called Buddhism an “autoerotic spirituality” that offers “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” Hinduism, he said, offers “false hope,” in that it guarantees “purification” based on a “morally cruel” concept of reincarnation resembling “a continuous circle of hell.” At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church’s main enemy. Lerner says, “Ratzinger is being falsely described as a conservative, when in fact he, despite his publicly genteel manner, is a raging reactionary. Unlike many American conservatives who oppose gay sexual practices but not their legal rights, Ratzinger in 1992 argued against human rights for gays, stressing that their civil liberties could be ‘legitimately limited.’”

See also:

Yet, my own polemics aside, it may suffice to say that his own words are simply mistaken, and it should be hoped for by all people of good character that he move to understand the good of Buddhism, Hinduism, Marxism, and other 'ism's' which he may otherwise see no value in. Of course, if his concern is more for numbers (of adherents) than for the overall spiritual/moral character of the world, than perhaps seeing the good in other ways of life is problematic. However, it is my own belief, one held by the Dalai Lama and my own closest thing to a religious guide, Geshe Michael Roach, that there is good in religious pluralism. In fact, trying to make everyone into a Buddhist, a Catholic, or a Marxist would be disastrous on both mundane and spiritual levels.

It should be understood by any and all 'reactionary' Catholics that an oppressive, or even merely 'unilateralist', Catholic church will be its own 'main enemy.'

Where are the Thomas Mertons of the Catholic faith when you need them?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Visiting Oxford and a tangent 'on Latin'

As if Spain and Ireland are not enough, I just journeyed on a day-trip to Oxford for my first visit to this lovely city. It is called "The City of Dreaming Spires," easily misunderstood as "The City of Dream-Inspirers".

I was more in search of inspiration than spires, so I was hoping my misunderstanding would prove somehow accurate. And it did. In a sense, the whole city of Oxford is the University. It is a University of around 40 quasi-independent "Colleges" spread through the city, each of the colleges being founded by a wealthy king, nobleman or otherwise wealthy individual throughout the University's seven hundred year history. I was lucky enough to get a small guided tour by an alumnus of Gloucester College, with its intact 13th century houses opposite massive Georgian manners and a library funded by newspaper (and Fox news) tycoon Rupert Murdoch. We also toured Christ Church, at which some of the Harry Potter movies have been filmed.

On the one hand, the sheer size of everything is just awe-inspiring. Then, once you become accustomed to the hugeness of everything, you begin to see the immaculate detail put into every painting, carving, and stained-glass window. Much of what is written on the walls, the plaques and so on, is in Latin, reminding you of the very European roots of the University. There is certainly something to be said for learning Latin - the way it turns you toward the past, gives you a concrete tie, unbroken by translation or artifice, to the ancients of Rome. You see through Latin the birth and development of your own language, if it is English (Spanish, Italian, or French). Seeing this is like seeing pictures and hearing the stories of your own life, you realize that you are more than your own memories of the world and yourself. You existed before you even remember. And what you were then impacts you now, whether you realize it or not. So it is wise to hear those stories of your own life, and to reach beyond it if you can.

So this is where the inspiration for me comes in I suppose, in seeing more vividly the connection between these old stone walls, the portraits hung on them, the Latin, and me. Without this connection I am just me, in however limited a manner I wish to define myself. With the connection, I see the causes of the world around me, and the causes of my own place in the world. Of course, these will have been there whether I saw them or not. That is somewhat cryptic perhaps, but important I think. So think about it. Think about who you are, and how that relates to the world around you, in the present moment, in the past, and in the future.

Best wishes with your ponderings.... justin

Friday, April 15, 2005

Back from Spain / Ireland!

Well, two weeks have flown by. And rightly so, as I have been in near constant motion with my family (mother, father, and sister; no brother on this trip) first walking the crowded streets and squares of Barcelona and then driving the narrow roads of south-west Ireland.

Here is my mother (Ronnie), sister (Eve), and father (Patrick), in the Plaza de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Here the pigeons would literally land on people's hands, arms, heads, etc for food. Behind my mother is the entrance to La Ramblas, a long walking-mall which is central to a lot of the life of Barcelona. We rented an apartment a half-block from the center of La Ramblas.

family in Barcelona's Plaza de Catalunya

Here's a link to a nice map of the city (en Español) You'll see that we were quite close to pretty much everything of interest in the city, including the waterfront. Must see in Barcelona is" La Sagrada Familia," an enormous cathedral designed by the late Antoni Gaudi (en Español).

We arrived Monday afternoon and only had until Saturday, so we stuck around the city and did almost all of our travel on foot. Friday we did a bus-tour of the city, but it was cool and drizzly so that was not terribly exciting.

Saturday we arrived in Ireland, rented a car, and began our drive around the south coast of the country. Here we are on the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula.

family in on the Dingle Peninsula

Eventually I'll scan in our route/map. Here is someone else's for now though. The purple line to 'surfing beaches' is where we are in the photo above. We followed much of the same route as this map indicates, only in reverse direction, coming from Adare, north of here, through Castlegregory, and on to Dingle. We then headed south to the "Ring of Kerry" which here begins around Miltown and goes out on the Iveragh Peninsula, ending roughly at Killarney.

someone else's map of Dingle

Here's another map of the area:

another map of the area of south-west Ireland

And another photo, this one of the family passing over the middle of the Dingle Peninsula, at the top of the narrow pass, looking back over the surfing beaches that we had just visited:
family in on the Dingle Peninsula

All in all it was a wonderful trip. As you see it was a bit chilly in Ireland (to be expected in April), but it was sunnier than I had figured it would be. Driving in a foreign country is not for everyone - it can be a bit stressful - but with some practice our two drivers, Eve and Pat, managed to do very well (I did most of the navigating). We stayed the nights in Ireland in Bed and Breakfasts, of which there are thousands (probably a dozen in each of the even the smaller villages). A couple were pretty unremarkable, but others, like the convent house, were quite rich with character.

We visited three castles, including Blarney Castle where Eve and I climbed to the top and kissed the famous Blarney Stone.

The days were spent driving and sight-seeing, while the nights were spent playing Euchre, a team-based card game, in which Eve and I consistently beat the folks for successive Spanish, Irish, and finally English 'championships'.

Well, that should do it for the wrap-up of the vacation for now. I did have some minor philosophical and/or personal thoughts throughout the trip, however. One concerns the habit-pattern I have with my family as opposed to that around my friends, especially my international friends here in Bristol. Around them I am quite calm, listening, attentive, and so on, which is a way of being that I would like to extend throughout my life. Yet around my family I can too quickly become impatient, sharp, and difficult (a bit like a spoiled fifteen year old). It was interesting to try to step back and watch myself at various moments to see if/when I was 'reverting' to older habit patterns and when I was calmer and more attentive.

Philosophically... I was exposed to more crazy city-people - those people who are in perfect fashion, perfect make-up, talking on the cell phone in a hurried, anxious, irritated voice... And just wondered more about life, as it moves so quickly while we are often too preoccupied to notice it going. And how much of our pre-occupation is dictated by other people, bosses, professors, advertisers, politicians, and so on?

I wrote an essay last year arguing for a progressive approach to ethics, starting at utilitarian (pleasure vs pain), moving through virtue-ethics (chosen attributes to acquire and master) and ending in deontological/duty-based universal ethics (no more mastering/striving, just 'being fully'). It would seem that to the extend that our lives are dictated by others, we are pre-utilitarian; like a child. It is only with some moments of autonomy (making choices for ourselves) that we discover the pleasure and pain of which may follow. Hopefully we discover that the 'nearest pleasure' isn't always what we really want in life; ie. we could just lie around, eat, and have sex, but eventually this would become boring and we would want to take up more creative, expressive projects. Realizing this, slowly but surely we discover which virtues (humility, leadership, loyalty, friendship, intelligence/wisdom, caring, etc) seem to fit us and we strive to develop them in our personal and professional lives.

The most difficult move in the scheme, I would think, is from the development of one's own virtues, to the 'purely being' level. Here one has literally perfected his or her virtue, and now simply acts it out, lives it. Think of Einstein's mathematical wisdom or Mother Teresa's charity. There is no longer anxiety about whether one is 'doing it right' - one simply 'does' and this brings happiness, fulfillment, flourishing in the deepest sense. One is 'in the zone' or 'in the flow' of life on a full-time basis.

How many people will ever experience this? How many will even come close? Looking out over the busy city of Barcelona, with its hustle and bustle, I was pessimistic about these questions. How many people simply resign themselves to a life where choosing a bit of pleasure is all they can look forward to?

Developing a virtue is not easy. I have chosen wisdom/academia and often second-guess myself, most often when quick pleasure draws me away from these. But it is those moments of being in the flow that keep me going; those tastes of the ambrosia of flourishing; the sweetness that history's great men and women have talked about in poetry and prose, art and song.

Well, I should be off for now. Tomorrow I visit Oxford, which should be a very inspiring trip!

Best wishes, be happy, find a virtue (one that helps people)!