Sunday, May 29, 2005

Why I love England

Well, there are probably many reasons, but this article in the New York Times and on CNN reminded me of how wonderful England truly is. The gist of the story is that some doctors are moving to ban long, pointy kitchen knives because they are the most common murder weapon in England.

It's a dicey topic in the states, but it could only remind me of the murder problem that plagues America (which seems to be a GUN problem, see stats below). But I'm not sure. One thing that came up in the CNN article was that the doctors said that "many assaults are impulsive, often triggered by alcohol or misuse of other drugs...[and the knife is easily available]" So something about impulsiveness and then the availability of a weapon should be considered. Bowling for Columbine, in which Michael Moore went to Canada, an equally gun-toting nation in which people seem to stay on the right end of the barrel, reminds us that it isn't just 'having guns' that causes the violent deaths we see in the US. (here is an interesting site refuting Moore's statistics)

Total homocide rate in England in 2003 was 853. The total murder rate in the US that year, according to the FBI was 14408. Given that the population of the US is about 5 times that of England, we appear to only have about 2-3 times the murder rate per capita.

So... maybe the US isn't so bad after all.. ? :) And maybe the Brits will fight the pointy knife ban with the catchy slogan, 'if long, pointy knives are outlawed, only outlaws will have long, pointy knives.' ...

Comparison of U.S. gun homicides to other industrialized countries:
In 1998 (the most recent year for which this data has been compiled), handguns murdered:

  • 373 people in Germany
  • 151 people in Canada
  • 57 people in Australia
  • 19 people in Japan
  • 54 people in England and Wales, and
  • 11,789 people in the United States

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Romantic love, a spark of Reality

Not that I've actually felt that spark recently, but I have thought about it a great deal over the last few years and thought I'd post my conclusions. First is that romantic love, when it is in a healthy relationship, is fantastic material for philosophical/spiritual progress. This is because the moment of eros (romantic love as it is felt) pulls us out of ourselves in a very real and concrete way. This feeling, if we are able to allow it, will grow into agape (love that is spiritual, not sexual, in its nature). And it is experiencing and understanding agape that opens us, both intellectually and emotionally to the whole of the world.

Think about that first kiss. It almost physically brings you out of what I would call your'self', that thinking/analyzing part of your existence. Thought just stops in that moment of romance. Experience is DIRECT. And think about it. It is one of the most Vivid memories we usually have, exactly because it isn't mediated/muddled by all kinds of conceptual thought. It is direct. The problem is that our analyzing mind creeps in and makes us worry about this or that and we lose touch with the moment; the romance is lost.

It is not that the thinking/analyzing mind is bad. In fact it is essential to our life, our existence, and our happiness. The problem is our controlling it, using it when it is useful, and just living in the perfect, eternal moment when that is appropriate.

That kiss brings us into the moment; understanding the way our mind has come to this moment and how the mind can lose the moment gives us the power to remain 'in-the-moment' throughout our life. This, I think, is enlightenment. It is knowing the experiences of life directly, USING analysis when needed, but not being overrun by it; and likewise being fully aware in every moment, not lost or 'just day dreaming' ever.

Until we've reached that, we will inevitably react to the world, sparks of romance included, with the unskillful emotions of greed and/or aversion; but just knowing that we have a choice in the grand scheme of things is a start.

On a lighter note, I think the first thing I do when I get back to Montana is 'find myself a woman' as we say in Montana - (knowing full well romance doesn't exactly work that way). Until then I'll just try to live in the moment by way of philosophy and meditation... and Beethoven.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A simple post; things for which to strive

In the everyday realm of potentials and imprints, it is important:

- to maintain a positive attitude,
- to be generous,
- to never begrudge others the results of their own efforts,
- to refuse to take pleasure in other peoples' problems,
- to refrain from anger,
- to cultivate gratitude, and
- to avoid wasted talk.

Basic Buddhist principles. I post them in part just to remind myself. Soon I'll post some stuff on meditation, where you get the true feel of how well you embody these... 'till then... jw

Buddhism, ethics, and stem-cells

Stem Cells and Buddhism, an ethics dilemma?

I just came across this article:

This makes for a nice article on how non-dogmatic Buddhism can be: encouraging a person to reason about the motivations of actions, rather than relying on hand-me-down rules. I'm not sure, though, about his claim that Buddhist embryology leaves out the earliest stages of the embryo (immediately following conception).

James J. Hughes and Damien Keown in a paper here, state, "most Buddhist commentators have adopted classical Hindu teachings that the transmigration of consciousness occurs at conception, and therefore that all abortion incurs the karmic burden of killing. Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate, and often associated the beginning of life with events in the third or fourth month of pregnancy (for a discussion of traditional Tibetan embryology, see Dhonden, 1980 and Lecso,1987)."

It would seem that now that we know conception takes place as the instigator of pregnancy, it would seem that 'conception' would begin with simply the egg and the sperm. So it would seem that Mr. Hwang may be off a bit.

BUT... He is right to think that Buddhism emphasizes compassion, wherein compassionate motives are of chief importance. Another consideration, raised in the Hughes/Keown paper, is that there may be 'degrees' of consciousness/personhood. Even though the 'being' has entered the physical basis at conception, it may be a matter of time before 'personhood' is fully developed. Remember that animals have some degree of 'personhood' in that an animal may have been your great-grandmother in its last life, and may be reborn as your child, and so any cruelty toward it is wrong. However, cruelty toward an animal is less wrong than cruelty toward a person. The degrees seem to hinge mainly on the capacity of the animal to suffer, a horse has more sentience (ability to feel pain/pleasure) than a fish; hence cruelty to a horse is worse; and cruelty toward a gnat would be of the least consequence (but still some).

So... letting go of the pro-life argument that every embryo is (if not a person already which has major conceptual problems) a potential-person (every living being in Buddhism is a potential-person, if not one already), we can see that doing experiments on/extracting stem-cells from an embryo is going to be of very little negative moral consequence. Further, the altruistic, compassionate intention (if that is truly his intention) creates great positive moral consequence, more than offsetting the negative.

Meanwhile, that cheese-burger or chicken salad you're eating... :) jw

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I hate sitting still. I hate being unsure about where I will be in 4 months. I hate major life decisions.

I have this uneasy feeling of being cut off from the world. It is completely irrational; I know. (so in some sense I employ here the 'talking cure': talk about what is driving me crazy, realized directly the irrationality of my 'problems' which I already know intellectually, and poof, they disappear.)

[laughs.... not sure where to begin...] Well, I suppose 'now' is as good a time as any to begin.

Why am I 'sitting still'? Well, it isn't that my current life is devoid of projects, things to complete, things to start. It's not that my past has become irreconcilable with my present or future hopes. It is the future that is bothering me. The future, which is, as it should be, not normally something I fret about. But now I am at a crossroad, and oddly enough (perhaps not) this uncertainty about the future has me a bit dazed and confused in the present.

I could go on for another Masters Degree (in Philosophy)... back in Montana... More debt, I don't like debt. But I LOOOOVE philosophy. I could stay here (England) and look for work (teaching Religious Ed. in high-schools seems possible). I could go back to Montana and look for work while looking into Ph.D. stuff or other work (Peace Corps, Japan English Teaching).

All options LOOK good... But none is PULLING me, or so it seems; and hence the stagnation in the present. So this is my stagnation, my uncertainty, my life-decision.

And perhaps the problem isn't there at all, but rather it is my desire for something to pull me. Can I accept this world of possibility just as it is? [cringes] mmm.... rggg... I don't know.

I'm not sure this 'talking-cure' thing is working :) [laughing...]

I suppose I'm not really sitting still, after all. Whether I like it or not, I'm going forward. So I might as well enjoy the ride. And no matter how sure I think I am at any time, I never really know where I'll be in four months. And it would seem that no MAJOR life decisions need to be made now... I'll go back to UM. I'll look at alternatives though, and see what comes along. I have motion again.

I love philosophy, and in truth I shouldn't even have to contemplate passing up an opportunity to study it for two more years. It opens up new universes in thought for me... I constantly walk away from lectures, books, papers, and conversations with peers feeling as though I am nearer to some understanding that beckons me, almost religiously... So... Damn it all... Debt is a burden, yes, but I can carry it... I must. [sigh]


Ok... so maybe it has worked... back to Sanskrit studies... jw

Thursday, May 19, 2005

politics, bloody politics

I avoid political things in general, but found this very interesting. The liberal (Respect Party) MP George Galloway testified Tuesday in Washington concerning his alleged role in the 'oil-for-food' scandals in Iraq. In addition to claiming that the allegations are false and unfounded, he lashed out against US (and at times British) policy concerning Iraqi sanctions and the war.

It looks as if he was correct about the weakness of the senate evidence against him (coming from Ahmed Chalabi, the same guy who gave 'evidence' that Iraq had WMDs and from tortured prisoners). It doesn't appear that the Republican Senator Coleman had much to say in response. (here is some video)

Well, it's politics, and not my strength by any means, but it is nice to see someone in the spotlight raising the questions and issues that Mr. Galloway raises (the death of one MILLION Iraqi's, mostly children, under sanctions, the death of 100,000 Iraqis since the US invasion, mostly civilians, the death of 1,600 US soldiers and the injuries of 15,000 US soldiers - all, as he said, 'based on a pack of lies', including US arms sales to Iraq, US kickbacks to Iraq for oil, the loss of 8 billion dollars in Iraq under US control, the indiscriminant and untracked handing out of cash by US military personnel in Iraq, the US companies making mega-profits, etc...).

Of course we mustn't forget the atrocities of Saddam Husein, nor the terrible situation in Iraq under his control.

Well, it's politics! Not always pretty. I'll slink now back into my Buddhist Studies world where major disputes produce books, not wars....

peace. jw

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Jet Li - A Buddhist fighting for a better message

I read something similar to this a few months ago - but here it is again: (by the way, Jet Li is an action movie star, with the lead role in the Chinese film 'Hero')

"Many fans thought Li had reached the summit of his career with last year's hit, Hero. But he's still troubled that North American filmgoers, especially the younger ones, have an almost knee-jerk reaction to his name. "They think: 'Jet Li -- oh cool! Kick ass!' " He used to be happy with that reaction but lately it's been bothering him. "That's the only message I give to young kids? I hope that I can give more than just that.

"That's why I wanted to make this film so that younger people see that violence is not the only solution. Look at Danny. He's physically very strong -- he can knock out 20 people in a few seconds -- but he's an animal. He doesn't care about others. Humans care about others, that's the difference. Something cooler than action, cooler than martial arts, is love."

Good stuff. jw

See also:

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Beyond polemics... moving toward peace with Ratzinger, Benedict XVI

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has written a letter to the new Pope, and as the Commondreams story points out, 'Signatories are well aware of conflictual past statements by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger about Buddhism and other matters, but they are also keenly aware of the words of the Buddha, quoted in the letter: "Hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone does it cease."'

More on the BPF

Simple truths... sometimes the most difficult to understand.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The "Real" Tibetan Buddhism

I am working on a paper describing the institution of the Dalai Lama and happen to be rereading Donald Lopez's great book, "Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West." It is a brilliant mix of scholarship and readability; a must for anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly our very strange Western ideas of what it 'really' is. A fascinating exercise might be to write yourself a brief essay on what you think Tibetan Buddhism "really" is (all about), cover topics including the Dalai Lama, the relationship to Indian, Chinese, and other geographic types of Buddhism, the saying 'Om Mane Padme Hum", and the likenesses (if any) between Tibetan Buddhism and forms of Christianity.

Likely, your views on each of these will be interestingly and surprisingly covered in Lopez's book. The book doesn't add much in the way of new scholarship on Tibet, but instead breaks down many of the misconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism, ranging from "demonic plagiarism" of Christianity (p.27) to (Tibet itself being) a "...peaceful, colorful, cheerful realm of pleasant and meaningful living" (p.7).

As with most things, the truth lies in neither the extremes nor some fabricated middle; but instead in the particularities realized under close examination. A few facts (without citation):

Buddhism was first (officially) introduced into Tibet in the 7th Century under King Songtsen Gampo.

Officially supported Buddhism collapsed with the reign of King gLang Darma, around 841CE.

Buddhism is reintroduced by Atisha (A Bengali who had traveled to Sumatra, Indonesia for teachings and had ascended to the higher ranks of an Indian Buddhist Monastery) in 1041. Schools focussing on his work and those of the teachers listed next would be called the 'new schools' in opposition to the 'old school' Nyingmapa (ancient ones).

Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarespa, Gampopa all are active in the 11th-12th centuries, transmitting Indian Buddhist ideas into Tibet. Each is the disciple of the prior in this order. Gampopa would go on to form the Kagyudpa school.

Tsongkhapa develops strict new school of Buddhism in the early 15th Century, the Kadampas, later to be called the Geluks (Virtuous Ones).

The First Dalai Lama was the Third Dalai Lama. Doesn't really make sense (like many things), but it goes like this: the 'first' Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso, a Geluk monk who visited the Mongol leader Altan Khan in 1578. Altan Khan bestowed him the title 'Dalai', which means 'Oceanic', referring to the wisdom of the person it is bestowed upon. 'Lama' basically just means teacher, or great teacher.

Sonam Gyatso, however had been recognized as the reincarnation of a prior lama, and he in turn the reincarnation of another lama (this one a disciple of Tsongkhapa). So the first (temporally) of these (the student of Tsongkhapa) was posthumously given the title, the First Dalai Lama. And the rest is history, so to speak.

Tibet has never been in much of a state of political peace, as one might assume. They've almost always been threatened, under attack, or occupied by either Mongolia or China (Britain also once in 1903-4). Tibet also had a heroic/warlike period in the early 8th century when it actually conquered China all the way to Beijing.

Tibet has also never been unified in any clear way. Under the Dalai Lamas, especially the 5th and 13th, there were efforts with some success to reign in the distant and opposing tribes/polities of Tibet, but for the most part, 'direct' political power has been restricted to a valley around Lhasa, with extension to Shigatse in the East. It has only been with the 1959 uprising and suppression by the Chinese that a greater (if not more urgent) cry for Tibetan Unity has been raised, and even this is not a priority for many Tibetans. None of this should go to deny the fact that the Chinese occupation has been tantamount to genocide and every effort should be made for its end.

Well... Get Lopez's book if you're interested in more, and I always recommend Geoffrey Samuel's "Civilized Shamans" if you want an extremely thorough, though readable, coverage of the entirety of Tibetan Buddhism/Civilization from a mostly anthropological point of view (analyzing most periods in terms of 'cultural patterns' which I found very helpful). For a less scholarly, though thorough and extremely useful, coverage, see John Powers' "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." Lopez's book has the virtue of being great for all readers; Samuel's I would only recommend to those sincerely interested in the intricacies of Tibet and its various forms of religion/culture, and Powers' is great for all but the more advanced students. Oh... and I just read a short paperback by the Dalai Lama, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon (one of the current giants in the field) called "Answers: Discussions with Western Buddhists" which is extremely useful in getting a feel for a broad variety of issues in contemporary Buddhism from the Dalai Lama's perspective.

Good luck... Remember to smile. I remember an interview with comedian/actor Steve Martin in which he was asked how he managed to remain funny for so long and he said he usually dedicates 5-10 minutes each day to just smiling at a mirror. Geshe Michael Roach has also remarked, in his teachings on yoga, that smiling loosens knots in the two channels around the face, allowing pranna, ethereal energy (inner wind or subtle energy), to flow more smoothly throughout the body. Whether either of these are actually going to work in anyone else's life, who's to say? But if they work for you, good! There's reason to smile. If they don't and you think these guys are just crack-pots, then hey, at least you're not a crack-pot too (right?). And there is a good reason to smile!

Speaking of crack-pots, I'd better get some sleep before I somehow become one myself. Best, jw