Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When all signs say.... 'cult'

Cults have long been a topic of fascination for me: what do they do? what do they believe? how/when does a cult become a 'mainstream' religion? how do I start my own?

Ok, so the last question was never quite so seriously asked, but probably very often on the periphery as the other questions were explored. A good friend of mine, Katie, a sociology graduate from UM often shared cult-starting strategies with me. She, however is an expert. Me, I'm a mere novice. Her focus was cult groups, even going so far as to live with a certain quasi-acceptable and mostly defunct cult group for an entire summer.

I first met her on a class trip to Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) to spend a weekend with ISKCON, aka the 'Hare Krishnas'. I had a great time on the trip, sensing a genuine spiritual devotion amongst the ISKCON members, if not some hint of need in the younger ones. Their temple was beautiful and their prayers deep. Though they hailed a 'God' toward which I felt no calling, I felt comfortable in the presence of their own prayers, mantras, and devotional calls.

I had only just taken up a strong interest in Buddhism the fall before, and while I had no intention of joining them, my poor mother had not a few fears that I might not return! Leave it to mom to worry too much! I was still extremely skeptical, especially of 'organized' religion. And despite my affinity for the ISKCON members, they seemed to be just slightly better than what I imagined any average Christian church group to look like. I was in no way about to join any religious group.

Now.... Fast-forward four years to this year. I've been calling myself a Buddhist (see blog name) for about four years to most people, even nearly resigning my membership in Idaho Athiests (nearest organized group to me in Missoula!). But I didn't resign, and so that group is the nearest I have to any kind of religious organization to date. I did found a 'campus sangha' Buddhist group along with a UM freethinkers group, but both fizzled quickly so I don't count them. I did also inquire about becoming a 'mitra' (official 'friend') in the FWBO - Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, but due to my continued interest in various forms of Buddhism (still 'shopping around') I was dissuaded from further commitment.

Recently, however, I have been contemplating joining some sort of Buddhist group with more solid commitment. The problem is, I haven't found the group yet! My reason for wanting to join something more is that I have done a ton of 'skimming the surface' here and there, and even tasted some of the depths of disciplined practice on a couple retreats, but I think it is time to further that discipline.

I have joined a 'Diamond Cutter' study group here in Bristol which has largely been made up of just myself, Achintya (an FWBO monk) and Suzanne (an active member of the New Kadampa Tradition). Now, in 5 days, I will see Geshe Michael Roach give talks in Ireland with these two people. Geshe Michael is an interesting character himself, not uncontroversial; but it strikes me that both of my travel mates are involved in groups that have had at least a brush with 'cult' accusations, the FWBO for odd/secretive activities of its founder, and NKT for the seemingly less ominous activities of worshiping a somewhat divisive deity and arguing with the Dalai Lama (see the links for more on each).

The status of these groups aside, cults are a real and destructive element in society, now as much as ever. But the lines between evangelical, fundamentalist, 'new' religion, new age, and cult are very blurry, and become even more difficult once you are a part of a group, as you become less able to make objective judgments.

So how does one know if the 'prayer group' or 'meditation class' they are going to is really nothing more than a front for a cult group? Well, I have been perusing the online anti-cult world and found at least one interesting article combining the experiences of an ex-Moonie and Lama Surya Das, as well as the useful site http://www.rickross.com/.

After some reading and reflection I agree that the groups of my travel companions are questionable, but certainly one needs to know more before calling either a cult. The fate of each rests on the shoulders of its members as well as the educated public. We all share a bit of the responsibility for questioning things that don't seem right and pointing out inconsistencies when we find them. The same goes for students of Geshe Michael Roach, including myself. His organizations are still outside of the public eye, but it will only be a matter of time before questions are raised, problems are pointed out, and it will be up to us all to treat such things openly and honestly. Thus far it seems that he has been very open about his life, teachings, and practices which, though it may initially put some people off to him, is certainly the best course for the long run.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Wisdom of Monty Python

Always look on the bright side of life.  From "The Life of Brian"

http://www.mwscomp.com/sounds/mp3/brghtsd.mp3 or http://www.emp3world.com/mp3/5031/Monty%20Python/The%20Bright%20Side%20Of%20Life

Bright Side of Life
by Eric Idle
Cheer up, Brian.
You know what they say;
Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse,
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle,
And this'll help things turn out for the best, hey,
Always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the light side of life,
If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps,
Don't be silly chumps,
Just purse you're lips and whistle,
That's the thing.
And, always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
For life is quite absurd,
An. death's the final word,
You must always face the curtain with a bow,
Forget about your sin,
give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it, it's you last chance of the hour.
So, always look on the bright side of death,
Just before you draw your terminal breath,
Life's a piece o' shit,
When you look at it,
Life's a laugh and death's a joke it's true,
You'll see it's all a show,
Keep 'em laughing as you go,
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
And, always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
Come on, Brian cheer up,
Always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
Worse things happen at sea, you know,
Always look on the bright side of life,
I mean, what do you have to lose?
You come from nothing,
You go back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
Always look on the bright side of life.

Wisdom can be found in the strangest of places, ya know?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Me, the world, lately...

My life lately has been fairly consumed with dissertation work - see posts below. And with a beautiful Spanish girl... so... what can I say? Things are well.

I am almost positive now that I will go back to Montana for a Masters in Philosophy, to add to my Masters in Buddhist Studies, en route to a Ph.D. in something (maybe zoology?) . So, only one more month in England (for now at least). Maybe I can come back for that Ph.D.

Some interesting things in the news that more of the world should know about:

This, a sad and very powerful article with two letters from loved one's of US soldiers who have died in Iraq. After the Downing Street Memo, which has hopefully been read by everyone out there, more and more Americans are waking up to the fact that we were given lies to justify this war. But where do we go from here? What can people do? Here are some suggestions.

More less-than-happy news: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party in Burma, has been under house arrest by the military government there for most of the last 15 years. This week she turned 60, celebrating her birthday in an empty house, cut off from the world. Michael Stipe, of REM, this week sent his well-wishes, along with President Bush, and many more.

In good news (!), humanists have been granted the ability to legally perform weddings in the UK. One of my good friends back in Montana , Lori Gilliland, is a certified Humanist Celebrant, which means she can officiate weddings and the likes. It may be a double-edged sword in the sense that many people think atheism or humanism is a religion of its own (which it isn't!), and this may add fuel to that thought. For me, and I think most who would call themselves humanist or atheist, these are simply labels which are useful to express a coherent body of ideas/beliefs about the world. They are not religious because they believe in no supernatural, they hold nothing on 'faith alone', and they do not prescribe rituals or practices to be performed. Some people want to twist the definition of religion to include atheism and/or humanism, but this is more a matter of self deception than real argument. The fact is that religion is difficult to define, but amongst the majority of experts, Humanism/Atheism simply do not fit the criteria (namely those above). hmm... maybe a topic for another post. :)

In other happy news, again dealing with a wedding, is the first gay military wedding performed in Canada. Not much to comment; it's just nice that homosexuality, which could have gotten you killed (and still can in certain places) in the past, is now openly part of the celebrations of life.

So while things aren't so rosy in the US and Burma, England and Canada are taking steps forward toward openness, inclusiveness, and freedom. God bless 'em. And DOOOOO contact your senator about the Downing Street Memo - it will only take 2 seconds and they do take such personal contact an eentzy-teenzy-weenzy bit seriously, which is infinitely more than you get otherwise.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Artists. Art. Life.

Having dated an artist, (and interested in all things philosophical) I found this passage from Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, amusing:

[of his parents, both artists], "They were in the world and not of it, not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists. The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it."

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which resembles and borrows from Eastern wisdom, culminates in the aesthetic as the overcoming of the will. The will, for Schopenhauer, is none other than the Buddhist 'thirst' (trṣnā), driven by ignorance [of the ideal]. But Schopenhauer lacks the practice, so central to Eastern wisdom, of meditation/yoga. It is through meditation that a transcendence is experienced. Transcendence is at first merely glimpsed, soon firmly grasped, and ultimately made one with the being.

The Beautiful turns us toward the transcendent without providing us the tools to experience it directly. Thus, for the Buddhist, the aesthetic is sublime but not ultimate. This is the same recognition as Thomas Merton makes - art may lift you up, but it alone cannot quench your thirst eternally.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Cyclists get naked for the environment

Good news. Worth sharing. It may be one of those events that 'preaches to the converted' and sparks ridicule from everyone else, but I (being of the converted) appreciate it.


Friday, June 10, 2005

Why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care

I'm starting my MA thesis comparing Kantian and Buddhist ethics and have already been told by a couple people that Buddhist ethics is really more like Aristotle (the mean between extremes, cultivating virtues, and all that). And for most people, the response when they hear what I'm writing is a kind of blank stare. So... I think I should formulate, briefly, why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care.

They are comparable because of the enormous stress laid by each on REASON. Reason, for Kant, is a move away from the ever-changing and uncertain realm of the senses and desires, toward something deeper, more true. It is this ability to overcome urges/desires that gives rise to autonomy (true self-governance) and dignity. Reason in Buddhism is a method of discerning true perceptions from those clouded by greed/aversion/ignorance. Most of the time, though we gaze upon reality, what we cognize is a mistaken image - like the experiences of a dream, we are so caught up even in waking experiences that we cannot discern the real from the unreal. Therefore reason plays a central role for both. For Kant it is through the 'rational will' alone that we act morally and in Buddhism it is only by reasoned analysis that reality, and with it true morality, can be ascertained.

Now.. why you should care: imagine any difficult subject in your life: a foreign language, math, philosophy, other people... Now think about it: when you reason out an answer and it works - as in it pulls together a great amount of disparate parts into a unified whole - you feel good. Of course you may screw up (a lot perhaps), and it will take time for any real accomplishment, solving a large calculus equation or understanding Kantian ethics, but when it does happen there is a very real shift in perception and overall understanding of what had hitherto been mere parts. All of those words you had hitherto just looked at and/or memorized suddenly fit together and make sense. Now imagine doing that with the nature of reality itself! Imagine shifting your perception of everything you experience in the world for the rest of your life. THAT IS PHILOSOPHY - That is the power of reason fully utilized. That is why you should care.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Leibniz and Buddhism?

(concerning the comment made on my June 2 post) Thank you for your suggestion. I don’t think I will be able to follow it, as I have already started work on my thesis, but I am intrigued by it and would like to hear more. I hadn’t even considered Leibniz as a source of comparison to Buddhist thought, and, reading about his thought now, I do not see much that would suggest comparison. In what follows I will simply pull out points from my reading (in “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy” Honderich ed., pp.477-480) on Leibniz and comment on their difference from Buddhism. Obviously then, I will just be pointing out prima facie problems, and hope that you will correct me in any misinterpretations.

  1. His ontology (monads) at first glance resembles an Abhidharma ontology of dharmas (basic building blocks of existence), but Leibniz allows (even necessitates) God as the creator of each monad whereas Buddhism argues that each dharma is necessarily the result of a beginningless chain of prior dharmas.
  2. Leibniz also denies the possibility of intersubstantial causal relations (ie. a monad of one type could not interact with monads of another type) whereas in Buddhist thought dharmas of one type must interact (ie. a moment of eye-consciousness [a mental dharma] is the result of an object [a physical dharma] and awareness [a mental dharma]).
  3. Leibniz also posited a thesis that individual substances “differ with respect to their intrinsic, non-relational properties”, whereas Buddhist thought universally denies intrinsic properties (the three marks of existence in Buddhism are: non-self, change, and unsatisfactoriness), all things which exist in Buddhism do so only by virtue of their causes and conditions.
  4. Leibniz denied that space was an entity existing beyond material entities within it, whereas Buddhism asserts that space is itself a dharma, hence separate from other (material) dharmas which may interact within it.
  5. Leibniz, arguing against Locke, argues that “concepts of self, substance and causation, are innate” in the human mind, whereas Buddhism, would side with the empiricist here that all of our ideas (especially the idea of ‘self’ which is fundamentally misconstrued according to Buddhism) are derived from experience.
There is no section on the ethics of Leibniz... I should have mentioned that my thesis focuses on Kantian ethical theory and that of Buddhism (probably specifically Tibetan Buddhism). I am intrigued though, as always with such novel ideas, with your suggestions. So if you (or anyone for that manner) have more comments, I would very much welcome them.

Thanks and best wishes. jw

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Wisdom from my all-knowing tutor

Well he's not quite all-knowing... but we'll forgive him that today. Because today he gave me a lovely little gem of advice concerning writing papers (I'm about to embark on a 15000 word journey into comparing Kantian and Buddhist ethics).

He said, "words on paper are the essayists equivalent to a potter's clay. If you haven't actually started to write, you don't even have the material to start moulding into your final product."

khalu bhagavaan tatsatyam | Indeed, oh wise one, this is true.

Another gem came from a former ethics professor:

"The Buddhism-Kant thesis sounds challenging. It seems to me avoiding Kant is a good way to be free from suffering."

khalu bhagavaan tatsatyam | Indeed, oh wise one, this is true.

I'm in for an interesting 3 months... wish me luck. jw