Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leaving Sukhavati

Today I fly back to London to resume intense studies, get back into blogging, hang out with new friends, and prepare for a trip to India with my good friend SJ to reunite with Soorjya who is getting married. There is a lot to look forward to. But my heart is still heavy as I imagine getting on the plane in nine or ten hours.

I've done a lot these past three weeks in the US. I:
  1. spent time with Kelly's lovely aunt Suzi and grandmother (Gabbo)
  2. saw Princeton, where Kelly began her doctoral studies,
  3. met Kelly's good friends Carolyne and (?), who she met through her first Socrates Café
  4. visited Storm King Art Center, a beautiful 500 acres of brilliant trees, rolling hills, a playful stream, and open sky (and some funny art too),
  5. met Ken and Christine Lindsay, an amazing couple (celebrating just over 60years of marriage) who Kelly met in her research on WWII art preservation,
  6. made some headway in my research and a conference panel discussion on "Buddhism and Philosophy" in the spring,
  7. saw Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, where I
  8. proposed,
  9. received a 'yes',
  10. and thus became officially engaged :) Update: a photo from just after our engagement:

and a whole lot more...

Yet still it seemed to go all too fast.

C'est la vie.


Land of Great Bliss.

I bid you adieu, but not for long.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

God part 2 of 3: the meanings of things

Preface, or 'pre-post tangential interlude': Before I get into blog post proper I wanted to share a discovery I made today thanks to David Webster's Gloucestershire Uni course blog. It is a discussion by academics of Socrates' life from BBC Radio 4. It was interesting for a variety of reasons: the problem of the written word (vs oral teachings), problems of democracy, questions of virtue and the good life, and (for me) connections with Kant and the nature of God.
One of the points made by Socrates, found in Plato's Euthyphro, is that we cannot reasonably place the gods (or in our case God) above morality. That is, if we can know right from wrong in human affairs, then we should judge the claimed actions and wishes of god(s) by these same criteria. As Socrates asks Euthyphro in that dialog (quoting from memory):
Is it right because the gods accept it,
or do the gods accept it because it is right? (my emphasis)
Socrates of course supports the latter option. Morality, virtue, rightness, goodness and the likes all supersede the whims of the gods.

But for the Greeks the gods (and Old Testament followers of God as mentioned in the radio show) were heavily personified beings, basically humans with certain qualities exaggerated and with added magical powers. They had their faults, inconsistencies, and foibles just as the rest of us. Socrates was thus a radical for saying, in effect, "don't waste your time trying to please them, put your effort into a virtuous life, a self-examined life, and you will find happiness."

Ironically, I noted in the last post that things hadn't changed much between Kant's time and our own, and it seems that even more so things remained amazingly constant between Socrates life and that of Kant.


Now, neither Kant nor Socrates denied the existence of God, both simply demanded a rational understanding of the deity. And while for Socrates this is mainly a moral matter, for Kant it is both moral and extends to the natural world (following the inspirational works of such thinkers as Newton, Galileo and Copernicus). But, once we have rationalized morality and the good life, as well as the physical world, what is left of 'God'?

And that exact question has been the prime battle ground for over two hundred years (at least) of Western theology.

Kierkegaard, for one, argued that Kant and others missed the whole point: that God and reason have nothing to do with one another (and for that matter God and morality). He famously retells the story of Abraham and Isaac. He admits that what Abraham is about to do, kill his own son, is morally wrong, but then says that in religious terms it is right. So for Kierkegaard 'God' means something beyond our categories of reason and morality.

A thinker closer to home (for me) is Albert Borgmann who, as it was explained to me, treats God as a moral necessity. For Dr. Borgmann it is God to whom we must give thanks that there is existence at all (recalling the Parmenidean question, "why is there something instead of nothing?"). Dr. Borgmann accepts that it is science to which we should turn to explain all that is in existence, but that it is God that has ensured that there is existence in the first place.
A good exercise you can do now is to to play:

Battleground God (a witty Q&A to see if your views are at least consistent with each other)
(a simpler, one-step game raising the typical objections to the Judeo-Christian notions of God)
As either game suggests (especially the second) 'God' has problems. If we give her the typical attributes that people have since time immemorial then she no longer seems to fit into our world (ruled by physics and rational ethics). If we strip her of these in the hopes of keeping her here (a God'ess' in the gaps) then the game-makers openly wonder if what is left deserves the name 'God' in the first place.

In the end I tend to just give up and join another former philosophy professor of mine (retired), Dr. Burke Townsend, and say that I don't believe in God because I don't know what that means. (It's not that I disbelieve, but only that I don't know what it is that I am supposed to believe in here.)

I believe in the fundamental morality of the universe, as I have felt it tugging at my own conscience and I have discovered practices that I have experienced to better attune me to that universal moral nature. I believe in the inexhaustible beauty of the natural world, from mountain sunsets to the ant's antennae, from the cosmic singularity to the evolution of human beings, it all makes me bright-eyed and grinning with wonder.

But that's it.

I must laugh at its simplicity, but also the sheer complexity when you get right down to it. It is simple because it is all right here, every action and item before me opens the worlds of morality and nature. It is complex because, in Kantian terms, I am heteronomous, pulled in dozens of directions at once, tugged by forces outside of my moral center, forces other than my own reason. And the physical world, too, reveals a depth of complexity that thwarts our eager probing at every turn. In Buddhist terms both (our understanding of morality and the natural world) are clouded by ignorance, clouds that are sometimes equated with language (conceptuality) itself.

But again, that's it.

For both Kant and Buddhism the task is thrown upon us, each of us, to lift our own veils of ignorance, to unravel the bounds of unknowing, to come face to face with reality. To appeal to God for either would be to side-step this responsibility, an escape from the here-and-now reality of our lives.

But then, that is just one conception of God, namely the traditional Judeo-Christian conception (and the roughly parallel Brahmanic/Hindu conception). There are other conceptions of God that bring him (or, preferably her) down to earth and into our lives. Think of Native American ideas of the Great Spirit, or perhaps certain gnostic ideas of God-within-all.

In the last part of this series I will explore other conceptions of God, asking if reconciliation may be found.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

God part 1 of 3: Living with myths

Myths are not untruths, but truths that extend beyond the rational mind. - Dr. Alan Sponberg from his Intro to Buddhism Course.
The God I grew up with was a God that you would ask for things from, or appeal to when things didn't go your way or call upon to tell others that they are wrong. People around me spoke of praying to God for health, emotional strength, and money; they openly asked God why 'bad things happened to good people'; and they used God as an ally in their cases against the evils of everything from homosexuality to lousy parking. I knew people for whom 'good person' and 'church-goer' were synonymous and who could not (would not) believe it when a church-goer was accused or convicted of some crime or wrong-doing.

So it may not be surprising that at age twelve, when exposed to my first natural science textbooks, that I openly disavowed any belief in God. Since then I have traveled a long way, through atheism (weak and strong), agnosticism, secular humanism, trying to become Christian followed by nihilism, and then Buddhism (whatever that means). Through Buddhist practice I have simply tried to live more freely and in the present moment, to be open to ideas and people, to understand my weaknesses and cultivate virtues.

Two questions come up for me sometimes: 1) do I believe in Buddhist ideas like nirvana and karma? and 2) where does all that put me with God?

The answers are rather complicated, but put simply the answers are something like "sure, whatever (agnostic)" and "what-do-ya-mean by 'God'? (atheist)." Following Kant, and (I think) the Buddha as well, I think that certain things are just too big to fit within our puny intellects. Questions like, "is the universe finite or infinite" or "is there a (Judeo-Christian) God or isn't there" are just silly because they ask our finite, limited minds to judge something that is not with those bounds or limits. The Buddha was famously silent when people asked him such questions and Kant called those who claimed to have an answer pretentious.

However, for neither was this the end of the story. For neither of them denied the possible reality of such things. In the Buddha's case, karma - a moral sense of cause and effect - was simply taken for granted. And for Kant too, the fact that there is a moral law is something that we as humans simply cannot deny. As for nirvana - the total cessation of suffering* - the Buddha certainly taught it and claimed to have achieved it. Yet the Buddha also taught that one should treat his teachings as a goldsmith treats gold, by testing it in many ways to determine its authenticity. So I take it to be within his teachings that I don't necessarily buy into nirvana; not that I deny it, but only that I'm still testing it out and until I know from my own eyes whether it is authentic I will remain agnostic-open. Yet, as Allen W. Wood notes, "Kant also holds that it is rational to pursue an end only insofar as you believe the end possible of attainment through the actions you take toward it." (Kant, p.180) In that case I must admit that I believe in nirvana, or at least something quite close (I say that because my belief arises from experiences - periods of time spent free from all suffering - and the reasoning that such periods could be extended indefinitely). The belief therefore is one that I think a skeptic such as Hume could assent to - it is not an unquestioning faith but a trust in experiences that could be replicated.

Kant it seems was exposed to much the same God that I was. Allen W. Wood, writing in a very Kantian vein states:
"Religious communities have usually been founded on a supposed divine revelation, [a scripture] accepted as authoritative... ruled by a class of priestly tyrants, who have done more to enslave than to liberate the mind and spirit. The idea of serving God that such communities have had has often been corrupt and superstitious, consisting of a set of morally indifferent or even degrading constraints on conduct (the performance of rituals, meaningless restrictions on what people eat or when they are permitted to work, regular performances of fetishistic conjurations of divine presence or formalized practices of slavish praise and contemptible begging directed at the divine being -- conceived, accordingly, as a vain tyrant who is disposed to favor unjustly those cringing subjects who most flatter him and abase themselves before him)." (pp. 183-4)
Wow. He goes on about war and each side's use of God as 'on our side' and about religious claims to "exclusive access to divine will" and imposing beliefs on others.

It would be nice to think that that was just the Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) of the 1700s and that it is totally changed today, but as I mentioned this was pretty much what I encountered growing up in little Helena, Montana.

However, Kant did see a rational basis for belief in God - that of morality. You see, for Kant, to be good is to be worthy of happiness. And as we know many good people die without finding happiness. So for that moral law that Kant saw as undeniable to work, there must be an afterlife and some "wise, benevolent, and just Providence ordering the world." (p.180) This, for Kant, is God: simply the guarantee (or guarantor) of the happiness one comes to deserve through his or her morality in life.

How interesting. And this seems to be much the same role that karma plays for Buddhists. It is a law-like causality that guarantees happiness comes to those who do good (puñña). Thus to have experiences of freedom from suffering and the reasoned belief in the possibility of total freedom, one must have some reasonable connection between the two. That is, one must believe that one's actions (karma) will lead to the fruits (phala or vipaka) of happiness or nirvana.

So it seems that in both cases we have reasoned cases for quite different beliefs. Or is it just that we have different words for much the same thing?

In part two I will explore that question, asking, "just what do we mean when we say 'God' - or karma or nirvana?"

* commentators are quick to point out that the end of suffering is not the end of physical pain. The Buddha still had pain as he grew old and died, he simply did not identify with the pain of his physical body. And it is this identification with or clinging to - as 'mine' - pain that causes us suffering.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Life: pond-hopping again

Sigh... At last, I'm off to see my fiancee again after six weeks of separation. And the separation itself wouldn't have been so difficult I think except that we have both been under so much stress. When the world around you is just closing in, you need that other person, that life-partner, there to hold at the end of the day.

As I have told friends back in the states, this place and my month here have been an odd mixture of 'philosopher's paradise' (total academic freedom, access to vast worlds of knowledge, and an amazing advisor) and bureaucratic nightmare (poor institutional organization, dodgy neighborhoods, defunct social telephony services). I'm not sure where it all balances out in the end. It's not bad I suppose, plenty to work with and work on. And I recall that in my first couple month in Bristol I was having a pretty hard time too. So I can look forward to settling in more and a very productive January onward.
I applied for a job at Jamyang Buddhist Centre and interviewed yesterday. The interview went pretty badly on my part. I was worn out and a bit flustered from being late and I did far too little research on Jamyang itself. So when they asked how I would work on certain aspects, like the beautiful Talking Buddhism website, I really had painfully little to offer. I went away feeling that I had been a bit foolish and perhaps over-confident, so not very happy with myself. Luckily I was invited to stay for one of the teachings with Geshe Soepa. He covered a four-fold mind training (lojong) from the Sakya tradition and it really hit home for me.
  1. if you are attached to this life, you are not a religious practitioner
  2. if you are attached to cyclical existence, you are not on the path
  3. if you are striving only for your own awakening, you are not on the Great path
  4. if you do not have correct understanding (of emptiness), you cannot attain Buddhahood.
(I may have got those a little off, but that's the gist of the training) Each step pushes one to think less of mundane concerns and more toward the highest possible service to humanity, and each has deeper explanations that would be familiar to the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner.

What resonated so well with me was the sense of attachment I had come with, attachment to the outcome of the interview and the ensuing deflation when it didn't go as planned. It seemed like each word from the Geshe's mouth and each breath I breathed deeply lessened that sense of unhappiness, helped me let go of my expectations. By then end I was smiling and able to head home with a light heart. Oh well if I don't get the job. It's a wonderful, amazing Buddhist centre and I'd love to work there, so we'll see. If not, I'm sure I'll be back to hear more wisdom and perhaps see if I can volunteer in some way.
In other job news, I did get hired on as a Departmental Student Coordinator here at the college. It's just a 2 hour/week on average job, but it will get me some good inside experience with the History department and with student affairs. The other coordinators and our fearless leader are all great folks (we got to know one another through a 5-hour training and a beer last week), so it should be fun all around.
Studies are going well too. I still haven't found a very peaceful place to get into my work. Everywhere I go there are constant disturbances, diversions, and inconveniences of one sort or another. But I'm making do, finding little moments of inspiration and progress.

I don't understand the intensity of the bureaucracy in England. Nobody I talk to understands it. The Brits don't either, but simply seem to accept it. For instance, phone/internet companies seem to compete for who can be the most complicated and difficult. Right now BT is the hands-down winner, discouraging 3 of my flatmates from getting land-lines through red-tape, long hours on hold, and lack of effort to speak in an understandable tone. Today I was celebrated for fighting through it all to establish our flat's first land line. Yay me. :) Oh yea, and the cost: $500 for installation and the most basic service on the minimum contract. Next step: wireless. Everybody is chipping in on this, so hopefully with about $100 each we can get the phone line and wireless all set up for the year...

Anywho... I've got to pack! 14 hours and I am in the air to see a certain gorgeous redhead!