April 30, 2009

Is life a roller-coaster ride?

I don't know what life is, but I do hope that quickly after death we will each find out.

An answer you can find in old movies [for example, "Heaven Can Wait" or "The Horn Blows at Midnight"] is that after life you are on a cloud, in a long line, waiting for Angel Gabriel to let you in the gate – or not.

Another possiblity is that you are deleted. There is less than nothing after life; you are as much not around as the memory you don't have of yourself before you were born.

It can be that you pass through the Bardo, a spooky old place, dream-like and filled with potential terrors, on your way to a next birth, as a human or some other sentient being on this or some other planet or somewhere or somehow in some other universe that you could never imagine. And it can be, that your reborn self comes tagged with lessons that you need to learn from all your prior lives, bringing you pains and pleasures that you deserve.

Many of us Buddhists pull out text from some sutra and say that Buddha told us not to speculate on those things be cannot know. And what might happen to us after death is just the kind of time-wasting speculation he was talking about. But Buddha also told us to use our own judgment of what we should think or do, and I think that considering the possibilities of what death might mean is a good use of a modest chunk of our life's time.

My hope is that we find out that a life is just a crazy old roller coaster ride.

At the end of life, you find yourself in a roller-coaster car, passing out of a dark tunnel. The track takes you up and down a few modest bumps, splashing through water, then your car is brought to a halt. You then remember before you were born when you embarked on the ride. And unless you had a remarkable life, in an instant you see how silly you were in life, misjudging what was important and what was unimportant.

Just as with roller coasters in amusement parks throughout the world, there is no lesson to be learned from a ride, and you disembark at the same place where you got on. Life, it turns out, is just a stunning experience, playing with that magical substance Ignorance. We are all of us, really, this single great Cosmic Self, frozen with absolute knowledge of everything and thus incapable of laughter, love, terror or hope. It is only through Ignorance that Cosmic Self can have adventures and experience the myriad feelings that Ignorance makes possible.

While life isn't a land of lessons, we do learn things about it: It turns out that chasing after money and status is not only life's biggest time waster, it is as destructive as living a life of crime. There is nothing that one can achieve by being well off financially and being respected by others. Indeed, by taking more than your share of earth's bounty and putting yourself above others, you add to the collective pool of misery. It is only from a deeply-felt compassion for others, and having modest possessions, that a life is profoundly satisfying.

But life is not a lesson. And whether we live as a seriel killer or an ego-free saint, there are no rewards nor punishments to receive or endure after life's end. There is only this: Certain knowledge about everything, and the opportunity to ride again.

Funny thing -- or, I should say, seriously, that it is not so funny a thing -- the Roller-coaster Theory does not pick up much religious support. I think the reason for this is that religions thrive when obedience to the religion is rewarded with prizes and benefits after death. The Twin Towers suicide terrorists each had twenty submissive virgins waiting for them after their murderous crashes. Good Christians have an eternity in Heaven. Well-behaved Hindus and Buddhists have karmic rewards, which might include a next life graced with prosperity, health, and attractive physical features. And, of course, for Buddhists there is Paranirvana, an absolute end to all suffering.

The Roller-coaster Theory comes then with marketting problems. The afterlife of the major religions promise a Parential [usually, Fatherly] Approval, and with it, happiness and security. So, there is a reason for us to be Good; our life has meaning. Be Good to make the Great Cosmic Dad proud.

In the Roller-coaster Theory, you are not still a child -- one of God's children -- you are a grown-up. And while dangers and terrors and random acts of violence are for the most part outside what you can control or influence, there is no one more in charge than you are. Your life can go wonderfully or horribly, despite your will, effort and talents; there is no guardian angel to guide or protect you. And so it is hard to feel that there is ultimately any meaning to being alive.

Why be good if there is no eventual reward? At the first level of understanding, it is because you can only really be good if there is no reward. At the second level of understanding – which trumps the first, obliterating it – we should be good for its own sake: Good for Goodness' sake. That's all. There's nothing else.

But what is Good? And what is Goodness' sake? There is no one outside yourself to tell you. As our heart/mind matures, the ideal of good becomes less treacly and rule-bound. We do the right thing outside the call of reasons for what feels like [and is] a growing abundance of wisdom and compassion.

April 29, 2009

Zen Unbound found on Wayback Machine

Some of you all might be interested in this: I found some of my old Zen Unbound stuff on the Wayback Machine.

I hadn't looked for the old stuff in a long, long time. And I believe when I last searched for it, the pictures weren't 'showing.' So, it is kinda delightful for me to see my 1990's fade into history is becoming more visible.

The portal is here: http://web.archive.org/web/20060427012734/http://www.zenunbound.com/

Sac'to Spirituality Examiner focuses on spirituality and homelessness

Picture of homeless man sleeping on a bench that appeared with the examiner.com article.
Over at examiner.com – a new website that is at the cutting edge of the evolution of newspapers into something very inquisitive and solely online – the Sacramento Spirituality Examiner, Steve Curless, looks at homelessness in our metropolis after the demise of Tent City, in the first of a three-piece report, "Helping the Homeless, Part I."

[Steve credits this blog, and its cousin, Sacramento Homeless Blog, in his report. I met Steve online and colaberated on a blog at one time with him. Since then, we've become pals in meatspace in our shared metropolis.]

In his first part, Steve addresses the distance people leading typical lives have from the homeless and how it can be "an abstraction." But, with the serious recession we've entered in deepening, homelessness becomes up-close and personal. For Steve, his friendship with homeless me has personalized homelessness.

Steve then touches on the difficulties of homeless life and the deficits of homeless-aid organizations meant to serve us.

He writes about Tent City and how it was rousted and made to disappear, at considerable expense, to hide the blight from media attention.

In his next report, Steve intends to look at what "government and privately-funded organizations [can] do to help the homeless, and [if there is] a role for spirituality to play."

I am hopeful readers of this blog will plug in to Steve's and those of other examiners at examiner.com. Certainly, I hope that readers, here, will read the wisdom in Steve's follow-up pieces on homelessness. Steve is a profoundly wise and compassionate fellow.

April 28, 2009

My Morals

Above is my result from the Moral Foundations Questionaire.

As I hope you can see, I [green] am more concerned about harm and fairness than the average liberal [blue], and much more so than the average conservative [red].

I'm less concerned about loyalty than liberals and much less so than conservatives.

While conservatives care most about authority and purity, I'm down near the liberals in that I care much less about those elements.

You, too, can take this test at YourMorals. org. The test was developed by Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. Haidt is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

April 20, 2009

David Brooks knows Morality

A David Brooks column in the New York Times, today, "The End of Philosophy," is spot on, in my estimation, in explaining morality.

Here, a central snip of some of the text:
Moral judgments are like [this: You just know.] They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain.

... What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.
Hooray, David Brooks. And hooray Born to be Good, a book that Brooks does not cite, but which gets into precisely these issues. This blog has three posts about Dasher Kiltner's book: (1), (2) and (3).

Brooks does cite, and quote, Jonathan Haidt, a academician who, similar to Kiltner, also embraces "positive" evolution ideas. [My meat- and virtual-space friend Nagarjuna is a big fan of Haidt and is currently reading his book The Happiness Hypothosis.] Here is Brooks's citation of Haidt
:... reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”
[Haidt's words above come from 2001, from a book or paper I cannot fully ID. The 2003 book Handbook of affective sciences uses a paper Haidt wrote where Haidt quotes himself, with the ellipsis that Brooks uses, citing Haidt 2001 & Wilson 1993. Hmmm.]

Brooks ends his column with these fine words:
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. ... it should ... challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.
I love that last half sentence: "...most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself."

April 2, 2009

Voyage into Flatland?

Synchronicity, maybe.

The writings of Gregory Schopen, an iconoclastic Buddhist academician/researcher have become a topic in the Buddhoblogosphere at the same time that a very curious article about the evolution of Christianity came out in the new April issue of Atlantic magazine.

There are things similar about Schopen's focus in his writing and the thrust of the Atlantic piece, "...One World, Under God." Both have me wondering if Flatland Thinking plays a part, restricting the understanding of both Schopen and Robert Wright, the author of the Atlantic article.

As concisely as I can, here is a description of what is meant by flatland, borrowing loosely from Ken Wilber's book Integral Psychology:
Modernity, as compared to premodernity, managed to differentiate the Big Three of art, morals and science, on a large scale, so that each began to make phenomenal discoveries. But as the Big Three dissociated, and scientific imperialism began its aggressive career, all ‘Is’ and all ‘we’s’ were reduced to patterns of objective ‘its’, and thus all the interior stages of consciousness – reaching from body to mind to soul to spirit – were summarily dismissed as so much superstitious nonsense. The Great Nest collapsed into scientific materialism – into what Wilber calls “flatland” – and here the modern world, by and large, still remains.
In his Atlantic article, Robert Wright tells us that new "clues" that "come from the modern world, and they’re all around us" tell us that "[f]or Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.

"To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, ... those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces."

Schopen, for his part, seems to regale in discoveries that associate early Buddhism with sometimes seemingly-shockingly mundane activities for the modern era, instead of those high-minded things we associate with canonical texts.

In his review of a collection of Schopen essays called Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Arnold Dan writes [emphases, mine],
... when reading these essays all at once, one is struck by the recurrent statement of a specious dichotomy between what religious people "actually did," and what canonical texts say they should have done. Overcorrecting the biases of his philological predecessors, Schopen insists on this dichotomy in a way, it seems to me, that reflects a problematic view of how canonical texts must have been used -- a view according to which, if attested behavior contradicts such texts, they must simply not have been used.

If Schopen's predecessors have taken it as [quoting Schopen] "axiomatic" that Buddhist texts unproblematically reflect Buddhist practice (and too often, no doubt, they have), Schopen almost seems to take it as axiomatic that, where texts and practice seem to disagree, there must simply have been no knowledge of the textual tradition. It seems to me that the more interesting possibility (and the one we are more entitled to entertain) is that both practices and texts coexisted, but that despite our sense of frequent contradiction between these, no cognitive dissonance was involved for Indian Buddhists. Perhaps, that is, it is only modern Buddhologists who have made the mistake of taking canonical texts as straightforwardly descriptive, with Indian Buddhist "doctrinal specialists" having recognized all along that that is not how such texts are used. And in fact, as Steven Collins has richly shown in his works, the canonical texts themselves frequently reflect something very much like such an awareness.

It seems to me that what is called for in light of Schopen's cogent and erudite work is not so much the conclusion that there is a sharp distinction between "what religious people actually did" and the texts favored by traditional philological scholars, but rather that being religious is a sufficiently complex affair that the same people who write (and use) scholastic texts might in fact be involved (and without experiencing any conflict) in practices that might seem to us to contradict such texts. What is called for, that is, is a richer theorization of the phenomena of "real religious people" and what they "actually did."
Robert Wright, in his article on Christianity, gives utterly no credence to the possiblity that Christ or Paul were anything other than ambitious entrepreneurs of a religious franchise. Wright sees nothing in the way of soul or spirit in either.

Wright writes of Paul,
[T]he origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.
And further,

It may sound implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is a religion. And, actually, it is implausible. What emerged with early Christianity isn’t really what many Christians like to believe: a God of “universal” love. The core appeal of the early church, remember, was that “brotherly love” was a form of familial love. And familial love is discerning—it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.

This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he tells the Romans. “Through love become slaves to one another,” he instructs members of the Galatian congregation.

This isn’t to say that his preachings offer no foundation for a more truly universal love. He often exhorts Christians to extend hospitality to the unconverted, and sometimes he goes further. He tells the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Still, he isn’t in the habit of putting Christians and non-Christians on quite the same plane. He tells the
: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the
family of faith.”

Paul is treading a fine line—occasionally urging a kind of “love” for non-Christians, yet suggesting that it be a less powerful motivator for generosity than the “brotherly love” he champions among Christians. Treading this line was a key to Christianity’s early success.
At the end of his piece, Wright reveals his thesis: "people are capable of expanding tolerance and understanding in response to facts on the ground; and even mandates from heaven can change in response." The science of self-interest leads morality around by its nose-ring. Flatland thinking, eh?

I don't know nearly enough about Schopen to pin Flatland Thinking to him, but I have to wonder if his insistant contrarianism is flavored by a failure to see by the Morning Star of higher consciousness.