Thoreau and Buddhism

Henry David ThoreauIn his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings (Bantam Books, 1962-1981), Joseph Wood Krutch described Henry David Thoreau’s writings as having four “distinct subjects”, which I paraphrase somewhat as:

  1. The life of quiet desperation most men live;
  2. The economic fallacy that is responsible for their condition
  3. The delights yielded from a simple life close to Nature, and
  4. The higher laws which people intuitively realize from a gentle life in Nature.

These appear similar in form to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhist philosophy:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The parallels are, to me, striking. Not that Thoreau was a Buddhist, mind you, not as we might consider one today, but he was familiar with many Eastern and Oriental scriptures. As were many of his transcendentalist contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor) and Walt Whitman in particular. Thoreau and his friends were actually more familiar with Hindu texts initially and Thoreau wrote enthusiastically about them.

In 1845, he read the Bhagavad Gita, and later wrote, “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” Thoreau had on his bookshelf his copy of the Gita when he stayed at Walden Pond, and he read it during his time there.

He wrote in Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Thoreau’s Walden was even the subject of a course on year at the University of Chicago. In the course description, it said, “Both books begin with despair and defiance and end with coming to some understanding of the ways of action and of knowledge, of devotion and nature, of self and the cosmos.”

Of course, this was during the American intelligensia’s first contact with alternate (and Eastern) philosophies, and it became a sort of intellectual epiphany that awakened a great creative surge barely a century after the nation was formed. Unlike today, many Americans in the 19th century were open to, even eager to learn about other cultures, other faiths, other philosophies. One cannot even imagine the current president and his followers learning, much less learning about an Asian philosophy.

Continue reading “Thoreau and Buddhism”

The Ten Bulls

Search for the BullA series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)

I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.

Discovering the FootprintsI was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.

In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)

Perceiving the BullThe Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.

Catching the BullYou can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.

But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”

Continue reading “The Ten Bulls”

Natural selection simplified

Antibiotic resistance - natural selectionI was startled by the simplicity of the forumla. Stephen Jay Gould, the late eminent paleontologist, biologist and historian of science, summed up Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection so eloquently and so succinctly that it rocked me back on my heels. It was something even a diehard creationist could understand (assuming he or she wanted to try…)

First there are three basic facts Gould states about life and living creatures:

  1. All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
  2. All organisms within a species vary from one another;
  3. At least some of these variations will be inherited by offspring.

From these three, simple facts – easily proven by observation, research and analysis – Gould says the principles of natural selection, as Darwin postulated in 1859, can be inferred. These are:

  1. Since only some offspring will survive, on average these survivors will have those variations that are generally better adapted to survival in changing environments;
  2. Those offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents;
  3. Organisms of the next generation will be better adapted to local environments.

Simple, eh? I thought so, too. Next year will mark 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. I already have a bottle of wine aging for the celebration.

I came across this elegant description some years back, while reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer (Harper Collins, New York, 2001). The book is the companion to the PBS series on evolution. Gould wrote the introduction. I have yet to see the series (we don’t subscribe to TV) , but I enjoyed the 364-page book. It’s one of many such titles in my library.

Continue reading “Natural selection simplified”

Why are American evangelical Christians so cruel?

What does that sign say? Thank you Lord for Jesus President Trump... makes no sense...The article in Forbes’ Magazine, March 11, didn’t ask that question I used in my headline. Instead, the headline simply stated the piece would explain, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” (The author later republished this on his own site under the less pointed title, “Why the Religious Right is so cruel.”)

In America, where theocracy is a more powerful political force than free speech and where its president has publicly threatened to muzzle journalists and uncomplimentary media like other tinpot dictators do, such a piece was apparently unwelcome. Forbes removed it – but not in time to prevent it from being read and cached and shared. Forbes’ excuse for the removal was that, “We also have a policy of not talking about social issues like abortion at Forbes Opinion — only economic policy and politics.” Weak, methinks.

No doubt the writer – Chris Ladd – hit a nerve in his increasingly theocratic, decreasingly tolerant nation when he wrote:.

Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

This isn’t really news or even new. Back in August, 2017, John Gehring wrote a piece for the Religious News Service (RNS) titled, “What is wrong with white Christians?” Gehring wrote:

Too many white Christians sacrifice the gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda.

Given the number of fervent, uber-right “court evangelicals” in Trump’s White House (like evangelist anti-education Betty Devos, the evangelist anti-environment Scott Pruitt and evangelist anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo) appointed by Trump to positions of authority, it’s little wonder this sort of critical commentary isn’t welcome in his USA. Just look at his thin-skinned evangelical VP Mike Pence, who had a hissy fit when an interviewer jokingly suggested that he didn’t hear the voice of his imaginary friend Jesus, and was instead, “mentally ill.”

Pence ranted and frothed loudly, and probably put a lot of pressure on her network for her to apologize to all Christians, as if he alone was the representative of the 2.2 billion Christians, and that a poke at him was an insult to all of them.*

Well, here’s the truth: Jesus doesn’t speak to Pence. Or to anyone, Christian or not. Jesus is dead. Dead people don’t talk, whether they died yesterday or two millennia ago. Those voices in your head are you. But don’t try to tell that to American evangelicals like Pence. Yes, hearing voices in your head IS called mental illness. Just because Pence calls the voices Jesus and David Berkowitz said it was his dog Harvey speaking to him doesn’t mean that they’re not the same form of madness.

Pence has often described himself as a “Christian, conservative, Republican, in that order,” clearly putting his personal loyalty to the state and its people lower than that for his imaginary voices-in-his-head friend.
Continue reading “Why are American evangelical Christians so cruel?”

War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Continue reading “War for the Planet of the Apes considered”

Prayer isn’t stopping the violence

Jesus facepalmAn acerbic piece in Maclean’s Magazine from June had the title “America’s mass delusion.” The subtitle read, “Surprisingly, the strategy of praying to God is not stopping the mass shootings in the U.S.” That piece was recirculated when the news of the latest and largest mass shooting in the USA broke. Fifty nine (so far) people were killed and more than 500 wounded by one homegrown American terrorist with an assault rifle. A terrorist who, police found later, had more than 20 rifles in his hotel room (some reports say “more than 10”). He owned more than 40; 10 of them reportedly assault weapons – a weapon designed solely for mass killing of people.

Prayer didn’t stop him getting into a hotel with all those rifles. Prayer didn’t stop him owning and firing military-grade automatic weapons into the crowd. (And why aren’t the media telling us his religion, when they gleefully announce the religion of every non-Christian who so much as farts in a subway?)

Despite the flurry of “prayers and thoughts” for the victims that erupted when the news of the massacre broke, not a single one of those shot came back from the dead. Even the prayers of that uber-fundamentalist, VP Mike Pence, failed to move his deity to act on anyone’s behalf and you’d think he had pull with his god. So who are they praying to, if no one is listening?

Curiously, no one seems to be praying to have the NRA held accountable for its pro-gun lobbying that led directly to this and every other mass shooting in the USA. No one seems to be praying for stronger gun control legislation, for background checks or to ban assault rifles. Americans are too obsessed with their guns to pray for anything that resembles sanity about gun ownership.

Meanwhile, an NRA-backed bill to permit silencers on personal weapons is being presented. The conscienceless-GOP is pushing ahead with it despite the news of this latest shooting – feckless minions of their NRA masters. Is anyone praying that won’t pass? Why isn’t anyone praying the GOP will disappear so the country can find some peace?

Or Bill O’Reilly? The neo-fascist former Fox host apparently claimed that the shooting in Las Vegas is “…the price of freedom” for America’s sociopathic lack of gun control laws. Such an NRA shill should not go unprayed for… pray he vanishes, just like the NRA does.

Continue reading “Prayer isn’t stopping the violence”