The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief

Religious tolerance?“Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief” investigates one of the last frontiers in civil liberties and human rights: Atheism. So reads the opening sentence on the website of a new film about atheism and society. It asks, “can you be good without god?”

Well, yes, you can. That’s the whole point of secular humanism, philosophy and the entire Buddhist faith. Morality is a choice we make, not a divine command.

It also hides another question within its folds: can you be good and still have free will? If you need a god to be good, that suggests you don’t have free will. You’re simply some deity’s meat puppet. If you have free will to be evil, then morality is clearly a choice, a human construct, not divine.

Despite what the religious right say, being good is not necessarily a part of being pious. I briefly mentioned this in the footnotes of my previous post on Horace’s Ode 2.14. The two attributes may be complementary (in some people), but history is equally replete with examples of pious people who were predatory, con artists, killers, torturers, rapists, thugs and murderers. They call their evils “doing God’s will.” Atheists never have that hypocritical motivation.

The two attributes of goodness and piety don’t always coincide, and as noted above, religious belief can even make it worse. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the Reformation or anything ISIS does. As Blaise Pascal, said, “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
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Electing atheists

Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.

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How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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