Conrad Black: Wrong on Religion, Again

QuoteAtheists renounce and abstain from religions; they don’t reform them. So said Conrad Black in a recent National Post column. Black seems to be increasingly theological in his writing; perhaps he has had some sort of epiphany in prison. If so, it seems to be pushing him towards a Pauline-style intolerance and exclusivity, religiously speaking. That attitude is not conducive to dialogue, but it certainly suits the writer.

And, as he has been in the past, he is wrong about both religion and atheism. He speaks from the position of the True Believer for whom no other perspective, let alone dissent, is tolerable. Black, a convert to Catholicism, wrote contemptuously of other religions in 2009:

… Anglicans, moreover, have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope,” though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation.
The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism…
Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13th-century decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. … the 80% of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiff-necked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him.
It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilization, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith.*

Let’s start with a simple clarification: everyone is an atheist in that there are many gods a lot of people don’t believe in. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Conrad doesn’t believe in Moloch, Zeus, Baal, Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Hera,  Shiva,, Ganesh or Odin. That makes him and everyone else who doesn’t believe in them an atheist to those who do. Those whom many people normally label as atheist merely believe in one less deity than those who claim to be believers. Atheism is thus relative.

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The Four Books

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ConfuciusFor many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.

These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.

Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.

Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.

Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.

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Written by God?

American godI don’t pay as much attention to American politics as I suppose I should, in part because despite the entertaining craziness of some of their politicians, the internal politics seldom affect Canadians, and also in part because the craziness not only baffles me – it scares me. But this week I paid attention when I read year-old statements made by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is quoted on Rawstory as saying,

“I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.”

Whoa. Christian revisionism and theological ideologies packed into a single statement. And so wrong, I hardly know where to start.

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side
Bob Dylan: With God on Our Side

The US government was formed as a secular government from its birth. Separation of church and state and all that (First Amendment) was put into the Constitution quite early (1791). That amendment, Wikipedia tells us,

…prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

The nation itself was created by a loose group of soldiers and politicians, many of whom were either secular or even atheist, after a bitter and bloody war with Britain (and later, other nations). The Constitution was written by a smaller group of similarly motivated men. And it’s very definitely NOT based on biblical principles (principles which include stoning people for minor offences, killing your children, taking slaves, not eating pork and having animals maul children to death…).

Not to mention that the nation we know of as America wasn’t actually born overnight with the stroke of a pen, but is the result of more than a century of expansion, war, politics and exploitation. At least that’s the history as I understand it.

I’m pretty sure the millions of indigenous people who were killed, disenfranchised, hunted, humiliated, raped and brutally reduced to second class citizens don’t think it was the work of any benevolent god. You see the digits of a deity anywhere in that? DeLay obviously does; which speaks volumes about his personal vision of a god. A nasty, xenophobic, mean-spirited, vindictive god.

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Another TEOTWAWKI

John HageeTEOTWAWKI – The End Of The World As We Know It – has been predicted ever since humans looked up in wonder at the sky and decided it was peopled with invisible beings. Beings who wanted to do us harm, it seems. And as quickly as we people the sky, there developed an industry predicting when they would harm us, which soon led to the invention of the cash register.

Wikipedia has a long list of dates predicted for the end of the world over the last two millennia. So far, every prophecy has been wrong. But because we’re here now, you already knew that.

That doesn’t stop televangelist John Hagee from joining the growing list of failed prophets. Oh, and not only is he warning us about it, he’s written a book about his predictions too, made it into a movie and a theatrical event, and will host a live TV show about it on April 15. Ka-ching! the cash register sings.

Unsurprisingly, there’s almost always a commercial hook on prophecy these days… the more money you shell out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be saved. Apocalyptic prophecies seem to make people open their wallets a lot more than usual, so it’s good business. And look at all the free media attention it garners!

Like any good angler, Hagee is playing his audience, making sure the hook is set firmly. He wants them to believe in the so-called blood moon prophecy, when,

…an ongoing tetrad (a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses—coinciding on Jewish Holidays—with six full moons in between, and no intervening partial lunar eclipses) which began with the April 2014 lunar eclipse is a sign of the end times as described in the Bible in Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12.

Of course, it’s all bunk. It always has been and always will be. End of days, end of the world: not happening. Eclipses are natural and frequent occurrences, not some supernatural event.

I’ve written about these failed predictions in the past – including Howard Camping and Jose de Jesus Miranda and the so-called Mayan doomsday – all of them a load of codswallop (or, as Conrad Black might call it, “diaphanous piffle…”) brewed from a potent stew of religious and/or New Age mumbo-jumbo, spiced with gullibility, fear and ignorance. And topped with gobs of liberally cherry-picked, quotes from a religious source – usually the Bible (and often from the wacky and usually misinterpreted or misunderstood Book of Revelations).

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Master Shih Te’s Words

I see a lot of silly folks
who claim their own small spine’s
Sumeru, the sacred mountain
that supports the universe.
Piss ants, gnawing away at a noble tree,
with never a doubt about their strength.
They chew up a couple of Sutras,
and pass themselves off as Masters.
Let them hurry and repent.
From now on no more foolishness.

This is poem XI* from Master Shih Te, a hermit on Cold Mountain; contemporary of and close friend to the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan. This verse is translated by J. P. Seaton from his book, Cold Mountain Poems (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 2009).

Only 49 poems attributed to Shih Te (also written as Shi De or  Shide) survive; most have distinctly Buddhist themes, but like this one, have metaphorical resonance outside the strict religious or spiritual framework.

This particular poem struck me as particularly relevant, when I read it in Seaton’s collection, this weekend. How much some people  think their own view alone gazes from the highest mountain, and all the rest of us are below them. How they think their own words are akin to scripture, and those of others are dross. But, as Shih Te says, they are merely ants gnawing at the bark of the great tree of truth, thinking their tiny jaws will topple it.

Foolishness,  he says, just foolishness.

~~~~~
* James Hargett translated it thus:

I am aware of those foolish fellows,
Who support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
Like ants gnawing on a huge tree,
How can they know their strength is so slight?
Learning to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
Their words then become one with the Buddha.
I desperately seek to confess my sins,
Hereafter, never again to go astray.

** Sumeru, or Sineru, is the central peak in Buddhist cosmology and mythology: Sumeru rises above the centre of a ‘mandala-like complex of seas and mountains.’ We use a similar metaphor when we speak of the ‘Everest’ of things.

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Revelations about Revelation

PBSIt’s got treachery, betrayal, politics, violence, skullduggery, sex, war, philosophy, politics, religion, an empire teetering on the brink of collapse, mystical visions, rebellion, emperors and slaves, angry priests accusing other priests, unrepentant martyrs going to their deaths in the arena, and the end of the world looming over it all. What more could you want?

It’s all in Elaine Pagels’ book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation. Reading it has been quite an entertaining experience, as she takes you through the turbulent early church history, through the philosophical and scriptural precedents, the fight to establish orthodoxy and the canon, the bitter confrontation with Rome and into the often violent internecine squabbles within the early Christian faith itself. And what better time be be reading this than at Easter?

If you thought religious fanaticism was a modern invention, you should read the history of the early Christian church. Followers in the first few centuries were torn – often violently and literally – between competing schools and beliefs. They were urged by their leaders to fight other Christians “unto the death” over doctrinal differences that seem barely comprehensible today. Religious leaders accused one another of crimes, of heresy, of vile acts – usually without even a shred of proof (sounds like some modern bloggers, doesn’t it?) and urged their followers to drive them out, tear down their churches and even slaughter their opponents.

And then there’s the fight over the canon: which books were chosen to be included and why – often accepted or rejected for deeply political and self-serving ideological purposes. Among them is John of Patmos’ apocalyptic and very politicized work, Revelation (not, as some people assume, the same person as the apostle John, nor by the author of the Gospel of John, who also was not the apostle, but rather the gospel is the result of a collective authorship).

Revelation was interpreted many, often contradictory, ways, as Pagels describes, by various schools and bishops, usually to bolster one side of a theological stance. Sometimes it was even claimed simultaneously by competing groups, each interpreting it to support their own views.

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion

A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

Dictionary.com adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Conrad Black: Off the Rails

Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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Weaponized Aryan Jesus?

Not the real guyThe term “weaponized Jesus” comes from an article I read on politicsusa.com, from November 2013, titled “The Religious Right With Their Weaponized Jesus Are Not Christians.”  It’s worth a read, if you enjoy the political-religious debate.

I eventually traced the phrase back to a 2010 story in Mother Jones. It’s a good description of the way some fundamentalist Americans are taking their religion. But that’s not at issue right now. It’s the guy on the left of the movie still that I want to write about.

Someone on my Facebook stream recently posted the picture above and talked about how she loved the show. It shows a still short from a movie called “Son of God.” I hadn’t heard of the movie before this FB post, so I had to read more about it because I’m pretty sure that the hippie guy in the still doesn’t look anything like what a Middle-Eastern, radical Jewish preacher called Jesus* would have really looked like.

This guy looks a little too much like Russell Brand, or a younger Brad Pitt, and not quite enough like the Roman-era, Palestinian Jew he would have been. And where was his hat?

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see I’m right.  That might be one reason the movie got a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are many more. The movie, it turns out is a spin-off from the History Channel’s apparently successful Bible series (didn’t see it), but the film was apparently crafted from content edited out of the TV series. As it says on the IMDB site:

…there was a reason all of that footage was cut. If it wasn’t good enough for television, how can this possibly be good enough for the cinema? Well, it’s not. This movie is a bore. With an unnecessary 138 minute run-time, the film drags through dialogue delivered at a pace slow enough for the slothful to keep up. Even then the script isn’t interesting. The selections of the gospel that get quoted are mercilessly butchered. And that’s another thing, if not the most important criticism of a movie of this caliber — the filmmakers had no respect for the source material.

But this isn’t a movie review, per se, since I haven’t seen the film (nor have I seen Mel Gibson’s overly-violent Passion of the Christ, although from the stills I’ve seen, actor Jim Caviezel, playing the Jesus role looks like he, too, is miscast…). It’s about history, ideology and cultural prejudices.

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Hate Crimes Against Non-believers Growing

Saved by scienceWe all know about the hate crimes religious believers commit against one another, against people of a different faith. It’s headlines news, almost daily. Protestants against Catholics. Sunnis against Shiites. Muslims against Christians. Hindus against Muslims. Buddhists against Muslims. Christians against pagans. Christians against Jews. Muslims against Jews. Cults against anyone and everyone against cults.

Pick a faith and it’s been involved in attacks, intolerance, intimidation, and killing sometime in its history. Even the normally pacifist Buddhists have been.

Religions have been fighting with one another since prehistory: their believers have been killing, burning, rampaging and raping one another since humanoids invented religion back in the Stone Age. And religion in turn invented the hate crime category. Not that all religion is about hate; many good deeds are also done in the name of religion. But it certainly spawns more intolerance and violence than anything else I can think of.

Today’s headlines are filled with the destruction religions inflict on each other and on themselves. Suicide bombers kill themselves and everyone around them for religious fantasy of an afterlife in paradise. Or maybe from sheer hatred of another sect or faith. Most of today’s terrorism is religious, not political (although often religious terrorism is linked to political reasons by conservative, ultra-nationalist and pro-theocratic ideologies).

Saved by ScienceThis week, The Independent has a story about a dark aspect of religious hate crime seldom mentioned: the organized – and increasingly violent – attacks on non-believers. Not against believers of other sects or faiths: these are hate crimes against those who simply don’t believe in any deity. Some of them are atheists. Some are simply non-believers without any particular view or opinion. All of them are increasingly targets of the virulent hatred of non-believers.

Which is ironic, since generally atheists are the least violent people; the least likely to pursue their goals through terrorism; the least of all threats to the state.

Atheists and humanists are being targeted as distinct minorities in “hate campaigns” across the globe, according to The Freedom of Thought report, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It reports that religious and political leaders are ratcheting up rhetoric against those who believe there is no God or gods; against those who deny or even question the leader’s preferred deity.*

Saved by ScienceAtheists have long been a target of religious believers, of course. Secularists, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists and atheists have always been at the top of the target list for religious and political repression. Thought crime – not accepting the ruling class’s or leader’s orthodoxy – has been punished – usually brutally and often fatally – since ancient times. Some periods, however, were more famous for the suppression of thought and ideas.

The Inquisition delighted in torturing people for centuries and invented some remarkably frightening and cruel devices for inflicting pain and damage on the human body in its efforts to cleanse the world of non-believers and heretics, or sometimes simply those who weren’t orthodox enough. The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478 and killed its last person in 1826. It was abolished in 1834, having put roughly 150,000 on trial and executing between 3,000 and 5,000 during its 350-year history of terror.**

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Camping’s madness carries on

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ScoundrelHarold Camping has been dead for almost a year, but his legacy lives on. Not just in the broken dreams of his deluded followers, but in the many lives he destroyed through his madness.

You would have thought that, having predicted the end of the world several times, and been wrong each one, because of the general embarrassment of anyone who gave him even the slightest credence, he would be buried and forgotten, except as a caricature of religious nuttiness. And a scam artist.

But no, Camping continues his malice, even after death, like a modern-day Jacob Marley dragging his chains with him. This week, a post by Rick Paulus on Vice.com reminded us that Camping’s undead zombie continues to infect the gullible through the radio.

I’ve written about Camping and his malevolent lunacy in the past; two posts, one in late May, 2012 and before that on March 8, 2012. Camping is perhaps the worst recent example of a religious predator preying on his flock. True, the flock proved mindless, easily-fleeced lambs happily led to Camping’s slaughter, but that doesn’t excuse Camping’s voracious depredations.

His defenders called him a sincere believer and praised his Biblical scholarship. Claptrap. Camping was an immoral con artist; an unprincipled huckster who sold his own wacky interpretations of faith.*

And I mean sold. He conned millions from his followers ($18 million was donated to his cause in 2009 alone). The directors (he was one of the three-person board) and programmers at Family Radio did not step in to stop him or halt his broadcasts, even after his prophesies failed to come true. Like Camping, they have never been criminally prosecuted. But they did sell off a lot of their assets after Camping died.

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Larry & Jerry’s Inferno

InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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A Buddhist Guide for Voters

Kalama Sutra
While it was intended as a general ‘charter of free inquiry,’ the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (or sutta) contains wise words that all voters – especially local voters – should heed during the municipal election campaign.

The Kalamas were a people in ancient India. Gotama visited them and stopped in a town called Kesaputta, where he gave a sermon, now referred to as the Kalama Sutra. At first the citizens came to him with a deep problem: how to trust what people were telling them. They had been visited by many religious teachers who all held divergent views. Not unlike candidates for Collingwood council going door to door. Well, without the spirituality and a few badmouthing other candidates, too. But let’s not get distracted by them.

Here’s how Soma Thera translates what the villagers said:*

There are some monks and brahmans… who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces… Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

That’s a lot like trying to decide which candidate is the best one(s) to vote for. Some explain what they stand for while others merely revile what others stand for. Some offer hope and a future, others tear it down. Some simply tell lies. Doubt and uncertainty arise. When they come to your door or make statements in an all-candidates’ meeting, how do you trust what they say?

That’s when the Buddha made one of his most memorable speeches, in which he told the listeners they had to decide the truth for themselves, to examine the claims and prove what is right or wrong for themselves, and not make choices based on hearsay, ideology or gossip:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas.

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing;
  • nor upon tradition;
  • nor upon rumor;
  • nor upon what is in a scripture;
  • nor upon surmise;
  • nor upon an axiom;
  • nor upon specious reasoning;
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability;
  • nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

One might add some modern terms to that list of things that do not offer a suitable basis on which to form an opinion of what is or is not truthful:

  • nor by blogs;
  • nor by speeches;
  • nor by campaign literature;
  • nor by self-written pieces in the local newspaper;
  • nor by innuendo;
  • nor by unproven or unfounded allegation;
  • nor by rumour;
  • nor by email blasts;
  • nor by claims made when stumping;

He then tells the citizens that to learn for themselves what is bad, what is bad, evil and harmful, they must assess everything by asking, “Does this do good? Or harm? Does it lead to suffering?”

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Taoist Lessons for Politicians

Verse 29Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.

That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**

There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.

Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.

Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in his Art of Worldly Wisdom.

A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25

Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.

The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Other translations concur, albeit offer alternate renderings. Regardless of specific wording, or which translation you prefer, all have a similar message that resonates in today’s politics. ***
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Happiness & Fulfillment

There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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