Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How humanists might trust the spirit

Robert Wright writes about the folly of assuming critics such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett deploy reason to their advantage when dismissing religious persistence. Wright reminds us that the "virus" attributed to belief by the two scientists fails to distinguish the symbiotic relationship possible between evolutionary advantages for believers and the parasitic association implicit in how Dawkins and Dennett use the loaded term "virus" in their purportedly objective presentations of data. Wright also notes that the "zero-sum" attitude within such reductive diminishments of religious contributions does little for the rationalist opposition to bolster their ethical bonafides. Wright's brief entry comes on Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish" blog, carried by the Atlantic Monthly, "Are the New Atheists Really Rational?".

This reminded me of what I'd read two hours before, in Christopher S. Queen's chapter about Buddhism and psychology in the scholarly collection (my review will follow on this blog; it's up on Amazon US already) "Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia." Queen follows an author I've discussed on this blog, Stephen Batchelor, in advocating a "methodological agnosticism." This careful objectivity refuses to freeze our conceptions of any Grand Unified Theory That Explains It All Once and For All, so to speak awkwardly. A Buddhist might phrase it more pithily: "let go."

We cannot do it all. Put your own house in order first. Take the time to do what you do well lest you undo what others have not done well to make it worse. Listen to what the spirit, soul, psyche, whatever non-theistic if you prefer message within prompts, within the quiet you hear, before grabbing the mike or running up to the podium to preach to the rest of us your particular salvation show. Or as Dylan sang: "don't follow leaders." Not sure how "watch your parking meters" fits, but good advice I'm sure you'll agree.

My kids were watching the opening credits of the failed adaptation of "Watchmen." Again, increasing no doubt the budget with the original singer braying "The Times They Are A-Changing" again, the crawl recreated under the titles many iconic moments from the '60s, among them a clip of an immolated monk in Saigon. My older son scoffed at the seemingly endless parade of scenes such as this; the movie already seemed long. My younger son told me that in "South Park," said monk's accidentally lit on fire by Chef (not sure if Isaac Hayes or Barry White) who tries to ignite a racist flag of the town in protest, and up instead flames a monk sitting behind him. The original context, alas, seemed lost on my boys, despite my explanation. I found out his name, Thich Quang Duc, and the day, June 1, 1963. Buddhists later led a peaceful if quixotic overthrow of Diem in '66, who wanted to turn Vietnam into a Catholic nation. Brave monks seem driven and perhaps in this life doomed to protest, now in Burma and Tibet-- if to dimmed revulsion on network t.v. as opposed to rebellion by way of cellphones, Twitters, and contraband cameras.

The regimes now learn to censor better what they sell to the networks, perhaps, in collusion. Given we're all "indebted" to the PRC for national and personal finances, I consider how the rapt Western media fawned over Beijing's Olympics vs. ten years ago making the Dalai Lama an Apple celebrity pitchman, co-opted for "being different." We'd hate to offend the 1.3 billion who enable bargains at Wal-Mart and the 99-Cent Store. Is the Tibetan or Burmese resistance as outnumbered as the "White Rose" was against the Nazis? These despots do not proclaim any religious utopia, but the boot on the face, forever, predicted by Orwell, and witnessed by him already in Fascist-- and Stalinist-- Spain. I wonder how future generations will judge our capitulation to similar oppression, as we bow to global finance to pay what we owe?

The example of resister and eloquent advocate of non-violence from the '60s, Thich Nhat Hanh, may not be as famous as the Dalai Lama. But, in French exile, he promotes his concept and his community centered around "interbeing." This pulls the individual back into line with the community, but in this "interdependent" tug there's controlled movement forward, not relentless dragging by a bully or reluctant kicking from a cowed recruit beside you. One selects where and how to do one's best, not out of some hypnotized chanting of slogan or mantra, but out of a prepared, grounded, and thoughtful intervention done with literally pre-meditation. Unless one takes the trouble to set one's self straight, one will find one's self in trouble on a dangerous detour away from the best path upon which one will meet one's match, to help, to heal, to listen, to learn from as well as to teach. Sound like babble from a typical Californian, or a distillation at the keyboard of timeless wisdom?

My point after today's reading from three disparate but overlapping sources? Not to wind up naval-gazing, not to vanish within your own vision, but to move this necessary detachment away from "ideological zealotry," or "zero-sum" (Queen too uses this adjective) political or policy treatment that ignores the spiritual as it seeks to solve the actual problems. Many ask what good is meditation, and like the Buddha, Queen counters that only out of one's own restoration of balance and purpose can one then take on the array of difficulties surely overwhelming us. We need to choose our battles, as the cliché to harried parents goes, and fight the good fight, as another cliché went.

This "engaged Buddhism" applies to the blog post I shared last summer about the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast and the efforts of such as Bernard Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, an activist alliance founded in the mid-90s in Washington D.C. to put dharma into practice for the ease of suffering in real-world, tangible programs. Increasingly, whatever one's views on monasticism, retreats, and inner-directed self-help, I think that those out there (my late dad despite his Catholic piety was a big practical naysayer to monks "doing nothing but praying all day") worn out by strife along sectarian, party, or philosophical lines after so many decades of turf wars, peace walls, and reconciliation workshops may want to settle down and recognize the good that can come from learning to sit still a while.

Too often, we rush out to the barricades to change it all. My wife's been volunteering with a well-intentioned local branch of a national non-profit founded with great intentions by hipster do-gooders who had made money off their memoirs about the hipsters like themselves and who then wanted to start tutoring poor kids in the big cities. The problem is that the paid staff cannot be bothered with assisting the volunteers. It's a half-run, half-baked set of grand initiatives that may sound ideal when getting the grants, but fail dismally when delivering the goods.

She's so frustrated that the center may well lose her expertise soon. The burn-out by compassion fatigue and the Great Society and so many subsequent trillions of our taxpayer dollars thrown at similar inner-city schemes remind me that many who jump in to put out the fire fail to learn how to don protective gear. They get burned, those they want to save get consumed, and the truck and the firefighters drive off to another conflagration all over again down the block, another arson on another night.

Jay Michaelson-- the prototypical hipster able to go off to the Himalayas for a five-month silent retreat, and then return to Yale Law to teach or write poetry or get grants himself or practice his gay-yoga-dharma-Torah while apparently leading a wonderfully intellectual East Coast Jewish life that seems Platonic in its forms-- writes again in his column "The Polymath" in the "Forward" about the need to recharge ourselves before charging out for "tikkun olam." In "Allowing the 'Yetzer Tov' To Win," he starts by admitting his own reluctance to meditate or exercise, vs. grabbing another beer or updating his Facebook page.

He urges us to do something, call it spirituality even if "we're not the spiritual type." (I digress in an already lengthy piece, but my wife watching Bill Maher last night really ticked me off when he idiotically lambasted the "religion" of Buddhism re: Tiger Woods' confession. This professional debunker-- whose hapless slaying of sacred cows with rhetorical overkill ruined his documentary "Religulous," as clumsy as its title-- roused laughs from the Tibetan practice of selecting a "tulku" from the newborn reincarnation of a lama. Yes, ripe for satire if "South Park," but on Maher's show, his rant smelled sour, felt frantic, and rang dim. Maher's smug self-righteous act tempted my articulation of a "yetzer hara," the evil word in me, but I stayed silent, continued my work for school on my laptop, and tuned him out.)

Many confuse doctrine with dogma, and popular Buddhist practice shows this despite the corrections of non-theistic gurus. Good luck charms, statues, candles, flowers, amulets, pictures of saints or loved ones-- it's natural for humans to comfort ourselves. The caveat and implicit distinction that Buddhism is not originally a "religion" I add for pedantry; many apply its ethical and existential principles as with Batchelor in "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (reviewed by me recently) alongside or apart from any devotion, obesiance, or profession of piety per se.

I cite the heart of Michaelson's essay. Nice to see the Velvet Underground applied to the care of the soul and the ethics of the fathers (and mothers), the Pirke Avot of Jewish tradition, to repair the shattered vessels, the torn and weary human realm.
Don’t we believe, religionists and secularists both, that there are faculties of the self worth developing, and that if we do not develop them, we are somehow missing out on something essential about the human condition?

And do we humanists not believe that the gifts of this world, whether endowed by a Creator or not, are here to be savored? That our hours on Earth are to be led deliberately, sucking the marrow out of life? And if we do believe such things, then what a shame it is to restrict the horizons of our experience to the zones of the familiar or the conventional. There are ecstasies, insights and loves that are our birthright as human beings; there are experiences so profound and so holy that it seems the greatest of shames to pass them by out of ignorance or fear. As Lou Reed once sang, “some kinds of love/the possibilities are endless/and for me to miss one/would seem to be groundless.”

My claim is that while we each may prefer different spiritual flavors, all of us require spiritual nourishment if we are to be anything other than the humanistic equivalents of 98-pound weaklings. Without some way of opening the heart, expanding the mind and integrating the body, we’re incomplete human beings — and our incompleteness has real effects on ourselves and those around us. Time and time again, our tradition warns us against hardening our hearts. There’s a reason for that: The hardened heart doesn’t know what it’s missing, doesn’t care and doesn’t want to do anything about it.
I am thinking of a determined friend of mine who may read this blog entry. He's spent long years, many suffering in self-inflicted sacrifice and under torture for a cause for which he first gave up his youth and then his contact with his family. The intensity of his convictions led him to take another man's life. By this he was convinced that he would radically better his vexed corner of this unjust world. This led him as a convicted teenager into prison. Long stints later, he left as an adult with a doctorate as he labored to master the workings of the movement's political philosophies that he embodied.

He eloquently and vociferously differs from my own religious sympathy with the contributions of Catholicism-- despite its many scandals-- to our culture; he and I agree on the many detriments also accompanying perhaps any human-directed attempt to produce indoctrination. As a former Marxist, he too may recognize the appeal of a secular technology mimicking the movements of that claimed to be the divine will evinced in the hands of a few chosen leaders appointed to carry out the demands of an historically shattering, messianic or utopian scheme that orders billions of people to follow the liberating Will-to-Power, Little Red Book, Manifesto, Scripture from on high. Ultimately, as Batchelor cites, the dharma itself is not to be followed-- unless the listener tests it out personally. After being convinced of its truth, one may put it into practice. I am reminded of the Torah at Sinai. The Hebrews were told to "do" it first; afterwards they'd "get it" by a higher understanding. The action precedes the insight. Carrying out the orders makes you understand them. This reminds me of "culture precedes consciousness" in what used to be a Marxian koan.

Many of his colleagues, and his enemies, hardened their hearts. They keep rancor and fondle bitterness. Many of them spent time in prison alongside him. Upon his release and his renunciation of the policies that led to betrayal by the leadership of his movement, comrades turned his sudden enemies. He decided to tell the truth about what he saw around him, the gaps between party policies and media proclamations clashing with the injustices and corruption now perpetrated by his colleagues and his bosses, rather than only by those long defined as the conventional foe across the divide drawn by neighborhood, border, creed, surname, sect, and flag. The cynical actions of those who he once followed led to his deeper understanding of their hypocrisy and collusion. Out of this, he asserted his own moral principles against threats to his life and that of his family. He did what he had to do, and he learned why his allegiance then aligned with forces that renounced violence and hate.

So, maybe even non-believers can let the "yetzer tov" win, the "good side" within us all. He figures that without religion, goodness would flourish easier. I wonder, for the neo-atheists seem to me as shrill as those whom they seek to convince of their futile faith.

A relevant aside: "'Atheist Ireland' publishes 25 Blasphemous Quotes" to protest a new PC-Catholic backed-- by Fine Gael with the Greens-- law in the Irish Republic against such, as of 1 Jan. 2010. (I wrote most of this entry last summer and let it mellow. However, the hundreds of comments at that URL show the folly of typing before thinking.) The vast majority of over 500 comments in one day-- when I checked around New Year's Day-- displayed spiteful, puerile, invective-laden anti-religious comments appended. The shouters betray far more intolerance than that they protest against with this law.

For both the left and right, believers and deniers, humanists and God-fearers, the trick is in the self-control we exercise, the self-actualization we achieve. Not chanting slogans or scripture at our put-upon neighbor. As Buddhism, Judaism, and any shrink might agree, we all have a moment when we pause before we act. We make the choice, as Michaelson explains, whether or not to listen to the whisper within.
"So next time your heart tells you, on a small scale or a large one, that it would rather have another beer, click another link, or otherwise postpone and delude and equivocate, tell your inner selfish child to get lost. It’s not “you” — it is a set of mental patterns, many of which probably have long outlived their usefulness. Don’t believe it! The part that appears to be doing all the controlling is itself not under your control. And it has no idea what it is missing, because that is precisely what needs to be transformed."
I started with Wright urging the neo-atheists to reconsider their reduction of religious opponents to their minimal presence rather than their possible potential as compatriots in a struggle to put an "engaged" witness to work to better everyone's suffering. I moved towards Queen's glimpse into how Buddhists join with others of faith or no faith or non-faith to fight for peaceful justice. And, after a snack spent reflecting on Michaelson's reminder for humanists to find their reflection perhaps in those confessing a very different set of values, I pass along these thoughts to you. Familiar as they are, perhaps even more so than Lou Reed's lyrics, they may resonate at a quiet moment within you as you listen to their chords.

Cartoon: Dave Piraro, "Bizarro". C/o "Open Parachute" blog: "We're atheists".


tamerlane said...

1. People in glass worldviews shouldn't throw stones: the height of irrationality is belief in the supernatural. For a stimulating discussion with Dennett, Dawkins, and even the addled Denys Turner, see Jonathan Miller's "The Atheism Tapes";

2. The futile, adolescent windmill tilt of the White Rose gets all the glory, while the desperate, intransigent and eminently heroic efforts of Treschkow, Oster, Böselager, von der Bussche, et al. is given short shrift;

3. Isaac Hayes. But then he joined MindThink, and quit South Park. Then he died;

4. For a Dave Barry-esque or Buck Henry-ish take on Buddhist retreats, read "The Accidental Buddhist" by Dinty W. Moore (a person, not a soup), which can be found in the otherwise useless "Why Meditate?"

5. Thich Nhat Hanh is rolaids for the soul!

Fionnchú said...

TL, you're the one that told me about "drala" and Shambhala Training! Thanks for the assiduous and amusing footnotes-- I resisted checking out Moore's book as I suspected its snarky tone, but I may give it a go, me being a skeptic like yourself.

tamerlane said...

I only read an excerpt - his account of a trip to the pretentious John Daido Loori's Upstate NY retreat. It is snarky, but also has honest, level-headed observations on 'seeking' in general. Moore notes how Hanh was his first and greatest inspiration.

(Attending any retreat, even a buddhist one, would provide an irresistible temptation for this iconoclast to misbehave immaturely.)

Fionnchú said...

How did Ginsberg & Leonard Cohen manage to sit still so long, is what I wonder, them being iconoclasts and all by nature! I agree that a retreat of whatever denomination would bring out the miscreant in me.

Ok, I'll check Moore out, despite the too-cute name of him and his tome.