The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Many years ago, in a personal search for contemplative sanctity following a romantic break-up, I took up the study of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk and author whose spiritual works became popular in the late 1940s, and remained a big part of the Roman Catholic book scene through the 50’s and 60’s. Merton’s life, and the many changes that both he and his thoughts and writings went through over the course of his life (which was ironically cut short at the age of 53 due to an accidental electrocution while attending a conference in Thailand), is a story in itself.

Merton began his adulthood as a well-educated “man of the world”, but then attempted to retreat from that world by immersing himself in the realm of Catholic monastic sanctity (he selected the Trappist tradition just because it seemed the most removed from erudite modernity). But ultimately he found his way back into the cosmopolitan intellectual scene, while remaining a full-fledged Trappist and Catholic priest (and also attempting to take on the life of a hermit!). When you become a Merton enthusiast (as I did) and really drill down into the details of his life, you can see that Merton needed to break a fair number of rules and guidelines in his tradition, and even his Church, in order to pull all of this off. When he died, he left the Trappists, the Church, and the world in general with a lot; but in order to do it, he also made a lot of compromises to his many commitments.

In the last decade of his life, Merton became increasingly interested in the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen Buddhism. His main contact and correspondent from the Zen world was the renowned Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki (although Merton had also communicated with Thich Nhat Hanh). Merton himself was a very capable scholar, and within a few years he felt himself qualified to write articles and books on Zen. His most famous work is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” from 1968, although there is also a 1967 Merton book called “Mystics and Zen Masters” (I have read both books). In a nutshell, Merton was  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, May 22, 2017
Religion ... Zen ...

I’ve been involved with a Zen sangha for seven years now, and so I’ve pretty much seen the “lay of the land” of Buddhism, at least the modern American version of Buddhism. Buddhism says a lot of good and interesting things about life, the universe and everything. But there are some good things that it does not say. One of those things is the value of humility. For whatever reason, I have not read or hear much about the virtue of humility from the various Zen and Buddhist teachers I’ve run across. Humility doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the Buddha’s various “lists”, e.g. the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five faculties / strengths, the eight-fold path, the ten essential precepts, etc.

Even among the thirty seven “Practices of Bodhisattvas”, only one, #31, might relate to humility — “the practice of all the bodhisattvas is to scrutinize oneself continually and to rid oneself of faults whenever they appear”. Even this isn’t exactly very humble — it assumes that we can rid ourselves of our faults with a bit of Buddhist-style self-reflection. Yes, if you do some Googling, you can find articles on the role of humility within Buddhism. You can even find a blog post with the same title that I’m using here, sans the question mark — where the writer claims that Zen is a humble tradition because one of its “koan” stories admits that Zen is not really needed (in the sense that “we seek what we already have”). Given that there are allegedly about 1,700 koans, one line about “selling water by the river” does not a trend make.

There are also the various Buddhist rituals that seem to reflect personal humility, such as the frequent bowing that we Zen-folk do when trying to imitate our Japanese predecessors. But there is also some Japanese hubris that has filtered its way into modern Zen centers (including my own), such as the perceived need by teachers to be condescending and sometimes even rude with their students. Some groups even maintain the old Japanese tradition of having a priest walk with a stick  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 6, 2017
History ... Religion ...

My middle-age years were a time when I had become interested in various topics and personalities having to do with science, history, society and religious spirituality. Once I picked up such an interest, I would usually dig in by buying and (eventually) reading a handful of books, and maybe one or two Great Course audio/video lectures from the Teaching Company. When the Internet became widely available in the last few years of the 20th Century, I supplemented my research with web-site searches. I even occasionally found someone else who is also interested in the subject and exchange notes on it.

But after a few years, I usually moved on from a particular subject and took up another topic. One of the topics that I explored for awhile in the late 1990’s regarded James the “brother of Jesus”. I had previously become interested in the “Historical Jesus” movement of the early 1990’s, and had soaked up a fair amount of information on what the scholars knew or were speculating about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the social, cultural and historical background of his home turf, i.e. ancient Palestine in the early Roman Empire. One of the major aims of historical Jesus research is to come up with a portrait of Jesus that is not inspired by any particular religious viewpoint, but instead “lets the chips fall where they may” by using standard historical and sociological research techniques.

(Unfortunately, too much of what was presented to the public as “historical” research on Jesus in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact driven by anti-religious motivation; there was an apparent desire to prove that Jesus had not only failed to perform miracles or rise from the dead, but that his teachings and motivations were not primarily religious or spiritual but were more philosophical or political. These views were hardly any more objective than the standard religious interpretations of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan was a notable  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Photo ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

Although I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for many years now, and even though I disagree with the core belief of the Roman Church that

Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became one of us to free us from sin and to bring us the fullness of God’s revelation . . . Jesus Christ is the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the Savior of the world . . .

there is still one Catholic ritual that I like to participate in. And that takes place once a year on Holy Thursday, the evening of the Thursday before Easter. To commemorate the Last Supper and the vigil of Jesus as he awaited the fatal kiss from Judas and the Temple Guards of the Sanhedrin, some of the local Catholic parishes keep their churches open late so that the faithful can sit in silence. My brother, a practicing Catholic, visits four or five local churches between 9 and 11 PM every Holy Thursday, and so I tag along.

Hey, I still believe in God (pretty much the same kind of God that Jesus believed in), but at this point in my life, sitting in silence each week with a Zen sangha works better for me. And even if I don’t worship Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, I still find him to be a hugely compelling figure who should be taken very seriously. Most of the time, I take Jesus seriously by reading and learning as much as I can about his life and times. Over the past 15 years I’ve digested a lot of books, articles and programs from the “historical Jesus” movement in academia; my “Lenten project” for this year was an audio course by The Teaching Company entitled “Jesus and His Jewish Influences” by Prof. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with extensive field experience in Israel.

But once a year it’s nice to actually participate in a Jesus-focused ritual with others, and there’s nothing that the good Catholics that I sit in silence with on Holy Thursday do or say that I would disagree with. We would certainly disagree regarding the ultimate implications of what happened on that Passover evening of two millennia ago in Jerusalem, but we all accept  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I haven’t been posting much lately because of some personal stuff, including various on-going discussions with several thoughtful people regarding the surprise election victory earlier this month of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. I’ll no doubt have a lot to say about that before long, but for now, I’m going to avoid the amateur punditry and leave it to the professionals. Albeit, I think that every concerned American citizen ultimately has to become their own pundit and take a position on the major issues of the day.

But right now, I’m going to ponder a new rock song that I’ve been hearing lately on the local hard rock radio station (WDHA-FM). It’s called “Prayers for the Damned” by Sixx AM, from their recently released album “Prayers for the Damned”. Sixx AM did a bit of a double-play with regard to naming there, although not quite a triple play like Bad Company’s Bad Company, from the album Bad Company. Political footnote — “Prayers for the Damned” might not be a bad theme right now for those who dread the idea of a Trump Presidency!

Nonetheless, for those of you who still follow hard rock, Sixx AM is a side-project band formed in 2007 by Nikki Sixx, the former base guitarist and songwriter for Motley Crue. Ah yes, “the Crue”. Now there was a rough-edged band, all about all the excesses and depravity of the rock-n-roll scene back when rock was still the king of the music scene. They were kind-of a Neanderthal version of Kiss. Sixx provided or contributed to some of the Crue’s more memorable tunes, including “Girls Girls Girls”,”Doctor Feelgood”, “Wild Side”, and “Slice of Your Pie”.

Like a fair number of rock stars, Nikki Sixx got hooked on heroin but somehow kept going via raw ego, youthful energy, and luck. But now Motley Crue is gone and Sixx is 58 years old, and rock life from the “big-hair” 1980’s just doesn’t work anymore. A lot of old rockers clean up, slow down, fade away from the public eye, do some occasional music projects mostly for fun, maybe write a book or buy a winery, and make an occasional appearance before a small audience of aging people who remember a band from its glory years. Well, give Sixx credit — his current work is still  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I recently posted a blog about an article that I came across via Real Clear Science regarding whether the human race could become extinct in the foreseeable future. Now I want to ponder another recent article from Real Clear Science regarding extinction. This time the question is whether religion is on the way to becoming extinct, courtesy of the wonders of modern science. The article was written by RCS editor Ross Pomeroy, a zoologist and biologist. OK, with those credentials, you can assume that Pomeroy knows a thing or two about extinction, and about the wonders of science. But is he right that science will inevitably become humankind’s new religion? To me, this smacks of “scientism“, which I have already expressed my reservations about.

Pomeroy claims that science will become the new “faith of humankind”. He notes the writings of Sir James George Frazer, who said that religion, science, and magic are similar conceptions, providing a framework for how the world works and guiding our actions. Frazer said that humanity moved through an Age of Magic before entering an Age of Religion. So, Pomeroy asks, “is an Age of Science finally taking hold?” At the end of his article, he concludes that

One of science’s primary aims is to seek out knowledge that will hopefully better our world and the lives of all who live on it . . . so not only does science dispel religious belief, it also serves as an effective substitute for it.

Given that Pomeroy is a scientist himself, we expect that he will provide empirical evidence to support his claim. And indeed, he does offer some interesting statistics  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:44 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Brain / Mind ... Religion ...

I recently finished watching a Teaching Company “Great Course” series about neuroscience — specifically, an 18-hour / 36 lecture course entitled “Neuroscience of Everyday Life“, by Princeton University Professor Sam Wang. As the title says, the focus is on everyday life, on relating what neuroscience has learned about the structure and dynamics of the human brain to our everyday lives. A big part of the everyday life of many people is religion and spiritual belief, and thus Professor Wang spends an hour (two lectures) discussing religion, along with theistic belief, spiritual presences, near-death and outer-body experiences, meditation and other varieties of “transcendent awareness”.

The good professor points out that many of the experiences upon which people have based their faith in an omnipotent yet unseeable creator / sustainer / redeemer do not hold up well in the light of modern research. A fairly easy-to-understand circumstance such as inadequate oxygen in the brain or excessive physical stress can adequately explain many seemingly transcendent phenomenon, including ghosts, outer-body experiences, and visions (especially on mountaintops, where the air is thin — recall Moses and the bush, and the transfiguration of Jesus). Obviously, the theological skeptic and atheist will find something of interest here.

Despite this, Professor Wang does not seem set on declaring God to be dead. When getting down to the notion of a conscious yet transcendent master force in the universe, Wang focuses on the brain capacities that facilitated such a notion, and the ultimate social effects of those capabilities. In his guidebook for the course, Wang states that “religion is a highly sophisticated cultural phenomenon . . . brain capacities important for forming and transmitting religious beliefs include the search for  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:30 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Religion ... Zen ...

I haven’t gotten around to posting anything here lately, this is my first post in almost 2 weeks. What have I been doing with myself lately? Oh, cooking, cleaning, going to work, paying bills, and thinking about life and death. I mentioned in a previous blog that I had a “direct-to-consumer” DNA evaluation done a few years ago on 23andme.com, and along with the genealogy information, 23 also gave you an assessment of your genetically-related health risks. (Since then, the US FDA has stopped them from providing health reports — 23andme still offers genealogy tests). My own results on 23 seemed fairly benign — one or two things that might eventually become an issue, but nothing all that terrible.

Recently, however, I learned that you can access your digital DNA results from 23andme and upload them onto a site called Promethese.com, and for $5 they will give you a very detailed list of how your “SNP pairings” stack up against the SNPedia.com “wiki” database of health-related genetic studies. This seemed like a good idea to me, since my health reports from 23andme were based on a pool of gene studies that appears to have last been updated in 2011 (many months before I sent in my saliva, in mid-2013; incidentally, that was only about 6 months before the FDA shut 23’s health service down). A lot of new knowledge about genes and health must have come out since them. So, I got my results from Promethease (it takes only a few minutes, actually) and have spent a lot of time pouring over them in the past few weeks. Bottom line . . . in great detail, they paint a much darker picture of my susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases than 23andme did.

In comparing some of the Promethease / SNPedia results with the 23 reports, it turns out that 23andme wasn’t always considering the full range of DNA studies available up through 2011, and in some instances, it misinterpreted them!!! For one condition involving eyesight  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Religion ... Society ...

A recent book written by an anthropologist says that as humans transitioned from small hunting and gathering tribes (up to around 15,000 years ago) to bigger and more organized societies (based at first around agriculture, and later also on crafts and trade), they needed to develop “big gods”. Big gods who always keep an eye on us were supposedly needed to inspire people to cooperate with the social and governmental networks that started to develop around the year 8000 BCE. Eventually, one really big “God” was imagined, and monotheism was in business. As was the growth of earthly empires. Other researchers have been pondering this idea, but argue that perhaps societies only needed mini-gods (e.g., magic or nature spirits, or personal superstitions) to keep societies growing. The monotheistic God of Islam and Judeo-Christianity arguably came about by some other process.

The overall idea here is that growing social networks with increasing centralized power (i.e. led by kings and pharaohs) invents god and religion so that it can foster voluntary cooperation among the masses, an internal mental policing to build and maintain trust. The king and his men can’t keep an eye on you all the time, so they rely on a popularly-imagined “big power in the sky” to make sure you stay in line, by threatening you with a cursed life here on earth, or eternal damnation in the next life, if you don’t play nice.

Hmmmm. Interesting idea, one very popular in today’s academic climate where evolution is believed to have the power to explain every social and personal behavioral pattern and belief. THE PROBLEM WITH THE THEORY: unless “big god / big religion” is simply a social meme that was cleverly invented and intentionally promoted by those trying to start big government structures (kingdoms, Pharaohs, etc.) — possible, but were the ancient rulers really all that smart? — it goes against the principle in evolutionary genetics that individuals are NOT selected for traits that cause them to sacrifice for the group (i.e., the disfavored theory of “group selection“). This idea is expressly rejected  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:22 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, September 4, 2015
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

It’s time once again to think about the Big Question: what should you ultimately believe about YOURSELF (and about the world around you)? About where you are heading, why are you here . . .

In the Zen tradition, there is no self, no eternity, no personal transcendence of death (although through karma, something of one’s behavior does achieve transcendent manifestation). Time is a mental abstraction, a product of the mind. As such, it is discouraged from any use other than making sure that you get to the dentist on time, and other such quotidian things. The ultimate psychological emphasis should be on the present, on the now, on living in the moment. The future, the eternal . . . that is all just “mind stuff”.

In a lot of ways, the Bible’s Old Testament isn’t all that far removed from Zen; at least the early stages of it (i.e., the core “Torah” books). There is little philosophy in it, little struggling with the nature of God and the Universe and the meaning of one’s existence. There is a creation story along with some stories of tribal deliverance, but after that, the Torah has little worry for the future. With all its codes and social edicts, the Torah is mostly about getting by in the present — and about getting along with God. No promises of eternal paradise, just  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:53 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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