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
 
 
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 …

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Friday, January 27, 2017
Psychology ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Being an old guy with old-fashioned habits going well back into the previous century, I still like to have paper reading material at my dinner table, so as to peruse while I eat (or after I eat; more and more I like to linger at the dinner table for a while after I’ve finished my food and drink). I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic for over 25 years, and I still try to get thru the issues each month. The January/February issue had quite a few interesting article topics, including octopus consciousness, oil fracking, Glenn Beck, the health dangers of sugar, sleep difficulties (something I experience all too often these days), and not surprisingly, another screed against white America by Ta Nehisi Coates, renewing his call for reparations because of the sin of replacing Barack Obama with Donald Trump.

(Sorry, Mr. Coates — despite all of the historical injustices inflicted upon African-Americans by whites which you accurately cite, African Americans must share some of the blame for Trump, given that too many qualified African American voters who helped Obama in 2008 and 2012 stayed home this past November 9; despite the racism and sexism that motivated some white voters, had blacks they turned out, Trump might not have carried Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Also, note that Mr. Coates mostly ignores the issue of voter misogyny against Clinton — which cuts across color lines).

All of that was quite good and interesting. But the article that I have given the most thought to lately is a short piece entitled “Awesomeness Is Everything“. Awesomeness? Does that have to do with “awe”? I never thought much about awe. I can’t say that I’ve experienced it very often in my life, or if I did, I didn’t immediately recognize myself being “awe struck”. To me, awe is more of an advertising term — this new IPhone is awesome! It has also had its political uses, e.g. the supposed “shock and awe”  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:38 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Personal Reflections ... Spirituality ...

If you really, really, really want to believe in God, I think that the best way is to make sure that you are part of a church and a religious tradition that strongly affirms the existence of God. It’s not so much that the church and the religion say that God is real. It’s more the fact that you will be surrounding yourself with a group of people who all say that God is real. When you are surrounded by a bunch of people who all strongly assert a particular proposition, it’s much easier to believe in that proposition, even when there is evidence that would otherwise cause you to question that proposition (or lack of evidence to support it). Religion is thus something of an “echo chamber“.

When you are involved in a church, it’s easy to feel good about believing in God, even if you are familiar with the long list of rational doubts expressed by atheists and agnostics. The logic goes some thing like this — I am person A and I feel OK about believing, because person B seems to believe. But if you ask Person B why she or he believes, they will tell you that it’s because person C seems to believe. Then go as Person C — and guess what he or she will say? Yes, it’s because person D believes. Sooner or later you come full circle. Someone points back to person A, and the chain goes round again. In reality, it’s probably a matter of 2-way networking between everyone from person A to person ZZZ. In other words, person A feels good about God because persons B thru ZZZ are God-fearing; person B feels good because of person A plus persons C thru ZZZ; etc. But it’s ultimately the same dynamic — ultimately it’s all a loop, like the proverbial snake that continually eats its tail.

Personally, I still want to believe in God. But I don’t want to base my faith on the comforts of a internal loop / “echo chamber” like this. So I’m not part of a regular church; I am active instead in a Zen community, where at least half of the members have declared themselves to be atheists. Maintaining one’s faith in God is certainly more of a challenge in this context. However, all of the time that we spend in quiet meditation gives me lots of time to search for “the small voice within”. I don’t often “hear” that voice, but  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:53 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

Being something of a Zen practitioner (i.e., I’ve been sitting weekly with a sangha in Montclair), I’ve heard a bit about bodhisattavas. I’m not an expert, but my basic understanding is that a bodhisattava is someone who really takes all the Buddhist stuff seriously and has gone through many re-incarnations and is now living a life that could be the last . . . i.e., they have realized full enlightenment and Buddahood, and are now ready to pass on into the realm of nirvana, whatever that is. Basically it means that you ain’t coming back again, you’re involvement with this world and universe are done, you have transcended suffering and have no need to come back for additional doses of it.

This is what the Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about, a set of rituals and prayers for those who have just died, that they won’t be re-incarnated (or if they are, they will be ready to go the next time). I.e., that they will be taken up from the bardo (which is something like a holding pattern, a temporary place to wait where your post-death fate is determined) directly to nirvana. Roughly speaking, nirvana is a mysterious, undefined state of non-being, that “beyond, beyond, totally beyond” situation. (You really can’t define nirvana, the whole thing is just a Buddhist word game — actually, just about everything in Buddhism is a word game; if you enjoy having your head spin, try to logically nail down most any Buddhist teaching or written / verbal expression; it must be fun being a “teacher”, as you can always escape the bounds of logic by telling a challenging skeptic that “you don’t fully understand”).

However, there are some people who don’t have to come back, but do so anyway! Over the centuries, some Buddhists realized that their whole tradition came across as being a bit cold and me-focused, and thus had to do some verbal / conceptual backfilling so as to integrate a bit of compassion into the situation. And thus the myth of the bodhisattava evolved, the story of those who had gained enlightenment but wanted to share it  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 7, 2016
History ... Spirituality ...

Here’s a bit of East meets West. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Torah, has a line that was favored by the industrial-era European and Euro-American entrepreneurs who exploited the riches of the natural world so as to provide the human species (well, the better-off portion of that species) with vast amounts of wealth and comfort. That line is found at Genesis 1:26. I’m going to quote the line from the plain-vanilla New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

This line was probably written by the Torah’s Priestly source sometime in the 6th Century BCE in ancient Israel.

So, this writing reflected the mindset of a very early Jewish tribal tradition on the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. But over the many centuries of Euro-Mediterranean history, the Torah was co-opted by the westward and northwardly expanding Christian religion, which integrated the Pentateuch into the Christian Bible; it thus became part of the heritage of Europe. Once science and technology started to revolutionize  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:27 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
 
 
Friday, April 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

I’ve been a reader of The Atlantic Magazine for many years now. The Atlantic provides a nice overview of current social and political trends, and offers a lot of interesting “backgrounder” articles on a wide variety of people, places and happenings. But it’s also a “culture” magazine. As such, it has a required amount of material regarding literature and the fine arts. I am not at all a literature and arts aficionado, so I often skip or just skim through the material on fiction, poetry, performing art, etc. (Although, the Atlantic also keeps up on popular culture, which I sometimes find useful given that in my old age I don’t stay up with every hot new actress or hip new singer breaking onto the scene).

Despite my disinterest in fine culture, the past two issues of the Atlantic have had book reviews regarding two modern American writers (one an author of prose, the other a poet) who captured my interest after a quick perusal. One is Annie Dillard, a writer of prose, who was featured in the March 2016 issue. The other is the poet Wallace Stevens, subject of a book review in the April issue.

What interested me about both artists was their attitude about God. Let’s start with Stevens first. Wallace Stevens was born in 1879, and did most of his writing work between 1923 and his death in 1955. His poetry is considered “modernist”, rather cutting-edge and avant garde for the time. Not being much of a poetry reader, I can’t say much about it, other than  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Philosophy ... Science ... Spirituality ...

Long, long ago, humans trying to find their meaning in the greater order of things could take comfort in the Church-approved notion that the earth was the center of the cosmos. Copernicus and Galileo finally saw through that bit of wishful thinking, but for a few more centuries, the universe still seemed like a relatively cozy place. Only around 80 or 90 years ago did cosmologists figure out that the universe was vastly larger than anything we had previously imagined. The thousands of stars visible in the night sky turned out to only be a fraction of those in our Milky Way galaxy, and our Milky Way turned out to be but one of over one hundred-billion galaxies. And yet, at the same time, the universe turned out to be incredibly empty. All of the amazing things like stars and planets and galaxies were separated by huge, incomprehensible distances.

Our mythological sense of time turned out to be way off the mark too. The Bible deals in hundreds and thousands of years, but the universe turns out to be around 14 billion years old. Human-kind, and even the most elementary forms of life on earth, have occupied but a tiny fraction of that.

So, does the vastness of the cosmos prove that humans are basically meaningless on a universal scale, and that universe is obviously absent of an involved, intelligent and caring creator?

Many modern cosmologists embrace or are generally sympathetic with this viewpoint. For instance, physicist Steven Weinberg  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:11 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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