The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
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 …

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Saturday, May 13, 2017
Photo ...

Walkin’ on broken glass — front steps to an abandoned building, University Avenue, Newark NJ.

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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 …

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Sunday, April 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

Not long ago, I listed to a Teaching Company audio course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is an interesting psychotherapy technique, in that it puts emphasis on getting the patient to “pull up their own socks” instead of relying on the therapist to evolve a plan (after long analysis) for the troubled patient’s mental salvation. Of course, CBT is more subtle than that, but it certainly does try to encourage the patient to build up their own social and mental resources. One of the important resources that the CBT therapist attempts to foster is an inner sense of “meaning in life”. CBT includes exercises whereby the patient identifies things that they find very important, and that give meaning to their lives. These exercises might consider family relationships, social belonging, personal achievement, financial success, religious or spiritual beliefs and expressions, learning and discovery, fame and acknowledgement, feeling needed, etc. Those are the kinds of things that would probably occur most frequently to many modern suburban Americans if asked what do their lives mean.

I was reminded of the CBT “meaning in life” exercise recently while I was reading an article in the April, 2017 issue of The Atlantic on ancient Athens (“Making Athens Great Again” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein). In this article Ms. Goldstein discussed what some of the great thinkers of Athens said about “meaning in life”. She concludes that they clearly rejected spiritual transcendence. “The cosmos is indifferent, and only human terms apply: Perform exceptional deeds so as to earn the praise of others whose existence is as brief as your own”.

However, the ancients recognized that there was big problem with this way of finding meaning in life for most people. According to Ms. Goldstein, “most people are, by definition, perfectly ordinary, the ancient Greeks included.” Most people aren’t going to perform very many exceptional deeds in their lifetimes. Still, the Greeks “found a solution to  »  continue reading …

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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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Saturday, April 8, 2017
History ... Psychology ... Society ...

I recently heard an interesting report on NPR about some research being done on the psychological importance of ritual. A University of Toronto PhD student named Nicholas Hobson teamed up with some professors to examine what the practice of ritual does to the mind, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One question that Hobson and company addressed was the difference in how we relate to those who share our rituals versus those who don’t.

But first, Hobson set out how important ritual is to the human race:

. . . rituals are ubiquitous around the world. Whenever you see a behavior that occurs in different places, different times, among people who have had no contact with one another, it tells you there’s something in that behavior that’s likely woven into the hardware of the mind.

So, ritual may be more than an idea that we pick up from our ancestors; it might be part of the human genetic endowment! It certainly is interesting to see how similar rituals are for people from all over the world.

You can often find world-wide rituals focused on a similar theme. A big focal point for many public rituals is the winter solstice, i.e. the point in the year when the days are darkest, but will soon stop getting darker and getting more light (this is December in the northern hemisphere, June in the southern hemisphere). Back in November, the Teaching Company put out a catalog that had some nice info about winter solstice rituals in the northern hemisphere. The Teaching Company will mail you scads of catalogs  »  continue reading …

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Monday, March 20, 2017
Photo ...

We’ve had a fairly warm winter here in the northeast, and the relatively mild weather continued thru most of February. The last two weeks of February were exceptionally warm, getting over 60 degrees for 11 of 21 days thru March 9. With a lack of snow cover, the warmth seeped down thru the soil to where flower bulbs rest, and the spring flowers became convinced that it was wake-up time. The crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and scilla got going and were beginning to sing their joyful songs of color and rebirth.

However, on March 10 the temps crashed and stayed mostly in the 20s and 30s thru the 17th. Early spring flowers can take a cold night or two, but not a 2-week return to February. So here’s what it looks like to be too far ahead of your time. This last revenge of winter will soon be gone, but unfortunately it robbed us of some of the wonderful early flowers that make surviving the horrible winters all seem worthwhile.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ...

One of the biggest trends in astronomy in the modern era (say since 1950) has been the decreasing reliance on visible light, and the increased reliance on waves that we can’t see, to observe the cosmos. Our ground observatories and now our in-space observatories look more and more at X-rays, radio signals, ultraviolet rays, infrared radiation, microwaves, and high-energy gamma rays in order to figure out “what’s out there”, and what is it doing.

Over the past century, humankind has come a long, long way in what it knows about the cosmos, including how it started and how it’s probably going to wind up A lot of that was made possible by all of the information gathered through these various non-visible observation techniques. Even more will be learned in the near future as our scientists figure out how to detect “gravitational waves“. Those can help us to learn a lot about exotic stuff like black holes and neutron stars and maybe “cosmic strings”. Oh, another cutting-edge technique — observing neutrino particles from space!

Since 2001, the radio astronomers have had an interesting mystery on their hands. They have occasionally recorded very brief but very powerful radio signals coming from beyond the Milky Way. They call these “fast radio bursts“. Since they come from so far, far away, beyond anything that can be observed with regular visible light, the origin of these bursts are not apparent. Different astronomers have different theories on this, but  »  continue reading …

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Sunday, March 5, 2017
History ... Politics ... Society ...

It looks as if the Baby Boomers, the rebellious youth of the 1960’s who were going to change the world in favor of peace, pot and microdot, the politicized generation that shut Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War down, have in their old age joined another revolution. But not the one that you might have expected. Once upon a time, “revolution” belonged to John Lennon. Today it’s the opening motif for the Sean Hannity Show.

An NBC News/ WSJ Poll from last week said that 52 percent of Baby Boomers approved of the job President Trump is doing, while 58 percent of Millennials disapproved. Regarding Trump’s temporary travel ban, 54 percent of Boomers said it is a necessary safeguard against terrorism, while 59 percent of Millennials said that it’s not. On the Affordable Care Act, 47 percent of Boomers said that it is a bad idea, while 48 percent of Millennials said that it’s good.

Now, if only Millennials voted in the same proportions as Boomers, Trump might right now be but a footnote to American history. But they don’t. An early estimate says that about 55% of eligible Millennials voted in November, 2016, versus around 70% for Boomers.

Still, Millennials can be a paradoxical lot, just as much  »  continue reading …

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Photo ...

Looks like this hospitable vittlery is all stocked up and ready for Happy Hour!! This is actually at Taos in East Rutherford, NJ. And yea, I’m giving the place a little plug — I never had an unpleasant moment there, Happy Hour or not.

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