Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

The Three Views of Existence (Edited)

March 7, 2017

[This is an old post that was originally in three installments. I’ve edited them together and am reposting them. I’m surprised at how much of what I wrote then I still stand by.]

Five years ago, down with the flu and having to spend all day in bed, I found myself thinking about the three fundamental views of existence, which are the creator god view, the scientific/materialist view, and the pantheistic, or everything-is-god, view.

To elaborate a little, the creator god, or monotheistic, view is what most people in this culture think of when they hear the word “religion.” It’s the belief in a god who exists apart from his creation. There are many different schools of thought within the fundamental view, ranging from followers of intellectuals like Augustine to populist evangelicals. The scientific/materialist view maintains that there is no spiritual realm whatsoever. There is only the material plane, and consciousness arises out of the workings of chemistry and physics. These first two views are currently duking it out. They barely recognize the existence of the third view, the pantheistic view, which says that the entire universe is god. (I once thought pantheism meant “nature religion,” that the “pan” referred to the Greek god Pan—or something. But “pan” means “all,” as in “Pan American.” So Pan-theism is “everything is god.”) We are god. The rocks are god. The trees are god. It says that the material realm arises from the spiritual, that everything is mind. It includes schools of thought and tribes that range from serious, committed Buddhists to frivolous New Agers. (While Jesus is seen as representing the creator god view, I believe he was actually teaching the pantheist view. But more on that later.)

Each of these views, even if we’re not all that serious about them, affect how we live and respond to events. If you believe in the scientific/materialist view, which is probably the most popular and widespread view, there is no such thing as “wisdom.” There is only knowledge. A people that sees knowledge as the be-all and end-all of life also sees material and scientific progress as essential to our growth as a species. We are currently entering an era when we are hitting the limits to material progress—the end of growth. Whenever this idea is brought up, the materialists become either angry or despairing. There will be no reason to live! But it’s not like that. We will never truly start living until we get past our present-day obsession with money, possessions, and scientific progress. We’re committed to an enormous misunderstanding of what the material plane is. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and has a lot of attached baggage that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism in order stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, simply to survive an extraordinarily rough time. (I write about this in my work-in-progress Street Song.) In the midst of my reading I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was just a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. It’s difficult to see the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. His statement tied together a bunch of others I had floating around in my head. Suddenly I understood how the material plane, while having laws, is one with the spiritual background from which it arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that, essentially, it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.) I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over.

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who’ve had no direct experience of the spiritual, but have ideas about what it. You can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

In real religion a person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he has to let go of his ego and take a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of all existence (and nonexistence). To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to safely manage the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, went in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. I contend that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is only one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real understanding of what Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by the experience. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches—Buddhist included—have grown ever more distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, that is, the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.


Karma is Inexorable

January 29, 2017

A lot of people these days believe that life is random. But that’s not the case. Life is ruled, as it has always been, by Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word, so it often sounds exotic to some and hocus-pocus to others; but it’s just plain old “cause and effect.” (As you sow, so shall you reap. It’s universal law.) It’s important to understand that Karma is inexorable, which means that it’s impossible to stop or prevent. Sooner or later it’s going to get you. One of our poorer understandings of Karma is that it has to do with deserving or luck. Expressions like “parking karma” reinforce that idea. But Karma is, again, cause and effect. Martin Luther King didn’t deserve to be assassinated, but his cause (taking on the hatred of the racists) put him in their crosshairs. You have to be extremely cautious to survive that kind of hatred. Or maybe you see yourself as destined to be sacrificed, which is how King saw himself, I think.

All this is to say that we as a nation are going to suffer through some ugly events in the near term. (Karma is inexorable.) Some of them will be effects stemming from older actions, but there is even heavier stuff on the horizon because of the psychopath in the White House. Whatever ugly acts are visited upon us will be the inevitable result of the actions of Donald Trump and his cronies. (I’m not talking just about terrorist actions. Economic collapse and other calamities would be logical consequences of their agenda.) Regardless of what happens, I will not rally around or stand with Donald Trump. More than likely, he will have been the one who brought the trouble upon us. (It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: his actions may well bring him down in short order.)


The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

Idealism and the Young

February 22, 2016

My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.

We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.

Still Struggling

August 27, 2015

I’ve been trying to get back to this blog, but without much luck. Things (Street Song) keep getting in the way. But as a gesture of my sincerity, I am going to do a short one. I have an idea for a longer post, which I hope to write soon.

When I was in high school, my social studies class received two visitors from England who were on a world tour. The school had invited them to speak to us, but they bored me, so I tuned them out. I was gazing out the classroom window when I heard one of them saw something that caught my attention. “Now, I’m sure everyone in this room will agree with me when I say that Winston Churchill was the greatest man of the 20th Century.” What a preposterous thing to say! I thought. First of all, nobody in that room thought about things like that at all. And I certainly did not agree. To me, Churchill was just some fat man who sat on his ass smoking cigars while sending young men off to die in wars (an opinion that has not changed in nearly 50 years). But my disdain for the man forced me to think about who I would give the title “Greatest Man of the 20th Century.” At the time, I came up with Martin Luther King. But now I would say Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese Zen master who founded the Zen Center here in San Francisco.

David Chadwick, a former student of Suzuki, has a web site devoted to the man and frequently posts quotes from the Suzuki. Here’s a recent posting that I like very much.

Truth is not some particular, you know, thing. If I say truth you think it is some special theory [laughs] or mathematical or scientific theory. But we don’t mean such concrete, static logic by truth. Truth is unconditionality or eternal reality. Reality does not take any form.

Quote from Suzuki Roshi

May 14, 2015

The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transcendence or change. Everything changes is the basic teaching and this truth is eternal truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth. All the teaching of Buddhism can be condensed into this teaching. This is the teaching for all of us and wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also interpreted as the teaching of selflessness because our self nature, that of each existence is nothing but the self nature of all existence.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Thanks to David Chadwick who puts these up regularly on the What’s New page of his site, I want to add only that you could replace “teaching of Buddhism” with “teaching of Christ” or “teaching of Taoism” or several others. There is only one religion, and it doesn’t have a name.

Look Out!

May 10, 2015

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

Metaphorically Speaking

April 24, 2015

I’ve been working on a metaphor for a certain aspect of human existence. It must be (as you will see) an imperfect metaphor, but it’s my sense of the way things really are. I’m sure someone at some time has laid it out in a similar manner. I’m sending this out because it keeps entering my mind and I feel like passing it along. Here goes:

There are two rooms separated by a long hallway. In the hallway hang a series of curtains, or veils. One of the rooms is filled with light and the other with darkness. The room that’s dark is dark because of its distance from the room with the light and that series of veils. Most of us spend our entire lives in the dark room where everything is murky and confused. But every now and then one of us goes up the hallway, pushing through the veils until arriving at the room filled with light. What’s there is, I’m convinced, beyond description. The person who visits it comes back completely changed and starts telling everybody about the fabulous room of light and how you can go there yourself. That’s all religious instruction is: directions on how to go there yourself. We’re not supposed to take anybody’s word for it.  But few of us ever make the trip. It’s difficult and it can be scary. Who has made the trip? Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze—a bunch of others. At all times in history there have been those among us who have been there. But during the dark times—such as the one we live in now—nobody wants to hear about it. So those who do know hang back and wait for times to change.

Whenever a self-described Christian or Buddhist or anybody else who hasn’t been there tries to tell you what that room is like, they’re just talking through their hats. They’re getting their information second hand. Western Philosophy is all dark room talk, nothing but speculation—pure guess work. And, of course, in these dark times, a lot of people don’t believe the room with the light even exists, and they mock those who do believe in it. (How would they know?) I don’t pray much. I’m not really sure what prayer is. But if I have a prayer, it’s that we all get one more chance to go down that hall.

Easy Way Won’t Help

March 4, 2015

Why Buddha told us the Four Noble Truths is to destroy our easy way of understanding of life, scientific understanding or philosophical understanding. Those understandings are the easy way, you know. Without any effort you can read books [laughs]. Even though you are lying down you can study. Very easy. But it will not help you, actually will not help you.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (from David Chadwick’s site about Suzuki Roshi,