Sunday, June 28, 2015

Teaching English to Monks in Thailand

"It's a very ancient saying,
but a true and honest thought,
that if you become a teacher, 
by your pupils you'll be taught."

"Getting to Know You" from the musical The King and I

I never wanted to be a teacher.  My first ambition was to be an actor, and when that looked to be not too promising, it was to play clarinet and alto sax in Stan Kenton's jazz orchestra.  All through high school I honed my skills by playing my woodwinds in groups and even leading my own combo which won a battle of the bands contest (the group coming in second included Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, a prodigy at 17).  When a car accident after high school laid me up for six months and nipped my career in the bud, I sold all my musical paraphernalia and turned to books.  I had decided to become a writer.

Only moderately successful, I penned some unpublished poetry and wrote mostly journalistic fluff for magazines and newspapers for many years. When I gave up the working world for academia, I wrote scholarly papers about philosophy, religion and history (you can even read some at I only produced one book, the text for a volume about the history of California's first redwood park, The Sempervirens Story.  You know what they say about those who fail to realize their ambitions: Those that can, do; those that can't, teach.  I didn't stay a student at UC Santa Cruz for 18 years because I wanted to be a teacher.  I loved study, writing and research, for its own sake and the pleasure it gave me to pursue my curiosity. Since I was already past my prime I didn't expect job offers after the Ph.d. But my then wife was disturbed by this non-utilitarian attitude (thinking of the huge salaries that professors might make) and so I tried a few semesters of teaching at the California campus.  

From "Goodbye Mr. Chips"
Teaching the core course, a reading, discussion and writing class for 1st year students, at Stevenson and College VIII, was a delightful experience with mixed results.  I got to pontificate about the great books, and even lectured on the Bhagavad Gita. At College VIII the theme was ecology which tied in with my study of the redwood preservation movement.  The students were smart but lazy.  Their curiosity had been diminished (I decided) by leading a privileged life style provided by mostly wealthy parents. They were more interested in partying, the opposite sex and smoking dope, and few students put much effort into reading and writing about Plato, the Iliad, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Freud, Marx, various ecology exposes and manifestos, and Malcolm X (among others).  I also taught courses on writing, environmental history and ethics, and the history of California.  But my experience was the same. Either I failed to inspire them, or their lack of interest in "higher" education made them immune to the curiosity bug.  After four years of post-graduate teaching, I gave up on my lackadaisical students and took up long-distance travel (Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile, Europe and India).

Loafing in Pattaya
Expats flock to Thailand for various legitimate as well as questionable reasons. Little legal work is available for those without an inheritance or a retirement income.  Teaching English is an enormously popular alternative to living underground, and there are numerous schools offering teaching certificates to westerners who lack other credentials, or even an undergraduate degree.  I resolved not to go down that road, and assumed my Social Security would provide all the income I needed to live comfortably in the Big Mango, Bangkok.  But a few months into my new lazy lifestyle, a British Buddhist monk challenged me.  "What are you going to do here?" he asked.  "Nothing," I replied (leaving out any details of my non-monkish life style).  You should teach, he suggested, and arranged for me to speak to the English Club at the temple where he had studied for a bachelor's degree.

Students at my 1st talk, 2008
A roomful of orange-robbed monks with close-shaved heads listened intently to my rambling talk about the high points of my life as a native-speaking American.  Their previous non-Thai teacher of English, an Australian named Kevin, had recently departed.  I was invited to teach "Listening and Speaking English" to 3rd and 4th year students at the Buddhist university and for several years was referred to as the "new Kevin."  After my California experience, I had little interesting in teaching, and as someone who learned his language in childhood, I had no idea how it should be taught to a Thai speaker in his 20s.  I accepted the job because I had nothing else on my plate, and it did come with a work permit and visa (the difficulty I had in getting those is another story). My British monk friend advised against much preparation and said I should just sit and chat with them.  But how could I fill three hours of class time with just chatter?

Thus began my odyssey to learn how to teach English, which is still ongoing seven years later.  Last year I even taught a graduate course in "Methods of Teaching Effective English."  My 48 students, most of who hoped to become English teachers, were from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, India and Vietnam (two were laymen, the rest monks). In the beginning the prospect of an unprepared class terrified me, and I purchased several of Oxford's Headways series of textbooks to use as a guide.  The elementary and American texts have served me well.  Using the lesson topics as a base, I've slowly developed my own methods of teaching.  Most classroom come with a sound system and I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed strutting up and down with a microphone in my hand.  In a former life I was surely a stand-up comedian.  And from the first class I created exercises with song lyrics and played music while my students struggled to identify the blanked-out words.

It took me years to pronounce my university's name: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. It's the largest of the two Buddhist schools with numerous satellite campuses around the country. When I began teaching, the Faculty of Humanities was located in the classroom building of Wat Srisudaram, a temple close to my home in Pinklao on the west side of the Chao Phraya River.
The main campus was across the river at Wat Mahathat, but within two years facilities began moving to the larger new campus in Wangnoi outside Ayutthaya, an hour and a half away.  Now I teach in the weekend MA program in English at Wat Sri and one day a week in Wangnoi where I continue to teach intermediate and advanced Listening and Speaking English to 3rd and 4th year students majoring in English.  There are a growing number of lay students now and like my graduate students there are more from outside Thailand than from within. Almost all my students come from small villages and becoming a monk is the only way they will ever get a university education.  Many disrobe after graduation without criticism.  Graduate study is also growing in popularity as the Southeast Asian economies mature and require knowledgeable white-collar employees, and I am often asked how one can get into a western school for a Ph.d. degree (most Thais get this degree at an institution in India).

I've been incredibly lucky.  This is the most rewarding job I've ever had and it comes at the tail end of my working career.  Most of my students are very enthused about learning English and respond to my often fumbling attempts to help them with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with amazing grace and gratitude.  Despite mobile phones, chatting with friends, reading Facebook on a laptop, and the occasional ladyboy putting on makeup, there are few discipline problems (other teachers tell me it's worse at the non-Buddhist schools).  There are frequent annoying problems with audio-visual equipment, and surprise cancellations of class for rituals or the rector's lecture, but the centerpiece of the job -- my encounter with a student trying to speak and understand English words -- is priceless.

After getting my doctorate in history in 2002, I never thought I would use it.  But "Dr." before a name has tremendous cachet in Thailand.  I needed no teaching certificates to get hired, and though the retirement age at universities here is 60, I continue to be given an annual "special" contract (not sure what that means, but it works). There are few western teachers at MCU but our presence I'm sure helps to polish the "international" aspects of their programs.  For the non-international programs like the undergrad major in English, classes are taught in Thai which monks from outside the country must learn quickly.  I have my doubts that you can teach English by giving lessons in Thai, but there is now some evidence that English learners benefit from teachers who have themselves had to learn the language.  The future of English is with non-native speakers around the world who use it as a lingua franca to communicate with users of the language from another country.

After eight years, I still have my doubts about teaching.  It's very difficult to measure improvement over a four-month course.  They enter my classes with a wide range of facility.  The best students might not even need my instruction.  The worst can neither speak nor understand spoken English and it seems impossible to penetrate their language barrier.  Asian students are normally shy for fear of losing face by make a grammar or pronunciation mistake.  It takes all my efforts to encourage them to forget their fears and speak. For some, speaking is easy but writing is impossibly difficult.  Others surprise me with their articulate sentences and essays when they remain mute in their seats.  In the beginning I focused on grammar because it's simple to teach rules and easy to grade exams for them. But I'm now persuaded that vocabulary and pronunciation are more important.  You can understand a student with poor grammar if they have the words to say something meaningful and pronounce them correctly so as not to be misunderstood. The buzzword in English teaching today is communication.  It's of primary importance to teach them to communicate with both native and non-native English speakers, to use their language skills to say or ask about something essential.  But this ability is very difficult to examine and grade (my end of semester oral exam cannot measure the two-sided nature of communication).

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to teach.  But at 75, there is one permanent Thai faculty member a couple of months older than me, and another not far behind.  Age is not a problem, then, but health can be. Earlier this year I broke my wrist in a fall outside the classroom, but it didn't put me out of commission for long. Walking up and down steps has become more tiring and I look for easy ways to maneuver the hallways in our large six-floor classroom building. I detest sitting down while I teach so each class involves several miles of pacing.  On the pink commuter bus home I'm usually exhausted.  My fellow teachers often comment on how "strong" I am, but they know I'm married to a much younger woman and I think their meaning is metaphorical. My wrinkles and pot belly are on full display, but sometimes I'm inspired in the classroom to forget them and rage like a young Robin Williams urging my students to seize the day and speak English!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Something About Religion

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

John Lennon, "Imagine"

Jim, my faithful interlocutor on Facebook, rarely fails to comment when I post something about religion.  We almost never agree.  He's an accomplished writer and musician and he hates religion in any shape or form.  For the most part, he's in sympathy with the outspoken "New Atheists" (though he hates that label) -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris.  Though our dialogues are often frustrating, I appreciate the challenge of his persistent attempts to push over my dominoes.  I have been engaged for some time now in saving the appearances (using Owen Barfield's phrase) of religion.  For me, this means searching for value in the human questions that receive a variety of answers from the cultural traditions that are called religious.  These questions, rarely scientific, are also my own.

In Marx's well-known analysis,
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Marx believed that politics could erase the conditions that brought suffering, but that has not been the case.  The suffering of humanity, however, is real.  It is the central point of the Buddha's teaching. Religious explanations for this fact vary enormously and solutions to the problem of suffering, the "opium" offered by the numberless sects, range from "love your neighbor" to the "Last Judgment" and Holy War (jihad).

Is it possible for a materialist, who believes that the body and brain are all we have to survive in this world (and not for long), to affirm the importance of the question of suffering without accepting most of the answers that the different religions have proposed?  This is my project.

To begin at the beginning, I call into question the very term "religion."  The latest scholarship in religious studies argues that this word has come into use only in modern times.  Most languages do not distinguish religious from ordinary behavior.  The study of "world religions" arose with the discovery of non-Christian religious practices and was developed and defined by western scholars, many of them linguists in the employ of colonial enterprises.  Today, it's a classic case of reification, where an invented word becomes a thing ("unicorn" is another).  Religion, according to Jonathan Z. Smith, consists simply of the activities of human beings. In other words, it's an aspect of culture. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religion is
(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
You might say the same of dancing, or of playing sports.

Here in Thailand where I now live, there seems to be no divide between secular and sacred activities. Thais pay their respects to altar images (many of them Hindu), ancient trees, and go to the temple regularly for a blessing from a monk without calling attention to these activities as something special. Taxis and new shops are inaugurated with ritual ceremony.  People wear amulets featuring images of popular monks and are symbolically tattooed as a form of protection from unhappy ghosts.  Is this superstition or religion? Even Buddhists are unable to decide definitively.  How do you tell the difference?

These days cognitive scientists are turning to religion to understand the popularity and spread of metaphysical ideas.  They have discovered a tool-kit of mental faculties that evolved to make life easier for humans 10,000 years ago. They have verified in experiments that young children are born with perceptions and instincts enabling them to detect unseen agents and predict what they're thinking.  These new theories explain the possibility of religion (I'll use the word for human activities with particular characteristics) without predicting what particular forms it will take. God, of course, is the unseen agent writ large, and we (or the theologians) know what he's thinking.

Vocal atheists and haters of religion are reacting to real circumstances.  Christians in America campaign against abortion and homosexuality, Muslims in Syria and Iraq slaughter those who they deem threatening, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka persecute Muslims, and Jews in Israel bomb Palestinians back to the Stone Age.  Not so long ago, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other's throats.  It seems that Holy War is the dominant conflict in the 21st century. Others look behind the religious curtain and see conflicts over land and power, the same political struggles humans have engaged in since the dawn of history.

Religious activities have historically been organized and controlled by authorities, a priestly caste. Replete with all the harmful characteristics of institutional structures, these religions have declared their followers a "chosen people," defined the dogma they must affirm, and punished heretics for blasphemy and other deviations in belief.  Their prophets have demanded obedience and promised rewards or punishment in a life after death, whether in a heaven or a hell.  Scribes who claim to take dictation from a deity have written books to be worshipped that contain stories glorifying suffering, hatred of the body, subjection of women, and practices of purification that include genital mutilation. Missionaries carrying their holy texts have accompanied armies for the forced conversion of subject peoples.  The whole sorry history of what we call religion gives the lie to any notion of human progress.

And yet...  Religious believers have given hospitality to strangers, healed the sick at a great cost to themselves, and forgiven debts from horrible crimes as well as loans.  Soup kitchens, schools and hospitals have been inspired by different religious messages. I was raised in the 1940s on a radio version of "The Greatest Story Every Told," a retelling of the life of Jesus, and the love and kindness in the parables brought me to tears.  I am still moved by the core message of the Gospels without its institutional cloak.  The Buddhists around me in Thailand, raised on a message of compassion in the Buddha's teaching, are incredibly generous to the beggars and fund raisers I see on the streets every day.  Religious art and music can lift the heart to new heights.  For me, the impetus for these activities that bring humans and communities together is at its root a response the the awareness of the suffering of the other.

So this is my dilemma.  At their best, human beings can transcend the barriers that divide them and see themselves in another who might in fact be a member of group they traditionally hate, like the Samaritan in the Gospel story.  Fear of the other is a legacy from the days when people lived in tribes and struggled for scarce resources.  Today we're locked into identities of nation and religion, but occasionally we can break out of these cages and find that we are bodies with brains and this is all we have, so we need to stick together.  Perhaps the "kingdom of God" is right here on earth, right now. Religious myths and rituals that permit and encourage such cross-cultural unity are to be treasured and encouraged.  Those institutions that promote division and intolerance are to be condemned.

Theologian Don Cupitt has proposed a religion of ordinary life in a series of books that just might coexist with a secular or even an atheistic philosophy.  For Cupitt, God is a symbolic vehicle for common cultural values, and religion gives us a shared vocabulary.  There is no heaven or hell in Cupitt's theology.  For him life is limited, transient, contingent and temporal, and also bittersweet (is this the Buddhist dukkha?).  His most radical claim is there is no stable real world and no enduring self.  All experience is mediated by language.  Cupitt's theology is life-centered.  Religion is expressive and we become ourselves only by expressing ourselves.

This sounds a lot to me like John Lennon's vision.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

O Death!

O Death
Won't you spare me over till another year
--Traditional American folk song

It's that time of life.  People are dying all around me, and way too many of them are younger. The other day it was Ben E. King, composer of the magnificent "Stand By Me," and he was only 76, a mark I'll hit in less than three months.

I'm not in any hurry.  As the knight in Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" tells his visitor, "My body is ready but I'm not" (of course it's an English translation of the Swedish).  This time I'm living now, through a fluke of chronology, is the best of my life.  I live in an exotic foreign land with a lovely woman by my side and, after many detours and side trips, I've found a vocation that satisfies, teaching English to Buddhist monks.

After many years of seeking spiritual answers to the deepest questions, I've come to the conclusion that now is all we have.  It is my answer to poet Mary Oliver's question:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? 

This comes as no great epiphany, no enlightenment moment after an endless struggle. Words are too often only intellectual icing on a cake, and my cake is very tasty indeed.

It's not easy to see how anyone could believe in death as a stage on the way to something else, something better or worse depending on your ethical guidelines.  The body is all we are, and when it dies along with our brain then all that counts as my "I" disappears.  Science, which rules the roost on material matters, has never detected a scintilla of evidence for a mind, self or soul that exists independent of a body.

But some form of belief in life after death appears to be the default position for many people.  A form of wish fulfilment? A comforting fable?  For the various Christianities that look to the New Testament and church tradition for inspiration, there is a future after the body dies.  Even here in a Buddhist country, the faithful put their hopes in reincarnation after death.  Despite the Buddha's teaching of no-self, anatta in the Pali, a belief in rebirth grounds the tradition's explanation of kamma, what goes round comes round, the idea that good or bad deeds will receive their reward in another existence.  Is it the same me that pays the price for thoughtlessness in this life that is punished in the next?

A number of scholars and researchers in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology now propose that the human brain evolved faculties of thinking that benefited our ancestors in the savannah, including one they call "theory of mind." This "tool" enabled humans to imagine intentions and make predictions about the behavior of unseen agents who might want to harm, and even eat them, a survival skill of the first order.  Once a part of our neural anatomy, this cognitive development could not be turned off.  We see minds everywhere, even in non-living things like cars that won't start or computers that malfunction.  A corollary of this is we fabricate explanations for events and detect purpose in rootless causes to create a fantasy world of our own making. While theory of mind may have been adaptive, the numerous byproducts of it, from the belief that minds transcend death to the worship of gods in religious rituals may not be.

So goes the materialist mantra  Rather than demi-gods, humans are no more than an unholy mix of bodies and brains with no more importance to the natural scheme of things than ants or the dodo bird. What does death matter but to make room for more life?

And yet...  In addition to adaptive behavior like tool-making and cooperation within groups, the human brain has produced a cornucopia of byproducts, from consciousness and language to music, art and poetry.  I love the speculations of philosophers and the rhythmic charm of rock and roll. The edifice of human-made culture in its many forms around the world is as awesome as sunrise over the Grand Canyon ("It's just a big hole," said my unimpressed five-year-old daughter).

For years I considered myself a dualist of the body/mind and pondered the mysteries of the Perennial Philosophy. I found wisdom and beauty in the mystical writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil. A member in good standing of the New Age, I shared the Eucharist with parishioners in Catholic churches around the world and I chanted in Hindu temples and meditated while facing the wall with a Zen sangha.  No religious teaching was too outrageous for me to consider as a metaphor pointing toward God or being or the great void.

Is all religion a beneficial byproduct of cognitive evolution?  No.  And there's the rub.  First, how you answer this question requires a definition of "religion," and mine is as big as the sky.  For me (and for numerous scholars), religion is simply human activity, it's what people do, and it all falls under the rubric of culture that includes activities like sports, game, hobbies and so on.  It's not history and it's not cosmology, and those who treat it as "natural philosophy" as it was called before the development of the scientific methods are as doomed as the dodo bird.  But not all "religion" is good.

My standards are my own, influenced by a study of Liberation Theology in Latin American when religious activists in the late 20th century contested repressive governments with the moral armament of Biblical stories.  For me, the goal of religion is the Kingdom of God where humans get along and care for one another, and refuse to bow to worldly power.  The stories from different religious traditions are useful and inspiring, and can help motivate believers to bring religion down to earth. The thorn in the ointment is tribal religion, alive and all too well today, wherein one group of believers demonize another or try to convert them.  This form of religion is usually accompanied by a hatred of the body and it seeks control over the bodies of its own and other tribes.

Which brings us back to death.  Do brains die?  Yes.  Do human beings live on after death?  Yes, in the hearts and memories of those who loved them.  I was there for the death of my good friend Peter who died over 10 years ago from prostate cancer.  I changed his diapers in the evenings of his final week and I kissed his cold cheek less than an hour after life had left his body.  I will never forget him, nor will the memories of my parents and others close to me go away while this brain is still functioning. But even though I believe they no longer exist in some post-death realm,  I don't have a problem encouraging others on the precipice of extinction with stories from their tradition about life after that which might give them hope and consolation.

I'm at that age in my life where I could keel over lifeless at any moment.  I've lived with cancer for a dozen years but it will probably be something else that finally does me in.  Whatever.  I hope in those final moments I can say, as did Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Tell them that I've had a wonderful life."

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who You Gonna Call?

Ghosts are a lot like gods: imaginary friends (or enemies).

In Thailand, where Buddhism is a mash up with Hinduism and animism, one of the technologies for protecting yourself from evil spirits is to wear an amulet (or two or three or...).

Although invisible agents are rarely mentioned in the literature of non-theistic western Buddhism, the cosmology of the Pali Canon does include devas and other beings who dwell in various non-earthly realms. While the Buddha disallowed a monotheistic creator god, ghosts,are a fact of life for most people in Thailand where they play featured roles in horror films and on the TV soaps. Brahma, the high Hindu god, is the most prominent icon in many shrines outside houses and businesses, and Ganesh, the Remover of All Obstacles, is not far behind. Unseen spirits can be appeased not only with protective amulets but also with elaborate sacred tattoos as well as by means of a ritual and blessing at the local temple.

Proponents of the new inter-disciplinary study of religion, under the umbrellas of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, say belief in gods and other unseen agents is the default position for a mind that evolved over 10,000 years ago to facilitate detection of dangerous predators.  For a Paleolithic hunter, the survival rate was better for guessing that any movement in the forest was a lion out to eat him than to think that it was only wind in the trees and be mistaken.   These new theorists and researchers argue that the human brain evolved a tool kit of mental facilities that permitted individuals and groups to flourish under harsh conditions so different from today's world.  In addition to the agent detection ability, early humans made sense out of their situations by telling causal narratives to explain natural events, and understood that others had minds similar to their own (what's been called an innate theory of mind).  These conjectures have been tested, for example, by observing early childhood development.  The great theoretical leap in the last 20 years was to conclude that religious beliefs are a byproduct of cognitive evolution and that the human mind is thus primed for religion, the Agent writ large.

Humans continue to personify and anthropomorphize indiscriminately.  The god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is similar to a person in that he (always a "he") listens and speaks and can be praised (or blamed) for the causation of inclement weather and success (or failure) in business.  But concepts about god as a person are counterintuitive in that he is also all-knowing and sees everything at the same time.  Theorists like Pascal Boyer argue that for a god concept to originate and spread it most be only minimally counterintuitive. Talking trees are acceptable but not an all-powerful cockroach.  Gods are not always like the monotheistic Big Guy.  The pantheon of gods on Olympus as well as the Roman deities possessed numerous frailties.  And the devas in the Buddhist heaven are far from enlightened.

I tried, Lord knows I tried, to believe in God.  My first exposure to religion that I remember was listening to the parables of Jesus dramatized for the radio on "The Great Story Every Told" when I was in the 2nd grade.  In Vacation Bible School we made pictures of the stories out of pieces of felt. While Jesus seemed like a nice man I had little thought of God.  My mother took my brother and I to various churches when we were small but my father claimed he was able to worship in his own fashion on the golf course each Sunday.  If there were moral lessons in my family, they weren't reinforced with reference to God's punishments and rewards. According to theorists, religion is a byproduct of the evolution of the human brain, and not attributing causes to unseen agents goes against the human grain.  While I didn't see gods, I do recall personifying my car and kicking a huge dent in the fender one day when it refused to start.

Some theorists believe religion is all about gods.  Even prominent atheists like Dawkins and Harris focus their ire mostly on the stupidity of believers in an omnipotent being that grants prayers and protects the worthy from the wiles of Satan.  They have a harder time criticizing the "spiritual but not religious" folks who eschew both religious institutions and dogma while holding onto some form of transcendent meaning that goes beyond the obvious.  They rarely mention the movement of Deists following the French Enlightenment Revolution that included such prominent thinkers as Voltaire in France and Thomas Jefferson in America; Jefferson edited the Gospels to his liking and read the Koran.  Even more slippery are those who define their God simply as nature or love.

Thomas Merton, monk
Years after Vacation Bible School, I found myself living in Connecticut and working in Manhattan. In the intervening years I'd run the gamut of New Age thought, from flying saucers to Theosophy, Subud to Transcendental Meditation, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to est.  While I earnestly tried to believe in whatever metaphysical reality I was trying on for size, my religious quest was ultimately one big head trip.  Little of it stuck, beyond the feeling that life was not enough, that there must be some mystery to be revealed, some wisdom to obtained, and that I'd unfortunately missed it through my own many faults.  A Catholic friend, with whom I'd taken the atheist position in our arguments about quantum physics and science, suggested I read Thomas Merton.  I began with a biography that told me he'd died in 1968, electrocuted by an ungrounded fan in Bangkok.  Merton's down-to-earth approach to the Christian mystical tradition, and his social justice writings about Vietnam and the civil rights movement, converted me to an openness to spirituality I'd not experienced with all my false starts.  He became my guru through his writings. Later I added Simone Weil and Nicholas Berdyaev to my list of mind-changing thinkers.

What I'm trying to understand here in this blog post (and in more to come) is why I continue to find value in religious language and spiritual aspirations even though I consider myself now to be a firm anti-metaphysical materialist who is convinced that human beings are solely body-brain organisms without souls or a future beyond death.  Nevertheless, the evolution of our brains has given us such marvelous adaptions or byproducts (the jury is still out on this) as language, science, culture, and, yes, religion. Religion has a function if not an essence.  People who trust in the myths of their religion tend to live longer, happier lives and die with less stress and resistance.  Religious groups are more cohesive than groups with less passionate identities and also last longer and are more successful in inter-group conflicts.  All of this can be argued without the least belief in divine revelation or the truths of religious tradition.

Living in a Buddhist country now and teaching English to monks, I go through the motions of observance and practice respectfully without taking it all too seriously.  From what I understand of the Buddha's teachings, particularly on the mind, I consider him certainly on a par with Plato and Socrates.  In Thailand there is far less of a separation between the secular and the sacred; going to the temple, feeding monks, decorating shrines, and making merit is just what everyone does, and it's cultural all the way down.  My wife says her prayers for the well-being of all existents, and I echo that hope.  But I have no sense of the spirits everywhere here as those Thais raised in this belief, not the least in large trees that are wrapped with colored banners. And despite a brain evolved for that perception, I usually seek mechanical explanations for the hints of agency I detect in the natural world.

Don Cupitt
The religion that I support unequivocally wherever it can be found is this-worldly, not looking to an afterlife to justify the present. It promotes tolerance and compassion towards all others, human, animal, as well as natural forms.  This faith (or trust as the word was originally intend) seeks justice for all as a reasonable goal and gives aid to the poor and helpless wherever they are found.  Its stories and myths are guides for understanding rather than claims for literal truth.  My religion revels in music, dance and art as a way to ritualistically celebrate life in all its manifestations.  And that's just for starters.  I'm only climbing on the shoulders of a prophetic professor and priest, Don Cupitt, who has put together what he calls "The Religion of Ordinary Life."  You can see the tenets of this faith at his web site. Cupitt, now in his 80s, accepts the term "secular Christian" and is a good friend of my favorite secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor.

When I went through the catechism process to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1984, I recall that one of the teachers told us that Buddhism and Hinduism were "cults."  I kept my mouth shut then and confined his idiocies to the closet where the other beliefs I bracketed were hidden: the virgin birth, Jesus as God, the Trinity, miracles, etc.  For a number of years I felt like a schizophrenic, going through the motions at mass and trying to believe in God and the traditions of the church, while also valuing insights from other religions and assorted heretics.  Gradually I found support for my half-assed faith within the church and without.  The closed nature of religious orgaizations makes complete honesty of the contents of one's mind rather difficult to reveal.  When I finally took everything out of the closet I found many like-minded believers who understood.

I continue to unpack my closet.  If you need some help, call me!


Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Meaning of Life

This cartoon is meant to be a joke, but in my case it's true.  The meaning of my life is largely told in this blog and on my Facebook page, expressed in the links, opinions, photos, check-ins and events of my life as it unfolds now in the first half of 2015 (tho since I live in Thailand I should perhaps write it as 2558, since the Thai year dates from the death of the Buddha).

In other words, after too many years of looking for the meaning of life in various forms of religion, different kinds of spiritual practices from the eucharist to meditation, and books about same, in connection with formal study toward several degrees in schools, I reached the conclusion that the search (quest or journey) only leads back to my own life.  There is no salvation, wisdom or enlightenment out there.  As T.S. Eliot so beautifully put it,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I've had a long, good life with no regrets for any of the detours, wrong turnings, and missteps in my years of exploration.  I've learned something about myself in all of the experiences I have ever had, the good ones as well as the disasters (and there have been not a few of those).  But judging by the cartoons in Google Images about the one true meaning of life, it still remains a preoccupation of many.  There are lots of meaningful activities, from stamp collecting and and drug taking to sexual addiction and political campaigning.  Whatever we choose to do defines our identity and self-image and imbues our life with purpose (even crime is purposeful).  The most common way that people seek a purpose for their life is through religion.

This post is a continuation of my last when I set out to "find my religion" but only came up empty handed.  Wherever you look these days, religion is in the news. The main topic is Islamic fundamentalism with fanatics slaughtering the innocent in Manhattan, Kenya, Nigeria, Boston, Syria and other Middle East countries.  In Israel, Jewish fundamentalists (another term for truest believers) are attacking and injuring Palestinians in order to steal their land, with the connivance of Israeli forces that have bombed Gaza back to the stone age.  Fundamentalist Christians in America may be more benign, but with the aid of right-wing state politicians they are shrinking the voting franchise to remove the poor and minorities, and legislating against sexual tolerance.  Even Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are forming racist nationalist fronts to protect their religion from what they mistakenly see as a threat from the small minorities of  Muslims and Hindus. All of these fundamentalisms share a similar characteristic -- hatred of those who are different.  While most of the conflicts may only be about struggles over land and the state (or tribe), the result of these comparisons is to tar "religion" -- whatever that word may denote -- with the bloody brush of hatred.

Karl Marx
Despite arguments from social scientists in the last century that modernization would gradually remove the need for religion, what Marx called "the opium of the people," it has not disappeared. The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the return of orthodox Christianity, now a conservative force. Globalization has not been a melting pot, despite Facebook, Starbucks and American films. The reason for this was recognized by Marx who identified religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." Religion was an antidote at the time for the horrific conditions in the satanic mills of early capitalist industry.  Wherever people lack jobs, education and opportunities, and are oppressed by outside forces, they turn to the consolations of religion.  And this religion is not necessarily the "love your neighbor" kind.  It is often a tribalistic faith, viciously insular and exclusive, and it promotes views and attitudes that demonize outsiders in an attempt to provide a security and control that can only be illusory.

Manchester U fans vs Roma
What does this tribal religion have to do with gods, dogma, rituals and institutions, the stuff of atheist and anti-religious discontent? Very little, and only as a discourse that separates the sheep from the goats.  This religion is not about beliefs and propositions that can be discussed rationally, but it is rather a form of idolatry and identity somewhat similar to that of the football hooligans who regularly run riot after European games.  A professor of mine wrote a book about National Socialism in Germany as a religious movement.  Gang membership among minorities gives them a home in a strange culture.  Even second-generation immigrants in Britain feel so out of place that they run off to join ISIS in a search for meaning in their lives.

Karen Armstrong
Historians of religion like Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright try to sketch an evolution from the religious practices of hunter-gatherer tribes to the institutionalized faith that provided social glue for empires, from Constantine's Rome to Mughal India and the Ottomans.  Like empires, however, religious unity constantly broke into pieces.  Christianity fragmented in 1000 AD and again in the 16th century.  There is so little similarity between the Anglicans, the tent evangelists in the southern U.S. and the proselytizing Mormons in Latin America (to name only three sects) that "Christianities" is a better label for the largest of the so-called "world" religions.  The split between Sunni and Shia Islam is now well known because of news events (although Bush and his advisers to their peril knew little of it before invading Iraq). And even Buddhists have trouble finding commonalities between the three major divisions (four if you count western Buddhism which is quite different from the Asian varieties).

Christians in America hate the gays, Israelis hate the Arabs, warriors of ISIS hate all westerners, Sri Lankan Buddhists hate the Tamil Muslims, Hindu nationalists hate the Sikhs, Bangladeshi Muslims hate Buddhists and Burmese Buddhists hate the Muslims of Rakhine state.  And maybe even the Protestants in Northern Ireland still hate the Catholics!  Hatred is an equal opportunity passion.  What we hate too often defines who we are.

These hatreds resemble in many ways the antagonisms between tribes more than 10,000 years ago before many of the wandering peoples settled down in place to invent agriculture.  Before the population explosion when tribes stopped moving long enough to grow crops and raise animals for food, there was enough land so that tribes could remain self-contained and avoid others.  After agriculture, there would be struggles over land, and after the rise of city states and empires, struggles over territory.  Religion was the handmaiden, holding people together in common rites and rituals and separating them from the unbelievers.  It's still performing that role.

Robert Wright, among others, thinks that despite setbacks, religion has evolved.  Wright, a cognitive psychologist who describes himself as a materialist and an agnostic, defends moral progress in his fascinating 2009 book, The Evolution of God.  Since the pre-agriculture tribal period, people have gradually learned the benefits of extending moral consideration to those outside their own tribe.  “As the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”  This progress can be seen in the sentiments of the Golden Rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," which can be found in all religions. It's also taken time for "neighbor" to be seen as everyone on the planet.

From this perspective, religion is not about gods, heaven or hell, orthodoxy, and the nation favored by the most powerful deity, but about behavior in this life that leads to peace.  Morality is mutual interest, the compassion that arises when you contemplate the suffering of others that is much the same as yours.  Each of the so-called world religions has various foundational scriptures that believers cherry pick to find rules that align with their prejudices and exclusionary views. Homosexuality and abortion have become important to fundamentalist Christians despite their absence from most texts while other prohibitions are often ignored.  If religion had no other purpose other than to guide and encourage us into getting along with each other, it would probably fulfil the aims of the different founders.  Everything else, St. Aquinas said of human additions to the divine, "are of straw."

As for the meaning of life?