Dec 29, 2006

Bagdhad Burning

If you don't know about her already, Riverbend is an Iraqi women who has been running a very informative and lively blog ever since the American invasion.

From a recent post;

You know your country is in trouble when:
  1. The UN has to open a special branch just to keep track of the chaos and bloodshed, UNAMI.
  2. Abovementioned branch cannot be run from your country.
  3. The politicians who worked to put your country in this sorry state can no longer be found inside of, or anywhere near, its borders.
  4. The only thing the US and Iran can agree about is the deteriorating state of your nation.
  5. An 8-year war and 13-year blockade are looking like the country's 'Golden Years'.
  6. Your country is purportedly 'selling' 2 million barrels of oil a day, but you are standing in line for 4 hours for black market gasoline for the generator.
  7. For every 5 hours of no electricity, you get one hour of public electricity and then the government announces it's going to cut back on providing that hour.
  8. Politicians who supported the war spend tv time debating whether it is 'sectarian bloodshed' or 'civil war'.
  9. People consider themselves lucky if they can actually identify the corpse of the relative that's been missing for two weeks.

Laser Buddhas for Bamiyan

A Japanese artist is going to replace the stone Buddhas of Bamiyan with laser projections.

Over 140 laser systems installed 500m,1km and 5km in distance from the Bamiyan hills will project multiple layers of original Yamagata Buddha images drawn in striking colors.
The laser images will be projected for 2 hours after sunset, once or twice a week.
The laser systems built specifically for this installation will shoot long range green beams and short range multiple color beams, designed to create a striking contrast to the purplish red hue of the Bamiyan sunset and the black mountain shadows. The energy used by the laser systems will be produced by environmental friendly windmills and solar power plants. The power produced is also meant to provide light and electricity for the people of Bamiyan.
LINK - Bamiyan Laser Buddha Project.

Crime of the Millenium?

Whodunnit? No comment.

Revenge of Gaia

I first discovered James Lovelock's writing a decade ago when I read his brilliant "Ages of Gaia" which lays out his model of geological history. In brief, he set out to answer a conundrum in Earth Science. It is known from astrophysics that the sun is getter steadily hotter, a 25% gain since the beginning of life in the Precambrian. And yet, it is also known from geology that the mean temperature of the Earth has varied up and down within a range of a few degrees of Celsius. How can these facts be reconciled?

Lovelock's answer is the Gaia hypothesis. He proposes that the geo-chemistry and the living organisms work together as a closed system in negative feedback to regulate the Earth's climate. Negative feedback is a term from engineering; it means that if the temperature (or other variable) goes up, the system works to bring it down and vice-versa. Think of a thermostat. He names this earth regulatory mechanism "Gaia" after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

One if the chief mechanism of adjustment in the Gaia system is the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. In the earlier earth, when the sun was weaker, life needed more heat and the atmosphere had more CO2. Plants have been sucking it back since then to keep the greenhouse effect at precisely the desired level. If the level falls too low, the earth gets colder, vegetation dies back and CO2 builds up again. If the level gets too high, plants flourish and their action reduces the level again.

Everything nice and cozy on the old mudball until a random mutation in some apes comes along. One of these apes eventually builds a steam engine and the rest is history. The neat regulatory system of Gaia is all messed up with choking fumes.

I've just finished Lovelock's new book, Revenge of Gaia, and it's a sobering read. The short version; there's not much time left. In fact it may already be too late. Our heedless production of CO2 and our destruction of the natural environment may already have a passed a critical tipping point where global heating cannot be reversed. For example, the permafrost in the Canadian and Siberian arctic is melting, releasing methane and speeding up the process; Gaia has shifted into a dangerous positive feedback. Think of a faulty thermostat that turns the furnace on when the temperature goes up.

The future he paints is bleak. If he is right the earth system will jump into a new hotter equilibrium state. All the ice will melt, sea-levels will rise several meters. And most of the earth's remaining land surface will be semi-desert. The only habitable real-estate will be around the poles. Lovelock says this happened once before, at the start of the Eocene 55 million years ago, after what was probably a huge volcanic upsurge. This coming to a land-scape near you sometime before 2100.

Lovelock also has some critical things to say about the Green movement, which he sees as being too romantic and insufficiently guided by hard science. His critique of so-called bio-fuels is not suprising; they are basically a crock. For one thing, with current farming practises it takes about twice the fossil fuel input to grow the corn for a gallon of ethonal than if we just burnt the gas directly. For another, if all the arable land in the United States was devoted to corn production for ethanol, it would just barely meet the current consumption demand.

More surprising to some environmentalists may be his advocacy of nuclear energy. His chapter on energy sources is a very soundly argued from science. I won't reprise it all here, but it does lead to the strong conclusion that nuclear is our greenest option with present technologies. However, I was very glad to see that he put energy reduction forefront. He says that we should forget about "sustainable development" and start thinking in terms of a "sustainable retreat."

One fascinating chapter deals with potential mega-engineering projects to regulate the climate directly. Most promising may be an adjustable sun-shade in space. Some engineering type has done the maths and figures it needs to be seven miles in diameter and could be stationed at one of the Lagrange points between the earth and the sun. Lovelock says this isn't a cure for Gaia, we still need to clean up our act, but it could buy us a few decades.

This set me to a bit of speculation of my own. From Lovelock's model, it is apparent that the earth system even without human meddling is getting near the end of it's life-span. The natural CO2 level is almost as low as it can go; the adjustment knob is almost all the way to the end.

So what if Gaia "knew" this and somehow threw up that so-called random mutation in the first place. If the old gal thought in human terms she might of seen the end coming and figured she needed some high-tech fix to keep the gig going. "I need me some clever monkeys who can build me a new thermostat."

Of course, Lovelock is always careful to say that Gaia acts "as if" it were a living entity. I don't have to be so careful.

LINKS - A brief article by Lovelock about his doomsday scenario
A semi-critical scientific analysis of Lovelock's work

Dec 24, 2006

Twas the Night Before Christmas...


Finally starting to look like winter around here. Last week it was raining. Most of Eastern Canada will not have a white Christmas. Inconvenient, but true.

Anyway, here's a few wintery and Christmasy links posted on the eve of.

If you haven't discovered Web-Zen yet, you're in for a small treat. It really doesn't have much to do with Zen, per se, except for the minimalist elegance of the home page design. It's a small collection of links updated occassionally. Each time they're on a theme, and the web-master has a nice way of finding the odd, the cool and the quirky. This time it's winter stuff.

If you're thinking of renting a holiday video, here's some good advice from the FBI about what to avoid.

Urban Dhamma's Christmas special issue.

Buy Nothing Day's meditating Santa. Ho on the in-breath, Ho on the out-breath.

Zen Santa says....

Xmas Kitty says....

All I want for Christmas...

And finally, a very important piece of Christmas History. I love this story, bitterweet though it be.

Dec 13, 2006

Unbelievable

(This has some relevance to the point of my argument in the post below)

What do you think the crowd reaction would be at a meeting of an Academy of Scientists if a speaker made a presentation arguing that the solution to the ecological crisis ought to be killing off ninety percent of humans with air-borne Ebola?

OK, it was in Texas, but still...

Myth of Progress 3

In previous posts I've set out some of my cranky ideas about the myth of progress. In the comments one poster challenged me to examine what appears to be ethical progress; abolition of the slave trade, rights for women and minorities and so forth. Is this modern world really "kinder and gentler" than the one known by our forefathers?

If we compare the beginning of the third millennium with, to pick a somewhat arbitrary time-scale, the middle of the nineteenth century, we do see what seems to be gains in the moral consciousness (mostly this applies to Western countries, but since the West has dominated the world through most of this period, they are also largely global gains;)

- enfranchisement of women
- end of the slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas
- more enlightened treatment of the insane

It's a short list, and I'm hard put to come up with much more. Even these few items must be qualified. Women have certainly made net gains in their freedom and civil functions, but with the prevalence of pornography, they have probably lost something in terms of dignity and respect. The slave ships are no longer pulling into Charleston Bay, but slavery continues to be a problem in other parts of the world. And much of modern capitalist production outsourced to poor countries like Haiti is little better than slavery. Arguably, in pure material terms, it's worse because a slave-owner had an investment to protect and look after. And as for the treatment of the insane; well we don't lock them up and sell tickets to folks to have a good laugh anymore. But lobotomies and electro-shock are horrors of the recent past (and not completely finished either.) Nowadays we either push them into the street to fend for themselves, or suppress their symptoms with chemicals.

Look at the record for the other side of the moral ledger;

Treatment of animals - Modern factory farming is more horrible than anything humans have ever done to other species. There was probably a high point in animal protection around the turn of the twentieth century with the formation of Humane Societies and Anti-Vivisection Leagues and some good legislation was passed. It's mostly all a dead letter now. And we don't call it vivisection anymore.

War - Without question, the most terrible period in human history was the first half of the twentieth century. Fifty millions perished in the second world war alone. What's more, most of these were civilians. The murderous air-raids of Europe made mass slaughter acceptable, so long as the enemies could be sufficiently demonized. Since then we haven't seen anything on that scale, but the dismal ethics of Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo have been re-played in Belgrade, Baghdad and Beirut. It's astonishing to me that anyone could defend aerial bombardment of cities; but we saw that as recently as this summer after the air slaughter in Lebanon.

Racism - No doubt the Victorians were insufferably sure that the the British deserved to rule the world. They no longer do so. But feelings of ethnic dominance still exist in many places. And once again, the twentieth century was the worst in history for genocides; beginning with the Armenians, then the Gypsies and Jews and finishing up with nasty little pockets like Rwanda. Can anyone say it's over yet?

Freedom - Again, the twentieth century saw the most inhuman totalitarianism over much of the planet. Now we have restored some idea of liberty, but it's a pale thing compared to what men like the American founding fathers knew. Personal freedom is nibbled away from both the right and the left. The left in this new age have traded the Rights of Man for the social engineering of the nanny-state, while the right clamps down with national security concerns. (Tony Blair's gov't in the UK has managed to work both angles at once)

Respect for Life - This is where the current period fails most miserably. Abortion and euthanasia are relentlessly pushed as expressions of personal freedom. Life is held cheaply, to be ended or prevented for convenience sake. I'm not really thinking of the legal environment here, so much as the moral. An ethically healthy society would regard abortion as a moral abomination, not as a matter of lifestyle enhancement. This lack of respect for life also connects to the horrific nature of modern war.

In summary, my conclusion is that humankind reached some kind of moral nadir between 1914 and 1945 and has not really learned the lessons it should have from that experience. Actually I don't think the modern age really gets the idea of morality. More people in America were outraged when an actress momentarily exposed a breast during the Super Bowl than by all the slaughter in Iraq.

Nov 27, 2006

Myth of Progress 2

I've been reading "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries" by Evan-Wentz. Dr. Evan-Wentz is perhaps better known to Buddhists as the editor of "The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation" and other texts of Tibetan Buddhism. (There have been newer and better translations of most of these texts, but that's another story.)

Dr. Evan-Wentz' first interest was Celtic folk-lore, the field in which he earned his Phd. In this book, he recounts stories collected in his travels through the lands of Europe's Celtic fringe (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany) during the first years of the twentieth century. In later chapters, he deals with literary sources detailing similar matter from earlier periods. There is also a brief treatment of some cross-cultural references.

The interesting thing, for our purposes here, is that according to his informants, mostly elderly so reporting memories from the middle of the ninteenth century, it was very much a common thing for people at one time to see various beings of what we would call supernatural orders. These came in various sorts, ranging from powerful, beautiful and mysterious entities known to the Irish as "the gentry" to small mischevious beings known by various names as leprachauns, pixies and elves. It was becoming uncommon to see these things already at the time Evan-Wentz wrote, and it is almost unknown today.

The question arises, what changed? The modern rationalist mind-set cavalierly dismisses any mention of fairies or elves etc. as delusionary. But could whole cultures be so delusionary? Could thousands of witnesses have imagined the same sort of things? Perhaps, the skeptic answers, their delusions were fed by the culture. But the cross-cultural references to this type of material is astounding. Many of the details of the Celtic "fair folk" correspond closely to the Asian idea of devas and nagas. And perhaps even more so to the stories of the Ojibway. I spoke to a friend about this, someone who knows Ojibway legends well, and he tells me many of the particulars regarding the "Mimiquay" (sp?) or little people of that nation are almost identical to the stories of the Celts.

The modernist might believe that we are better informed than our superstitious ancestors and no longer believe in such things. But there is another possibility. Perhaps we have lost some innate spiritual faculty that allowed us to perceive other levels or dimensions of reality; perceptual fields now closed to us.

Some years ago I read an article, by a Christian author, about angels. He had the interesting hypothesis that the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting was not an invention at all in the ordinary sense. Rather, it marked a change of perception. People at that time became more tuned in to the ordinary three-dimensional world, but at the same time lost the vision of other realms available to medieval man; who painted in two-dimensions but who saw angels.

Who's to say?

Finally


Finally got the last stick of firewood stacked, Saturday afternoon.
Let it snow, ha ha ha.

Nov 13, 2006

Debunking The Myth of Progress

Or how I stopped worrying and learnt to enjoy the dark ages.

This post is an expansion of, or an apology for, an idea I've dropped a couple of times regarding how it is not a bad thing to be out of step with the times, in times like these.

One of the central myths of our culture is the Myth of Progress. This is the underlying belief that mankind is resolutely moving from a dark and toilsome past into a glorious enlightened future. While I think this myth has already long past its best-before date (probably sometime in the late nineteenth century) it still has a lot of staying power. "Medieval" and "old-fashioned" remain standard terms of opprobrium (although, interestingly enough, "old school" is not). Does this idea hold water? Is the present really better than the past, and the future best of all?

I've long ago decided its all bunkum. Let me begin with a bit of background to the Buddhist view of this question, before looking at actual history.

In the standard Buddhist cosmological/historical mythos, the peak moment occurred when the Buddha arose in the world. At that time, many highly advanced beings took rebirth in his vicinity. There was an explosion of bright consciousness in the world. Many of the most advanced attained arahantship in the Buddha's lifetime, or failing that, shortly thereafter. Each generation subsequently was composed only of those less advanced, with the "best and brightest" exiting the samsaric stage, until we reach the present world, inhabited by spiritual dullards, the slow learners held behind for yet another semester. There are texts detailing how this post-Buddha world is one of steady and slow decline, although we are far from bottoming out, things are steadily getting worse; physically, morally and spiritually.

You may or may not be inclined to believe in this mythos. And let me say that I didn't come to my view because of it, rather I like it because it re-inforces my own prejudice. So let's look at some trends in known history and see if we can determine progress or the reverse. One caveat before we get too bogged down in detail; we shouldn't romanticize the past either. I doubt very much whether there was ever a "golden age." The empire of Asoka comes closest, but that may be because we really know so little about it. This is samsara, after all, and it always has and always will, hurt. OK, let me run down a few observations.

Biological - We have a common image in the culture of paleolithic man as "nasty, brutish and short." This is largely a misconception and doesn't accord with the archeological evidence. Cro-Magnon man, the race that left those breath-taking cave paintings, was on average taller and bigger brained than the modern variety. He may have represented the biological peak of the species which has been degenerating ever since. These guys took down wooly mammoths with stone weapons, no small achievement. In fact, they may have been too good at it for there own long term good. By late Paleolithic times, the big game animals were largely extinct and the Cro-Magnon descendents were smaller, much less artistically gifted and mostly ate small animals like rabbits.

It has also been argued that civilization itself puts a stop to physical evolution by removing any real selective pressure on the species, resulting in the accumulation of disadvantageous mutations.

Labour - The idea that advancing progress means greater leisure is incredibly wrong. Anthropologists tell us that hunter-gatherers spend far less time earning a living than do agriculturalists. Industrial workers lose even more leisure, and in the information age many workers are approaching the biological limit of how many hours they can work. (Slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropics is probably the least laborious lifestyle ever achieved.)

A revealing case study is the very early shift in stone tool technology. The very first human tools were flake-tools. The proto-human knocked two rocks together to quickly produce sharp edged flakes. Almost any rocks would do. The resulting tools were disposable; as soon as they lost their edge, you threw them away and banged a couple more rocks.

Then some bright young thing hit on the idea of carefully shaping rock cores to produce specialized tools; choppers, scrappers and so forth. These tools, although better at what they did, took longer to make and thus had some value. You also had to be pickier about what rocks you used. They also required the development of a secondary technology of tools to shape the tools. What all this meant is that where the flake tool people could travel unencumbered, the core tool folk had to carry sacks of rocks around with them wherever they went. Progress?

Moving up to modern times, consider how are "improved" technologies are often more burdensome. The Model-T Ford was a miracle of simplicity. The average owner could do all his own maintenance and repairs with just a small tool-kit that came with the car. Modern autos come off the assembly line with more computer power than the Apollo moon rockets had. Mechanics require expensive computerized testing gear to even diagnose a problem. Is this bigger "sack of rocks" worth any improvement in performance?

The same could be said of computers; I won't go on and on with it because I'd just wax nostalgic over my good old trusty Commodore 64.

Culture - This is of course entirely subjective, but it seems to me that modern culture is at its very best derivative, and at its worst sheer pandering to the base emotions of sex and violence. Can anything in modern art hold a candle to the masters of the Renaissance? Didn't musical expression peak in the early nineteenth century? What about literature; who compares today to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante or Goethe? Like I said, this is subjective and your mileage may differ but it seems like everything worth saying in the arts was said better long ago.

Morality - Or perhaps we should call this Civility. As an example of how far morals have degenerated in two hundred years consider this episode from the War of 1812. When the Americans took York (now Toronto) it was largely defended by local colonial militia. The invading Yanks put the prisoners in a stockade and in the course of the next few weeks processed them. Each man who would sign an oath not to bear arms again against the United States in the current conflict was released "on parole" and even given his rifle back. When the British regulars retook York they tried to raise a local militia again to go on the offensive, but the parolees refused to join and the British accepted their refusal.

Think of that. And compare with the treatment of prisoners in Guatanamo by the descendents of those same soldiers.

Knowledge - This is one area where there has seemed to be real progress at least since about 1600. Yes, science has made all kinds of discoveries. But we need to be cautious and to balance the progress with other losses. Knowledge can be forgotten, and has been. The classic example is glass-making, which was known to the Romans but the technology was utterly lost after the fall of the empire, and only rediscovered in the latter Middle Ages.

A couple of years ago the government of Canada wanted to renovate the stone work on the Parliament buildings; a neo-gothic edifice covered in gargoyles and other stone sculpture. They couldn't find anyone in Canada with the requisite skill sets and had to hire men from Britain; all of them very elderly. The technology of detailed work in stone is going to be lost when those men die. We should also note that all over the world ancient and medieval stone art is being lost to the effects of acid rain and smog. Progress?

With new technologies, humans forget old skills. The invention of writing killed the faculty of memory. Calculators are killing mental arithmetic. GPS has already killed dead-reckoning.

Traditional herbalism and healing is being lost. I saw this in Thailand where there is still an old tradition in the villages of healers who can't find young students anymore. This list of examples could be greatly expanded.

-------

To be continued; I still want to deal with the more spiritual aspects but will save that for another post, it's getting late and this has already been a long post.

Nov 10, 2006

Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, marking the date of the Armistice that ended World War One (aka the Great War) which occurred at 11 AM on Nov. 11, 1918. It's traditionally a day to remember the war dead, marked with a minute of silence at 11 o'clock.

It's a good thing for a culture to remember, but I think the memory tends to be selective. If we really remembered the Great War, we'd never fight another one. Sadly, the official and popular commerations of this day tend to glorify militarism, feeding the cult of "noble war."

There was nothing noble about the Great War. It was a horrific blood-bath fought in appalling conditions mostly by very young men, teenagers for the most part. And it was fought basically for nothing. Certainly, for the young boys here in Canada there was no conceivable connection. What did some Saskatchewan farm-boy know or care about the legal status of Bosnia-Herzogovina or the ultimatum to Serbia? Canadians were fighting someone else's imperial battles (and we still are.)

Do we never learn? Wave a coloured bit of cloth around, yell about "national honour" (or these days, "national security") jump up and down and "support the troops" and Johnny is marching off again to the Somme, to Normandy beach, to Diem Ben Phu, to Fallujah, to Kandahar.

War is the biggest single dynamo of greed, hatred and delusion. Greed; wars are started by greedy men who want more land, water, oil or markets. As the Buddha said, "men strap on armour and hack and hew one another just for sensual desires." If there is an exception to this rule, a war that wasn't really about gross material gain, I don't know about it. (Maybe the Aztec "flower wars?") Hatred; in war-time hate is the new love. It becomes acceptable, nay mandatory, to hate the enemy; the inhuman boche, jap, gook, hajj. There all the same, kill 'em all and let god (insert deity of choice) sort them out. And Delusion? Without ignorance and delusion war would be impossible. War isn't honourable or noble or heroic. It's mud and blood and filth. It's smashed cities, hunger, disease and misery. These days it's also hideously malformed babies because of depleted uranium.

War is also the single most entropic activity undertaken by human beings. I can't remember who first pointed this out, but it's true. War finds order and leaves disorder.

War never really solves anything either, except in the very short term. Every war seems to set the ground for the next one. The Franco-Prussian War made the Great War almost inevitable, which in turn set the ground for the Second World War. This last is often used by opponents of pacifism as the great counter-example; we needed war to stop Hitler. What this overlooks is that we needed war to create Hitler in the first place. And in the end it solved nothing; it left half of Europe under an equally harsh dictatorship and set up the conditions for the so-called Cold War that kept getting hot in places like Vietnam and the Middle-East.

I'm not really hopeful we'll ever get over our fascination with war. As a species we're as pugnacious and as territorial as baboons, and we have a lot better toys. And the supply of adolescents drunk on patriotism doesn't seem to be running short.

And this is samsara, after all, things are supposed to be broken here.

So tomorrow, remember. Remember it all.

Nov 8, 2006

CONGRATULATIONS!

...to all my American friends on starting the long process of getting your country back!

Nov 5, 2006

We Get Mail

From the Comments;

Could you please elaborate on the terms "the Unconditioned" and "the Conditioned"? I'm pretty informed about Buddhism, but I'm not familiar with such terminology. Thanks.

The Conditioned is this ordinary day-to-day realm of conscious experience. Phenomena here are subject to cause and effect, hence conditioned. This is the realm governed by the Dependent Origination; otherwise known as samsara. The world of birth, suffering and death.

The Unconditioned (asankhata) is another name for Nibbana or Nirvana. This is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practise. It is a plane of reality where cause and effect have no bearing, hence the unconditioned. It should not be thought of as a place, or an experience, or a mode of being. It actually cannot be described or classified in words because words and logic belong to the Conditioned level.

Hope this helps more than it confuses.

We Get Political Mail

From the comments to American Elections
No, no, no. You're going to be wrong. It'll be a thumpin', jumpin' Demo splendorama.
I sincerely hope so. Actually I think that the Democratic surge is so strong that they will take the House of Representatives, but I still think the Republicans will steal the Senate. They have to. If the Dems control both houses and start serious investigations, some of those guys will be looking at prison time. They won't let that happen.

As a side note, Canadians tend to be very tuned into American political trends whereas most Americans probably couldn't tell you who the Prime Minister of Canada is. Pierre Trudeau once compared our relationship to an elephant sleeping with a mouse. The elephant doesn't really care what the mouse does, but the mouse is keenly interested in every twitch of his bed-mate.

Anyway, I think most of us up here on the tundra are rooting for the Dems.

We Get Snarky Mail Too

From the comments to Monks in the West;
Bhante, I would really like to challenge you to justify why you think it is appropriate to your role (as a monk, or simply as a "full-time Buddhist" generally) to show up and smear the (none-too-fine) distinctions between the religions, and roll out the whitewash and red carpet for one of the most infamous, brutal, corrupt organisations in the world (leaving aside the fact that it is a "false" religion), viz., Catholicism.
Posted by E.M. in a snarky mood.

Smearing over the differences between religions is certainly not my idea of valid inter-faith dialogue. There are many important doctrinal differences between Buddhism and Catholicism and I didn't have the impression at this conference that anyone was trying to avoid that. I am very critical of writers who take the line that all religions are the same underneath. (Perennial philosophy)

However, I also think it is healthy and useful for religions to meet and discuss together in an attitude of harmony. What's the alternative? Sectarian bigotry and narrow dogmatism.

I also don't fully subscribe to the characterization of Catholicism or Christianity in general as a "false religion." Even in narrow Buddhist exegesis it would be called a "partial" religion; any belief system which promotes moral behaviour and teaches that there are consequences of good and evil deeds falls within the elephant's footprint.

Whatever the history of the Catholic Church, and we all know about that, the brothers of the Benedictine Order that I met are good, spiritually minded men who are have aspirations beyond the worldly realm. That is rare enough in these degenerate days that it ill behooves us to strain at gnats because we have metaphysical differences. The real problem these days is not the Church, but the overwhelmingly materialist zeitgeist. And I would say that the Catholics have not bought into this like most of the Protestants.

Religious tolerance is something the world needs more of. I think the Church is to be commended for overcoming their past history of triumphalism and reaching out to talk to other religions. By doing so, we don't jeopardize the integrity of our own faiths. On the contrary, the contrast sharpens our mutual understanding.

Nov 3, 2006

American Election

Let me risk a prediction;

The Republicans will win narrow victories in both houses after some amazing (one might almost say unbelievable) turnarounds. The talking heads will blather for a week or so on various theories about how all the polls could be just so damn wrong. Go figger.

Then some celebrity will get involved in some weird sex thing and everybody will forget about it.

(Hope I'm wrong)

Monks in the West Conference

I've just gotten back from attending an inter-faith conference at St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota. Monks from various Buddhist schools and Catholic orders met to discuss the role of celibacy in religious life. I must say I enjoyed it very much and learnt a lot.

Two things I picked up that I'd like to note briefly;

1. Although the metaphysics of the two systems are almost as different as could be, the experience of contemplatives is very similar. My feeling is that we are all straining to find words to express the inexpressible. As the Buddha put it, the Third Noble Truth (the Unconditioned, the Absolute) can be experienced (or penetrated, patisamvedhi) but cannot be understood.

2. I had thought previously that the biggest doctrinal differences between Buddhism and Christianity revolved around the Transcendent (God vs. the Unconditioned) but it seems that the real practical differences concern the attitude toward the Conditioned (or in Christian terms, the Created.) In Buddhism, the world is samsara, something that is suffering and delusion. In Christianity, the world is sacred, if flawed after the fall. This has repercussions on attitudes towards the body, sexuality and celibacy as well.

But most important, it was good to meet all the brothers from various traditions and places. Monasticism may seem like an anachronism, but like I always say, in times like these if you're not an anachronism you're part of the problem.

LINKS-

Press Release for the Monks in the West 2006 conference (click on the link at the bottom)
Home Page of St. John's Abbey.

Oct 25, 2006

Going Off-Line for a Bit

I'm going to a conference and will be off-line until Nov. 1 at the earliest, so there won't be any blog entries until then.

We Had Snow


And this guy didn't seem to like it very much. (It's all melted now; hopefully we won't have to deal with the durable kind for a few more weeks)

Evolution Considered

Richard Dawkins has come out with a new book, "The God Delusion" and he's popping up everywhere in interviews; for instance here, here and here. While a Buddhist wouldn't feel any particular need to defend the God Idea (see Nyanaponika's essay "Buddhism and the God Idea"), nor do we find ourselves in agreement with the mechanistic views espoused by Mr. Dawkins.

One of Dawkin's principle interests is evolution. I'd like to rehash some of the arguments against an overly mechanistic view of that process that I first aired on the old blog site. Forgive me if you've heard any or all of this before.

Buddhism doesn't subscribe to creationism. That is a philosophy that precludes the dependent origination; if we suppose the arbitrary will of an original first cause we are violating the deep principle of causality. (This is the old "then who made God?" argument)

However, mechanistic evolution as understood by Dawkins is also essentially arbitrary because it contains a random element. Randomness is as much an intellectual dodge as saying "God did it." In the end, it explains nothing. In the end it is a fall back on arbitrariness. Things happened that way "just because" without a reason or a cause.

The standard model of Darwinian evolution postulates that there is a constant competition between randomly arisen variations, and the fittest survive to leave offspring. The mechanism of selection through competition may explain some things, but other things are not very well accounted for.

I want to mention just two, both in the domain of mind (which modern science can't properly account for anyway)

1. Consciousness - by which I mean the simple fact of awareness; citta or vinnana to use the technical Pali terms. If organisms are simply lumbering robots "designed" by selection for the replication of their genes (as in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene") then why and how did they ever become aware? Surely a simple stimulus-response mechanism would be far more efficient for the purposes of finding food and mates, and avoiding predators, without the totally superfluous extra layer of processing that consciousness implies. Robots would have a competitive edge of speed over the dithering of conscious entities every time. Hence, consciousness could never arise through natural selection.

2. Human Intelligence - This is quite another problem for the mechanists. The human brain is a grossly hypertrophied organ. It consumes an inordinate amount of the body's calories. The size of the human head creates additional dangers and difficulties for the female giving birth. What is more, the human baby remains helpless much longer than those of our primate cousins. If there is any selective advantage to high intelligence, it must be at least sufficient to overcome these grievous disadvantages.

It would seem to me that only so much intelligence is required to be able to catch a rabbit for dinner, and when that level had been reached, there was no strong selective edge to be had by future increase of the brain. As beautiful as the Cro-Magnon cave art is, it has no Darwinian advantage.

(One objection to this argument I have heard is that perhaps there was a sexual selection at work, as in the hypertrophied antlers of some ungulates. Maybe, but think back to high-school. Who got the dates, the jocks or the nerds?)

I would also suggest a somewhat more speculative third case; the arising of life itself in the still mysterious Cambrian explosion. Life seemed to blossom everywhere at once on the planet, in very rapid geologic time. The arising of complex life forms by random chance seems remote at best, unlikely in the extreme at the time scale it appeared to have done so.

Mechanists like Dawkins want to leave Mind out of the equation, but quantum mechanics makes it look less and less viable to do so. I would suggest that it is a gross error to assume that mind arises from matter at all. Rather, I think it is far more likely that form arises from mind (as in the sequence of the Dependent Origination) and that evolution is a process of consciousness seeking through trial and error to find an ever more refined vehicle for manifestation in the physical world.

Oct 19, 2006

The Eye of Mordor?

Frodo Failed


The Republican Senator for Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, has compared the War on Iraq to the War of the Ring.
As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else.... It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
I guess the historical analogies from WW2 are wearing thin, so they're lifting them from fantasy books now. But really, Mr. Santorum, if we must make a strained analogy to Lord of the Rings, who would really best qualify as the Dark Lord? Who has got the devastating air-power? Whose hapless prisoners endure torment in Cirith Ungol?

If you want LOTR analogies, this one is a classic; New York to Build Barad-Dur on the site of WTC. An oldie but a goodie.

"I can understand the need for domestic security – and the attractiveness of the design," said Noah Jacobson, Secretary of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The sheer, soul-annihilating power of this black monolith should serve to reduce all manner of crime and anti-social activity within 100 miles," Jacobson predicted, "reducing a once-free city to a necropolis of cringing slaves. We have no problem with that. But a Lidless Eye that interrogates the souls of every person who slinks or crawls through the five boroughs – this could raise some serious Fourth Amendment issues."
But enough of that. For some comic relief check out this brilliant "early version" of the Lord of the Rings, a never-released epic starring Humphrey Bogart as the indominatible Frodo and featuring Orson Welles as the Grey Wizard.

PS - thought I'd add this quote from J.R.R. himself;
"It is not unlikely that they [the Orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them"




Oct 12, 2006

Cambodian Monk Burns Himself to Death

A story based on an Agence France-Press report;

HNOM PENH (AFP) - A Buddhist monk in Cambodia burned himself to death as a sacrifice to Buddha, police have said.

The 20-year-old monk, Yin Keo, was at a pagoda on top of a mountain when he doused himself with five litres of petrol Saturday and set fire to himself, Battambang province deputy police chief So Sam An said.

"The monk completely believed in religion -- he sat cross-legged and poured gas over himself and burned to death in order to sacrifice his body to Buddha," So Sam An told AFP.

Other monks and nuns at the pagoda told police that Yin Keo, who had been in the monastery for three months, had repeatedly said he would die in a religious sacrifice.

"I have never seen anyone use their body as a sacrifice like this monk," the police official said.

I haven't found any more details. Although this site implies a very silly conspiracy theory in the caption under a photo of the 1963 immolation of Thich Quang Doc, this burning does unlike the more famous one in the photo, does not appear politically motivated.

Cambodia is a Theravada country, and Theravada unequivocally condemns suicide (except in the extremely rare case of an arahant with a terminal illness.) The story is maddeningly brief and sketchy, but the monk's name sounds Chinese, not Cambodian, so he may have been Mahayana.

There is a tradition of self-sacrifice by burning in Mahayana that can be traced back to this passage in the Lotus Sutra;

"After making this offering, the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings arose from his samadhi and thought to himself, "Although I have resorted to supernatural powers to make offering to the Buddha, that offering is not of my own body." Whereupon he applied to his body various scents of candana, kunduruka, two kinds of frankincense, trigonella, the scent that sinks in water, and the sent of pine tar. He also drank the fragrant oils of campaka-flowers. When a thousand and two hundred years had past in this way, he then painted his body with fragrant oil and in the presence of the Buddha Pure-and-Bright-Excellence-of-Sun-and-Moon he wrapped his body in a garment adorned with sacred jewels, annointed himself with fragrant oils, and with the force of supernatural insight he took a vow to establish a spiritual foundation.

That done, the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings burned his own body, the glow from which illumined a myriad worlds, as numerous as the sands of 80,000,000 Ganges Rivers. From those worlds, the Buddhas in them together and at once praised this bodhisattva by saying, 'Excellent! Excellent! Good man, you are truly persevering with vigor in the practice known as the true Dharma-offering to the Thus-come-one. If with floral scent, necklaces, burnt incense, powdered scents, paint-scents, divine fabric, banners, parasols, the aroma of the candana of the near seashore, and a variety of such things one were to make offerings, still they could not equal this act which you have fulfilled. Even were one to give kingdoms, fortified cities, wives and children, they would still not equal your deeds. Therefore, Good man, yours is called the Prime Gift. Among the various gifts to Buddhas, this is the most honorable, the highest of all, because it is an offering of Dharma to the Thus-come-ones.' When the buddhas had finished saying this they all became silent.

"The body of the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings burned a full thousand and two-hundred years and in the end was consumed by fire. Because this bodhisattva had made such a Dharma-offering as this, when his life ended he was born once again into the Pure Land of the Buddha Pure-and-Bright-Excellence-of-Sun-and-Moon in which he was born suddenly by transformation in the household of the King Pure Virtue (Vimaladatta), sitting with his legs in lotus position. LINK
There have been cases of such self-immolation from time to time, especially in China. Apparently, this practise was also done by some Taoists. There are also smaller acts of self-burning practised in Mahayana. The ordination ceremony usually includes a ritual burning of spots on the newly shaved head with incense, something not found in Theravada.

While this incense-burning is an established part of the ritual, there is also a fairly wide-spread practise among Korean Zen monks (and perhaps others) of burning off one or more fingers. This is often condemned by the religious authorities, but happens nonetheless. (See R.E. Busswell, The Zen Monastic Experience)

There is a story traditional in Theravada that Ananda when he came to the end of his life, levitated out over a river and burned himself up by entering the fire-kasina jhana. It may be of some significance that the oldest documentary source of this story seems to the Chinese traveller Fa Hsien.

Be that as it may, the Theravada position remains, don't try this at home.

Oct 9, 2006

Thailand Coup

I was in Thailand as a junior monk in 1992 at the time of the last coup. That was a very different affair from the present one. There was a major uprising against the military followed by a bloody repression. The King intervened and settled things down, leading to early elections. I remember a symbolic photograph in the papers that showed the King seated on his throne wagging his finger at the coup leader and the leader of the democratic faction, who were kneeling at his feet, hands in anjali.

The King is a remarkable man. He was actually raised in quite humble circumstances and was not considered to be in line for the throne. He has consistently been a force for stability and democratic progress in the country. He is certainly not a figurehead.

That's why it is significant that he has endorsed this current coup. He didn't have to do that. This coup also seems to have a strong measure of popular support, at least in Bangkok.

The Thaksin government was notoriously corrupt, and the elections almost as sketchy as Ohio's.

Another interesting angle; the coup leader is a Muslim and he wants to try and settle the Muslim insurrection in the south with negotiations. Thaksin was eager to make points with the Americans and was hopping on the War on Terra bandwagon, taking a hard line in the south. This aspect bears watching.

In short, not all coups are created equal.

Doing Firewood - A Haiku

Before enlightenment;
chopping wood, carrying water.
After enlightenment;
chopping wood, carrying water.
Bummer.

(It's that time of year, which is why I'm lazy about blogging)

Sep 28, 2006

China and Organ Harvesting

There have been allegations for some time now that China systematically harvests and sells the organs of executed prisoners. Thousands of Falun Gong practioneers have been "disappeared" and this may have been their fate.

The BBC has done an undercover investigation that adds a lot of credibility to these rumours;
See the clip on Raw Story. Also check out these telephone transcripts from an earlier independent investigation. In the interests of even-handedness, here's the Chinese Embassy's weasel-worded denial.

Sep 27, 2006

Changing Seasons







Some recent pictures around Arrow River, the fall colours are very good this year. Soon enough the trees will be bare.

Speculative Physics

Here's some delicious mind candy for you. Is the Universe a Hologram?

Hua-Yen Buddhism teaches much the same; the whole contained in the parts and so forth. Not that I really know what I'm talking about concerning Hua-Yen, but I just happened to read the above piece immediately after reading a piece about Hua-Yen Buddhism in Buddhadhamma Magazine. Coincidence? Is that even a meaningful concept?

One detail from the Buddhadhamma piece; one Hua-Yen master built a shrine room with all six sides mirrored and a Buddha image suspended dead-centre. Damn, I want one of those!

Sep 19, 2006

Pope Benedict's Remarks

There is once again a tremendous spasm of outrage over a perceived offence to Islam. Religious zealots seem innocent of irony; they have burned several churches and killed an elderly nun because of the insult of being called violent. This is a very different circumstance than the Danish cartoons. In that incident, while deploring the over-reaction, I sympathized with the Muslims feelings of insult. There was no reason to print those cartoons except as a deliberate provocation.

In this case, however, the Pope's remarks were taken completely out of context. He was quoting Manuel II Palaelogus, a late Byzantine emperor and it is evident the quote was used to make a point, and no endorsement of the sentiments were implied. The point being made concerned the danger of religion without reason. If the Pope made any error of judgement, it was in choosing an example from Islamic-Christian confrontation; with a little thought he could have used a purely Christian example to make the same point. In this times, one must be very careful in what one says.

Mostly though, I blame the media in both the west and the Muslim world for cherry-picking two lines in a long complex talk. Nor do I think Pope Benedict has anything to apologize for.

While this whole controversy is too ridiculous to waste any more of your (and my) time over; it did have the fortuitous side-effect of bringing attention to what otherwise would have been an obscure speech to the faculty of a German university. This Pope is an interesting thinker, no doubt about it. The speech itself is well worth a look; it's on the topic of Faith and Reason.

I find myself somewhat in sympathy with many of Pope Benedict's views. Like him, I am uncomfortable with some aspects of modernity such as moral relativism and the materialist world-view. (We're the last two great medieval thinkers.) The Pope has an interesting take on this; he sees the Reformation beginning a process of "de-hellenization," a movement away from the western heritage derived from Greece.

He sees the western Christian, Catholic, view as based on rationality. This makes, for him, theology a rational discipline. It is possible to know the mind of God, at least in part, by analogy from our own minds. This he opposes to both Islam and Protestantism, which are purely vehicles of Revelation; the only things we know about God are what he chooses to tell us. He could (but didn't) have brought in a contrast with eastern Christianity as well, which rejects the positive theology of Rome for what they call an "apophatic" approach, i.e. God is essentially unknowable.

How does all of this relate to Buddhism, which after all postulates no God, apophatic or otherwise? In one particular Buddhism is closer to Catholicism than the other theistic religions in that it is a core axiom that the universe is orderly or rational. This is the principle of the General Dependent Origination; things arise from causes and not otherwise. In other words, Buddhist thought rejects arbitrariness or random arising. In fact, we take this a step further than the Catholics because we also reject the supreme arbitrariness of a Creator. (Balls in your court now Benny.)

But while Buddhism is not theistic, nor is it atheistic in the sense that word is usually understood. There is a transcendental (lokutarra = "above the world") element in Buddhist metaphysics; the Nibbana element or the Unconditioned. For the unawakened putthujana ("many folk") this must perforce be a matter of faith (saddha.) So the tension between reason and faith is present in our religion also. And we see it played out in different ways. There are those westernized Buddhists who want to reject faith and the transcendental altogether. These thinkers are more a product of the European Enlightenment than the Buddha's.

There is one other way in which we would differ from the Pope. He deplores at one point in his talk the reduction of religion to a purely personal and subjective experience. The Catholic Church, as the holder of the keys, has always been uncomfortable with mysticism; persecuting its great mystics while alive and then often as not sanctifying them when dead. While I sympathize with the Pope on the one hand when he criticizes the modern tendency to deny that there is any objective truth, I have to differ with him as well. I think the Buddhist position would be that there is indeed an objective unalterable truth, but that it can only be realized subjectively and personally.

In any case, I encourage you to read the Pope's comments for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Like I said, this man is a subtle and intriguing thinker. Out of step with the times, perhaps, but that's a good thing in times like these.

LINKS

Full Speech of Pope Benedict.
A more political take on it by Justin Raimondo
Who was Manuel II Palaeologus anyway?

Sep 11, 2006

The Fall of the Towers


If you're as old as I am, you'll remember when the 21st century was expected to be a wonderful time of domed cities, flying cars and colonies on the moon. Instead, nine months into the new millenium we got that most terrible and sinister piece of performance art, now known universally by its date, written in, appropriately enough I suppose, American style as 9/11.

It's become trite to say that 9/11 changed everything. Of course, in the big picture it changed nothing. Business as usual in samsara. Beings die, often horrifically, sometimes suddenly. Life is precarious, unpredictable, uncertain. So what else is new?

But in a lot of ways, we do perceive a pre- and a post- 9/11 era, making it one of a very few such events of world historical importance. Any sense of optimism about the world scene, and we had some of that in the 'nineties, naive perhaps but palpable, is gone. We are now in a period of dark international anarchy; war, terrorism, torture, the rise of the omnipresent security state. We are becoming divided along ethnic and principally sectarian grounds. White passengers are made "uncomfortable" by the presence of brown passengers and flights are delayed as those whose skin tone clashes with the zeitgeist are removed for questioning.

Most horribly, the psychic cataclysm of the event was used by those in power in America and Britain to unleash a greater cataclysm in the Middle East; wars, wars and rumours of wars. Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, poisoned and laid waste. More than a hundred thousand dead and how many lives ruined?

And we now live in a world of shadows and deceit. There are three or four versions of every event in the news and the scenarios are hotly debated. With 9/11 in particular, to this date, five years on, we still don't really know what happened. The official version is so full of inconsistencies and odd lacunae that it cannot any longer be taken seriously. But no problem, there are plenty of alternate theories to choose from. As I said about faith, it may be mostly a matter of aesthetics which one you believe in.

The power of propaganda to stupefy and delude is impressive. The official scenario, nineteen arabs with box-cutters led by a mad fanatic hooked up to a dialysis machine in a cave in Central Asia, is something out of a bad James Bond movie. This has been accepted as the real deal only by dint of repetition. The really amazing thing is the thread-bare nature of the evidence for this scenario in the public domain. There was Mohammed Atta's passport, miraculously found in the rubble, and a grainy video of some guy who looked vaguely like Osama Bin Laden if you squinted a bit. And not much else.

And, like in the case of the JFK assassination, whether there was any high-level conspiracy or not, there definitely was a cover-up. Why was so much evidence destroyed or hidden? Where are the black boxes? We know what happened to the air-traffic control tapes, they were "accidentally destroyed." Even the rubble was hauled away and melted down with reckless haste. It is normally a felony to destroy evidence from a crime scene, but apparently not in the case of the crime of the century.

I called 9/11 a terrible piece of performance art. On a psychological level it was more than that, it was an act of Black Magic; a ritual act of great power which shook and re-arranged the collective psyche. It struck me almost immediately that the scene had sinister mythic or occult undertones. The two towers; Joachim and Boaz (or Isengard and Barad-Dur?) cross-referenced with the sixteenth trump of the Tarot. Did somebody know precisely what they were doing?

In the sequence of the Tarot, the fifteenth arcana is the Devil, and the culmination of his works is the Destruction of the Tower. But after the smoke clears, the next arcana is the Star. If we can shake off our media induced stupefaction, and rediscover our common humanity, disown nightmare dreams of empire and terror, can we find our way back to simplicity?


Sep 5, 2006

Snakey on a Plane

[T-shirt reads "I am not a terrorist" in Arabic." Source.]


Recently I posted a link to the insane story of the iPod toilet bomb. There's more. Already in 2004 we had this madness;

A Midwest Airlines flight from Milwaukee to San Francisco was canceled Sunday night after a passenger discovered Arabic-type handwriting inside an in-flight magazine.
The 7:25 p.m. flight carrying 118 passengers and five crew members had already pulled away from the gate at Mitchell International Airport when a passenger flipping through the Midwest Airlines magazine tucked in the seat pocket saw the writing and told a flight crew member. The writing, which was scribbled on a page of the magazine, turned out to be Farsi, the Iranian language, said Midwest spokeswoman Carol Skornicka. Before the plane took off, the flight crew decided to take a closer look at the writing. The plane returned to the gate, and passengers were taken off the plane. Security authorities were notified; all of the luggage was checked and the aircraft was inspected. Nothing was found.
A plane evacuated, passengers delayed and luggage searched because some rube found a marginal scribble in what he thought was Arabic? Marginal scribbles are now weapons of mass destruction?

Now, after the (omigod!) exploding shampoo incident, things have ratcheted up more than a notch. Recently, mostly British passengers leaving the holiday spot of Malaga Spain staged a revolt and refused to fly until two young Muslim men were ejected, at gunpoint no less. Their crime? The increasingly common offence of FWB, Flying While Brown. Oh, and speaking Urdu which the vigilant flying public took for (horrors!) Arabic.

"We might be Asian, but we're two ordinary lads who wanted a bit of fun."

"Just because we're Muslim, does not mean we are suicide bombers."

Khurram added: "I don't blame anyone for what happened. Actually I feel sorry for the people who thought we were terrorists."

The fun-loving pair visited the Spanish resort for a quick recce ahead of a proper holiday later in the year.

They are so far removed from extremism that they even spent the day boozing and tucking into a McDonald's burger.

Khurram admitted: "As Muslims we are not supposed to drink alcohol, but we did have a few."

Now, just today, we have the story of an Hasidic Jew being ejected from an Air Canada flight for praying. Yes, praying. Best be on the safe side, I guess. We don't know what he was praying for. The air crew actually said, "I'm sorry sir, we know you're not a Muslim, but you're making some of the passengers uncomfortable." Probably wasn't even brown, but may have been a bit on the swarthy side. Better not take chances.

I have a suggestion. Next time a bunch of ignorant bigots complain, let them get off and wait for the next flight. More leg room for the Muslim lads and the Hasidim.

People are being manipulated into fear and prejudice with all this terrorism hype. And hype is the operative word. The exploding baby milk plot or whatever the hell it was supposed to be was supposed to be the scariest thing since Saddam Hussein got that yellow-cake (wait, bad example. No, on second thought, good example). But;

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.

In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year - like thousands of other British Muslims. And not just Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth.
What's more, it wouldn't have worked anyway. Technically impossible.

If anyone doubts that we are descending into a dark age, consider this; one of the quantitative measures of civilizational level is travel time. Point-to-point travel times declined steadily since the early eighteenth century to nearly the end of the twentieth. Now, with time added to take off our shoes, have some underpaid security guy riffle through our luggage, get our i.d. checked four or five times, we've added at least an hour and a half to most journeys. More, if you average in the delays because some dufus found a grocery list in Urdu tucked into the seat flap.

It's way past time to chill out. I wish the passenger train still ran to Thunder Bay.

Aug 29, 2006

How Far We've Fallen

Then and now.

A comment on the Eisenhower speech; notice at the end he says that only an "alert and informed citizenry" can save the republic from the military-industrial complex. If he was right, we are really screwed.

Of course, Eisenhower also said; "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."

Aug 28, 2006

Sri Lankan Civil War

While the world is focussed on the middle east, the on again off again civil war in Sri Lanka is very much on again. Like all of these wretched modern wars, most of the suffering is borne by innocent civilians.

It's painful for me to try and write about the Sri Lankan crisis; it's painful to see Buddhists acting badly, and even using Buddhism as an excuse.

The parallels to the Israel/Palestine dispute are uncanny. Like the Palestinians, the Tamils have legitimate grievances and have suffered historical injustice. Like the Palestinians, the Tamils have been burdened with fanatical and blood-thirsty leadership. Like the Israelis, the Sinhalese have a legitimate concern for their national survival, like the Israelis the Sinhalese have a sense of religiously sanctioned specialness, and a religiously based claim to the land. And like the Israeli leaders, the Sinhalese nationalists now in control, refuse to make the historic compromises demanded by simple human justice. Like the Israelis, they insist that the other party must first abandon violence and then we'll talk. Any discussion of legitimate Tamil grievances is cut short by reminding the listener of all the evil deeds done by the Tigers. Sound familiar?

Let's be clear, the Tamil Tigers are undoubtedly a terrorist organization of the worst sort. They have carried out more suicide bombings than any Arab group, maybe more than all of them put together. They target civilians. They even bombed the Temple of the Tooth. Their leader, Velupillal Prabharakan, is a charimatic fanatic in the mold of Pol Pot. They systematically brain-wash and use child soldiers. One of their most recent tricks was to close off and mine a canal, causing an artificial drought that left fifteen thousand farmers without a crop. They also systematically assassinate moderate Tamil politicians who work for peace.

But the Tigers (or Hamas) didn't spring up in a vaccuum, or just for fun. The roots of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict go back a long, long way. Battles against the Tamils in ancient times make up the bulk of Sri Lanka's national epic, the Mahavamsa. British colonial perfidy helped to stir the pot and set the stage for the modern round. (Again, the resemblance to Palestine is inescapable.) The British liked to play divide and rule, and favoured the Tamil minority with a role in the administration, at the same time importing unskilled Tamils by the thousand from India to work their tea plantations, squeezing the Sinhalese majority from above and below.

The first decade after independence it looked like a sensible and fair arrangement was in the works; both Sinhalese and Tamil were recognized as national languages for purposes of law, education, record-keeping and the like. But then in 1956 a Sinhalese Nationalist party came to power and with laws like the Sinhala-Only Act tried to enforce an artificial national unity. The resulting Tamil riots are usually considered the prelude to the civil war.

The nationalist faction among the Sinhalese, currently in power, insist tenaciously on a unitary uni-lingual state, when it is obvious that only a federal arrangement and protected status for minority rights will work as a basis for a peaceful solution. This leads them to insist on a "military solution." This has not worked at all in twenty years of fighting. Conventional wars waged against guerillas only kill a lot of civilians and increase bitterness, breeding more terrorists, more fanatics. (Again, the obvious parallels not only to the West Bank and Lebanon, but to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan)

Consider this essay, posted on buddhistchannel.tv to get an idea of the mind-set of the Sinhalese nationalists; War and Buddhism. The author's thesis is quite outrageous; he is finding a Buddhist justification for war.

Therefore, it is wrong to bring in Buddha or his teachings, to draw parallels to the terrorism we are witnessing in Sri Lanka, in the world. When King Dutugamunu waged a war against King Elara, the Buddhist priests are said to have given their blessings and some of them is said to have accompanied the army.

King Elara was reigning in Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was then a city, sacred to the Buddhists, as there were many monasteries, temples and shrines, precious to the Buddhists. No body wanted the place to be desecrated by building places of other religions, and conduct ceremonies and rituals not in keeping with the purity of Buddhism. Therefore the war conducted by the King Dutugamuna had the support and blessings of the Maha Sangha

There you have it; don't let anyone say there isn't a Buddhist fundamentalism. War waged to prevent the "desecration" of other faiths being practised.

Another reason why Buddhists would like to stop terrorism in the North at any cost is that Sri Lanka is where the true words of the Buddha, as recited by the monks exist. This land has been sanctified five times by the visit of the Buddha. He had been in the North, the South, East and the West of this Island. Therefore, they believe that this Island should continue to exist as a whole undivided, with the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malays and others, united as one Nation.

The unitary Buddhist state sanctioned by an ancient myth. Never mind that the Buddha almost certainly never left Northern India. Myths have power. Quick - can you think of some other polity that makes it's claims based on ancient religious claims? I thought you could. But ancient religious stories are not a sound basis for making policy in the face of modern realities. Insistence on a unitary state (as opposed to a federal one) is a recipe for endless warfare and the continued ruin of that lovely island.

Certainly not all Sri Lankans think like this; just this month a big peace rally was broken up by nationalist thugs, including some who disgraced the robe by joining in. There are many both Sinhalese and Tamil who are working for a real peace.

Consider this very sensible essay by a Tamil writer; The Unwise Intent to Keep Tamil Grievances Unresolved. The author makes the sound point that the ball is in the governments court as far as resolving a sensible solution. He says they should begin a process of devolution now, not waiting for an agreement that is not to be had with the Tigers.
If the government is going to wait for the LTTE to shun violence and join the democratic mainstream even to deal with the Tamil grievances let alone a political settlement, it will be a very long costly wait. Even one life lost in the conflict in Sri Lanka is too many to ignore.
The way to end terrorism is to end injustice; and that is for those in positions of power to do. This should not be seen as a counsel of weakness, but of real courage and strength. It also takes personal courage as many men of peace have met their end at an assassin's bullet, usually some fanatic who saw them as a traitor to their own people. (Gandhi killed by a Hindu fanatic, Anwar Sadat by a Muslim one, Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish one, and several Tamil leaders by the Tigers.)

The author of the above piece goes on to quote from another article, articulating a just settlement;

The author has said two principles are important for a political solution to the ethnic problem. These are: “(1) to allow autonomy as much as it is necessary; (2) to ensure safeguards against any type of disintegration, break away or secession. We also believe that given current international developments and the challenges that our country is facing we need to have a rather strong system at the centre as well. Therefore, we propose considerable power sharing at the centre in addition to devolution of power to the regions or the periphery.
What is really striking is that in so many of these seemingly intractable conflicts, there is a plain, simple, fair solution staring all reasonable people in the face. Only the hard-hearted extremists of both sides seem unable to accept. More's the pity when they find their way to power, and feed off each other's hatred.

(One more link - a good neutral overview translated from the German Der Spiegel; Old Animosity, New Pain. )






Never, Ever lose your iPod in an airplane toilet

The unbelievable paranoid stupidity of this has to be read to be believed; some young kid loses his iPod in the toilet and all hell breaks lose.

I won't try and do a synopsis, the whole thing is incredible. Have we really come to this?

(thanks to Idleworm for the link; a great site btw)

Aug 25, 2006

Solar System Downsized

In a move said to be due to rising costs and increased competition, the solar system has been reduced from nine planets to eight. Officially, the system has said it regrets having to let Pluto go after billions of years of "exemplary service," but privately industry insiders have complained about Pluto's eccentric orbit, retrograde rotation and other anomalies. "Pluto doesn't even travel in the same plane as the rest of us, and sometimes he even slips inside Neptune's orbit. Let's face it, Pluto is just not a team player."

The same insiders are quick to refute rumours that the re-organization is not complete. "Contrary to what you might have heard, we are not considering out-sourcing any of the inner planets to Tau Ceti."

Pluto, together with his long-time partner Charon, will continue to free-lance as a dwarf planet.

Aug 23, 2006

One More on Lebanon

Hopefully this will be my last post on the topic (unless they start fighting again then all bets are off.) But I would be remiss if I didn't steer readers toward this really fine piece of analysis;

Israel's Water Wars by Jason Godesky

The writer makes a very convincing case for what I've stated here before; it had nothing to do with the ostensible pretext of two soldiers captured; it was all about water. I'll say it again; all wars are about resources; land, oil, water etc. etc. There is always a much-hyped casus belli which is nothing but a propagandistic smoke-screen. Don't pay any attention to the little man behind the curtain.

Read the article if you still think this was a war of self-defence.

Aug 22, 2006

Why Do We Believe Anything?

There is a very good essay on pharmaceuticals as a faith-based initiative (my phrase but I guess the author would concur) at the Dust blog. I pretty much agree with the Dust's perspective here, but that's not what I want to blog about. Instead, I'm intrigued by a question he asks in passing;
it would be nice if we all came to deeper understanding of just how we “came to believe” the things we believe.
Everyone believes something. Some of us can manage, like Alice, to believe five impossible things before breakfast. Others like to imagine they are "without beliefs" (even "Buddhists without beliefs") but that's a dodge, a fancy card-trick. Agnostics and skeptics are as much rooted in belief as Southern Baptists or Wahabbis. Just different beliefs; in particular the materialist world-view, or at the very least the reality of the external world.

Most of what you think you know, you probably just believe. Most everybody these days believes, for example, in the heliocentric model of the solar system. But very few could come up with cogent arguments as to why the earth moving around the sun and not vice-versa is the real model.

People believe all kinds of things less rational than this, and with less reason. Creationism, materialism, grey aliens, perpetual motion, the Rapture, the benefits of Free Trade; heck, I'm told some people still believe the official version of 9-11.

People who believe any of these things, or their equally faith-based opposites, or anything else at all, can come up with all kinds of rational arguments, and snippets of evidence, to back up their beliefs. Cruise around the internet and you won't take long to find heated debates on stuff like creationism vs. evolution, with carefully constructed arguments on both sides. But here's the really intriguing thing; almost no-one seems to ever change their position based on these arguments. The best constructed arguments on the other side just force a true believer to refine his or her own counter-arguments in an endless dance.

I would like to suggest that evidence and logical reasoning are only called in after the fact, to justify and bolster a belief. In most cases, they really have nothing at all to do with why we believe what we do.

So why do we believe what we believe? I would like to suggest that the real unspoken criterion of all beliefs is aesthetic. We believe what we believe because it is more beautiful, or more elegant than the available alternatives. We feel intuitively that if x is true then the universe is a more satisfying place. This makes belief a matter of taste. Some people revel in the cold, stark vision of materialism. Others go for the warm fuzzies of eternalism.

To go back to the example of the heliocentric solar system; it would be theoretically possible to construct a completely geo-centric model that fits all the observable data equally well. The only problem is that it would be horrifically complicated. This was in fact the reason the geo-centric model was abandoned in the first place. As more data came in, the astronomers had to keep adding epicycles upon epicycles. What really makes my case is that at the time when Copernicus's theory started to gain general acceptance, the geo-centric model, with all it's centuries of accumulated tinkering, actually fitted the known data better (mostly because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.) The helio-centric model was adopted not because it fit the evidence better, it didn't. It was adopted because it was more elegant.

So it's all a matter of taste. At least, that's what I believe.

Aug 21, 2006

Fundamentalism and Triumphalism

We hear a lot about religious fundamentalism these days. I suppose we are stuck with the term, but it is actually used imprecisely. Fundamentalism, according to one dictionary definition is "strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology." This in itself may not necessarily be a negative thing. Fidelity to a tradition and it's teachings is one legitimate approach to religion. It may be thought by some to be narrow, by others to demonstrate an integrity and clarity of thought.

However, what is often called "fundamentalism" these days is probably better called "triumphalism." This is the view that one's religion is absolutely right, all others are wrong, and usually leads to the conclusion that force is justified to promote one's beliefs. The Buddha condemned this kind of thinking; "this is right, all else is wrong" as leading to disputation and conflict. We can certainly see that today.

The triumphalist imperative pollutes any religion it touches. While it seems more natural to arise in mono-theistic religions ("my god is bigger than your god") sadly even Buddhism doesn't escape. We had the sorry story this week of fundamentalist monks in Sri Lanka breaking up a peace rally with fist-fighting. How anyone can defend this behaviour as consistent with the Buddha's teaching is beyond me.

There is also a Hindu fundamentalism, whose deeds included the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the wrecking of the historic Babri mosque in 1992 (which sparked bloody communal riots.) These type of actions are hardly compatible with the Hindu ideal of ahimsa. (harmlessness)

We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalism (or Islamo-fascism in the fanciful neo-con lexicon.) Often the discussion simplifies complex and contradictory movements within modern Islam, which seems to be in a period of ferment and renewal not unlike the Protestant Reformation of 16th Europe. That period too, had it's "mad mullahs," it's iconclasm and it's struggle to come to terms with a changing world.

Certainly groups like the Taliban, with their ultra-strict moral codes violently enforced, and their wanton destruction of imagery like the Bamiyan Buddhas, and their valorization of war and conflict, qualify as "triumphalist." Some among the Shiites also have a dangerous fascination with apocalyptic thinking; awaiting the end of this world and the coming of the twelfth imam.

The Christians also have a powerful fundamentalist (or triumphalist) wing, especially in the United States. Like their Muslim shadow-selves, they have a very strong belief in the imminent "end of days." It's kind of scary when people who think the end of the world is a good thing are close to the policy making apparatus of major powers.

There is also a Jewish fundamentalism that complicate the Middle-East problem by seeing a religious sanction for occupation of the whole of Palestine to the Jordan. Some of them even want to re-construct the Temple of Solomon, which would involve destroying the Al-Aqsa mosque. To them, a minor detail. To the rest of the world, a major conflagration.

(I'm not aware of Taoist or Jain fundamentalism - maybe I'm just not informed)

These fundamentalisms feed off each other; they need each other to thrive. Where would the Christian Right in the US be without the "evil axis" of "Islamo-fascism" to rant against? Where would the Islamic hard-core get their juice without the "Great Satan" or the "Zionist entity?"
The Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka are largely a response to the very aggressive and unethical proselytizing of Christian fundamentalist missionaries.

Too bad we can't all just get along.

Arrow River Announcement

We are having the Annual General Meeting for the Arrow River Forest Hermitage, all friends and supporters of the hermitage are welcome. Date and time; 1:30 PM Sat. Sept. 9th. There will also be a pot-luck and BBQ at 11:00 AM. Please RSVP if you are intending to participate in the lunch.

Aug 6, 2006

Not Enough Dead Arabs?

A truly frightening glimpse into the neo-conservative mind-set is Norman Podhoretz's piece in the New York Post, featured on Uruknet; Too Nice to Win?

Apparently, Israel's problem is that it is just too darned soft-hearted;

If Lebanon's 300-plus civilian casualties are already rocking the world, what if it would take 10,000 civilian casualties to finish off Hezbollah? Could Israel inflict that kind of damage on Lebanon - not because of world opinion, but because of its own modern sensibilities and its understanding of the value of every human life?

What's more, Norman has a little friendly suggestion for the US in Iraq;

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?
Thanks, Norman, we'll take that under advisement for our next invasion. He also indulges in a little bit of historical perspective;
Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Bad examples, Norman, both of them. The war in Europe was pretty much won when Dresden was firebombed, a gratuitous act of carnage probably meant to scare the bejeezus out of the Russians more than anything else. And as for Hiroshima, John Denson makes the case better than I can, in this excellent essay on the Hiroshima Myth.

Why should we care about the murderous ravings of some crank? Who is this Norman Podhoretz anyway? According to his bio in Wikipedia, Podhoretz is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Project for a New American Century, and a 2004 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He's one of the leading ideologues of the whole Clash of Civilizations/ World War IV mythology.

Aug 3, 2006

Apologia

My apologies for blogging so much about the Lebanon war. I know there are some who feel that a bhikkhu shouldn't be commenting on "politics." They have a point, but my feeling is that this episode goes beyond politics and is part and parcel of the great moral crisis of our times. Our world seems to be spiralling down into a new barbarism with only the ethic of "might makes right."

Make no mistake, those who engage in this acts of wanton slaughter are making very heavy karma for themselves. And the same goes for all those overseas who give their vocal support to the perpetration of war-crimes. Anyone, and there are many, who makes excuses for the carnage of Qana is morally bankrupt. Their consciousness is filled with unwholesome dhammas of hatred and delusion.

The hypocrisy of the omnipresent Israeli spokespersons who "deeply regret any loss of civilian life" is pathetic. Air-strikes on apartment blocks (and Qana was not the only one by a long shot) are justified by Hizbollah rockets having been launched in the vicinity. Even if true, and that is debated hotly, this does not qualify as an act of self-defence. Let's call it by it's true name; revenge. The launchers used by Hizbollah are truck-mounted, they are mobile, and by the time the Israeli air-force arrives they are long gone.

The primitive, dark ethos of tribalism and an eye-for-an-eye govern this vicious conflict on both sides. If it seems like I've mostly criticized Israel, it's because on the best unbiased look at the evidence, this war was started by Israel, whatever their protestations. And the damage inflicted by Israel is a few orders of magnitude greater than Hizbollah is capable of. But both sides are hitting civilians. Both sides are using banned weapons; Israel has dropped cluster bombs and white phosphorus while Hizbollah packs their rockets with ball-bearings.

America is to blame too, for supplying and bankrolling the Israeli war-machine. And Canada's government is acting as cheer-leader (although most Canadians are appalled.)

What has been accomplished by this nasty little war? A beautiful country wrecked and poisoned with depleted uranium. A further radicalization of the Muslims world-wide. No doubt an upsurge in antisemitism as well. If, as I strongly suspect, the real aim of the Israelis is to seize the water of the Litani, they will likely fail in that objective as well. That would mean an ongoing occupation against a hostile population and another Iraq, another Gaza. The Americans haven't gotten much benefit out of Iraqi oil even yet.

What is needed now is some real statesmanship, but I don't see much hope of that. The world seems to be governed by nasty, bigoted little men.