Mar. 16, 2006

Notes on Narnia

When I was a lad (back when rocks were soft) one of my favourite fiction series was the C.S. Lewis Narnia books. Hearing that there is movie series coming out piqued my curiosity to pick them up again. So far I'm through the first two in the series (the Magician's Nephew and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

It's kind of a strange experience to revisit Narnia after more than four decades of life experience. The books bring up a number of reflections;

First, pedagogical; the level of vocabulary and complex ideas are surprising in a children's book. Did C.S. Lewis just not know how to write for children, or was the education system just that much better in 'forties? One suspects the latter, because not only myself but many children of my generation and older read the books with great delight and I don't remember being baffled by them.

Second, literary; C.S. Lewis is a good writer. He has an elegant way of putting things and a wry sense of humour that shows through again and again. I've read many of his works for adults, including his science-fiction series beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and the same good style shows up there too. (I'll take the opportunity here to plug my own Letters from Mara, which are a Buddhist spin on Lewis' Screwtape Letters. By the way, Letters from Mara is forthcoming as a Wheel Book from BPS)

Third, spiritual; it's no secret that Lewis was a devout Christian, although judging from his works perhaps a wee bit heterodox. The Christian symbolism in the first two books is pretty evident. Aslan the lion is the Christ of Narnia, he is even killed and rises from the dead to save the world.

I'm all for inter-faith dialogue and all that, but don't have any time for the position that "all religions teach the same thing underneath." Some aspects of the Christian mythos in the Narnia books just can't be translated into a Buddhist framework. There is the creationist angle in the Magician's Nephew when Aslan calls the world of Narnia into being by singing, but we can let that slide.

A more practical concern is the inherent dualism of good and evil that drives the plot. There is the good lion and all his good creatures on one side and there is the evil witch and her hordes of demons and spooks on the other. Good and evil, to this sort of Christian, are inherent qualities of being. Buddhists don't like using those words. The closest equivalent is the classification of ethical states into kusala and akusala, which translate most literally as skilful and unskilful.

There is a curious sutta in which Moggallana has an encounter with Mara and in the course of their discussion it comes out that Moggallana himself had been the Mara of a previous world-age. Since the Mara is the closest Buddhist equivalent of the Devil, it transpires that even the Devil in Buddhism is not beyond redemption. This is not the case in orthodox Christianity where the damned are damned forever. (We can add that rebirth into the Buddhist hells is also a temporary state, not eternal damnation.)

Furthermore, this dualism of good vs. evil presupposes the necessity of a struggle, even to the death, with the forces of darkness. This sets up a convenient framework for fiction, but has disturbing implications for real life. In the Narnia stories, Aslan leads the good creatures in an actual battle against the witch and her minions. The protagonist, the English boy Peter, is given a sword by Father Christmas no less and slays an evil wolf with it.

This theologically sanctioned warfare may seem harmless in the context of Narnia where talking animals and other odd creatures are battling goblins and monsters, but it can and does play out in the real world too. All the various crusades were driven by this idea. During the Albigensian crusade in France against the heretic Cathars of Languedoc, one of the French generals asked a bishop how his men could know who to spare when massacring a captured town. (He was concerned that some good Catholics remained among the Cathars.) The bishop's reply was "Kill them all, God will sort them out."

This isn't just an historical relic either, but is a powerful force in the world today. Just witness the rhetoric used by the Bush administration with all their talk of "evil-doers" vs. "good-guys." When the enemy is an irredeemable orc, the Geneva Conventions don't apply.

Mar. 13, 2006

Notice for Local Readers

As Ajahn Kusalo has already left, and I will be away for ten days, the Saturday night pujas are cancelled on the 18th and the 25th. They will resume on the 1st of April. Thanks.

The Abhidhamma of Hunting

Tom made some cogent points in his comments on my "Deadeye Dick" post. It was certainly not my intention to post a defence of hunting. It's just that I am not so judgemental as I used to be. All kinds of people don't live up to the precepts in all kinds of ways, and it's probably better in general to work with people where they're at and hope they'll improve. Is the person who occassionally hunts or fishes any worse than the occassional drinker or someone who indulges in illegal downloads of music?

Tom is quite right when he says that the act of killing is always wrong. According to abhidhamma theory, we would call it an "akusala kamma," or unskilfull act. That is, one stemming from an unwholesome mind-state and leading to a bad destination. Again according to the orthodox theory; killing an animal stems from the root of ill-will.

I had an interesting discussion once with a fellow monk who had hunted as a layman. (I never have, only fished a very few times and didn't like it.) He maintained that the root in the case of most hunters is really greed. He said when he hunted it was greed for venison which motivated him. I put up a stout defence of the orthodox theory at the time, but now I'm not so sure. Other men I've known have said their motivation for hunting is desire for some particular meat, such as moose (which is admittedly delicious) or pheasant.

The last-ditch defence of orthodoxy would be that there must be at least one mind-moment of ill-will when the trigger is pulled; one hates the deer for running off with all that yummy venison I suppose. I would question Tom's assertion that hunting is "for the fun of killing." It may be so for some pathological types, not mentioning any vice-presidential persons by name, but I don't see that in the guys I've known over the years who go hunting.

And I think it is hard to refute the argument that hunting is far less cruel than factory-farming.
The industry's practises these days are an absolute moral abomination.

One final issue; I don't but the hunter's argument that their activities are neccessary to control the numbers of species like deer. This is true only in the immediate short term and is a symptom of very bad wildlife policies, must of which are driven by the hunting lobby. Predator species like wolf are controlled or even eradicated. Up until fairly recent times there used to be a bounty on wolves in Ontario, and there is still an open season. There is really no reason to kill predator species at all. If we let the wolves alone they'd control the deer just fine without us.

Which brings up the point that most wild animals end up as somebody's lunch whatever we do or don't do.