Monday, December 27, 2010

Forgiving Hitler

The Desert Fathers personified a lot of temptations as demons. The demons try to prevent us from attaining true humility. The temptations are related to the deadly sins, which take different forms, but I want to focus on anger. Anger is a deadly sin if it involves judging another human being. Christians are not supposed to do this; instead they are supposed to love their neighbor. But what if someone is really bad? Isn't it necessary to judge him or her, so that they can be dealt with? The answer to this is NO! The demons associated with anger are very tricky, because they convince us that in getting angry and wanting justice, that we are in the right and even that we are making the world a better place. But, this is a lie. Unfortunately, Christianity does not have a clear theory about how to think about this (although it does have stories and examples). Buddhism, however, does have a clear explanation. It is that there is no self. Everyone is a momentary coming together of cause and effect. So, no one can be judged. Each action is the product of countless cause and effect chains coming together. Therefore, if someone does bad things we should pity them because they are trapped by negative cause and effect, and we should always forgive them. In this way of thinking there can be no blame, which means that everything is forgiven. Instead of justice there is the right action of reducing the amount of negative cause and effect (i.e., bad karma) in the world. This could involve strong and even violent actions, and it can involve a type of anger - that created by outrage at the suffering of others. But as soon as thoughts turn to justice and vengeance it becomes the deadly sin of wrath. Consistent with this, Christian sources distinguish between anger, which is an emotion, and wrath, which involves judgment and the desire for revenge. I have read that Dante described wrath as the love of justice taken too far, but this does not go far enough. Justice is a slippery slop covered in demons. It is best to avoid all thoughts about justice (or to label them as ignorant).

Taking responsible action is a better way to think about righting wrongs. I saw the Dalia Lama in Ottawa and I wanted to ask about anger but someone else asked, which was fortunate because it was unlikely that I would have gotten the chance. The Dalia Lama was clear that anger in itself is not bad, but it can lead to bad things. He emphasized that the world is not black and white but instead contains a lot of gray areas, so that it is often impossible to react in a perfect way, to create only good karma and no bad karma. Instead, he said we must make responsible choices with as much foresight as possible, and try to minimize bad karma and promote good karma as much as possible. He said that in his opinion, going to war against Hitler was probably the responsible thing to do, i.e., Hitler would have spread so much bad karma that it was the right choice to use violence to stop him, even though that violence did produce bad karma.

I also heard Hitler discussed at a Christian panel discussion at the university where I work. Someone asked if Christians believe in forgiving then should they forgive Hitler? The panel members all said no, that there were limits to forgiveness. I was going to speak up and argue that Hitler should be forgiven but I realized there were a lot of people there that could not hear this message and I didn't want to upset them more than they already were. But actually Hitler should be forgiven. He was just an unfortunate man who had his head filled with hatred and then through more cause and effect, ended up in a position where he could act on it. There are many confused people in the world who would do terrible things if they had any sort of power. Occasionally, through cause and effect, one of them gets into power and really bad things happen. But when you examine them you find that they are full of wrath, that they believe that they or their people have been treated wrongly, and they want revenge and justice. In the I Ching it says that demons tempt us by encouraging us to take up the instruments of evil for a righteous cause, referring not to weapons but to ideas about justice and revenge.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas and the Desert Fathers

I found the first book in the series below at a used book shop and immediately bought it. The Desert Fathers are the founders of the Christian Monastic tradition. The message of the Desert Fathers is simple - humility,  humility, humility. By this they mean silence and what Buddhists refer to as emptiness. This made me think. A lot of people argue that the date of Christmas was chosen to replace a Roman sun god/solstice holiday. But I think the date has a deeper, symbolic meaning. The solstice is the darkest, coldest time of year (in the north - I live in Canada ). This is very much like the desert, a bit  desolate and inhospitable. The solstice is also the point of change, when decrease turns to increase. In Tibetan Buddhism the point between change is called the Bardo and in the Bardo is where you experience emptiness. The Desert Fathers did not attempt to stay permanently in an ascetic state, because the ascetic state is not the point. Transitioning in and out takes you through the Bardo and if you are aware of it, then you can experience emptiness, which they called the kingdom of God, or God's love, or a oneness with Jesus. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is all about transitions - from darkness to light, death to life, etc. A huge misconception in Christianity is that the point is always to transition from something bad to something good. The point is the moment of transition itself, and what lies in it.

Is this a historical fact? Is this the actual reason that Christmas is on the winter solstice. I just made this up but it makes sense to me.

Merry Christmas

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian studies 59)The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics)The Desert FathersThe Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Judge not!

There is very little direct wisdom in the bible. The wisdom comes from traditions of how to interpret it and also from the insights of individuals. This is also where the stupidity comes from. So how can you tell the wise from the stupid. The Buddha said all teachings should be tested by our experience. Likewise, Jesus said that a tree shall be known by the fruit that it bares. The bible and other religious texts produce meaningful insights only when intelligent individuals test the interpretations and find what works and what doesn't. An obvious example of a problem is when a tradition/text contradicts itself. For example, if Jesus says "judge not" and then a tradition of interpretation uses a text to pass judgement on different individuals, something is wrong. For example, the letters of Paul are often used to condemn homosexuality. This seems like a contradiction, so was Paul wrong? Possibly, but scholars argue it was more likely that one or more other people wrote those letters. But even if Paul did write the letters it wouldn't matter because it doesn't make sense. Judge not means judge not. Passing judgement on others, and even on yourself, is a sin. Buddhists should also not judge. Since everything is a product of cause and effect and dependent co-arising, there can be no judging, it just don't make sense in that framework. People think they need judgement for motivation and control, but the better way is through compassion.

Here is a very good book discussing the fact that Paul's letters were very likely not all written by Paul

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon