Sunday, December 30, 2012

Touch the Earth

When the Buddha encountered the Devil and his temptations, the last temptation offered up by the Devil was the fact that there was no witness to the Buddha’s achievement of enlightenment, there was no definitive outer sign, he had achieved no power, no fame, there was no transformation, he was still just a man. To answer this the Buddha simply touched the earth. I believe this was also the lesson that God was teaching Job when he paraded all the animals by. This is the true meaning of humility, which, as Job implied, cannot be explained in words (note - most scholars agree that the fourth friend in Job was written in later, obviously by someone who didn’t get it).

I also relate this to statements by Jesus about he need to be seen to be religious, such as praying in the closet. Your practice should be between you and God only.  It sounds different on the surface - the Buddha needs no witness but we need God to witness, but actually it is the same. When we achieve we should not need God to witness because it is we who should witnessing Gods work in us. We are the witness. However, on the path to this it is a good intermediate step to first switch from needing man as a witness to needing only God.

Inner and Outer Life

In Christianity there are a lot of writings about internal things and external things, and sometimes it can be a bit negative toward external things. I believe the distinction is important but muddled as there wasn't an accurate neural/psychological/philosophical framework to make the distinction clear. However, Cognitive Science now provides us with this framework.

I wrote elsewhere that no joy can come from external things. This is true because joy is a product of your brain. External things can only trigger joy as a reaction to things. The brain reacts based evolutionary programming and learned experience, sometimes called conditioning or habit in Buddhist literature. Likewise, what we perceive is constructed by the brain based on signals from outside. We now know that a lot of (unconscious) choice and interpretation is involved in this. We experience life in a world generated by our brains that is perceptually correlated with the outer world. Scientifically and philosophically this is known as the noumena (external) and phenomena (internal). Essentially it's like the Matrix movie, only we each generate our own Matrix.

The external world that mystical Christianity is so distrustful of is (I believe) the matrix world that we generate in our brains. In the matrix world, perceptions are intricately linked to our programmed desires and needs. Historically, this has been muddled in Christianity, leading some to reject and mistrust the actual external world (the noumena). However, careful reading of the best sources reveals (I believe) that the goal is to become free from the conditioning we have built up from our basic evolutionary needs and through our lifetime of social conditioning. This programming, to be greedy, to be afraid, to be hateful, is the actual source of the demons that we fight. 

This bad programing is referred to as ignorance in Buddhism and is regarded as the ultimate source of suffering. The good news is that compassion and joy arise simply by stopping the program and being silent and free. To attain this we need to create new programs that allow us to be still, to listen for our compassion and to be directed by it. 

So, the external world in mystical Christian writings should refer to the world that we we create in our heads and perceive as external. It is an image of the actual external world colored and tainted by our desires and passions. The actual external world, as noted in Genesis, is good.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Source of joy

Joy does not come from external things. External things contain no emotions. Joy comes from inside and is projected onto external things. That is why external things sometimes seem to make us happy. Increased happiness, therefore, comes from improving one's inner life, not from acquiring more external things. Studies show that after a year or so, people who won the lottery are no happier than they were before. The only way to get more happiness from external things is to improve your inner life. This applies to all external things, including human relationships

However, while external things are not the source of joy they can be the source of misery. External influences can disrupt and poison your inner life. So it is important to avoid negative external influences or situations as much as possible

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bending knowledge to the rule of right reason

Old style Christian language is pretty harsh by modern standards, full of judgement and harsh words. A lot of people are turned off by it and some turn to Buddhism. But, as Dali Lama says, it is essential to make peace with your own faith. The key is to understand it in context. That is, to read in assumptions about the context in which the writer was operating. For example, I assume that a Saint or deeply religious person believes that the most important thing is love or compassion. Religious texts should never be treated as a collection of factual statements, everything needs to be interpreted.  Your "religion" in my opinion is not base on what texts you read but how you interpret texts. Here are some excerpts from the Imitation of Christ (book 1 chapter 3) concerning the value of knowledge, along with my interpretations

Verily, when the day of judgement comes, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; nor how well we have spoken but how religiously we have lived

Gaining knowledge or understanding is not the point. The important thing is how we live and the effect of our actions on others. To be compassionate and to act compassionately is the point

Learning is not to be blamed, nor is any mere knowledge of a subject, since this in itself is good and ordained by God.

However, learning and knowledge is a good thing as it makes us less ignorant and less confused.

A good and devout man first lays out inwardly the works which he is to do outwardly.
Neither do they draw him to the desires of a vicious inclination, but he bends them himself to the rule of right reason

A good person evaluates his or her ideas before acting on them. They do not use knowledge to harm other people or put themselves above them. Instead, all knowledge is processed according to how it can serve the goal of compassion, or deepen our understanding of compassion.

This is an example of how I bend things, and if I can't bend it that way I reject it, that is the basis of my "religion"

Friday, September 14, 2012

Time to die

At some point everyone has to die. It may be sudden and unexpected or you might have plenty of time to think about it. Contemplating ones's own death is a practice used by both Buddhist and Christian monks. Having no fear of death is also considered a sign of boddhisatva or a saint. Alan watts never claimed to be enlightened but he did report maintaining a state of no fear for several days. He's said something like, you could have chopped off my head and I wouldn't have cared. If I think about it I am afraid of dying right now - if someone tried to chop off my head I would be really upset! From a Christian perspective, fear of death reflects a lack of faith. We will all die and mostly it happens when we would rather not, so if I fear it now how will I be when it actually happens. Fear of death is fear of letting go of the things associated with our life. In life when something precious is taken away it feels like part of us has died, but we are still living. This is especially true when we have lost access to a loved one.

In the brain, all the different things that cause happiness do so by firing neurons. But this does not mean that the feeling or ”qualia” of happiness is merely an electrical signal or neurotransmitter. If I have a dish of dopamine and I pour some more dopamine into it, does this cause the dish to experience happiness??? No! (dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward). Likewise, most physicists no longer believe that time is a fundamental property of the universe (don't have a reference off hand for this but there was a good article on this in a recent scientific american). Instead, like qualia, time appears to be an emergent property that plays no direct role in the physical universe. So death, which is the end of something in time, is an illusion. Likewise the feeling of sadness associated with a loss is an illusion. We have to deal with it because we're programmed (through evolution) to think in terms of gain and loss, but it helps to know that it is an illusion.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Murder of the Buddha

Another thing that Jesus and the buddha have in common is the manner of their death. This is rarely discussed in Buddhism, but it is most likely that the Buddha was murdered and it is most likely that the murderer was a Buddhist who did not act alone. Late in his life the Buddha decided to leave the hugely successful monastic structure he had created and head out, with only a small group, to a wilder, tribal area, beyond the kingdoms that had accepted Buddhism. This was the second time the Buddha had done this. The first time was during a rebellion in the Buddhist community by monks who felt the Buddha had betrayed the original system he had created and favored a more fundamentalist approach to running things. The Buddha took no action to oppose these monks and they gained a large following. There were attempts on his life and still he did nothing. Finally, when his own supporters would no longer listen and insisted on putting down the rebels, the Buddha left. He walked away with nothing to live as an aesthetic in the forest. Meanwhile, when it was learned that the Buddha had left many followers also left. Eventually a delegation was sent to find the Buddha and beg him to come back, which he did. His return restored confidence and he forgave everyone involved.

Later in life, when the Buddha was becoming old and frail, he suddenly left again, this time with a small group of close supporters, but he would have needed help at that age. However, he did not get very far. They stopped to eat and stay overnight at the house of a lay Buddhist follower. The Buddha died there, reportedly from food poisoning from eating mushrooms, but no one else even got sick. Some versions of the story imply that the mushrooms were only served to the Buddha, but this is also strange. Also, when the Buddha was dying he praised the householder for his hospitality and declared that the meal was one of the best he had ever had. Although Buddhist accounts do not refer to the Buddha being deliberately poisoned they do say that the Buddha did this so that the householder would not get into trouble with his companions.

It is interesting that Buddhists do not discuss this much but they discuss other parts of the Buddhas life. Personally, I think there is a very important teaching in this

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Friday, September 7, 2012


Discernment is a practice in both Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism it is sometimes referred to as seeing with compassion  From a Christian point of view, seeing with compassion can be considered as discerning God's will.

The process of discernment usually involves thinking about an issue to get clear on what the question is, then keeping the question with you for a time until you have a sort of feeling or clarity about it that comes of its own accord. The I Ching recommends 3 days before attempting a decision and 3 more days to evaluate it. Meditation, prayer, etc are good during this time of course. If successful, decisions made in this way should leave you at peace, even it is a difficult decision.

It is important to understand that this process does not reveal absolute answers about what is right or true. The idea that enlightenment or God grants an individual access to the "right" answers is dangerous. Both Buddhist and Christian mystical sources caution against this belief and consider it dangerous to your spiritual progress and well being.

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Monday, September 3, 2012


St peter of damaskos discusses a number of important practices in the philokalia. A lot of them have to do with denying yourself things that we find enjoyable, such as food, sex, entertainment, relaxing, wealth, fame, etc. He also notes that simply avoiding these things will not have any effect. So why avoid them? The point of avoiding them is not because they are bad but because in our ignorance we believe they will deliver something that they will not. Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses, but really it is the false belief that our attachments will bring fulfillment. The training to abstain for them is so that we gain the ability to stop indulging and obsessing over them long enough to have contemplative experiences. There is nothing wrong with having a cookie and enjoying the taste, but choosing to cope with problems and emotions with cookies is a bad choice when compared with contemplation and other spiritual methods. However, ironically, if you develop mindfulness you will have a much greater enjoyment of cookies and movies and sex and other things.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Martyrdom and the First Noble Truth

Martyred means to witness, it does not mean to suffer, it means to witness suffering and to know that it is wrong and yet it is happening. In the face of suffering there are only two alternatives to being a martyr: (1) to be blind to your own feelings, to be numb - to avoid, gloss over, or madly distract yourself from the suffering (e.g., with drugs, alcohol, television, sex, etc.). Although you may succeed to some level, you make yourself dead inside. The other alternative is to (2) live your life based on the suffering, to believe in the suffering. This will make you feel hopeless and depressed. In the first case there is a failure to accept that suffering exists. In the second case there is a failure to accept that suffering is transient, that it has a cause and that it will pass when the conditions that cause it have passed. Also, that there are things we can do to cause those conditions to pass.

The first step is to witness the suffering and accept its existence. This is martyrdom. Most Christians believe that martyrdom means to die or to suffer for your beliefs. This is wrong. In the bible the martyrs were persecuted and killed for their beliefs but the actual act of martyrdom occurred in the way they accepted their situation and the consequence of their decision. Also, it is important to understand that martyrdom is not about passively accepting suffering. It is about accepting the current situation and choosing to act compassionately. The martyrs in the bible chose to die to support the early christian church, which taught compassion within a brutal empire, and brought great benefits to the poor. Of course the ultimate expression of this in Christianity is the martyrdom of Jesus (God) on the cross.

The battle that goes on inside yourself is called noetic warfare by Christian mystics. This battle exists because suffering exists. It is a condition of our existence. In Buddhism, this fact is known as the first noble truth. However, many Buddhists skip over the first noble truth - of course suffering exists, that's why I'm a Buddhist, I want to move on and get rid of suffering. But, like the other noble truths, the first truth is not just a fact, it is an ongoing action, and it is arguably the hardest of all the noble truths. The first noble truth is the last noble truth because all actions in Buddhism are ultimately focused on dealing with this truth, that there is suffering.

This, I think, is why Buddhism and Christianity should be studied together, because of all the world religions, they are two that are most directly focused around suffering.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spoken word on Jesus

This video and the ones below are spoken word performances about Jesus. They are in reverse order because that's how blogs work. the one that started it all is below, the first one posted. I'm posting this one, which is a reaction to the one below, because I think it's pretty reasonable. However, it probably will make more sense if you start from the first one as this is a response to a response about that one

Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Muslim Version

As noted elsewhere in this blog, worshipping Jesus as God cannot be treated as if it was rational. Muslims do not worship Jesus, but fundamentalist Muslims make the same mistake as fundamentalist Christians who worship the Bible, they worship the Koran as a source of knowable, rational truth. Like the Bible, the Koran is literature, it is a poem, which means that the essential truth it contains cannot be expressed through the rational use of words. It also needs to be understood in its historical and cultural context. For example, eating animals that do not live in the desert, such as pork and shellfish, without access to refrigeration, is a bad idea because they can spoil. But, as Jesus said, it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles you, not what goes in. The Koran and the Bible can be considered as God's poems, but not as God's manual (unless you are living several hundred years ago in the dessert).

Christianity is defined by a belief that makes no rational sense - that Jesus was God, but there is only ONE God. This belief is a finger pointing at the moon. The concept of God or Allah (same dude) is also a finger pointing. The verses of the Bible and of the Koran are also fingers pointing, as are the Sutras of Buddhism. They are all valuable pointers and they are all full of contradictions. In Buddhism the idea that religious concepts are fingers and not the moon is explicitly acknowledged (although you still get fundamentalist Buddhists). The impossibility of the Trinity is viewed (by monks and mystics) as a poetic acknowledgment of the need to go beyond words and rationally. In Islam, the Sufis believe that spiritual truth can be perceived through non rational, mystical means.  

Why I love religion and love jesus

This is a good Catholic response. Although the finger that points at the moon is not the moon it is important for knowing where to look for the moon. Religion is ok when it is understood as a finger pointing. But I do not believe that you cannot have Jesus without the (Catholic) Church. Religious groups often claim that they are the only finger that points accurately to the moon, but in reality it depends on where the observer is standing.

Why I hate religion but love Jesus

I noticed a bunch of spoken word stuff about Jesus on you tube so I've decided to post some with my comments. Here is the first, which I believe is actually the first one. I think that it's great that this guy understands that Jesus is not what his right wing american church has been telling him. In buddhism they say that religions are like a finger pointing at the moon. People miss the point when they mistake the finger for the moon

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Jesus Prayer 1/3

The Jesus Prayer 2/3

The Jesus Prayer 3/3

Sin and Ignorance

In Buddhism trouble is caused by ignorance, we have wrong views and we do not understand ourselves and the world in the right way. In Christianity trouble is caused by sin, which is usually taken to be immoral behaviour. But the actual meaning of the word sin is to "miss the mark" in archery, which is something we say when people do not understand (e.g., he really missed the mark). Therefore the cause of sin is a failure to understand, not the breaking of a rule. Both Buddhism and Christianity make moral prescriptions against things like drinking alcohol or having sex, in the case of a monk or a nun. But breaking these rules is not a sin because rule breaking is not sin. It is the failure to understand, which cannot be separated from the failure to act on compassion, which is the sin. Moral rules are based on avoiding activities that are highly likely to lead to ignorant actions so usually they should be followed. But it is ignorant, and therefore a sin, to believe that breaking a rule is a sin. All rules can and should be broken under the right circumstances.

The idea that we are sinners is not to say that we are bad, but that we are ignorant. Therefore we should be humble because it is only when we question our knowledge and beliefs that we can learn.

Did Jesus die on the cross?

Did Jesus die on the cross? This question is more important if you believe that Jesus's death was to atone for our sins. I do not believe that. The relationship between Jesus the man and the risen Christ that  people still experience is complex. I think both are important but I do not believe it is necessary or useful to have worked out a consistent story linking the two. In my opinion, as elsewhere expressed in this blog, the mystery elements of Christianity embody some of the most profound teachings of the religion. It is possible that Jesus survived the crucifixion, but if he did or did not it does not change the mystical teaching that Jesus existed as a man for a fixed amount of time and as God for an eternal amount of time (including the time before and during his life as a man). Anyway, this is a fairly responsible documentary about the possibility that he did not die on the cross.

Christian and Buddhist Mysticism: Thomas Merton

A Pilgrim's Way [Orthodox Documentary] Part 1/8

You can really see the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism when you look at Christian Monastic life and beliefs

Buddhist Influences on Christian Monasticism

It is a fact that Jesus could have been directly or indirectly exposed to Buddhist ideas, It is also possible that he developed these ideas himself, in the same way that the Buddha did

Buddhist Evolution and Compassion

Experiencing self versus remembering self

I think this distinction is very important for understanding religion. Some parts of religion are aimed at the experiencing self, these tend to be the mystical parts. Other parts of religion are aimed at the remembering self, which is also the story telling self. As reviewed in this video, these are different systems that understand things in different ways

Friday, March 9, 2012

The long dark night of the soul

The long dark night of the soul, as described by John of the Cross, is challenging to understand. Here is how I understand it, although I do not claim to fully understand it. At first glance it seems like depression but that is not an explanation. Psychologists understand very little about what depression is, other than that it exists as a fuzzy cluster of symptoms and that there are ways to treat it. But attaching a label to something does not explain "what" it is, just "that" it is. William James, in his classic book, the varieties of religious experience, noted that people who have deep religious experiences tend to arrive at the experience from either a positive, sunny place or a dark, empty place. James's opinion was that there is something deeper in the experience of struggling through darkness to light, than in going from well adjusted to light. However, since James himself arrived from a dark place his opinion may be biased. The dark night of the soul is more specific though. It refers a situation in which an individual has managed to become close to God and experience great joy and great peace - then this experience disappears. Essentially, they become normal again, but now normality seems painfully empty. From a psychological perspective, this makes sense. There is a lot research indicating that happiness is relative to a kind of running average of our experience. This is why people who win the lottery and people who become paralyzed often attain the same level of happiness they had before, after some time has passed. In other words, happiness is relative to what we normally experience; if things are better than normal we are happy and if they are worse than normal we are sad. So blissful experiences raise the average quite a bit and the removal of these therefore leads to a deeply unsatisfying state. However, note that if the bliss continues it becomes less special, it becomes normal. St. John prescribes what to do if you find yourself in the dark night. His answer is to be in it. Don't try to escape it, because you cannot will yourself out of it, nor can you bargain yourself out of it. You need to accept it as where you are now and sit in it in complete silence. This silence is a type of faith, or fearlessness (as the shambala school of Buddhism would call it). From this state of deep emptiness, devoid of any feeling, will arise the dawning of something wonderful, like a rising sun (again, a shambala metaphor). This dawning comes of its own accord, we just wait patiently and fearlessly for it. It can come fast or it can take a long time, but the lesson from st. John is that the state of waiting is itself, a wonderful state, possibly deeper and more meaningful than the dawning sun. So here is the synopsis - extended periods of blissful/ecstatic experiences can be followed by the dark night of the soul (e.g., john of the cross, mother theresa). However, it is possible to go through the dark night of the soul to a deeper way of experiencing God, one that is not relative to our normal experience. From a Buddhist perspective we would call this the Buddha nature and it is believed to exist in all people. From reading different accounts of religious experience, both Christian and Buddhist, it is clear that it is not necessary to go through the dark night to get to this place, but for some people it may be necessary. But even for those who have achieved this state, it is a constant matter of practice and refinement, and the dark night can occur at any time, especially If you are in alienating or difficult circumstance. So it is good to know what to do. It is interesting to note that the dark night of the soul phenomena is discussed a lot more in Christianity than in Buddhism. I think there are several possible reasons for this. One is that the practice of Christianity may encourage this route more than the practices of Buddhism. Also, Buddhist practice prescribes exactly the right thing to do if this happens, so practicing Buddhists may be less freaked out and confused by the experience. Finally, trying to understand this through Christian theology, in my opinion, is likely to be a gigantic mistake. It is the mystical side of Christianity, such as john of the cross, where the answer is found.