Monday, October 7, 2013

How to mix Theology and Dharma

The role of both theology and dharma is to represent a structure or framework of beliefs for operating within. The dharma, although it does embody some external forces (e.g., karma, reincarnation) is primarily and explicitly about how our minds should operate. In contrast, theology, although it does embody some explicit ideas about how our minds should operate (e.g., love thy neighbor) is primarily and explicitly about outside forces (e.g., God, Jesus, the Devil, angels). So although they seem very different along this dimension, the difference lies in mainly in the emphasis on inner and outer forces. However, in both mystical Christianity and mystical Buddhism, the external forces are understood metaphorically and analogically as describing internal forces, so this difference is more in style than in substance. 

In both cases, the mental framework created by these beliefs is a type of virtual computing device that tells us about the relationship between the elements represented in the system, and allows us to use them to think and make choices. However, it is important to note that having part of the framework is of limited use and may even produce a disastrous result (e.g., like driving a car with only three wheels on). This is why it is not a good idea to merely choose bits of different religions that appeal to you and mix them together. Religions need to be understood as a whole. This is one reason why mystics can still be quite dogmatic about their religion. Unfortunately, the other reason is that mystics may attribute their results to the specific representations in their framework, which are specific to their religion. This can lead to the belief that their religion is true (because it delivers the goods) and therefore others must be false, misguided, or confused. It is the contention of this blog, that creating mappings between frameworks, in this case between Christian Theology and Buddhist Dharma, can create deeper insights (or at least equally deep insights), for some people. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Life Of Zen Master Dogen (Full Movie)

This is a really nice movie about the life of Dogen. Dogen is an incredibly important figure in Buddhism. He was a reformer who reaffirmed the central role of mediation in Buddhism. Also, very important for understanding Dogen is his teaching on the relationship between practice and enlightenment. From a Buddhist Christian point of view please note how similar his story is to the Christian Saints who founded monastic groups, such as Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, and Saint Ignatius

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fake it till you make it: Your body language shapes who you are

This is a video about how pretending to be confident significantly alters your body chemistry to support confidence. This relates to Christian and Buddhist practices in two ways. The first is posture. Taking certain postures really does alter your brain and body. Actually, a lot of Christians find the Buddhist posture for meditation feels wrong. In fact, it is wrong for most types of prayer, but it is right for certain types of contemplation. It will put you into a different relationship to God, and that is OK. The other thing is the Christian practice of imitating Jesus or a Saint. The main book for this is, of course, The Imitation of Christ. In this practice you fake it with the knowledge that you will never make it. The point is that pretending really will change your brain state. It is a powerful technique. I have not come across a specific description of this technique in Buddhism, maybe because Buddhists are expected to actually become Buddhas. However, in my opinion it works well for Buddhists too. Just pretend you are the Buddha. One thing though, its best to choose safe things to pretend. Do not start by dinning with prostitutes and talking with killers. I recommend walking

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sin is not fun

There is the sense, in North American culture at least, that sin is fun or enjoyable, and that trying to not sin is dry, boring, and uptight. Sin means to miss the mark. The result of sin is what Buddhists refer to as ignorance. It manifests most fundamentally as fear and confusion. Other negative states, such as anger or jealousy, arise from these (Buddhists refer to all of these states as afflictive emotions). Each deadly sin in christianity is associated with a fear. For example, pride is the fear that you are nobody, gluttony is the fear that there is not enough. When we are engaged in a sin we are sad, afraid individuals, desperately trying to deal with a fear by frantically and hopelessly trying to create the opposite situation. Acting without sin is acting without confusion and without fear. Acting without sin makes any activity wonderfully enjoyable and fulfilling. Acting with sin turns each activity into a sad and desperate attempt to maintain a pathetic false sense of yourself and your reality

Taoism and Chi

Chi is a concept usually,associated with Taoism and tai chi, not Christianity or Buddhism (except for tantra). However, I have done tai chi for a long time so the concept of chi is relevant for me. I think that chi is a name for something that exists but is not named in Christianity and mainstream Buddhism. First, chi is relational. It exists in the flow between different things, between different parts of your body, between you and another person, and between us and the natural world. Manipulating chi can produce real, measurable, physical effects. This is well studied and I have seen many compelling demonstrations, but nobody has ever been able to physically detect chi. This is because it isn't a thing, it is an emergent effect arising from the dynamic interaction between systems (in my opinion). Chi is the name for this. If chi is manipulated correctly you get interesting effects. However, the only way to do this is to do the right thing at the right time. So chi cannot be summoned or controlled by an act of will, instead you must act in accord with the situation.  Therefore, the concept of chi is related to dependent co-arising and skillful means in Buddhism, as well as the ability to act with grace in Christianity. Acting through chi is embodied wisdom that flows along with the moment. Related to this, an important thing about acting through chi is that it cannot be planned, the correct timing must come out of the moment and in order to do this you must be silent internally.

Different religions have different flavors because they are built on the insights of different individuals living in different cultures. Taoism is is particularly good at describing the human experience with flow, being in the moment, and the dynamic relations between all things. Taking the best from each religion (as well as incorporating science) is the key to a sophisticated spiritual life (in my opinion).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mental Anguish

There are several ways within Christian Mysticism to extinguish mental anguish. Here are some

  1. Pray to Jesus, acknowledge that there is a place within you that you cannot reach, that is causing mental/spiritual anguish, acknowledge that Jesus can reach this place and ask him to fix it for you. If this works it will be like the calming of the seas, it will happen quite quickly
  2. If (1) does not work then you should accept the suffering of the anguish as God’s will at that point in time. Pray to Jesus to abide with you in the suffering, This can also produce profound effects.
  3. Sometimes mental anguish is due to thinking about your own shortcomings. In this case you can pray to Jesus by acknowledging your sinful nature. That is, acknowledge all the ways that you miss the mark, over and over, and how these failings are due to limitations that are built into you and beyond your reach. This can also produce a sudden and profound calm (Tolstoy wrote a short story about this). It should be noted that this method could be dangerous for some people and should not be used if you have problems with depression. This method is also very misunderstood both within Christianity and without. The point is NOT to beat yourself up. The point is to face your limitations and to be OK with them, at peace with them. The anguish comes from trying to be more perfect than you are. The goal is humility, not perfection
  4. Sometimes mental anguish comes from dealing with the behavior of an enemy, a person or sometimes a group or institution. In this case it can help to contemplate the issue in terms of Noetic Warfare. 

Choose Joy

Living an enlightened or holy life involves making a choice to do so. This choice needs to be made over and over again when you find yourself not doing so. Making the choice results in an experience of joy, compassion, and freedom. In Buddhism this experience can be understood as the cessation of suffering (from the 4 noble truths). In Zen, the experience of sudden enlightenment is one's first clear conscious experience of doing this.

There are two parts to this way of life, the first is having the experience along with an understanding of its causes. This is the realization that it is possible for you to choose this. The second part is sometimes referred to as stabilization in Buddhism. In this part you practice making the choice over and over and in different parts of your life. Although the choice seems obvious, this is not very easy. This stage is marked by a mixture of struggle and joy. It is a struggle because in any given situation we are likely to go with our old way of processing the information and forget that we have a choice. The religious life, understood in this way, is about creating a lifestyle where it is less likely that we will forget, i.e., by having lots of reminders and avoiding things that we know will distract us. Also, the choice will not always result in the experience. When the choice does not result in the experience (known in Christianity as the dark night of the soul) it is important to make the choice anyway. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


This is a brilliant lecture on Evil by Terry Eagleton that really helped me to clarify my own thinking on this. I don't know if he knows it or not but this is also very consistent with Buddhist thought

However, this could be a bit difficult to process without certain background knowledge, especially his idea of demonic and angelic evil. Here is an example that I believe illustrates it

Consider three people, all recently divorced from a long and wonderful marriage that somehow went horribly off the rails.

Person 1 is angry and bitter and now believes that all marriages are a sham. He does not believe that anyone has a happy marriage and if someone is pretending to have one he attacks that person viciously, to their face or behind their back, to prove that he is right. Since he could not sustain a happy marriage, no one can, and anyone pretending to deserves to be destroyed. Furthermore the whole idea of marriage should be thrown out as a contemptible lie. This is my example of the demonic evil Eagleton refers to

Person 2 is also angry and bitter but he blames his former spouse for the demise of the marriage, and possibly also himself. However, now he has seen the light and understand that the marriage failed because they did not follow all the rules. Next time he will get it right. He now advocates a very traditional, conservative view of marriage and people who do not agree are ignorant and morally corrupt. He knows marriage is good because he experienced it as good, but it failed. Rules and enforcement of the rules are needed to protect and enforce what is good. This is my example of the angelic evil that Eagleton refers to. This concept is trickier because people generally view protecting the good as moral. However, when the protection destroys what it is meant to protect by strangling the life out of it, it is evil dressed up as good.

Person 3 believes in dependent co-arising and understands that it is not easy in this world to create something good. He appreciates and is thankful for the good part of his marriage but he understands that the fragile web of interaction that held it together had run its course. Nobody is to blame, it is cause and effect that causes some people to have long stable marriages and others not to, and most of that is beyond our control. This is the good, as I understand it, the creation of compassion and meaning (in my view the two cannot be separated).

This is very consistent with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. All things arise temporarily through cause and effect. This is called dependent co-arising. In Buddhism, evil is created through ignorance and, as we can see from the examples above, not understanding the impermanent nature of things has this result. For demonic evil the problem lies in rejecting anything that is found not to be permanent, leading to the destruction of things that are good and inevitably impermanent. Angelic evil involves killing something that is good by trying to force it to be permanent when it is not. Th Buddhist way is the middle way, trying to create good while understanding its transient nature

Monday, May 13, 2013

Francis Collins - The Language of God

I think the brand of Christianity promoted on this blog is more liberal than this speaker would advocate, but his understanding of the relationship between religion and science is very good

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why do this??

Why am I doing this? I am a scientist and I run the risk of looking like a crazy person by ranting about religion on this blog. Daniel Dennett, a famous philosopher was also asked this question when he wrote a book called, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Specifically, he was asked why he was wasting his time on this? In other words, who cares about religion? His answer, which I paraphrase, was that understanding religion is important because it makes people irrational and dangerous. I agree very much and this is also one of my motivations for this humble blog. 

Dennett takes a reductionist approach, reducing everything to neuroscience and evolution.  His arguments are devastating for fundamentalists as it is impossible to credibly maintain their world view in the face of them. Again, I agree very much that fundamentalist views must be thrown out and that science is the way to do it.

However, I do not agree with the New Atheism movement that has arisen from the writings of Dennett, Dawkins, and other similar authors. In my opinion, the problem is not religion, the problem is fundamentalism. Ironically, the New Atheism movement has been criticized for being somewhat fundamentalist in thinking. In particular, they have been criticized for misrepresenting and simplifying non-fundamentalist religion to create a straw man version of religion that can easily be dismissed.

I believe that religion is like a rainforest. The rainforest is full of miraculous chemical compounds that have provided many breakthroughs in medicine. This is because we evolved out of the rainforest and we share a biological history. Likewise, religion embodies within its stories, rituals, symbols, etc., the history of human wisdom. It can also be viewed, in my opinion, as an evolved methodology for working with the human brain and, in particular, with consciousness. Terry Eagleton, the famous literary critic (and atheist) wrote an an excellent book making this argument (but not the rainforest bit, that’s mine) in his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009).

Also, it is very, very important to point out the views of the New Atheism movement are not universal amongst scientists. For example, Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria view places science and religion in separate spheres. There is really no agreement on this matter and very few scientists or philosophers devote time to it. I am very alarmed when members of the New Atheist movement represent this as a struggle between religion and science, and represent their view as the science side. In reality it is much more complex and messy

However, we can all agree that fundamentalism is problematic and that fundamentalist views should never be considered in any scientific debate. My approach is to promote an intelligent practice of religion for people who will benefit from it.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 6 of 6 - Einstein

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 5 of 6 - Einstein

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 4 of 6 - Einstein

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 3 of 6 - Einstein

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 2 of 6 - Einstein

TVO's OBL 2K7 - Rupinder Brar (Lecture) - Part 1 of 6 - Einstein

The use of light is a recurring theme in the Bible and in all religions. Below I have discussed the relationship between science and metaphor but it is not possible to create these metaphors if the science is not understood. This is a really good and easy to understand lecture on Einstein's theory of Relativity, which is about the central role that light plays in the workings of the universe. This stuff is as weird as any miracles in the Bible, but it is factually true and also amazing. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jordan Peterson on Redemption and Psychology in Christianity

This is a good lecture on the metaphorical meaning of the narrative structure of the Bible. Specifically, how it can be related to the rise and fall of the state (and further, how the state can refer to a nation or a state of being). Of course there is more than one metaphorical meaning of the Bible because metaphorical meaning arises from our contemplation of the text.

At the beginning Peterson discusses a metaphorical connection between the snake in the Garden of Eden and our evolutionary past. This sort of metaphor, where events in the Bible are understood as corresponding to scientific theories are very useful, as long as they are understood as reader generated metaphors. In this case, the original authors of the snake story would not have been able to connect snakes to the evolution of our vision system. However, the metaphor is still valid and useful. In fact, I would say that reader generated metaphors are as valid and useful as metaphors intended by the authors. Metaphor is most powerful during the act of discovery.

With metaphors to science, and particularly Evolutionary and Psychological theories, it is important to keep in mind that some theories have strong support and some only weak. For explaining the fact that humans have extraordinarily good vision I don't buy the argument that it was due to the need to spot snakes because it doesn't explain why our vision is so much better than other animals that also need to spot snakes. Instead I believe that the development of our vision was connected to the development of our intelligence and the ability to work with and manipulate objects. However, it is difficult to evaluate these types of evolutionary theories

Northrop Frye on The Shape of the Bible.

This is the second part of a lecture that explains the narrative structure of the Bible as a whole. The first part of the lecture is below

Northrop Frye on An Approach to the Bible

This is an excellent video by a great scholar on the different translations of the Bible. It is the first part of two so watch this one first

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Horror of the Self

The self is a horrible thing. We either hate it because it is not good enough and feel depression or we love it and act arrogantly. The self exists by virtue of mental comparisons to other people and imagined standards of where we should or ought to be. In the bible, when Jesus refers to being meek he is not saying we should be pushed around by others, he is saying we should be self-less, that we should not be pushed around by our "self".  Buddhists are very clear - the self is a delusion that causes suffering

The self is a way of framing reality. This way of framing reality is built into us through evolution. It has helped us to survive and passion our genes. It punishes us for not doing as well as others and rewards us for achievements, but only briefly, then we must work on the next achievement for the next reward. The evolutionary origins and the way this system works to drive us with punishment and reward are quite well understood. The big question is whether there is more to us or not, whether there is an alternative way of being that allows us to escape this endless oppressive cycle of reward and punishment. 

The good news is there is an alternative way of being. Many people have experienced at least transient glimpses of if it and others who have trained themselves selflessness can experience it quite a bit. The first noble truth in Buddhism is the existence of suffering. The second is the cessation of suffering. Suffering ceases when we achieve a goal but Buddhists do not count this because that momentary release sets up the next cycle of suffering. It is like a drug addict who takes a hit, it relieves suffering briefly but the need for the drug is increased and so suffering is increased. Instead, true cessation is more like getting clean.

In science there is a debate about whether or not it is possible to step out of the system of selfishness. Some evolutionary psychologists would prefer to keep it simple and explain all human behavior with this one system. For them, claims about stepping out of this system are delusional tricks we play on ourselves. We claim we are free but really we have just found a clever new way of comparing ourselves to others, we have opted out of one reward system where we were loosing and stepped into another where we get to win more - before I was not rich so I was a looser, but now I am spiritual so I can look down on the rich and win. Unfortunately, they are not entirely wrong as religion often does function this way.

The good news is that it is possible, that there is an alternative way for our brains to function. The evidence has been with us for a long time in the form of genuine spiritual achievement. Also, in my opinion, the existence of mirror neurons is related to this. I have a Ted talk somewhere in this blog on evolution, brains, and the question of selfishness that addresses this from a scientific perspective. However, on the practical side, ranting about the horrors of the self, which is what this is, is important for building up a defense against falling back into the cycle. Quitting the self is very much like an addict quitting a drug - because it is neurologically the same thing. Both involve being trapped in a cycle of desperately trying to trigger our neural reward centers.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Imagery is very powerful in religion. In this blog I try to synthesize the beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity with words but it also needs to be done visually. Buddhist Christians can arrange Buddhist and Christian images and items together for their meditation space in a way that is personally meaningful. I have seen this done in a number of places. Even my Grandmother, who was a deeply devout anglican and would not have been comfortable with this blog, kept a very small statue of Guanyin, a female Chinese Buddha, known as the Goddess of Mercy, on her fireplace along with all of her Christian imagery. I asked her about it and she just said she liked it. I think she liked the sense of calm Buddhist peacefulness portrayed in the tiny statue. Here are two images from the web


Asking God or Jesus for things makes no sense. Why would an all powerful, all wise being be influenced by our whining and begging. The asking actually benefits ourselves. By asking for something that is in line with the will of God we sync ourselves to the will of God. Asking or begging for things that we just really want, attachments, should bring us to this realization eventually through the absurdity of the act, but still, it is human nature so we need to work with it constantly. So we keep asking. In Asia, many buddhists pray to the buddha and ask for things they want, even though that makes no sense either. In both Christianity and Buddhism, the end point- God or enlightenment - is mysterious to us, but in both cases the practices that lead there are aimed at letting go of attachments. Buddhism is more explicit about it but I think it is obvious in the mystical teachings of Christianity. Both Buddhism and Christianity have a lower form that involves begging for things you want and being good in order to get what you want - ultimately a spot in heaven or a favorable rebirth. Believing literally in this lower stuff results in fundamentalism and the problems that always follow. However, if done with a knowledge of the absurdity of it all, these practices help us to live with the part of ourselves that is neurally wired to think in this way. In particular, in a crisis, these practices may be essential for coping. Praying for things does not cause God to give you those things, but if the prayer is out of compassion then it is good, in and of itself and it is heard in some way. Expressing beliefs about fairness and being heard are two very human needs, but they will not help in a crisis. Prayer can fulfill the need to be heard and let us get on to dealing with the actual problem

Redemptive Suffering

Redemptive suffering is the Roman Catholic belief that human suffering, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can remit the just punishment for one's sins or for the sins of another. Like an indulgence, redemptive suffering does not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness results from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, which cannot be earned. After one's sins are forgiven, the individual's suffering can reduce the penalty due for sin. (From Wikipedia).

I was just just watching a debated between Richard Dawkins and a Catholic clergy from Australia and the issue of redemptive suffering came up. The concept of redemptive suffering is very close to the concept of merit in Buddhism. When it comes to lowering suffering, Buddhists start with themselves, and attempt to lower their own level of ignorance, which is the cause of suffering. In Buddhism it is believed that you should be as concerned with the suffering of others as you are with the suffering of yourself, but that you need to lower your own level of ignorance first, otherwise your attempts to lower the suffering of others will be just as likely to cause more suffering. A similar sentiment was expressed by Jesus when he pointed out that you should first remove things (logs!!???!!) from your own eye before trying to remove things from other people's eyes. This is good advice, there are many examples in Christianity of well meaning people causing great suffering by trying to "save" others, although in Buddhism it can also be (wrongly) used as an excuse to ignore the the suffering of others and to engage in a selfish (and fruitless) practice.

In Buddhism, when you have successfully lowered the suffering of yourself or another, you generate merit. Merit is used to lower the the suffering that has been banked by karma every time you acted to increase suffering in the world. It is the punishment that is in store for you for sinning (I.e., missing the mark because you acted out of ignorance). At the end of meditation, after somewhat lowering their own level of suffering, Buddhists can offer the merit that was generated to lower the suffering of others. Likewise, when a Buddhist suffers through an event without reacting out of ignorance (i.e., by loosing faith in the Dharma) they generate merit, which reduces their karmic debt.

Although both Buddhism and Christianity use an accounting metaphor, this metaphor should not be taken literally. The key is to accept the situation you are in that is causing the suffering, because you are in it and it cannot be otherwise. This will get rid of suffering due to not accepting the will of God This is sometimes referred to as the suffering of suffering in Buddhism. Basically, you’re in a bad place and stewing over whether or not that is just or right will make your suffering worse and cause you to act out of ignorance and generate more suffering. This is not easy but through practice you can get better at it and increasingly enjoy the benefits of being able to access joy and peace in the midst of suffering. The Passion of Christ is a very powerful model for this, but it is important to understand it in the right way. Jesus did not want to be crucified and prayed for a way out. Suffering is to be avoided if possible, not sought out. Remaining calm in the midst of suffering more often than not increases your likelihood of finding a way out and not making it worse. In Zen they say, plan not worry. In other words, be calm and try to find the best solution