Archive for the ‘Philosophical basis’ Category
In the summer of 1986, I gave a public talk at a Zen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the talk, a woman who had been in the audience handed me a sheet of paper printed on both sides and assured me I would find it edifying. I read the front page of the sheet and learned the document in my hand contained the teachings of an entity named Lazaris, who lived in one of the dimensions that somehow had remained undiscovered by science and who sent messages to the beings in the dimensions that human beings occupy through a channeler. The dissemination of the teachings of Lazaris have progressed since 1986 from the crude and unhygienic medium of the printed page to the aseptic medium of the Internet. Lazaris now has a website, on which we learn this:
Since 1974, Lazaris has channeled through Jach Pursel, his only channel, offering his friendship and love and generating a remarkable body of tools, techniques, processes, and pathways for our Spiritual Journey.
Learning more than some basic information about Jach Pursel and his assistants and getting more than a few short quotations from the teachings of Lazaris requires going to the shopping page and buying access to audio recordings, which range in price from $7.95 to $74.95 for the basic teachings, although some basic teachings are free. Learning what Lazaris has to say about being prosperous and successful can cost up to $250. Prosperity is rarely inexpensive.
Another website gives more information about what Lazaris is:
Lazaris is a nonphysical entity who first began channelling through Jach Pursel, his only channel, on October 3rd, 1974. He is a spark of Light, a Spark of Love, who has helped tens of thousands of people to expand personally, metaphysically and spiritually on their Spiritual Journey Home.
Another page on that same website offers a taste of the wisdom of Lazaris through a few quotations
Your love has a fierce majesty that cannot be matched; your love has a tenacious magnificence that cannot be contained or measured. You of the Human Race stand alone among the many Races within the dimensional universes in your capacity to love and in your ability to care – in the way you care for each other. Others love, but none like you do… Others care, but none like you do.
Back in 1986, a friend who was with me as I perused the double-sided sheet of printed paper commented “I wonder why it is that some people feel they need a nonphysical entity to tell them the sorts of things they could probably figure out for themselves by paying attention to their own experiences in life. If people feel a need for help from others, there are plenty of ordinary physical entities who have given us more than enough good advice.” I wondered the same thing.
Thirty years later I am still wondering, although to be honest I have not given the matter much thought. It is not that we human beings need better advice, I am inclined to believe, but that we would do well to follow the good advice we have been given. The only reason I am giving the matter of the appeal of Lazaris and various other allegedly disembodied entities some thought right now is that the United States seems about to embark on an era of authoritarianism. The man elected to be the 45th President of the United States has said that he does not need extensive intelligence briefings, because he can be told about a situation for twenty seconds, and he gets a gut feeling about what to do. It’s as if he “just knows” what to do and how to do it. His way of just knowing does not require the careful gathering of evidence, the consideration of all the different conclusions that any body of evidence could support, assessing the limitations of the available evidence, and the painstaking weighing of possibilities and probabilities. No phronesis is required. All that is needed is to listen for twenty seconds and then let intuition and instincts lead the way. If others question the decision, they simply need to be told “I am very smart. I know things that no one else knows.” There is no admission that there could be any legitimacy to questioning the conclusions that such a method yields. It is absolute. In that respect, the pronouncements of the 45th President are like the statements of an oracle, or a nonphysical entity that channels wisdom through just one person.
In his book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, Shawn Lawrence Otto chronicles several of the human tragedies that have unfolded when authoritarians have suppressed both questioning and evidence that casts doubt on firm convictions. When, for example, unimpeachable leaders have insisted that particular agrarian policies would produce more crops, then have fired or imprisoned or even killed observers who dared to bring forth conclusive evidence that crop yields were in fact poor, masses of people have starved to death.
Authoritarianism manifests itself as an inability to accept that one has been mistaken. An antidote to authoritarianism is scientific method, which has at its very core not only the realization that one may very well be mistaken but the practice of trying to show that the currently accepted conclusions are mistaken, or at least incomplete and oversimplified and liable to be modified as new evidence comes to light. Failure to falsify a tentative claim reinforces the claim for now, but of course the claim can always be overturned in the future as better and more complete observations are made. It is falsifiability that distinguishes scientific claims from claims that are placed out of the reach of questioning or criticism. Authoritarianism and scientific method are fundamentally incompatible, which is why politicians with an authoritarian streak tend to be wary of science, scientists and evidence-based reasoning.
People, either individually or collectively, who have various kinds of vested interest have often used the greatest strength of those who practice science—their ability to replace a tentative conclusion with a more accurate one—against science. The tobacco industry, for example, sought to undermine public confidence in the conclusion that tobacco use entails numerous health risks by pointing out that what scientists say in one decade is shown to be false in later decades. If researchers are saying today that tobacco use entails health risks, suggested the practitioners of denial, ten years from now they may be saying something completely different. Exactly the same strategy was used by the pesticide industry to undermine public confidence in the finding that some pesticides and herbicides do damage to the environment and some health hazards to human beings. The same strategy has been used by the petroleum industry to manufacture doubt that the combustion of fossil fuels is a cause of changes in the climate that result in the melting of ice caps and glaciers, rising ocean levels, lethal acidification of waters, more turbulent storms and generally more unpredictable meteorological events. The transition team of the 45th president-elect tried to create doubt about CIA and FBI findings that Russia was involved in hacking into the email servers of both political parties by pointing out that those entities were mistaken in 2003 in saying that Saddam Hussein probably had, or would soon have, nuclear weapons. The doubt-creating strategy consists of making the fallacious argument that if someone was mistaken about something, then they cannot be believed about anything. That being the case, no one is to be believed but an infallible authority. But ordinary human beings are notoriously fallible, so the safest bet is either an extraordinary human being or a non-human entity.
If scientific method and authoritarianism are incompatible, then science is a way to counter authoritarianism, but authoritarianism is also a way to counter science. The authoritarian method consists in making claims, repeating them until people believe them, undermining the credibility of those who make contrary claims, deliberately silencing those who disagree with or question one’s claims, or by casting aspersions on the character of those who do not readily endorse one’s claims. A good many politicians practice all of those techniques. Probably every human being uses those techniques at one time or another.
This squib began with a reference to the teachings of Jach Pursel, which he claims are really the teachings of a nonphysical entity called Lazaris. Since I have no idea what these teachings are, because I am not inclined to pay money to find out, I am not at all in a position to suggest that there is anything pernicious in those teachings. In fact I suspect, but do not know, that the teachings are innocuous enough and unlikely to do anyone direct harm. They are probably not at all in the same league as the claim that nothing need be done by human beings to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. There is, however, a potential unintended consequence of disseminating advice by making the untestable claim that the advice comes from a nonphysical entity rather than taking the more straightforward route of saying “Here are some ideas I have that I would like to share with you (for free).” Claiming that the advice is not just the outcome of the thinking of another ordinary human being, but is the communication of a nonphysical entity who speaks through only one human being, makes the advice seem extraordinary and therefore (in the minds of some) more credible, less prone to the errors made by minds encased in meat, fat and bones. Presenting the advice in this way is an attempt to make an end run around critical thinking. In an age about to embark on an autocratic and authoritarian presidency, critical thinking is not something to try to run around. It is something to embrace and to use as well as one is able. There is no area of life that I can think of that is not enhanced by critical thinking.
Many a political and economic commentator has expressed the view that the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is likely to be the beginning of a dark and dangerous period on undemocratic authoritarianism in American history. For what it’s worth, Jach Pursel, blogging on behalf of Lazaris, is inclined to disagree. His cheerful advice is remarkably similar to that of the President so many people are dreading:
Be a champion of change, a champion of the new future—a future no one has yet imagined.
Some, I think, may have imagined our future. Names such as William Golding and Eric Arthur Blair (alias George Orwell) spring to mind.
A while back I went to see a performance of Shen Yun, the dance group associated with Falun Gong. The dancing, singing and music were all polished and impressive, but despite the skill of the performers, I left the theater feeling that some important dimension was missing from the spectacle. There was nothing in the evening that really engaged me intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. In thinking about it afterwards, I realized that what had left me feeling unsatisfied was the moral certainty of many of the segments, the theme of which had been that perfectly good and innocent people were being persecuted by thoroughly malicious people for no reason other than that malevolent people cannot tolerate good people. There was nothing at all subtle about it. The good people wore white and pastel clothing, while the villains who were tormenting them wore black clothing with prominent red hammer-and-sickle designs on their backs. The good and innocent people were without guile or flaws, and the villains were without redeeming qualities. The final effect was as two-dimensional and unwittingly comical as any piece of emotionally manipulative propaganda. Whenever art is put to the service of political or religious dogma, it ceases to be artistic and becomes merely crafty.
There is no disputing that different people have different tastes, so I cannot speak for anyone but myself in matters of morality. What I can say about myself is that my soul craves moral murkiness. This may be nothing more than a particular application of a more general aspect of my character, namely, that I love questions far more than answers, and love above all those questions that cannot be answered. Since most moral questions fall into the category of unanswerable questions, it is no surprise that I am drawn to thinking about morality and am especially attracted to situations of moral complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy.
My own default position, which I admit I am unable to defend, is that there is no such thing as a moral fact. People have personal preferences in how they would like others to behave, but these preferences are essentially groundless and therefore indefensible. There is nothing whatsoever that I like about war. I find it distasteful, and my preference would be for disputes to be settled without recourse to violence, coercion, destruction of lives and property and to threats of violence and destruction. My preference would be to live in a world in which there were no weapons of any kind and in which no human being imposed his or her will on any other living being. As strongly as I prefer that, however, I have never been able to defend the claim that a peaceful world is more moral than a world of bellicosity. That peace is better than war is, in other words, a personal preference that I happen to have. It is not a moral fact. There is probably a name for the view that there is no such thing as a moral fact—perhaps it is what some people mean by the term “moral nihilism”. What the view is called does no interest me very much. What interests me more is that it is a view I would prefer not to have, but have been driven to having for lack of sufficient reason to hold the view that there are, or may be, moral facts.
Most situations that create a craving for moral certainty—that is, for clear answers to the question of what ought and what ought not to be done—create that craving precisely because no clear answers are evident. Most situations that make one even think in moral terms are situations characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. These two features are closely related, but let me try to explain how I would distinguish them.
- Moral indeterminacy. Moral theories that assess the rightness of actions on the basis of the goodness of the consequences of those actions lend themselves to indeterminacy; that is, the consequences of an action cannot be determined for a couple of reasons. First, given the complexity of events, it is seldom possible to know for certain whether any given circumstance that occurs after an action is the effect or direct consequences of that action. This is so because no circumstance has only one cause. This is especially the case when the putative effect in question is an abstract notion such as happiness, flourishing or well-being. Well-being is such a nebulous concept that it is almost impossible to define it with any kind of precision, and even if it could be said definitively whether a particular state of being qualified as being well, that state would have so many variables that it would not be possible to identify any given action or personality trait as its cause.There is another reason that the consequences of a given action or personality trait cannot be determined, which is that the consequences of anything at a given time continue indefinitely into the future. In the year 2014, for example, the consequences of the signing of the Declaration of Independence are still unfolding, and they will continue to unfold long after the nation that got its beginning after that action has ceased to exist. It is possible that the consequences of the Declaration of Independence in 1825 were better than the consequences in 1848 and slightly worse than the consequences in 1935. So at what point does one take a sounding of the long chain of consequences of an action to determine whether the consequences were better or worse? (There is an often-told Zen story that illustrates this point.)
- Moral ambiguity. Moral theories that focus not on actions but on personality traits tend to classify personality traits as either virtues or vices. A person with good character is one whose virtues outnumber or outweigh that person’s vices. It is usually said that virtue conduces to the person’s happiness or well-being, while vices conduce to a deficiency of flourishing. As was pointed out above, the abstractness of those notions militates against our being able to determine whether a person’s being is well or ill. Even if this could be determined in some way, it would turn out that any given personality trait has a mixture of results, some of them instances of well-being and others of doing poorly. If one examines one’s own patience, for example, one can probably think of situations in which patience turned out to be conducive to well-being and of other situations in which patience was an obstacle to well-being. So is patience a virtue or a vice? For most of us, the answer is Yes. It is both. Its valence is ambiguous. The same would be most likely turn out to be true of such traits as attentiveness to detail, curiosity, optimism and so forth. Even the qualities of wisdom and compassion, which tend to have a good reputation among philosophers as virtues, and faith, hope and love, which tend to be favored by Christian theologians, cannot claim to be unambiguous.It is a commonplace to say that everyone, with the possible exception of perfect saints, has a mentality that is a mixture of virtue and vice and that therefore there are no perfectly innocent victims, perfectly virtuous heroes or absolutely vicious villains. That is no doubt the case, but the problem is even deeper than that. At its most fundamental level, the problem is that there are no personality characteristics that are pure virtues or pure vices. There are personality traits; nothing more than that need be said.
Moral nihilism in a Buddhist context
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the claim has been made that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination steers a middle course (madhyamā pratipad) between the two extremes of claiming that there is an eternal self that survives the death of the present physical body and claiming that there is a self that endures from conception to death but is cut off or annihilated when the physical body dies. These two extreme views are therefore often called eternalism and annihilationism in English, approximate translations of the Sanskrit śāśvatavāda and ucchedavāda. Each of these two extremes is said to be a poor foundation for an ethical life. The view that there is a self in this life that fails to survive the death of the body is said to lead to a kind of moral nihilism. The usual reason given for this association is that if one does not continue existing beyond the death of the body in this life, then one is not accountable in the future for actions done in this life. One might, for example, commit a heinous act at the very end of this life and not live to experience the painful consequences that are supposed to follow heinous acts. One might, for example, strap a bomb to one’s body and detonate it in a crowded place, thereby killing both oneself and scores of other people, and if that is the end of one’s conscious existence, then one would not go to hell or be reborn as a rabbit in a realm of hungry coyotes. Buddhists, not alone among purveyors of religious ethics, worried about the injustice of crimes going unpunished. They also worried about the injustice of good deeds going unrewarded. Someone might, for example, run into a burning building to save the life of an invalid, succeed in saving the helpless invalid’s life and then die of smoke inhalation. If that heroic act is the very final episode in the hero’s existence, then there is no chance of reaping the rewards of the heroism. That a hero and a suicidal sociopath might have exactly the same fate—oblivion—hardly seems fair. So cosmic justice, the argument goes, demands that we survive into another existence long enough to experience the rewards of virtuous behavior and the miseries engendered by vicious conduct. Unless there is a difference in the consequences of vice and virtue, then vice and virtue turn out to be indistinguishable, and to say that there is nothing that distinguishes vice from virtue (or bad deeds and good deeds) is to espouse moral nihilism.
Let me begin by accepting, just for the sake of argument, that the Buddhist claim that denying an afterlife would lead to moral nihilism is correct. What I would now like to argue is that moral nihilism is in no way incompatible with having an effective Buddhist practice. This amounts to arguing that two and a half millennia of Buddhist teachers, and even the Buddha himself, were mistaken in saying that denial of an afterlife is a false or unproductive view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and therefore an obstacle to liberation from the root causes of discontent. Before presenting a case for my contention that the Buddhist tradition is mistaken in this matter, let me try to understand what I think the worry is. The Buddhists who adhere to their traditional teachings are worried, I think, that if someone is a moral nihilist, then that person will automatically behave in ways that are harmful to self and others. If one is convinced that trying to make a rational or pragmatic distinction between right and wrong and between vice and virtue is a futile pursuit, then one is sure to break all the Buddhist precepts. That is, one is bound to go around killing, stealing, being a sexual pervert, lying, gossiping and harboring greedy and hateful ambitions. Why? Because, I think the Buddhist is likely to respond, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in all those ways that are supposedly destructive to self and others. So if I am to show that the Buddhist tradition’s collective fear of moral nihilism is ungrounded, I must show that a it does not follow that a moral nihilist would necessarily violate the Buddhist precepts. One way of doing that is to explain why it is that I, being a moral nihilist, have strived (and for the most part succeeded) to follow the Buddhist precepts.
First, it may be helpful to say something about the nature of what are usually called the precepts in Buddhism. In the Sanskrit language these so-called precepts are called śīla, a word that simply means a habit or a propensity to act in a particular way. Liquid water has the habit of flowing downhill, while solidified water has the habit of staying stationary and gaseous water has the habit of rising. Buddhas have the habit of being mindful of how their thoughts and words and physical actions affect other living beings. There is not necessarily anything moral about śīla; it is simply a propensity to be predictable in one’s actions. The verbal formula for the five, or eight or ten śīlas of Buddhism can best be translated as “I undertake the training principle of abstaining from….” It is noteworthy that the formula does not say that one has a duty to abstain from a given action, or that doing a given action is offensive in the eyes of God, or that performing the action in question will lead to rebirth in hell. There is nothing suggesting that abstaining from the actions is obligatory. On the contrary, the abstention is purely voluntary. The abstention is simply something that one undertakes. One undertakes it as a training principle. In other words, if one wishes to be part of the community of people undergoing Buddhist training, then one voluntarily undertakes to abstain from taking life, taking property, reckless sexuality, lying and so forth. In much the same way that if one wishes to drive a car in England, one agrees to drive on the left side of the road, but if one wishes to drive a car in Canada, one drives on the right side of the road, if one wishes to consider oneself a disciple of the Buddha, one agrees not to take life or property and not to act in various other ways.
Surely, I can imagine someone saying, there must be something more involved in practicing abstention from certain acts than simply wanting to be a member of the Buddhist club and knowing that some kinds of behavior would be frowned upon by the doormen. And I would readily admit that successfully abstaining from those actions probably requires some motivation other than the fear of disapproval. In my own case, fear that I might be considered unworthy to be a member of the Buddhist club plays no role at all. My own adherence to the Buddhist precepts preceded my knowing anything about the teachings of Buddhism. What motivated me was, as was mentioned above, simply a strong sense of distaste for taking life and for the various other things that Buddhists undertake to abstain from. So while my own practice of the precepts has been far from perfect—rest assured that I am no candidate for sainthood—it has not taken much more effort to practice the recommended abstentions than it has taken to abstain from eating beets. I don’t like beets. I find them distasteful. I also don’t like killing, taking what is not given, being sexually careless and lying. I also don’t enjoy being around loud and boisterous people, so I also try to minimize my contact with them. All these preferences are purely a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes.
Now, if my principal motivation in abstaining from the kinds of actions that made the Buddha frown is my own idiosyncratic sense of taste, does that not limit me as a Buddhist practitioner? I would say not. It does not limit me as a practitioner (unless my tastes unaccountably and unexpectedly change, which could happen if something very dramatic happened to me). At most, it may limit me as a Buddhist preacher, because I cannot preach what I practice. I am incapable of coming up with rational arguments for why I or anyone else ought to follow the Buddhist precepts. If someone does not already think it is a good idea not to take life, I cannot persuade him. If someone does not already think it is not a good idea to take someone else’s property, I cannot dissuade her from theft. I am completely unfurnished with rational arguments to support why one kind of behavior is better than another. But in this, I am not so unique. In fact, I would claim that in this respect I am exactly the same as Buddhist preachers, for they are also incapable of coming up with rational arguments for following the precepts. Telling someone that if they take a life then they will be reborn in hell is not a rational argument. Telling someone that the Buddha did not like theft is not a rational argument for abstaining from taking property. My claim is that all putative arguments for morality turn out to be, on closer examination, nothing more than statements of personal taste.
It is possible that there are disadvantages of being a moral-nihilistic Buddhist, but so far the only one I am aware of is that my distaste for moral absolutes and black-and-white depictions of good guys versus bad guys may have diminished my enjoyment of the Shen Yun troop.
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.
Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.
My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.
In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.
My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.
Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.
Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship. (Advices and Queries, paragraph 6.)
The late Prof. Willard Oxtoby of the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto said that religious pluralism is not merely the acceptance of the fact that there are different beliefs and practices among human beings, but the celebration of that fact. If one has the conviction that the world would be impoverished if there were fewer ways of being religious, then one is a religious pluralist. That said, there are many ways of being a pluralist. (How much sense would it make if there were only one way of being pluralistic?) In what follows, I shall talk about some of the approaches I have followed, with more or less success. Please forgive me for describing them using culinary analogies. Prof. Harvey Cox, among others, has used the metaphor of the cafeteria or the food mall to talk about an approach to religiosity. One can imagine a person going to a food mall in a modern shopping center in which there are cuisines from many countries available. There are several ways of dealing with the wide array of choices. Let me mention three.
- The spiritual mixer. A person might feel like having a little bit of everything at the same meal. So he might order sushi at the Japanese stand, a feta cheese salad at the Greek booth, a side dish of refried beans at the Mexican American stall and a gulab jamun for dessert at the Indian food vendor. Not everyone would find that combination a satisfactory meal, but the beauty of a food mall is that one can find almost anything one likes and put it all together in whatever combination strikes one’s fancy. A person pursuing a religious practice in a similar spirit to our imaginary diner might don his tefillin, light some candles and incense at a home altar on which a crucifix, an Amitābha Buddha image and a statue of Ganesh are all enshrined and earnestly chant some verses from the Navajo Yei bichai. If the person in question finds aspects of Judaism, Christianity, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism and Navajo chanting all personally meaningful in some way, this mixture of elements, which might seem odd to some, might be uplifting and transformative.
- The serial taster. Another person might go to the same food court, look around and conclude that all offerings look appetizing. But instead of having a little of everything at the same meal, this diner make a resolve to have an Italian meal today, a South Indian course tomorrow, a Chinese feast the day after tomorrow and a combination of Thai foods the day after that. This person might recognize that the elements of any given tradition of cuisine complement each other nicely and that combinations of taste have been put together over the course of centuries of culinary experimentation. While not wanting to restrict herself to one kind of food forever, she nevertheless sees an advantage in savoring each tradition separately and spreading her experience of variety over the course of a week or perhaps over the course of a month or longer. The spiritual counterpart of the serial taster might be someone who goes to Quaker meeting for worship on Sunday, vipassanā meditation on Monday, Hindu bhajans on Tuesday, a Greek orthodox mass on Wednesday, a Course in Miracles discussion group on Thursday, a mosque on Friday and a synagogue on Saturday. She might fully relish each religious event during the week but feel incorporating elements of all of them in a single hour of practice might lead to spiritual indigestion.
- The consistent diner. Some people find that they get the greatest satisfaction from eating the same type of food, perhaps even exactly the same dish, every day. Personal satisfaction for this diner might come in consistency, but while having a preference for maintaining habitual consistency, he may derive vicarious satisfaction by being in the company other others who have different diets. So this person might seek out friends who have different tastes from his own. He goes predictably every time to the organic fruit vendor and comes back with a fresh fruit du jour salad topped with yogurt and granola, which he enjoys as his friends enjoy their lasagna, enchiladas, kota riganati or shawarma. He eats the same thing not because of a disdain or fear of other diets, but because he has found a diet that works well and need not be tampered with. The spiritual counterpart of this diner might be the observant Jew who has plenty of Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and secular friends whom he admires precisely because they are who they are.
At various times in my life I have tried each one of these approaches. In the 1980s I was part of a Zen community in which we were encouraged to be informed about other forms of Buddhism and about religions other than Buddhism and to attend the interfaith events that were fashionable in those days. While I thoroughly enjoyed the company of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism or Catholicism or cabalistic Judaism or Wicca and approved of them wholeheartedly for following practices that they found meaningful, my own path was Zen, and I was reluctant, because I saw no need, to mix it with anything else—until I eventually discovered that the culture of Zen did not suit my temperament at all and left me deeply unfulfilled.
My dissatisfaction with “pure” Zen left me for a while with a suspicion of all claims of purity, real or imagined. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I came to feel for a while that all claims to purity were the product of imagination and that real purity simply does not exist.) Despite the fact that no religion other than Buddhism appealed to me very much at all on a personal level, I still rejoiced that there was a varied menu of religious practices for people to choose from and that if a person sought long enough she could surely find something meaningful and uplifting. As for me, what I found fulfilling was a sort of generic Buddhism that contained elements of Theravāda, bits and pieces of Mahāyāna, a smidgeon of Vajrayāna; the mixture could perhaps be characterized as ABZ (Anything But Zen) Buddhism. That phase eventually gave way to a succession of other phases.
The teachings and contemplative practices of Buddhism have appealed to me for my entire adult life, but I never really found a Buddhist community with a structure in which I felt fully at home. My childhood upbringing left me with an unshakable conviction in the fundamental equality of all people, as a result of which I found the hierarchical, and mostly patriarchal, structure of all the Buddhist communities I encountered off-putting. Equally off-putting was a subtle smugness among many Buddhists—admittedly mostly among converts—whereby Buddhism was assumed to be the standard against which all things spiritual were to be measured. I remember getting into several rather heated discussions with fellow Buddhists who insisted that to be a truly committed Buddhist was to wish that eventually everyone would be a Buddhist. Their reasoning was that to be a Buddhist is to strive to be compassionate, and to be compassionate entails wishing the very best for everyone, and since Buddhism is the very best, one naturally wishes it for everyone. Such people often seemed shocked that I wished for everyone to find whatever form of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, humanism, tribalism or atheism that suited their needs the best. Such people were puzzled that I assumed most people will find different things suitable to them at different stages of their life, for to be alive is to change.
The only communal structure that ever felt like home to me was that of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Making me feel profoundly at home were the Quaker manner of tending to communal concerns, the fact that they had no distinction between clergy and laity but considered everyone clergy, the conviction that everyone is a seeker and everyone has something to learn from everyone else and the conviction that no authority is unimpeachable and no attempt to articulate the truth is absolute.
My project for many years has been to learn how to be part of a community of Quakers while drawing most of my nourishment from the teachings of the Buddha and their associated practices. It did not take very long at all to discover that a Quaker meeting for worship is no place to try to do my Buddhist meditation. A Quaker meeting for worship, I came to be convinced through experience, is a Quaker meeting for worship and is most fulfilling to me when I enter fully into that almost indefinable and indescribable mode of worship that occasionally gives rise to what Quakers call a covered meeting—a gathering at which everyone is fully centered and attendant upon something that feels very much as if it participates in divinity—whatever that may mean. To be the only one in the meeting doing vipassanā is to rupture the unity of the gathered meeting. So eventually I abandoned the practice of the spiritual mixer and took up something more like the practice of the serial taster. In the course of a week, or even a day, I am likely to read an epistle of George Fox, a lecture by Swami Vivekananda, a chapter of a book by Paul Tillich, an essay by Dōgen, a few pages of Carl Jung, and a writing by Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. I have given up trying to arrive at an intellectual synthesis of all these diverse thinkers, but I never fail to learn from them and be inspired by them, each being motivational in its own way. If someone were to demand that I give one of them up, I would have to say “Please give me another commandment, for I cannot follow the one thee has given me.”
Needless to say, at any given moment it would be nearly impossible for me to say whether I was acting out of my Quaker habits or my Buddhist habits. In 99% of daily life, the habits of one are fully compatible with the habits of the other. The differences are, to me at least, trivial. When among Buddhists I use a different vocabulary than when among Quakers, because speaking to the natives in their own language slightly raises the odds of being superficially understood. To be understood more deeply, however, kindness will suffice. And kindness is most likely to emerge when all one’s labels have slipped off.
But never get into your head that your faith alone is true and every other is false. (Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa)
In the month of March 2011, the 176th anniversary of the birth of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa (Ramakrishna) is celebrated. During his lifetime Ramakrishna experimented with the devotional practices of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and was convinced that the source of all the world’s religions is the same. Ignorance, he said, is the belief that God is outside oneself and far away. True knowledge is realizing that God is within oneself. When one has that true knowledge, and realizes also that God is within all living beings, then there is no longer any place for such concepts as “infidel,” “heretic” and “apostate.” There are no foreigners and no aliens; there are none who do not belong, none who cannot be forgiven, none who cannot be unconditionally loved.
On January 13, 2011, in Toronto, Shāh Karīm al-Ḥussaynī, the fourth Āgā Khān, the current imām of the Shia Imami Nizari Ismailis, delivered the Lafontaine-Baldwin lecture at University of Toronto. The lecture was broadcast on CBC Radio. In that lecture, His Highness made the observation that all the great empires in the world have thrived during the times when they have embraced what we now call multiculturalism and religious pluralism, and they have fallen when the inclusive attitudes of embracing all ethnic groups, all linguistic groups and all religions has given way to xenophobia and religious intolerance. Just one of the examples he gave was that of the Islamic empire of al-Andalus in what is now southern Spain. This nation lasted for more than 700 years, from 711 until 1492, and was a vibrant center of Muslim, Jewish and Christian cross-fertilization and exchange. In 1492, when the intolerant Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile recaptured Granada and began the reconquest of Spain, one of the most brutal and ugly episodes in human history took place. The Spanish Inquisition was a time when Jews and Muslims were required to convert to Catholicism or be expelled from Spain, and many of those who chose to convert were there examined by the Inquisition and found to be heretical. They were then handed over to the state and subjected to punishment, often in the form of being burned alive in public squares. The intolerance and brutality of the Spanish Inquisition set the tone for the treatment of native peoples in lands colonized by the Spanish in the Americas and Africa. Most of the shameful European conquest of the Americas can be seen as an aftermath of the collapse of morality in the wake of the descent from the spirit of multiculturalism and religious pluralism that began in 1492 and then gained momentum for several centuries afterward.
Intolerance of all kinds is contagious. Some have argued that it is innately human and that people are naturally disposed to be suspicious of outsiders and to blame them for nearly everything that has gone wrong in the world. Indeed, it is difficult to find any part of the world that has not at one time or another see manifestations of xenophobia. It does not follow from that, however, that people must be driven by suspicion and hatred. Nor does it follow that to be driven by forces other than suspicion, fear and hatred is to be somehow inhuman. Throughout history there have been people who have dedicated their lives to overcoming aggression, and the fearful mentality that gives rise to it. The Jina and the Buddha of ancient India, Laozi and Mozi and Mengzi of ancient China, Socrates and Aristotle and the Stoics and Skeptics of ancient Greece, and countless prophets and priests and philosophers and mystics since then have tirelessly articulated and lived the message of universal love—of loving one’s neighbor and loving the stranger just as one loves oneself and one’s own family.
In his address in Toronto, the Aga Khan observed that the world has become so interconnected through communication networks that whatever happens anywhere is soon known—and often imitated— everywhere, and social and political movements spread like wildfire. At the time of his talk, the protests in Tunisia were just beginning to be widely known, and the unrest in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen had not yet unfolded, nor had the massive protests in Wisconsin—the largest since the protests against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ’70s. Given how rapidly cataclysmic change can take place around the world, he said, we human beings do not have much time to learn the important message that love is a much better strategy for survival and well-being than animosity. Given the efficiency of the technology of destruction now distributed around the world, failure to find our way back to civilization could quickly bring our unruly species to an end.
As the celebration of the birth of Ramakrishna takes place in Vedanta centers around the world, it is a time to reflect on his words and deeds, and on the words and example of the Aga Khan, and on the words and teachings of all men and women who have lived and died to establish peace and harmony and justice for all living beings on this earth. In the spirit of Ramakrishna, I personally find myself reflecting on the words of George Fox, written in a letter from prison in England in 1656, a time when men and women lost their lives or, like Fox, were imprisoned for following the “wrong” sort of Christianity:
…be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.
William James observed that people tend to hold on to the beliefs they had while young and to make only minor repairs along the way, unless an experience comes along that just cannot be accommodated within the old framework. That seems about right; at least, it corresponds well to my own experiences. For as long as I can recall, I have had the belief that beliefs are best kept to a minimum. It is sufficient to have a few beliefs that get one successfully through the day, such as the belief that when an elevator stops and opens its doors at a floor well above the ground floor, it is most probably safe to step out onto what looks like a solid floor. Even if one keeps one’s beliefs down to those that are helpful to make it from the ringing of the alarm clock in the morning back to the safety of the bedroom at night, the portfolio is bulging. Loading it with more produces an unwieldy encumbrance.
Carrying around beliefs, and especially about things that cannot possibly be proven to be either true or false, is not only cumbersome. It can be dangerous to health—one’s own as well as others’. Beliefs tend to lead people into temptation to have a degree of contempt or suspicion for those who do not share them. Some of my earliest memories come from the time of the McCarthy era in American politics, a time when holding unapproved beliefs could lead to prison or at least to the end of a career. While still much too young to comprehend what the stories really meant, I heard stories of friends of the family whose careers had been undermined because they had dared to express beliefs that were labelled by some as seditious and anti-American. Where there is a clash of beliefs of that kind, it is difficult to determine what is more dangerous—is it the putatively un-American belief, or is it the belief that some beliefs are un-American that is more disruptive, or is it both taken together?
The world that has evolved during my lifetime seems to have become paralyzed by conflicts in belief. Unfortunately, the paralysis is only partial; it only prevents the human race from moving forward in constructive ways toward peace and harmony. What is not paralyzed is the musculature that enables people to carry out destructive actions such as wars, gueriilla actions such as bombings, assassinations and massacres.
When people have conflicting beliefs about things that are too complex to enable the gathering of evidence that decides the matter definitively, what tends to happen is that the strong and powerful succeed in putting their beliefs into practice. The nations with the most economic and military might, for example, determine the agenda at the United Nations. The irony is that the most war-making nation, the United States, dominates an organization that was created to insure world peace. Within that most powerful of nations, the corporations with the most economic clout set the agenda for internal policies. The powerful have the ability to act on their beliefs, even when their beliefs are either highly questionable or, in extreme cases, even demonstrably false. They determine what it is possible to do, and what therefore is practically true. Those who do not share those beliefs face nothing but frustration and despair. One might well believe that there is an injustice in such an arrangment, but the belief will do little good, for it will turn out to be all but impossible to act on it.
William James, in his lectures on Pragmatism, explained that the pragmatic method of examining beliefs consists in asking oneself how one might act differently if one believed something to be true than if one believed it to be false or than if one believed something else to be true instead. If I believe there is a shop that sells peanuts one mile west of my house, and if I desire to buy some peanuts, I am very likely to set out in the westerly direction on foot. If I believe the nearest peanut vendor is five miles from my house, I am likely to decide to take a bicycle instead of walking, or I might very well conclude that my craving for peanuts can go unsatisfied. There is a practical difference in the belief that the store is one mile and the belief that it is five miles away. On the other hand, there is (for me at least) no practical difference between the belief that the peanut vendor was descended from Adam, who got thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the belief that the peanut vendor evolved from simpler life forms through random genetic mutations over the course of millions of years. That pair of beliefs does not make any difference whatseover in anything I might do or decide not to do. Nothing turns on which of those beliefs is the right one. Following the Jamesian principle that there can be no difference that does not make a difference can be an effective method of eliminating a good many unnecessary beliefs from my kitbag and lightening my load. Why carry a trunkload of beliefs when a briefcase load will do?
Yesterday I heard someone speaking who was very much opposed to the government being involved in any way in health care. He said “I don’t want some bureaucrat in Washington deciding whether I em entitled to the cost of a life-saving medical intervention.” Stated in just that way, his concern seemed legitimate enough. But what is the practical alternative? Having a clerk in a for-profit insurance company decide that his policy does not cover the life-saving intervention? Between the two scenarios there is no practical difference, for in either case needed health care is inaccessible to someone who lacks the funding to pay for it. And yet to the person expressing that fear, the worry about government interference is legitimate. He believes it in part because so many people can be heard expressing the same fear. And so many people are expressing the same fear, because there are people who are very well paid to come up with ways of saying things that will persuade people to believe that some products are necessary to happiness, that some policies will lead to disaster while others will lead to success, that one political party is more inclined to listen to “the people” as opposed to billionaires (who are also people, but people who have far more votes than the rest of us, because they can buy them in various legal and illegal ways). There are, in other words, people whose livelihood depends on making other people believe things that are at best questionable and at worst downright false.
The best antidote against questionable beliefs is the habit of asking questions. And the habit of asking questions depends on cultivating the will to question. Being willing to question depends on being willing not to believe. I have found that being willing not to believe works well for me. Indeed, I have found it serves well as the cornerstone of a spiritual practice. Whether willing oneself not to believe will also work for others is something that only others can decide by trying it.
In the first of his lectures on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1907, William James suggests that there are two kinds of philosophical temperament, which he calls the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tough-minded are those who have a tendency toward empiricism. They trust their senses. They are content with a variety of sensations and with a plurality of fields of inquiry, each with its own questions and theories. The tough-minded feel no strong urge to arrive at a single “theory of everything.” The tender-minded, in contrast, gravitate to the intellect rather than the senses, and they seek unifying theories and a single metaphysical principle that unites all the varieties of beings and sensations. The tender-minded are also inclined to dogmatism and to a sense of discomfort with what cannot easily be fit within their unifying frameworks.
In the final of the eight lectures on Pragmatism, James turns his attention to Pragmatism and religion. Again, he notes two prevaliing trends in religion: a tendency to absolutism in some contrasted with a tendnecy to religious and moral pluralism in others:
So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough. Many persons would refuse to call the pluralistic scheme religious at all. They would call it moralistic, and would apply the word religious to the monistic scheme alone.
It is not merely that the tender-minded prefer absolutism and dogmatic certainty, says James. The very idea of pluralism is repugnant to the tender-minded.
There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme. Pluralistic moralism simply makes their teeth chatter, it refrigerates the very heart within their breast.
Pluralism is closely associated with Pragmatism. The heart of Pragmatism is the notion that true differences in opinion must result in differences in action. If two people have a disagreement on some issue but would act the same way no matter how the dispute might be resolved, then the dispute is merely a logomachy—a war of words only. Rather than using the words “true” and “false,” Pragmatists prefer to speak of propositions as having or failing to have agreement with reality. What it means for a blief or proposition to be in agreement with reality is just that if the belief is acted upon, then it will have expected results. If I am thirsty and drink the contents of a cup and my thirst is slaked, then the belief that the contents would slake my thirst were in agreement with my sense of reality. Beliefs, propositions are instruments by which a person gets from one experience to another. Given that there are often several beliefs that have the capacity to serve as instruments for successfully getting to an expected experience, it would make no sense to say that there is only one belief in agreement with reality; it makes little sense, in other words, to say that there is only one truth.
When Pragmatism is applied to religious doctrines, it turns out that not only are there many paths to salvation, but there are also many goals that can be described as salvation. So while it may be the case that many religious traditions promise some kind of salvation, it does not at all follow that all religions are promising the same salvation. The beatific vision described as the salvation for which Roman Catholics strive may not at all appeal to the Buddhist striving for nrivāṇa, and one Buddhist’s nirvāṇa may not appeal at all to another Buddhist. The religious pluralist is not in the least bothered by this, for he has no expectation that all people should have the same ultimate goal.
I am both a religious and a moral pluralist. It is probably this fact that makes me quite comfortable with both Quakers and with Buddhists, and with several varieties of each of these. It is my pluralism that makes it possible to call myself both a Quaker and a Buddhist.I have no wish or need to convince others that this approach to life makes sense. Given one’s temperament, religious and moral plurlism either makes sense or it doesn’t. James was probably right in saying that for some the very idea refrigerates the hearts within their breast. Perhaps the most one can ask of such people is that they at least recognize that they are sharing a planet with people whose mentalities are constructed other than theirs and that there is no evidence that this fact is plunging the human race into disaster. If anything is proving unworkable and disastrous, it is the conflict that comes about when those whose dispositions incline them more toward absolutism and dogmatism attempt either to impose their wills on others or to rid the world of those who have other absolutes or those who have no absolutist tendencies at all.