Thursday, August 6, 2009

Faith and Ideology

Recently at a dinner party with some fellow Buddhists, I heard it again--several times, people referred to their own (or others') "beliefs." Not wanting to be boorish, I said nothing there, so I'll say something here instead.

"Beliefs" have no place at all in Buddhism--which I prefer, like the Buddha himself, to call "Dharma Practice." ("Buddhism"--the "ism" signifying an ideology or belief system--is a western coinage.)

One can engage, that is, in Dharma Practice without having to "believe" anything at all. When various disciples asked the Buddha what he believed, or what they should believe, about such imponderables as the nature or existence of God, the origins or purpose of life, or any other such matter, the Buddha simply remained silent.

Most westerners (and these friends were westerners like me) get confused on this issue because we were raised within either a Judaic, Christian, or occasionally Islamic culture, where "faith" is considered to be synonymous with "belief." However, when the Buddha and his followers spoke of "faith" (or whatever Sanskrit or Pali word is translated as "faith"), they refer not to a mandatory belief system, but rather, and simply, to trust, or confidence, in the efficacy of the practice. When the Buddha counseled his disciples, right before his death, to "be a light unto yourselves," he meant simply that they should not take his or anyone else's word--not "believe" anyone or anything--about the Dharma unless or until they had validated it with their own lived experience.

There is, moreover, some evidence that Christianity itself was not always so hung up on mandatory beliefs either. In fact, the verb "believe," translated from the Latin world "credo/ credere" (which means the same thing) was in turn translated from the Greek verb "Pisteuo" (the noun form is "pistis") which has a different set of connotations altogether--it means "to trust" not "to believe."

There is a huge difference, however, between belief and trust. To believe is to give one's intellectual assent to a proposition about something, either because the evidence has convinced you that it is true, or because somebody told you to do so, and you fear the consequences of disobeying. If the assent is due to evidence, I have no problem--provided you realize that this belief is contingent, and subject to alteration if further evidence arises refuting it. But I have a big problem with authority-based claims that one "believes" not because of any evidence, but because one is afraid of the consequences of not believing it, or one wishes to identify oneself with that belief system, or both.

When some fanatical Christians warn me of hellfire, or other dire consequences of not believing what they do, my usual response--if I bother to respond at all--is to ask them, "If God didn't want me to think, why did he give me a brain?"

All the major cross-cultural religious traditions of the world, whether Dharmic (i.e. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, etc.) or Abrahamic/Monotheistic (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) consist (broadly) of two elements: Dharma and Identity Politics. By "Dharma," here, I refer to the core insights that all these faith traditions share at their best--the unity of wisdom and compassion, or as Jesus put it, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself"--and that you can't do one without the other.

Most religions, however, are an admixture of the two. But religious ideologies--that is, "beliefs" or self-serving mental constructs about the nature of God, sacred history, revelation, eschatology, creation myths, etc.--are nothing but identity politics--that is, a label to put on the end of the sentence "I am a..."

Everyone's beliefs differ slightly, but Jesus offers us one very useful litmus test for evaluating anyone else's belief system: "Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them."

In other words, to the extent that any faith tradition, or anyone's personal belief system, reflects the universal Dharma (i.e. wisdom, selflessness, and compassion) and encourages it in practice, it is authentic and healthy; it nurtures what the Dalai Lama calls "a good heart." But many sects put their greatest emphasis on identity politics at the expense of Dharma, and some of the most toxic religions are all identity politics and no Dharma--"We are God's people and you are God's enemies, and therefore God has licensed us to kill you in His name." This ideology is, of course, what the most extreme Muslim terrorists, the most fanatical Zionists, and the most fanatical right-wing "Christian Identity" movements all have in common. The only difference is, they all see themselves as God's Chosen people, and the others (and everyone else as well) as God's enemies. Problems arise, of course, when the scriptures of any religion--and particularly the Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran--provide sanction and encouragement for this kind of toxic, self-serving ideology.

I have therefore developed the following dichotomies to help people differentiate between faith and ideology:

  • Faith is intuitive; ideology consists of the culture-bound mental constructs we use to rationalize our faith.
  • Faith is simply saying "yes" to being alive; it is what we have in common with sunflowers, butterflies, mockingbirds, whales, and fireflies. Ideology is our attempt to explain this utterly irrational, but entirely trustworthy faith in words.
  • Faith unites us; ideologies divide us.
  • Faith is what everyone who consents to being alive has in common; ideologies (or beliefs) are as individual as fingerprints.
  • Faith is trust in what we cannot possibly know; Ideology is thinking we know something, and identifying ourselves with that belief, even to the point of defending it with violence.
As a consequence, when a religious person asks me "are you of the Faith?" I say, "of course." But if they ask me "Are you a believer?" I'll ask "A believer in what?" ...and then keep asking, "What do you mean by that?" But the Buddha, I think, had a better response to all such questions: Silence, and a smile.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kinds of causality

This is an essay in the original sense that Montaigne used the word ("essai" meaning an exploratory reflection, not an explanatory claim). Buddhists frequently refer to "causes and conditions" in explaining phenomena in accordance with their core concept of Prattita Samutpada, or "codependent origination" for which the short form is always "This is because that is (and vice versa)." This insight is identical to the Second Dharma Seal, Interbeing: that all phenomena have both causes and consequences, which in turn engender new phenomena.

But when we look a bit more deeply, we can see that there are several different kinds, or levels, of causality. The first is physical causality--that which inheres in the physical world of billiard balls, atoms and molecules, rocks, stars, and galaxies. As Newton and all subsequent physicists have shown, this type of causality can be measured exactly, and therefore predicted and (in theory) controlled. Physical causality is linear: a given cause leads to one or more consequences, which in turn lead to other, ramifying consequences. But at some point, these consequences may feed back into, and alter, their causes.

At this moment, we see a second category of causality, which can be called complex, or cybernetic causality. It is "cybernetic"-- meaning governed or regulated-- ecause such feedback loops can create complex, self-regulating systems, from the simplest (a thermostat or the governor on an engine) to the bewilderingly complex (such as a giant computer).

There are two basic categories of cybernetic systems (and here things become even more complex): teleonomic and teleogenic systems. Everything we have mentioned thus far is a teleonomic system, in that the set point--the value around which the system oscillates at any given moment--is predetermined external to the system itself, by the operator or programmer. A thermostat, for example, sets up a negative, or self-regulatory feedback loop whereby when the temperature exceeds the set point, the heat goes off, whereas when it drops below that set point, the heat comes back on. But the temperature itself is set by the operator--the person affected by the temperature. But even the most complex computer system shares this characteristic with the simple thermostat: it does exactly what we program it to more, no less, even if and when we program it to self-correct its own set points.

Nevertheless, unlike simple, linear causality, cybernetic causality is not always entirely predictable. As anyone who has used computers knows, as the systems become more complex, the possibilities for erratic and unpredictable behavior increase, because the possibilities for errors in programming or misfires in timing of operations increase exponentially with complexity.

This leads us to the third basic category of causality, biological causality, or the causality of teleogenic systems. Biological organisms and other teleogenic systems are fundamentally different from all teleonomic systems--even the most complex imaginable computer--because they are "begotten, not made." That is, they evolve without any externally imposed design. A teleogenic system is thus entirely self-organizing and self-directed. Their only "set point" is the complex variable of their own survival and/or reproduction. There are, in general, only three kinds of teleogenic systems: (1) life; (2) language; and (3) communities or cultures. Each is an open, interactive system which evolved and sets its own goals, seeking above all to perpetuate itself.

So with the evolution of the Physiosphere after the Big Bang, we got simple linear causality; with the evolution of the Biosphere, we got complex teleogenic causality; and with the evolution of human beings and their tool-making capacity, we (finally) got externally directed, teleonomic causality. But the process of evolution--of teleogenic causality--continues. While computers themselves are teleonomic systems, one could argue that the Internet is teleogenic: it has taken on a life of its own, not directed by anyone, and continually evolves to meet the changing needs and demands of its users.

But there is one more kind of causality which is central to Buddhist thought, though it is often dismissed as superstition by westerners. And that is Karmic causality, which evolved with the unique capacity of humans for conscious purpose or moral choice. Other animals do what they must or will, from moment to moment--eating, surviving, and reproducing--so according to Buddhist teachings, the law of Karma does not apply to them at all. But humans, uniquely, have the capacity to act on reflection, as well as impulse--to consider and choose a course of action, after weighing the costs, benefits, and consequences. And Karmic causality kicks in here, for the motive behind any action, as well as its consequences, engender a "Karmic ripple" of that action. And at a deeper level, the aggregate of "Karmic ripples"--the series of causes and consequences created by any deliberately chosen behavior--continue to shape the conditions of our existence beyond even this incarnation; we inevitably reap what we sow, in some form or another, even if the "we" are as yet unborn.

Is this superstition? I do not believe it is. It is just causality at a subtler level--that of volition, attitude, and conscious purpose--than any we have yet acknowledged here in the west. It is predicated on the radical Buddhist idea of nonself--another word for interbeing: the idea that the sense we all have of our own individuality and separateness from the rest of the world--the notion of a separate, isolated self--is in itself an illusion. As John Lennon once put it, "I am he as you are (s)he and you are me and we are all together."

Monday, August 3, 2009

What is a Gaian?

Last weekend, while I was volunteering at New Earth farm, I was working and chatting with Melissa, their young helper--a slim, gracious, serenely competent young girl of Asian descent who helps John & Kathleen on the farm. In the course of a conversation over breakfast, Kathleen happened to allude to my self-defined identity (which also appears on my license plate) as a "Gaian." Curious, Melissa asked me, "What is a Gaian?"

Melissa, of course, is one of the most Gaian people I've ever met--dedicated, heart and soul, to organic farming, to Earth-healing, to total identification with, and service to, the web of life--our unique and magnificent living planet--in all she says and does. So I was tempted to say, "Look in the mirror."

But like most other highly evolved Gaians I have met, Melissa had never heard of the word "Gaian." This is because the word itself is fairly new, and is understood by only a relative handful of people who know anything about the Lovelock/Margulis Gaia theory. So this, Melissa, is for you--and for all other Gaians who do not yet know that they are Gaians.

A Gaian, then, is, as I define it, someone whose first allegiance is to the living Earth. It is an adjective of identity derived from "Gaia" the ancient Greek name for the Earth Mother Goddess, a name that has assumed new life as a kind of shorthand for the scientific theory, first developed by British biochemist James Lovelock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis. The theory posits, in a nutshell, that life and a life-sustaining planet coevolved--that without life, the Earth would be uninhabitable, with 95% carbon dioxide, a surface temperature of about 250 degrees, and no oceans or topsoil at all. The implications of this theory, which at first was highly controversial, but now has gained widespread (if often unacknowledged) acceptance among scientists, are that the biosphere is a complex adaptive system which, like all other such (from cells and organisms to organizations and nation states) is resilient up to a point, but perishable if pushed too far.

But one need not understand the systemic complexities of Gaia theory to be a Gaian. In fact, one need not understand, or even believe, anything at all to be a Gaian--since we are all Gaians already--all of us, that is, who inhabit this biosphere, who breathe oxygenated air, drink fresh water, and eat food grown in topsoil--all of which are Gaian (i.e. biogenic) products and services.

So if we are all Gaians anyway, why call oneself a Gaian? Why do I choose this as the only label with which I am willing, without reservations, to identify? Simply because we can broadly divide the world into two categories: unconscious Gaians and conscious Gaians. The vast, overwhelming majority of us, of course, are unconscious Gaians--every nonhuman living thing from paramecia to great whales, and the vast, overwhelming majority of human beings as well, who identify with various subsets of Gaia, including nationalities, ethnic identities, and religions, or even hobbies. They all unknowingly participate, for good or ill, in co-creating, sustaining, and in many latter cases eroding or destroying the biosphere which sustains us all.

So I count myself as one of only a handful of conscious Gaians. Others, like Melissa, but also like millions of other good people worldwide, are in a middle category--conscious Gaians who do not (yet) know that they are Gaians, and who normally call themselves something else--"Environmentalists," "Tree Huggers," "Greens" etc.

This begs yet another question: why is "Gaian" any better than the above labels? My short answer is that "Gaian" is theoretically rooted in a rigorous and much-needed understanding of the real world--it is the only word we have that does away entirely with the illusory "man/nature" dichotomy--that refers to the entire planet--physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere--as a single, integrated system: Gaia.

"Gaian" is also, therefore, the only label I know that is 100% inclusive. It is emphatically not a religious label, since Gaia theory has nothing at all to say about vexatious religious questions, such as the nature of God, salvation, or the purpose of our lives. One can therefore, without contradiction, be a Gaian Christian, a Gaian Jew, a Gaian Muslim, a Gaian Buddhist, or a Gaian-anything-else. St. Francis, for example, was a highly evolved Gaian Christian, even in the 13th century...though (like Melissa and all the rest) he didn't know it.

So I cordially invite anyone so inclined to join me in calling ourselves Gaians. It could be a way of building solidarity among a wide range of people who share our fundamental shift in values away from the cancerous ideology of industrialism that views the natural world as nothing more than a "resource" with no value at all until it is turned into commodities for profit. When we become Gaians, we consciously realign ourselves with the living Earth.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Yesterday morning, I was out in a field harvesting Swiss chard at New Earth Farm, a small organic farm in Virginia Beach where my wife and I belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) cooperative.

As I worked out in the field in the growing heat of midsummer, my creaky back and knees aching and sweat dripping down my nose as I stooped to chop the big, glossy green leaves with their long purple-pink and yellow stems, I began to reflect on how insulated I had been throughout my life from this kind of arduous but necessary farm labor--having grown up, like most Americans of my postwar generation, in the idle comforts of suburbia, where an abundance and variety of food was always as close as the refrigerator or the local supermarket. How much, that is, I had taken for granted the hard labor of all those who had provided the things I eat every day.

Looking more deeply, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a slave on a plantation, working like this from dawn till dusk every day in the hot, merciless sun, under the lash of a cruel and paranoid overseer, with no hope whatsoever of any other life for me or for my children. Here I had only worked about an hour, max, and I was already worn out!

And so later, as my fellow volunteers and I gratefully consumed a delicious and joyful breakfast of organic grits, raisins, almonds, and fresh-baked bread with tomato chutney spread on it, along with a delicious cup of fresh-brewed coffee, I started likewise reflecting on how many people had worked hard to provide each of these delights: the corn farmers, the grape growers, the almond growers, the wheat farmers, the processors, the retailers, and even, of course, the cook--my delightful friend Kathleen, who herself had arisen early to cook and lay out this delicious spread for us while we harvested, cleaned, and bundled the various fresh vegetables that would go to this week's allotment for the CSA members.

Driving home later that day, I continued in this line of thought, reflecting on the auto workers on assembly lines to whom I owed my car, the construction workers, engineers and planners who had provided the interstate (however badly designed this particular stretch is!), and--most notably, the musicians who had trained for long hours in practice rooms to master the instruments that played the beautiful classical music I was listening to on WHRO...

All this led to a rather delightful discovery: The more I reflected, with gratitude, on the hard work of all who provided me with these goods--the food, the car, the highway, the music--the more I enjoyed each of them! Even the inevitable, sludgy 6-mile traffic back-up at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel failed to dampen my joy. I just kept listening to the music, and visualizing each of the players in turn, earnestly doing their best to give life to the score in accordance with their long lifetimes of training--and the long, slow, stop-and-go slog through the tunnel was over before I knew it.

So--what? Simply that gratitude = joy. It's that simple, and wondrous. The more we contemplate, with gratitude, all the work others have done, all the suffering others have endured, to provide what we have in any given present moment, the more we savor that moment itself. Try it some time.

I am reminded of Huston Smith's beautiful summary of the essentials of Buddhist practice:

Infinite gratitude for the past,
Infinite service to the present,
and Infinite responsibility for the future.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sermon

Today is Easter Sunday, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, during which, of course, Jews celebrate the Passover, while Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus--both, in my view, metaphorical responses to the miraculous return of new life in the spring. Ann and I celebrated a kind of Gaian Easter by going for a walk in Sandy Bottom Park, looking closely and deeply at the budding leaves, the nesting birds, and the wetlands all around us. A chill, but glorious day.

Despite my general preference for natural religion--that is, for autonomous, freelance, and idiosyncratic spiritual practice--I confess I have always had a certain, often grudging envy and admiration for messianic personalities--charismatic spiritual leaders like the Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad--and later, such as St. Francis, Guru Nanak, and St. Ignatius Loyola. People, that is, who created or transformed whole cultures by the force of their personalities and the inspiration of their words. And beyond admiration, I have harbored a recurrent fantasy to emulate them--to launch my own world-transforming Dharma Gaia movement, much on the pattern of St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, creating a self-replicating army of devotees who would first undergo a strenuous spiritual discipline and then "go forth," seeding Gaian wisdom and enlightenment skillfully to the ends of the Earth. I envision my corps of devout, selfless, and confident Gaians insinuating themselves into the corridors of power, or bringing solace and redemption to the poor and desolate, or facing down and disarming dangerous marauders, all by ceaselessly repeating, meditating on, and practicing the Dharma Gaia Mantra--the imperishable "Truffula Seed" they carry with them everywhere they go:

"Breathe-Observe-Let Go; Be well-Do Good Work-Keep in Touch; Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia"

And then, just as surely, the bubble pops. In part, it bursts because I completely lack the force of personality, the sublime self-assurance, and--in a word--the charisma to pull it off. But equally, it pops because I recognize how thin a line there is between a true, enlightened messiah like the Buddha, Jesus, or St. Francis--and the huge host of dangerously vainglorious demagogues who came to believe their own schtick, to see themselves as God's viceregents, and who seduced their followers with their hypnotic, rapturous rants into appalling acts of repression and cruelty toward the "other:" such charismatic psychopaths as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Cromwell, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao...truly dangerous people, who wrought havoc on the world.

In short, one cannot be an aspiring messiah or guru if he is not utterly convinced of his own divine inspiration, yet if he is so convinced, the odds are that he is a dangerous, deluded psychopath. Some, while doing much good, nonetheless were so utterly convinced that their way was the only way that they ended up paving the way for both great good and appalling acts of bigotry and hatred; the two who spring to mind in this respect are Paul of Tarsus and Mohammed--though very likely St. Ignatius falls into this category as well, along with some charismatic political fanatics like Fidel Castro. And maybe (if I were to be generous) Martin Luther as well. (Calvin, however, remains in a lower circle, with Cromwell and Hitler).

While I like to fantasize that my own spawn of awakened, devoted, and impassioned Gaian warriors would be impeccably open-hearted and tolerant of diversity, it is not likely. Few people can manage the trick of being passionately dedicated to a cause or an ideal on one hand, and open-minded, ironic, and tolerant of diversity on the other.

So for now, my vision of a passionate, world-transforming Dharma Gaia movement--my imaginary host of Gaian franciscans bringing aid and organically grown comfort to the poor and destitute, or Gaian jesuits rigorously reforming education and counseling world leaders on sustainability and peacemaking--must remain as it is, a mere fantasy. Nothing, after all, is stopping me from practicing and teaching the Dharma Gaia mantra myself, sowing the seed as I will. But as Gandhi assured us, the heart of enlightenment involves "renouncing the fruits of action"--simply doing what needs to be done, and letting go of attachment to outcomes, and to vainglorious fantasies as well. If my "teachings" (as it were) are to have any influence at all on the evolution of the world, it will emerge. If not, not. The world will just have to muddle through without them. :-)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Weekend in New York City

This past weekend Ann and I were in New York City where we took in a Dvorak opera (Rusalka) with Standing Room Only tickets, visited her wonderful granddaughter Phoebe (who is enrolled in the New School for Social Services - Simon Lang Institute), had dinner with Phoebe and my equally wonderful niece Lillian, who is now deeply involved in the experimental, off-broadway theatre scene in New York, and is very bright, talented, personable, astute, and fun to be with.

Finally, we arranged to have lunch with my sister Sarah (Lillian's mother) and her son Tom, now a sophomore at Skidmore, majoring in Classics, and an equally bright, gracious, and engaging young man, who is planning next fall to enroll in the Advanced Studies in England program in Bath, with which Ann and I have both been involved for the past decade or so, both as board members and as participating professors.

Sarah herself has become a magnificently accomplished painter, specializing in vivid still-life studies she calls "small daily paintings" which she has posted on her own blog (

The only down side in this otherwise marvelous trip was my knees and hips, both of which were aching badly from all the ups and downs in the New York subways, and filling me with anxiety about whether I'll be able to manage climbing around the mountains of Tuscany this summer, when Ann and I go to Italy. Too late now, however--we're going. Still, the bad knees and hips--and the likelihood that eventually (sooner or later) I will need a hip replacement and more knee surgery to avoid ending up in a wheelchair--gave me the opportunity to grapple with the ever-present issue, for anyone about to enter his seventh decade, of Impermanence--the strong likelihood that, between now and when I finally get my ticket punched, I will not be able to do many of the things I would otherwise have liked to have done--like walking the Appalachian trail, cross-country skiing, or touring Europe on bicycle.

When such sobering thoughts afflict me, I often like to practice a useful "worst case" scenario: What would I do, how would I cope, if any of the worst things I could imagine came to pass--if I found myself wheelchair-bound for life, for example, or blind or deaf or afflicted with a painful terminal disease, or looking down the barrel of a gun pointed straight at get the picture.

And this is what I came up with: No matter what bad thing happens, to my body, to my consciousness, to those I love, or even to my city, country, or planet--as many bad things are inevitably going to afflict any or all of these, sooner or later, my first response, if I remember it, will be as follows:

Breathe - Observe - Let Go. (Repeating as often as necessary--then, when equanimity is re-established, follow by renewing these vows):

Be Well - Do Good Work - Keep in Touch.

Learn - Teach - Heal - Create.

With each passing day, I gain new and fresh insights into these injunctions, simply by contemplating them deeply in light of whatever wisdom I encounter along the way. The first triad--Breathe, Observe, Let Go--is directly from the Buddha (the Sutra on Breathing) and succinctly encapsulates the whole of the Dharma--all the rest is commentary. To wit:

By Breathing consciously, we stop thinking, reconnect body and mind, and thereby return to the Present moment. And the Present is all there is--both past and future are nothing but mental constructions that only cause us unnecessary anguish if we get caught up in regret or anxiety.

By Observing, we simultaneously embrace and detach ourselves from whatever it is we are observing--our own breath, the physical sensations in our body, our thoughts and preoccupations, or the things that draw our attention in the world around us. The paradox of embracing and detachment is crucial to this process of observing: we are accepting and acknowledging whatever it is that draws our attention, within or without--not pushing it away or repressing it. This equipoise between embrace and detachment is the centerpiece of our practice--it is what enables the final phase:

We Let Go of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, preoccupations, etc. only when we are ready to do so--we never push them away.

The beauty of this simple but essential practice is that each phase leads quite naturally to the next: By breathing consciously, we regain the equanimity that allows us to observe our own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with both acceptance and detachment. And by simply observing, rather than identifying with these thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, we develop the ability to let go of them.

So we breathe in order to observe; we observe in order to let go, and we let go in order to breathe. That is the Practice in a nutshell.

May I, and all other living beings, cultivate the skill, no matter what happens, to restore our equanimity and compassion by breathing, observing, and letting go, so that we may all--no matter what happens--learn to be well, do good work, keep in touch, and learn, teach, heal, and create. Hos thelei ho theos. OM.