Monday, February 27, 2012

We in America Need *Less* "Religion" "in the Public Square"

A certain extreme-right  presidential candidate who's most famous for having a surname that's become not safe for work, was given airtime on major TV on Sunday where he ranted about the US separation of church and state, and implying how that policy has relegated religion away from "the public square."

It's nonsense of course.   In fact, there's too much "religion" in the sense of blind faith in the public square.

Not enough science, history, and facts-based decision making on behalf of the people.  In fact, there's lots of "religious" thinking in the public square, but far, far too little ethics.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Right livelihood and not being vulnerable to exploitation

I woke up this morning thinking that it's probably not a great career move in and of itself to become a Ph.D. in theoretical physics - most of the physics Ph.D. folks I know are actually doing something quite removed from their chosen field of study. 

And yet,  despite in many cases personal experience with the above, that's not stopping many "tiger parents" who might be pushing their kids in this direction.

Generally, in my experience, the people that make it to the top weren't the ones who aced all the tests. You look at the so-called (but likely ephemeral) "success stories" in American business, and the millionaire/billionaire founders of some of the name corporations got their start as dropouts.  

 Malcom Gladwell had a fascinating article recently in the New Yorker about "How David Beats Goliath" After discussing how in basketball the full-court press can be used by weak teams to upend balances of power based on raw talent through disrupting the expected timing of events, Gladwell brings in out of the box thinking:

In 1981, a computer scientist from Stanford University named Doug Lenat entered the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron tournament, in San Mateo, California. It was a war game. The contestants had been given several volumes of rules, well beforehand, and had been asked to design their own fleet of warships with a mythical budget of a trillion dollars. The fleets then squared off against one another in the course of a weekend. “Imagine this enormous auditorium area with tables, and at each table people are paired off,” Lenat said. “The winners go on and advance. The losers get eliminated, and the field gets smaller and smaller, and the audience gets larger and larger.”
Lenat had developed an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko, and he decided to feed his program the rules of the tournament. Lenat did not give Eurisko any advice or steer the program in any particular strategic direction. He was not a war-gamer. He simply let Eurisko figure things out for itself. For about a month, for ten hours every night on a hundred computers at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Eurisko ground away at the problem, until it came out with an answer. Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack. Eurisko thought differently. “The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,” Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.” Lenat won the tournament in a runaway...
Eurisko was an underdog. The other gamers were people steeped in military strategy and history. They were the sort who could tell you how Wellington had outfoxed Napoleon at Waterloo, or what exactly happened at Antietam. They had been raised on Dungeons and Dragons. They were insiders. Eurisko, on the other hand, knew nothing but the rule book. It had no common sense. As Lenat points out, a human being understands the meaning of the sentences “Johnny robbed a bank. He is now serving twenty years in prison,” but Eurisko could not, because as a computer it was perfectly literal; it could not fill in the missing step—“Johnny was caught, tried, and convicted.” Eurisko was an outsider. But it was precisely that outsiderness that led to Eurisko’s victory: not knowing the conventions of the game turned out to be an advantage.
“Eurisko was exposing the fact that any finite set of rules is going to be a very incomplete approximation of reality,” Lenat explained. “What the other entrants were doing was filling in the holes in the rules with real-world, realistic answers. But Eurisko didn’t have that kind of preconception, partly because it didn’t know enough about the world.” So it found solutions that were, as Lenat freely admits, “socially horrifying”: send a thousand defenseless and immobile ships into battle; sink your own ships the moment they get damaged.
This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought...

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, for reasons that have to do with some of the things I in the course of my work.  It's also related in a way to the principles in 詠春 (Wing Chun) - the principles in 詠春 are quite counter-intuitive to anyone that's had to deal with bigger, stronger, schoolyard bullies. Above all, the principles teach one to remain relaxed (but aware and sensitive) even if a 260lb 6'6" guy is threatening to pummel you.

A lot of folks think that the defense against being vulnerable - to whatever - lies in the raw countering of force with force. In business, this thinking, unfortunately abetted by America's (former) material wealth and low-cost labor, has resulted in America's decline as wealthier, lower labor cost competitors have bested America on the playing field where it thought it could play.  And yeah, on some level, "get more education" might just be trying to counter force with force.  Yeah, get more education, but do it wisely.

Although, as I continually say, I stand with the folks who decry economic exploitation, I want to caution those working for peace and justice against adopting a narrative set either by those in power ("lift yourself up by your bootstraps- just work harder!") or those who are acting only out of their visceral reaction to those doing the exploiting ("hey, we're getting shafted, let's take it back!.") Armchair Marxists never succeed because although they've got the diagnosis right, they don't understand the treatment. 

It is true that even in crappy economic times economic successes can emerge by "borrowing the power" of the prevailing conditions to create new conditions that allow one to achieve an advantage: Google really came into being in the aftermath of the dot-com crash, for example.   That doesn't mean that therefore one should adopt a form of capitalist engagement that is savage, but it does mean that there are "openings" to be found if one is aware, and if one is also aware and disciplined, one might be able to help all beings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Daily Life and Truly Engaged Buddhism...

I'm not big on the engaged Buddhism thing. It's not that I am not politically in tune with many of the engaged Buddhists' goals.  But rather, too much of it is cause tourism - and by that I mean it's something people use as an escape from their own position, if the issues in which they're engaged are far removed from their own existence.

It's kind of like the left-wing version of the right wing's fixation on abortion and contraception, and for all I know serves many of the same goals - that is to say, there may exist those that instigate such things for the sole purpose of distracting.  The latter point though is not important at all - that is, whether or not there are people who are intentionally cranking up some kind of Wurlitzer is irrelevant.  If there's crankers, let 'em crank - that's not my problem per se.  My problem is simply keeping in mind the answers to the three questions, more or less, in such a way that things get done that actually benefit beings. 

I'm in the midst of all the things that come with family life at my age in this time, the whole shebang  and its various accretions thereon as it were: the joy, the humor, the teaching all around, the frustration, the problems, the worries, etc.  This is where practice is. Other folks, I'm sure, have other practices suited to where they are in life.  But in no way should we substitute practice where we are, at this point in time, for alienation via distraction.

Tricycle has had/is having some kind of campaign to encourage meditation.  All well and good, I say, but how about a campaign to realize the Way moment to moment in one's life?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Morally Bankrupt

Father Landry also gives sermons on contraception, something very few priests do. He says he relies on Pope John Paul II’s argument against contraception, which he summarizes. “That God has made us fundamentally for love,” Father Landry said, “and that marriage is supposed to help us to love for real. In order for that to happen, we need to totally give ourselves over to someone else in love, and receive the other’s total self in love.
“What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.”
Father Landry argues that contraception can be the gateway to exploitation: “When that petition is made for contraception, it’s going to make pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.”
Many non-Catholics — and many Catholics — see the church’s teaching on contraception as cruel toward women. But Father Landry says it’s women who intuitively get how divorcing sex from procreation allows men to use them; in his experience, it is almost always the woman who moves a couple toward abandoning artificial contraception. 

 It may seem needless to point this out on a Buddhist blog, but the idea that human sexuality can be reduced to the arrangement of sexual organs is the ultimate in objectification of humans.  Even if you subscribed to the notion of a deity, "God made us" in such a way as to be able to reason and make judgements about when conception should be achieved, and if the good Father doesn't understand that pleasure is a point of the act then he has no business pronouncing on such matters, especially given the moral turpitude of his organization in response to its physical and sexual abuse of the young.

That, as they've recently done, they would try to legislate this morally deficient position into our policy is outrageous.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sartre v. Kant: Who's More Mahayana?

Over at Justin Whitaker's blog, there's a post on Kant with a detour of Viktor Frankl.  Justin writes:

... Perhaps the Buddha, Kant, Frankl and others will exhort ideals that seem beyond the reach of ordinary people. But it is exactly that ideal, and the striving we ordinary beings undertake to attain it, that allows us to become fully human. Think a bit about the “cross-winds” of society toward complacency, sensual enjoyment, blame, etc…
 I think several things about this:
  1. Of course it's kind of pointless to try to crow-bar Western philosophical constructs into  Eastern philosophical constructs, just as it is to say that Kant and Nietzche were saying the same thing.  But...
  2. That said, clearly the Buddha did not subscribe the Western concept of the ideal.  He had bigger fish to fry.
  3. If I were to map Western philosophers as "near" to Buddhist philosophy, I'd start with existentialists such as Sartre.   Sartre's concept of the human is void of an essence.  That is closer, I submit, to the Mahayana ideal of the aggregates being fundamentally empty than the presumption of an ideal to which one strives.  Striving's important, but not because there's a "goal" there, but because that's what we do.
All of that said, I think frankly that Viktor Frankl's kind of a poor metaphor for Buddhism for other reasons.  You can get a glint of why I might think so from a couple of  Amazon reviews of "Man's Search for Meaning."  The first:

I am a widow, and this book was recommended to me by a psychologist to help lift my spirits. I'm sorry, but I'm not sure how page after page of descriptions of life under the nazis is supposed to help anyone with anything. I was already aware that many people have had to go through even worse things than watching a beloved spouse die of cancer, awful as that is. Certainly Mr. Frankel's experience and response to it is a tribute to the human spirit -- proof that we are more resillient than we think. But uplifting? No, I don't think so. Depressing, with no new information, is my synopsis. More power to those who can comfort themselves with some "meaning" in suffering and get something out of this book. But if you don't, you won't be the only one. 

And the second:

What's proven here? That if you can convince youself you have something to live for: you will continue to live for it. So? If after getting hit on the head with a lead pipe 100x one is to receive ten million dollars, I suppose there are some who will endure that pain, too, in the hope they will survive. They won't.
Perhaps the real question is if there is *any* reward for enduring the brutality of life that is worth the suffering. Most, if not virtually all, love relationships are based on a thinly or not-so thinly disguised basis of psychology mercantilism, if not outright economic dealmaking. Other higher pursuits: art, philosophy, philanthropy, so-called spiritual attainment are arguably better, but, really, are little more than panaceas not much different, in their ultimate purpose, than devoting one's life to developing the perfect tennis game, for instance. They absorb one's attention and distract one's focus from the pain & dissolution to come, or even occuring, & keep one, perhaps, from ending it all at the very moment. In this manner, we all buoy each other up, but for what? The question remains unanswered. Life is a concentration camp and we are all going to the gas chamber in the end. What do we do in the meantime. Is it worth it?
Frankl, like any reasonably intelligent person, delineates the central problem well: Why live? But like every other professional philosopher or psychologist, he comes up with a reason (altho in this case the reason boils down to *find a reason*) because, well, what else is he going to do? The biological imperative compels us to go on with life at any price. The alternative: that there is no reason to do so--that is simply too terrifying to contemplate, would violate species survival, and be considered unpublishable. Just once I'd like to see a thinker have the courage to face the ultimate question and not flinch, escape to a flight of fancy, take a leap of *faith* or otherwise dissemble.
Life is not worth living. Don't blink. 

 These are two very good counters to the "living for the ideal/meaning" part.  Frankl's position is kind of an escape- the escape of turning one's life into some kind of essence.

Frankl got through the camps with this view.  But Sartre also got through his ordeals without that view. 

Moreover, you'll never develop the perfect tennis game by pursuing some kind of ideal, because it means you won't be doing it in the moment.

It is true that the things one tell's one's self can help or hinder their journey through or around or above obstacles and suffering.  But one is no less human for despairing.  It just is more suffering though.

Some folks don't strive and they do die. That is the reality, and that reality should be the seeds of great compassion and empathy.  Maybe that reality triggers a Sartrian "will to action" that helps those with that will help all beings. 

But when death is inevitable, when imperfection is inevitable, when the "goal" crumbles into dust, there are times when we must keep going even though it is painful and difficult, with no great likelihood of success. If death is our lot itself, regardless of the outcome, we can attempt to make our mark.

Comfort with impermanence or "novelty-seeking" gets revised.

“Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, the psychiatrist who developed personality tests for measuring this trait. The problems with novelty-seeking showed up in his early research in the 1990s; the advantages have become apparent after he and his colleagues tested and tracked thousands of people in the United States, Israel and Finland.
“It can lead to antisocial behavior,” he says, “but if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and a sense that it’s not all about you, then you get the kind of creativity that benefits society as a whole.”...

Fans of this trait are calling it “neophilia” and pointing to genetic evidence of its importance as humans migrated throughout the world. In her survey of the recent research, “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change,” the journalist Winifred Gallagher argues that neophilia has always been the quintessential human survival skill, whether adapting to climate change on the ancestral African savanna or coping with the latest digital toy from Silicon Valley.
“Nothing reveals your personality more succinctly than your characteristic emotional reaction to novelty and change over time and across many situations,” Ms. Gallagher says. “It’s also the most important behavioral difference among individuals.” Drawing on the work of Dr. Cloninger and other personality researchers, she classifies people as neophobes, neophiles and, at the most extreme, neophiliacs. (To classify yourself, you can take a quiz on the Well blog.) 

 The quiz is actually here. I scored in the "Curious" category myself.  Evidently I guess the practice pays off after a while, because otherwise I'd probably be in the "dangerous" category.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Limits of Religious Liberties

The recent flap about the contraception issue & the Catholic hierarchy & the Obama folks is reaching new levels of absurdity - and the reduction of that absurdity to even greater absurdity is satirized in a comic in today's NY Times.

While this was going on I was on travel/returning from Japan on business.  My travel reading was "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer, which intertwines the doings of Fundamentalist Mormons with the historical Mormons.  I have to say, after reading that book, that I would not be very likely to vote for someone very far up in the Mormon hierarchy for any political office.

If it offends anyone, well, not much can be done, but when religious figures seek to impose their viewpoints on the behavior of others, whether it's through the clumsy efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to complain about other people's sexual behavior, or the Mormon church's efforts to rein in criticism of it by their members efforts at honestly discussing that church's history, reasonable people should object.

The Catholic church still hasn't quite accepted its institutional complicity in the physical and sexual abuse of untold numbers of children and teens.  The Mormon church still denies any official responsibility for their role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. And regarding the latter, if you read Krakauer's book you can't but come to the conclusion that the Mormon culture bears a great deal of responsibility for the right-wing fringe in this country.

The simple fact is, the hierarchies of such organizations are acting out of hubris, greed for power when they posit themselves as some kind of moral arbiters whose "morality" gives them license to run roughshod over the obvious public good.

People can believe what they will, but when it comes to public policy, we should be doing things that benefit all. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

A few areas for possible upcoming posts...or perhaps short takes...

I'll be on travel much of this week, but I wanted to sketch out a few ideas that might make interesting posts for the future:

  • "Rights" - do they exist?  I'm remind of this by reading a post on Kos about the sexual agenda of the Religious Right. A passage appears there to the effect of "Maybe you don't believe in common descent or evolution. Even though I think that's a foolish belief, you are entitled to it, but common descent is nonetheless true."  While for the purposes of everyday social engagement and politesse it's useful to treat people with the respect the presumption of rights would entail, and while for legal purposes it's crucial, especially at present to act with the presumption of certain rights and powers arranged, the construction of such rights, to me, appears at odds with how the world is experienced.
  • The Dalai Lama appeared on a Michael Palin travel documentary show.  (See here.) To be honest, the reactions of the Dalai Lama when he sat down with Palin were interesting to say the least. Two things stood out: Firstly, the Dalai Lama seemed to laugh a bit too much - I frankly couldn't figure out why, because the laughter seemed in some spots either forced or not exactly matching the tenor of the conversation.  But the other thing that stood out was a point where Palin noted that he was bound for Tibet after visiting Dharmsala.  It was strikingly clear that the Dalai Lama, like any of us, still deals with attachments.   The only other thing that stood out here - alluded to by Palin - was the degree to which the Dalai Lama/Tibet in exile thing is an enterprise.  The tragic implication is that people have quite a bit invested in this "in between" condition of Tibet/China/Dharmsala.  
  • On doing things that are difficult: I have been meaning to address this.
  • Interesting times: I'm living in them. Hopefully some mistakes will be profitable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


There's a passage somewhere in something Kierkegaard wrote called "The Possibility of Offense," which is a multi-page (20? 30? 40? I can't remember) tour de force examination of what, for a Christian, "offense" might mean in the context of  the bit about that part  about "Blessed is he who is not offended..." in Luke's gospel. In the case of Kierkegaard (and probably most Christians with any knowledge of the subject) "offense" here was sometimes a stand-in for "angry doubt" but in at least one sense just might have meant  offense as we might use it.  Kierkegaard's main point was that offense, in whatever form it took, was an impediment to belief in Christianity. 

There's a lot of offense around here these days; offense that somebody's sacred concept as represented in some form is being misused in some way.  There's offense that a lot of superstition and hoo-hah is being introduced in the modern world.  There's offense at the way  group X is dominant and mistreating groups Y, Z, and Γ.

Buddhists could substitute lots of things for what Kierkegaard wrote as catalysts of offense, as could any of a number of other groups.
I don't think being offended any way changes anything, however legitimate the grievances may or may not be.  And I'm one of the people that think that, though Buddhism is a minority religion in the West, there may not be  anywhere near enough religious ridicule in our discourse today.  As Bill Maher is fond of saying, people that believe in talking snakes should be disqualified from the presidency of the United States.  But even that offense is too much; it's extra baggage.  My point is not to discredit or disqualify the umbrage one might take in response to others' actions- and there's a lot of legitimate umbrage for the taking, and people feel what they feel.  But the alternative is not being an automaton.

My point is that the umbrage, the outrage, as outrage,  is horribly, horribly ineffective.  Outrage fueled conflict is not an opportunity to grow or to awaken. It's not.  And that's not saying that the outrage and offense cannot be used as a catalyst for growth and awakening.  But it can't be used that way if our minds are stuck in outrage and offense.

One of the things that is a "hard" thing for an early practitioner of Wing Chun (詠春) is to be relaxed and to not fight when one is doing, what appears to the unbiased, uninformed observer, as "fighting."   That's because countering force with direct force will, especially for the weaker person, be disastrous. Only by acting "orthogonally" to the direction of force, in as relaxed a manner as possible, as fluidly as possible, is it possible to get an advantage against a stronger and larger opponent.  But in order to do that you have to detach from the "offense" that you feel that you, a smaller, weaker person is being attacked by the stronger, larger opponent.  And if you get a glimpse of that, you get a glimpse of really going beyond the offense, and actually effecting a change. And it's a metaphor that can be used outside of martial arts; for example it can be applied to the cantankerous person in the office meeting, or in the kitchen. It also applies with 書道. This isn't meek passivity by any means.

If you search around Youtube, you'll be able to find a bit where Bruce Lee is saying "Be like water..." It was my first impression on seeing this that it was all gibberish.  But in fact, Lee was actually giving away the secret of his trade here.  Being like water when there's a big rock in your way takes more practice since, especially when we're in "offense" mode, we've forgotten we are water.