Monday, February 8, 2010

delicious disdain

Somehow I seem to have gotten swept up in an emailing circuit awash in very bright people who love science and rational thought and are deeply skeptical -- "horrified" or "outraged" might be better words -- by the depredations of religion. It's such a delicious disdain.

And of course I haven't gotten "swept up" -- I swept myself up: I love people who hate religion in intelligent ways. I feel as if I were on a playground with a lot of very energetic kids ... and I love kids and their energies.

One of the people in this circle of emailers seems to be a former rabbi, so I guess the circle of intelligent criticisms has a quotient of leavening: Keenly intelligent AND with religious underpinnings. The playground is more interesting than just lock-step critiques.

But I do enjoy the playground. So smart. So skeptical. So unwilling to cave in to anything as mindless as any system that finds its home in unprovable beliefs and, sometimes as a result, causes great harm.

But one of the things I find most interesting is the sometimes-implied willingness to notice the filthy bathwater but ignore the baby sitting in it. Why would anyone avail themselves of the perceived idiocies of religion in the first place? An awful lot of people do, in fact, seek something that might be called spiritual solace. And I agree that numbers of adherents (to anything) do not prove that what is adhered to is worth a fart in a windstorm, but still ... for those with a keen mind, wouldn't it be incumbent to investigate this matter not as it pertains to their degrees in philosophy or psychology or other elevated intellectual attainments, but rather as it pertains to the poor schlub sitting in the bathwater?

It seems to me that those with greater capacities -- to the extent they aren't locked into their own zealotries -- have a responsibility to lend a hand and point out ways that might work better ... not as a dictum from on high or an ego trip (if you don't see things my way, you're an idiot), but as a way of improving the world the skeptic and scientist often claim they would like to improve.

Sure, throw out the bathwater. But smug arrogance is no way to care for a baby.


  1. the skeptics I've encountered are certain they are right. This certitude makes me skeptical of them. Seriously, to reduce this life to rational science based verification seems much too limiting. I'm certain I love my wife but I cannot prove this to you with anything a scientist can measure (thank God).

    You strike me as someone who wants to piss on every religion but zen and I bet they want to piss on zen in spite of your protests which pisses you off leading us to this post?


  2. Ralph -- How nice to read your straight-ahead challenges. Thank you ... seriously.

    I am probably as guilty as the next fellow of speaking too loud in order to be heard ... like the comedic American who imagines that if he simply raises the volume, these Parisians will surely understand him.

    Pissing on religion is not at all my point, though if Zen were a religion, I would certainly piss on that. As I see it, religion, by whatever definition, draws people to something greater -- or perhaps 'wider' is a better word -- than themselves. It is human and touching and not to be disdained.

    My baseline argument -- one that I may rightly be accused of being too loud about -- is that if individuals are unwilling to follow what they love to the ends of the earth (if they are unwilling to investigate right down to the root), then there is no satisfaction or peace, no end to uncertainty...and it's a sad and saddening state of affairs.

    So whatever the object of love or veneration, every nook and cranny, every idle question or answer needs to be looked into if happiness (and not just some convenient bias) is the goal.

    Once upon a time the old Zen teacher Ta Hui expressed the need for such an investigation better than I ever could. He said, "I have always had a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion." Of course those uninterested in Zen practice may write this statement off as just some loony Zen teacher's ravings. But I see it as applying to anyone who truly loves anything -- religion, auto repair, politics, whatever: If all you can do is talk the talk and never learn to walk the walk, wouldn't you be pissing on your own true love?

  3. It was my willingness to investigate right down to the root that brought me into Christianity and 17 years later out of it. Now after spending a few years as an atheist I am investigating Buddhism. And I don't trust myself. I felt certain I was right when I became Christian. I felt certain I was right when I rejected it. But now I understand that there is very little I can be certain about.

    I've been drawn to Zen off and on throughout my life. At one point it didn't seem religious enough. Now I keep tripping up on the stuff that seems too religious. I told someone I was "re-investigating" Buddhism and knowing that I consider myself to be a 6 on the Dawkins Belief Scale he questioned "Why??". I didn't really know the answer. Is it just that I'm hoping that meditation could provide me some mental health benefits? Do I seek enlightenment? Is it because it's easier to identify in a religiously biased culture as a Buddhist than an atheist? I dunno. I'm reading and reading and reading and maybe I'll never take the step of actually practicing.

    I've got issues with "teachers" but I'm enjoying what I'm learning from you. :)

  4. Hi evolvesintobirds -- Take your time, be patient and look things over carefully ... not my things, your things. One thing you can say for Zen practice -- that's 'practice,' not 'thinking' or 'believing' or 'reading' -- is this: When you sit down, erect your spine, shut up and focus your mind, no harm is done ... and perhaps a little good will come of it. Perhaps, perhaps not ... the only way to know is to do it and find out.

    As far as I can see, people who choose to practice a discipline do so with, perhaps, an 80-85% commitment: The discipline may sound convincing in any number of ways, but, since the proof is in the pudding, we all have doubts or uncertainties or downright disagreements. But who wants a discipline that agrees 100% with them ... hell, it was agreeing with ourselves that created so much uncertainty in the first place, so if you are 100% in agreement, you're just setting yourself up for more of the same. Same shit, new day.

    Look things over. Does it seem to make sense to you? Never mind if it makes sense to all those weirdos who practice Zen. Does it makes sense to you, more or less? If so -- 80-85% -- then give it a whirl ... in private if you like (I won't tell). Just sit down in some clean area of the place where you live. If you need instructions for doing zazen, try this: Ten minutes a day or ten minutes a week ... make a promise, keep a promise. No one passes the plate at your house, I imagine, so you're out from under that burden. :)

    People who can answer the question, "Why Zen Buddhism?" are largely lying. This is not to say that they can't wrap it up in some pretty fancy bows -- suffering, uncertainty, a tragedy of one sort or another -- but the answer can never really be complete. We practice because ... well, who knows? And more than that, who cares? What counts is, does it work? Does it offer some peace of mind ... not overnight, not after you die, but ... well, does it seem to work? Only you can answer that question so you might as well relax and let the answer come to you rather than chasing after it. What the hell, it's at least more interesting than watching another sitcom, which is what you might be doing if you weren't giving zazen a try.

    Patience, courage and doubt are your greatest allies. Your patience, your courage, your doubt. Nobody else's patience, courage and doubt will do. Read what you like, think what you like, kiss Dawkins' ring if you like, love what you like, believe what you like, disbelieve what you like, cuss up a storm as the mood takes you, rail at the universe if you must ... but exercise your patience, courage and doubt ... sit down, erect your spine, shut up, and focus the mind and ... see what happens.

    Best wishes.

  5. Piss on 'em all, let god dry 'em off.

  6. Charlie, you crusty son-of-a-bitch ... in my next incarnation I plan to be as succinct as you are. :)

    PS. I hope the weather has not been not too damaging in your neck of the woods.