Saturday, April 02, 2005


There is an interesting commentary in this month's Harper's about some aspects of the life and death of Terri Schiavo.
Garrett Keizer comments on the moral issues he sees in such situations, focussing primarily on the "right to die" movement. In his discussion he follows what looks to me like the traditional Protestant insistance that God alone can know absolute truth, that the best we can do is approach it.
Like the religious right, I believe in moral absolutes. At the very least, I believe in two that were articulated some years ago by the theologian Paul Tillich, those being “the absolute concreteness of every situation in which a moral decision is required” and “the command not to treat a person as a thing.” Presumably, the latter of these would preclude vitalizing the body of a vegetative person (of which there are at least 15,000 in this country at any given time) by plugging him into a wall like a Mr. Coffee machine, but I may be taking my absolutes too far.

In contrast, the wisdom of the right consists of knowing how to take its absolutes just far enough, which is to say never so far as to relinquish the prerogatives of wealth and power. The achievement amounts to an ethical sleight of hand. You work the trick by shifting the domain of moral absolutes to those areas of life where they least apply. You treat the gray areas of human existence as though they were black and white, the better to disguise one’s self-interested smudging of black and white to gray.

What really caught my attention in his article was his treatment of fundamentalism:
Nevertheless, I see the Oregon Death with Dignity law as a truly revolutionary development, one that opposes fundamentalism in its two most virulent forms.
I do not mean the Christian and the Islamic but rather the religious and the technological, of which biotechnology is perhaps the most messianic strain. Both forms have gaudy notions of paradise—with rewards ranging from seventy-two virgins to fifty-seven varieties of cyborg—and a narrow appreciation of free will. Only one choice will save us: We must obey every stricture that passes for “traditional morality” or we must adopt every monstrosity that passes for “progress.” The zealots of both schools have disturbingly gleeful ways of describing the fate of infidels who resist either the words of prophecy or the wonders of hastened evolution.

One of the temptations about this sort of fundamentalism (either of the ones Keizer describes) is that it simplifies my decision making. If I have a belief system that pre-judges some cases for me I can spend my time doing stuff that is more fun. And of course it also makes things easier if I "disguise [my] self-interested smudging of black and white to gray." It's not just fundamentalists who like to externalise their "demons"; I do it to. To paraphrase a character in one of the old Pogo cartoons, I was all set to have an argument and he got me to meditating.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Back to basics

I was going to post this link the other day, but the Guardian's internet domain was down at the time. Everything's up and running now, so here goes.

Fantasy author Philip Pullman has some comments on what really teaches kids to write.

I think you could easily make a similar argument regarding reading. If you give a kid a reason for wanting to read the rest is a matter of time. "Rules" are just a generalisation of others' experiences. Once you've got your own experiences, you don't need them any more than you need rules about how to walk.

If the professors of English will complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell "friend", I say to them that something's the matter with the way you spell "friend".
—Richard Feynman, Caltech physics professor and bongo player

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Teacher

I've just read about someone described as "a student of the Native American flute". I got to thinking about this idiom, taken in a very direct sense: someone who is being taught by the flute. At first reading it seemed a bit odd. I mean, how can one be taught by a mere piece of wood with a few bits of leather attached? Then I started looking for where this expression might apply to me. I have studied string bass, occasionally with a teacher, but always with the bass itself. I have been coached in swimming at times, but the water is always there.

The bass teaches me. Not just about the music, but about my own body, my own self-discipline, my own abilities and limitations. The water teaches me every time I move through it — what parts of my body slide easily through the water, what parts create resistance.

There is an old saying of the Christian desert fathers, “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” When I meditate the act of meditation itself is my constant teacher. It can at times be difficult to understand or disturbing to listen to, which is why the meditation teacher and the sangha are so important, but it is always there.

Sit on your cushion, and your cushion will teach you everything.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Mind Training, Point 7

I like Pema Chodron's comments on the slogan, "Always Meditate on Whatever Provokes Resentment."
Her basic advice for relating to others, "If we really want to communicate, we have to give up knowing what to do."

And Alan Wallace has some useful things to say about the same slogan. "We tend to let our dharma practice slide a bit with people we see constantly, whereas we practice much more earnestly with strangers or in other contexts."

Pema Chodron again on the slogan, "Don't expect applause." She makes an observation that easily applies to any steps toward enlightenment, "Now you're in for it."

In the initial instructions for reflection exercises we are told to imagine a pool of still water, and drop the reflection question into the pool. Pema Chodron's comment reminds me of those times I tried to visualise the question dropping and managed to drop myself in with it. I'm still looking for the answer to that one.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Other side of the world

River, in Baghdad, offers a perspective on what the conflict in Iraq looks like from the inside. "On most days, an hour feels like ten and yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a good sense of passing time."

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

James's Dharma Talk

What follows was triggered by some of the rabbinic interpretation quoted at this site, along with a class (part of the Seven Points of Mind Training) in which we looked at some of the ways in which pride can derail the practise of mindfulness.

James is one of those bits of the Christian New Testament that I have often had trouble with. Meditation practise has helped me come to appreciate it more.

Quotations are from the Letter of James, chapters 1 and 2, NRSV translation.

Dharma Talk by Ya'akov ben Yosef

  • Right Effort
    If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.…But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.
  • Impermanence
    Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.
  • Generosity
    Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
  • Right Speech
    If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
  • Compassion for All
    You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.…mercy triumphs over judgment.

  • Speaking and Hearing

    There is an interesting item about the interaction between speaking and hearing on this blog.
    It starts off from the Torah reading for this coming sabbath.

    It's easy to forget that the listener plays just as an important part in a conversation as the speaker.

    From another post on the same blog, "To kvetch is act, divine."

    Sunday, December 19, 2004

    Osho on letting go

    One of the more slogans which can seem really strange is, "Let even the remedy itself drop away naturally."
    Osho has some comments about this which helped me see the point. I'll often use cars, especially other drivers and my reactions to them, for practice. Osho refers to boats:
    Do you think a boat is dangerous? It is dangerous if you are thinking to carry it on your head for the rest of your life, out of sheer gratitude. Otherwise it is just a raft to be used and discarded.