Buddhism for a Christian

As a Christian, I think it is important to have a working knowledge of world religions. Studying a different religion not only expands your understanding of varying beliefs but also helps you appreciate your own spirituality to a greater extent. Some people are wary of studying different religions because they believe it will tarnish their devoutness or lead them astray. In reality, the opposite almost always happens – for example, learning about Buddhism made me appreciate Jesus Christ to a far higher degree. Thanks to my physical therapist, I was recommended an excellent book on Buddhism called Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hand is a Buddhist monk, and a proliferate author – he wrote this book as a factual biography of the Buddha – heavy on doctrine and light on myths.

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It follows the life of Siddhartha, a wealthy prince who seeks the path of enlightenment and eventually becomes known as the Buddha. The word Buddha actually means “the enlightened one” and this book explains how Buddhism was initially spread throughout eastern India around 450 BC. At that time, many religions believed in various gods and degrees of asceticism – how much humans should avoid or indulge in pleasure. Siddhartha followed the greatest spiritual leaders but was never able to reach enlightenment until he understood the actual source of human suffering.

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What is the central root of human suffering? Ignorance. Not knowing the truth is the cause of all the pain in the world. Well, what then is the truth? The Buddha believed that…

“People were caught in endless suffering because of their erroneous perceptions; they believed that which is impermanent is permanent, that which is without self contains self, that which has no birth and death has birth and death, and they divided that which is inseparable into parts.”

Put in another way, people have the wrong perceptions of the world and hence inaccurate realities of truth. So the next question then is how can one fix their reality? Again the Buddha believed that…

“…the key to liberation would be to break through ignorance and to enter deeply into the heart of reality and attain a direct experience of it. Such knowledge would not be the knowledge of the intellect, but of direct experience.”

This “direct experience” is achieved through mindfulness of the present moment. Complete mindfulness requires one to understand that there is no “self” and that there is no permanence – all things depend on each other in a cyclical-eternal fashion. Understanding this interdependence of life – the Buddha was able to shed all the sources of suffering: fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. The Buddha taught his followers to meditate to reach this awareness and connectedness. In a way, Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion – there is no soul, higher power, or afterlife; the goal is to reach Nirvana which is complete enlightenment and the extinction of self.

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Buddhism is complex – especially with reincarnation – and what I have described are the main tenets; there are many different schools of thought just like those in Christianity. So how did I apply these Buddhist teachings as a Christian? First off, Christianity teaches that you can not earn your way into heaven and that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. In Buddhism, the individual is responsible for their enlightenment, and the path to salvation is earned rather than gifted. Just that fact makes me want to shout “Praise the Lord for Jesus!” I did, however, find several parallels between Buddhism and Christianity in respects to suffering.

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Jesus, just like the Buddha, teaches that we need to love one another and that we are all interconnected – we fall apart because of fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. I also took away the important message of impermanence and mindfulness. Nothing on this earth is forever, and this life is just a blip on the map of eternity; we shouldn’t be sad about death because it is transient. We must be mindful of the present because it not only makes us more aware of our blessings but it gives us a glimpse of what eternity will actually feel like – no past or future. I actually have been meditating more, and it helps me with gratitude, calms my mind, and rids me of thoughts that cause suffering. No matter what you believe, learning about different religions will always give you a greater sense of the world and the human condition.

Scoop

I may sound like a broken record but I am going to say it again, “news is crap.” Most news is just gossip that does nothing for our life except waste our time or make us more depressed. For example, I turned the nightly news on and it was all about a murder that had taken place the previous night. How do I benefit from knowing about this murder? Am I going to change my habits? Should I buy a gun? Should I refrain from drug deals at 3:00 AM? The only thing that will change is my equanimity – from peaceful to paranoid. I don’t listen to the news and I know very little about current events. Does this make me ignorant? Yes and No. I am oblivious to trivial matters but if the news is important enough – the word will eventually reach me; but when I do hear about it, I have a breadth of knowledge to contribute which the news could never provide. I am ignorant about Donald Trump’s myriad mishaps but I am not ignorant about the mishaps of the French Revolution. I am ignorant of the most recent natural disaster but I am not ignorant about Plato’s philosophy on human suffering. It is better to study the past so that you have a foundation to understand the present. This point is best illustrated by a toddler who is told by an older brother that an evil clown lives in his closet. With no background information or knowledge of clown behavior, the kid pees himself for the next month.

I bring this topic up because my 5th classic, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, is a satire on the news business and how the news “supposedly” educates the public. Scoop was written in 1938 and is acclaimed for its portrayal of the Fleet Street culture in London. Fleet Street was the mecca of England newspapers and there was a lot of money to be made from constant news. The problem in Scoop is that there is a lack of stories happening in the world and the bigwigs are anxious to keep the printing press hot. They end up sending, by mistake, a part-time columnist to an obscure country to report on a potential war; the dilemma is that there is no real turmoil to report on. Journalists keep flooding the small nation in search of a “scoop” – in the end a story has to be partly falsified and exaggerated in order to sell papers. Scoop is actually pretty funny and is a critique on the deplorable state of new’s media and their incessant need for sensationalism – seemingly stamping “news” on everything. This book parallels our current media’s incessant need for material and the subsequent decline in reporting. Not even speaking of “fake” news, the “real” news is rarely ever worth a second glance; like a Shepard eternally crying wolf! Waugh could never have imagined the internet age but his novel is more applicable today than when it was published. Instead of chasing our tails, let’s spend more time in well researched books and periodicals which are respected. Don’t take the bait and believe your brother – “Breaking News: Killer Clown Discovered to be Vacuum Cleaner!”

“‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news. Of course there’s colour. Colour is just a lot of bulls’-eyes about nothing.'”
-Evelyn Waugh Scoop

 

 

 

What’s Your Prescription?

I have worn glasses since my sophomore year in college. At first it took some time getting used to them framing my everyday life. They would fog up during the winter. They would smudge whenever Christina gave me a big fat kiss. They would distinguish me from my Mom, Dad, and Sister who all had great vision. After awhile though, I became use to them and I actually embraced them as a new identity. In time, I would realize that we all wear glasses in some shape or form. All the things that we have experienced in life – personal encounters, adversities,  blessings, life lessons – frame the way we view our world. That is why there are so many different viewpoints. Everyone has a different prescription and their proverbial glasses are crafted by their unique existence. These “glasses” make some people view life in a optimistic manner while a different pair makes the world appear very gloomy. One person could have a prescription that makes them campaign for Trump while another person could have a prescription that makes them campaign for Hillary. Now, there is nothing wrong with wearing glasses, and everyone, no matter how wise they are, has a prescription.

There is however a point at which a person’s eyesight is so bad and their glasses so bulky that they are unable to see very much at all. These are the people who many would call ignorant. Some ignorance is good and some is bad. Good ignorance, in my opinion, is not knowing the daily depression that always inundates the news. Bad ignorance is thinking that you know all the answers, that your way of doing things is the best, and that you are better than other people. Having a limited perspective makes life very difficult – there are few frames of reference for the range of emotions and thoughts experienced on a daily basis. For example, if I had no understanding of the suffering that takes place in the slums of India, I may feel apt to dramatize my own menial discomforts. Alternatively, I would be quick to rage if all I knew in life was the continual cycle of revenge and the coping mechanism of blame. For these reasons, it is imperative that we all improve our prescriptions – from the bulky thick lenses of our myopic desires – to the sleek frames of farsighted sagaciousness. So how do we go about improving our world perspective? First and foremost we must read things that take us out of our normal-intellectual circle. If you love Fox News pick up a book written by a liberal professor. If you love The Huffington Post, read a book by Bill O’Reilly. Read often because as Theodore Roosevelt said, “I am part of everything that I have read.” Second, travel as much as you can. See places in the world that make you appreciative of your own life and more respectful towards cultural differences. Thirdly, give your time to others. Giving to others is one of the greatest ways of looking at life through another person’s glasses. The better your prescription gets, the more you will realize how far you can see past your previous level of ignorance. Remember one important fact. Getting a better prescription is not a passive experience. Gaining years is not a free pass to wisdom. To truly see the background and the foreground one must consciously step out of their crisp-comfort zone and take a step forward into a  blurry-quagmire of endless opportunity.

3 books that helped improve my prescription:

  1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
  3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Mike Rowe-Not Everyone Should Vote

The election is less than a month away and we are all soaked from the political cloud that has been looming over our heads. This election year has been unique because it seems like facts don’t matter and conspiracy theories reign supreme. I am not a conspiracy theorist and believe that they are very dangerous for our society (The Sexiness of Conspiracy). Believing that there is always some hidden agenda makes people avoid facts (abstaining from vaccines for instance) and react negatively to certain groups (the persecution of Jews in the 20th century). I honestly don’t believe that everyone should vote in the election and Mike Rowe, the guy from Dirty Jobs, made this point perfectly clear when asked a question by a fan.

“Hey Mike, I have nothing but respect for you. Your no-nonsense outlook and incredible eloquence have really had a profound impact in my life. Can you please encourage your huge following to go out and vote this election? I would never impose on you by asking you to advocate one politician over another, but I do feel this election could really use your help. I know that there are many people out there who feel like there is nothing they can do. Please try to use your gifts to make them see that they can do something – that their vote counts.” -Jeremy

Hi Jeremy,
Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. I also share your concern for our country, and agree wholeheartedly that every vote counts. However, I’m afraid I can’t encourage millions of people whom I’ve never met to just run out and cast a ballot, simply because they have the right to vote. That would be like encouraging everyone to buy an AR-15, simply because they have the right to bear arms. I would need to know a few things about them before offering that kind of encouragement. For instance, do they know how to care for a weapon? Can they afford the cost of the weapon? Do they have a history of violence? Are they mentally stable? In short, are they responsible citizens?

Casting a ballot is not so different. It’s an important right that we all share, and one that impacts our society in dramatic fashion. But it’s one thing to respect and acknowledge our collective rights, and quite another thing to affirmatively encourage people I’ve never met to exercise them. And yet, my friends in Hollywood do that very thing, and they’re at it again.

Every four years, celebrities and movie stars look earnestly into the camera and tell the country to ‘get out and vote.’ They tell us it’s our ‘most important civic duty,’ and they speak as if the very act of casting a ballot is more important than the outcome of the election. This strikes me as somewhat hysterical. Does anyone actually believe that Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ed Norton would encourage the ‘masses’ to vote, if they believed the ‘masses’ would elect Donald Trump?

Regardless of their political agenda, my celebrity pals are fundamentally mistaken about our ‘civic duty’ to vote. There is simply no such thing. Voting is a right, not a duty, and not a moral obligation. Like all rights, the right to vote comes with some responsibilities, but let’s face it – the bar is not set very high. If you believe aliens from another planet walk among us, you are welcome at the polls. If you believe the world is flat, and the moon landing was completely staged, you are invited to cast a ballot. Astrologists, racists, ghost-hunters, sexists, and people who rely upon a Magic 8 Ball to determine their daily wardrobe are all allowed to participate. In fact, and to your point, they’re encouraged.

The undeniable reality is this: our right to vote does not require any understanding of current events, or any awareness of how our government works. So, when a celebrity reminds the country that ‘everybody’s vote counts,’ they are absolutely correct. But when they tell us that ‘everybody in the country should get out there and vote,’ regardless of what they think or believe, I gotta wonder what they’re smoking.

Look at our current candidates. No one appears to like either one of them. Their approval ratings are at record lows. It’s not about who you like more, it’s about who you hate less. Sure, we can blame the media, the system, and the candidates themselves, but let’s be honest – Donald and Hillary are there because we put them there. The electorate has tolerated the intolerable. We’ve treated this entire process like the final episode of American Idol. What did we expect?

So no, Jeremy – I can’t personally encourage everyone in the country to run out and vote. I wouldn’t do it, even if I thought it would benefit my personal choice. Because the truth is, the country doesn’t need voters who have to be cajoled, enticed, or persuaded to cast a ballot. We need voters who wish to participate in the process. So if you really want me to say something political, how about this – read more.

Spend a few hours every week studying American history, human nature, and economic theory. Start with “Economics in One Lesson.” Then try Keynes. Then Hayek. Then Marx. Then Hegel. Develop a worldview that you can articulate as well as defend. Test your theory with people who disagree with you. Debate. Argue. Adjust your philosophy as necessary. Then, when the next election comes around, cast a vote for the candidate whose worldview seems most in line with your own.

Or, don’t. None of the freedoms spelled out in our Constitution were put there so people could cast uninformed ballots out of some misplaced sense of civic duty brought on by a celebrity guilt-trip. The right to assemble, to protest, to speak freely – these rights were included to help assure that the best ideas and the best candidates would emerge from the most transparent process possible.

Remember – there’s nothing virtuous or patriotic about voting just for the sake of voting, and the next time someone tells you otherwise, do me a favor – ask them who they’re voting for. Then tell them you’re voting for their opponent. Then, see if they’ll give you a ride to the polls.

In the meantime, dig into Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. It sounds like a snooze but it really is a page turner, and you can download it for free

-Mike Rowe

Don’t rely on Facebook or even news for your primary information. The least everyone should do before voting is to read each candidate’s policies. Start reading now and by the next election you may see the entire world differently.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Part 2 of 3

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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

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What an exciting couple of days we have had since the first installment of this series. Donald Trump, on Monday, stated that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States. This “strategy” is by no means new in American history: the 19th century saw bans against Chinese, during the Great Depression there were movements to suppress Jewish immigration, and most notably during WWII there was forced encampment of Japanese Americans. The US has had a long history of xenophobia and sadly their are still a large number of people who have these same feelings today. Trump’s statement is wrong on many levels but one of its biggest errors is the fact that ISIS (which profoundly motivated the statement) does not actually practice Islam. Almost all Muslim-theology scholars agree that ISIS’s ideology contradicts Islam in almost every way. To understand this, imagine the KKK (a “protestant” terrorist group) went over to the Middle East and committed acts of violence in the name of Christianity. The leader of the affected country would then condemn all Christians as violent-untrustworthy people and ban them from entrance into the country. This seems downright insane, but how is this scenario different then the one currently being trumpeted by Donald? The intricacies of Islam as a religion will be explored in future posts but for now let’s get back to ISIS.

We left off with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi becoming the second leader of the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2010. Baghdadi was said to be a quiet boy growing up and was quite scholarly-receiving a doctorate in Islamic culture and law.  This all radically changed when he became a jihadist after the Iraq invasion in 2003. Baghdadi would be shortly captured by Americans and put into a military controlled prison camp. These prisons mixed radical jihadists with minor offenders which created a ideal environment for recruitment. The US inadvertently spread terrorist ideology in these prisons and upon release, jihadists would be further glorified (similar to how gang members receive street cred after serving time). Baghdadi did his fair share of recruiting while imprisoned and when released, he was in prime position to take leadership of ISI in 2010. Shortly thereafter, Baghdadi began to attack military prisons which resulted in the escape of many jihadists who quickly pledged loyalty to ISI. During this same time, Baghdadi defied Al Queda and spread his terrorist group into war-torn Syria; hence the name known around the world was birthed, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”

ISIS was technically a branch of al Queda but Baghdadi would soon take on a whole new ideology of radicalization.  Baghdadi began to split from al Queda when he resumed Zarqawi’s mission of targeting Shiite Muslim with gruesome killings. Eventually, ISIS would declare themselves the “true” Islamic State and claim that all nations must bow to them-including al Queda. ISIS is attempting to bring about the end times by fulfilling several prophecies: certain manuscripts predicted that preceding the apocalypse their would be…sectarian war, slavery, a battle in Dabiq (a town that ISIS controls), and the eventual control of Constantinople (to list a few.) This apocalyptic mentality is critical to understand because it shapes ISIS’s gruesome behavior. Apocalyptic groups are not concerned with worldly matters or politics which makes it much easier for them to commit barbaric acts. “ISIS’s stated goal is to purify the world and create a new era, in which a more perfect version of Islam is accepted worldwide.” The interesting thing to know is that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, says very little about the end of times. To summarize, ISIS is extremely violent because they desire to “purify” the world and they want to create sectarian violence among Muslims because war between Sunnis and Shiites is predicted in the end of times. Again, these apocalyptic beliefs are not tenets of Islam but rather created by prior scholars in an attempt to rationalize negative circumstances of their time (many were written whenever a foreign power took control). ISIS wants the United States to fight them and occupy their territory because this is yet another prediction of the end of times. Knowing this, we will continue to part 3 to understand how ISIS is so effective at recruiting and what we need to do to prevent their advancement of terror.