Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Universal Religion?

One of my favorite forums for online philosophical discussion is the NonDualPhil (NDP) Yahoo Group. This morning I found an intriguing post about the commonality of all religion. The original source material is a booklet written by Dr. Frank Morales in 2005, entitled Does Hinduism Teach That All Religions Are The Same? A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism. "Radical Universalism" here is the belief -- common in Hindu/Indian spiritual groups -- that all religions are equivalent, like different paths to the same mountaintop.

The NDP post quotes Manju Gupta's approving review of Morales' essay, published online a few days ago as Hinduism: The universal religion. Here's the response that I posted to NDP today:

> Manju Gupta wrote...
> It is this radical universalism that promotes acceptance of all
> religions as same in order to lead us to unity behind our
> religious strivings—it is immaterial what religion one follows
> or whether one goes to a church, mosque or a temple.

This type of thinking is better than nothing... but why only a church, mosque, or temple? Why not a supermarket, casino, or whorehouse? It's hardly "radical universalism" if praying in a mosque is considered more True and Holy than, say, a round of miniature golf.

It's why I personally don't relate to much of this Indian-style teaching: the failure to note the Truth of ordinary, everyday life.

> One needs to have full faith in the religion that one has
> adopted to reach the highest truth.

The implication is that our just-now experience is somehow inferior (since it's not the "highest" truth, which must be "reached" through so-called religion). Why hold that idea?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hawaii (and the end of the world)

In a couple days, I make my first trip to Hawaii, to visit a friend I've known since my year at Yale 3 decades ago. He's recently moved to Hilo on the Big Island. So firstly: I've got no particular plans on what to do, and welcome any recommendations that readers may have, either by commenting or sending me an email.

My friend is among those who believe that our planet is rapidly advancing towards disaster, what with oil and resources running out, financial crises, Mayan predictions of apocalypse in 2012, etc. My visit is motivated by our long-lasting friendship, my current freedom from employment... and also by his encouragement that it may be now or never (i.e., that very soon there won't be enough oil for such casual globe-hopping).

One of the reasons my friend chose to move to Hilo is his belief that it's a good area to soon buy some land and set up a self-sustaining, off-the-grid retreat. He's got great skills in agriculture and construction and such, so if anyone is capable of creating a survival haven, it's him. Like myself, he's devoted to meditation practice, and all other means of examining the great questions of life. He's looking to connect with others who might have interest in buying/building such a retreat, so again, if readers have suggestions about "spiritual" groups on the island that we might visit, I'll appreciate any feedback.

As for myself, I question whether I have what it takes to live through planetary disasters. I love stories about stuff like Everest climbs... yet when I read a book or watch a movie about the heroic efforts that some people have made to survive in such conditions, I can't imagine myself doing so. I can see myself as more likely to relax into death by freezing, rather than struggling for hours and days to a miraculous rescue. Likewise, if civilization is truly collapsing, I may just go down with the ship, and leave it to hardier souls to play Adam and Eve.

Who knows: when faced with my demise, maybe some biological imperative will take over, and I'll become Survivorman. Still, I can't help but noticing that among friends and acquaintances, there are some who are passionate about living as long as possible through all challenges, and others who are more indifferent, ready to welcome life or death each day as it comes. And the ones who are prepared to die at any moment appear paradoxically happier.

It's interesting to watch my own mind as I hear from my friends who believe that the world will soon end. It certainly rattles my mind to think that I may be unlucky (?) enough to live during the endtimes. I mean, jeez, of all the millennia that human beings have crawled on this planet, is it too much to ask that my own little lifespan won't be the point where it all collapses?

I repeatedly remind myself of Buddha's teaching that everything is impermanent. Don't I realize that this body will most certainly turn to dust within a few short decades? And doesn't that mean that my world, anyway, is headed for dissolution without a doubt? Maybe my interest in apocalyptic predictions is a way to cautiously approach a consideration of my body's mortality. Maybe the end of the world is somehow easier to look at than my own death. (I do have a tendency to, e.g., not want to leave a party too early, since I want to be there in case something particularly fun and interesting happens. In that sense, the end of the universe may be psychologically easier to approach, since at least I'll know I won't be missing anything.)

Ultimately, everything leads back to this very moment as the fundamental truth. Maybe all of this appears out of emptiness, and returns to emptiness, over and over. Trying to hold onto the existence of a self or a world is a hopeless dream, and indeed the source of all suffering. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to do... except do the best I can to connect clearly and compassionately with "just now."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Guru Papers (Part 2)

The Guru Papers, written by Yoga teachers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in 1993, analyzes authoritarian systems, particularly in the "spiritual" subculture. For background on the book and my thoughts on it, please see my blog on The Guru Papers (Part 1). I've procrastinated almost a year before writing this "Part 2" to that post. Now that I'm unemployed, I've got time to tie up such loose ends.

People who follow gurus (as I did for many years) may become focused on them as the source of positive new experiences and understandings. When we reject that view, as Kramer and Alstad did in this book, we can fall to the other side, over-emphasizing the guru as the source of unhealthy dependence. In either case, we may gloss over the fundamental importance of how we keep our own minds.

In "The Assault on Reason" chapter (pg 73 of Guru Papers), K&A write:

It is commonly assumed that the nature of spirituality is not only fundamentally different from ordinary experience, but that this difference is vastly superior. ... This age-old separation of the spiritual from the worldly is deeply embedded in all of civilization. We view this split as tragic, and at the core of the fragmentation prevalent in the contemporary human psyche.

The authors' use of passive voice ("It is commonly assumed") is a red flag. Who is assuming this? Each individual who holds ideas about "spirituality" as superior to ordinary life can examine and question those beliefs. Yet over and over, K&A write as if the fundamental source of the problem is a "system" or "civilization." As if we as individuals are victims, helpless to avoid the assumptions imposed on us from outside.

In fact, each of us can look into the matter for ourselves. Examining our own minds, we can discover that the disconnect of spiritual/worldly is made by our thinking. Maybe this strategy is profoundly more efficient than trying to change "society" or "the system" or "common assumptions."

When I heard the authors speak last year, Alstad in particular sounded like a doctrinaire socialist. She spoke of us living in a "class system," meaning that the external circumstances of our birth determine our life situation. This perspective leads to political views that minimize the importance of individual freedom and choice. In the spiritual realm, it's a mindset that focuses on the evils of authoritarian religious organizations, while missing the great power of our personal choices.

The book is permeated with this perspective. From the chapter "Healing Crippled Self-Trust," p. 154:

The most extreme form of mental control occurs when the authority is trusted completely and becomes the center of one's identity. Sadly, society and parents insidiously put out messages from childhood on that others know what's best. Many people are deeply conditioned to expect and hope some outside agency power, or person will solve their problems. Letting go of expecting or even wanting this is difficult, partially because of what one is left with is oneself, and all of one's limitations.

In our earliest years, of course parents encourage our trust and tell us they know what's best. The adults generally do know what's needed for survival, far moreso than the toddler. It's not hard to see why natural selection favors the tendency of children to blindly follow the authority of parents (I've discussed this evolutionary perspective elsewhere). And of course it's difficult to move beyond this child-like view; if mentally maturing were easy, then everyone would do it.

In the fullness of time, some of us do choose to stop being followers, and gradually practice seeing things for ourselves. In this process, is it really helpful to blame our dependency on "insidious" society and parents? Do we really need to depend on our parents or gurus or society to allow us to be free-thinkers? Or do we claim this freedom for ourselves?

This issue arose in February on Rituals of DisEnchantment, a blog that has at times examined abuses in the "Siddha Yoga" organization founded by Swami Muktananda and later led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. An anonymous commenter on Feb 28 1:17 PM wrote:

It seems that over the years many people only put up with or accepted the steady stream of Siddha Yoga BS because of the intensity of their mystical experiences, and or no other reason.

There's a critical point that's missing in this comment. It's not simply that the followers' intense experiences inevitably led to their acceptance of BS from the guru and ashram leaders. There are several distinct steps in the process. Many of us indeed got amazing experiences. Then the guru and ashram authorities told us that these special meditation experiences were "mystical," and encouraged us to view them as vastly superior to ordinary life. We failed to question what we were told, and consequently believed in this categorization. Our own belief that our experiences were "mystical" and dependent on the guru resulted in our acceptance of all sorts of abuses, deceptions, and BS.

Our own beliefs are the key link in the chain, the link that's most powerful, and most under our control. If we want to escape the BS, we don't need to change the gurus' authoritarian system. We just need to question our own belief in it.

Just as children sometimes need blind faith in their parents, maybe there are millions of people who sometimes want and need an authority to follow. It's not my job to change the system that serves these people. If I encounter someone who's ready to question their dependence on authority, I can try to encourage free-thinking. But ultimately, each individual makes the choice for himself.

I can make my best effort to believe in my own experience, to avoid being a blind follower of others, and communicate these personal efforts as honestly as I can. Beyond that, I can let the "system" take care of itself.