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Tag: Philosophy

‘Tis the Season to Talk about Religion – Believe It or Not

I just had an interesting conversation about religion with a guy working at my house.

He overheard my end of a phone call with another secular activist about a church-state violation. When I hung up he asked if those were the kinds of cases I take. He knows I’m a lawyer.

“Tis the season for violations of the separation of church and state,” I said lightly, not sure how much he might want to explore the subject or what his feelings might be on it. I’m wary when people I don’t know well bring up the topic of religion. The conversation could go well or it could get very uncomfortable very fast.

“Church and state ought to be completely separate,” he said, “especially in schools when kids are pretty much forced to go along with whatever the class is doing.”

jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state - no religion

 

I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair to non-Christian schoolchildren to be told by their teachers what to believe about Christmas, which they may or may not celebrate for any number of reasons. For that matter, there are Christian children who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are non-Christians who do celebrate Christmas for reasons other than religion. If a child is doing religion “wrong,” the proper place for correction is home or their place of worship, not a public school.

secular christmas - religion comes in different guises this season

 

One thing led to another, and as the conversation developed he told me he had lots of questions, because the whole “god” thing just didn’t make sense to him. I told him about a certain hissy fit I threw over religion when I was a kid. It has never made sense to me, either.

Then he said that he goes to church, but he doesn’t buy everything the preacher says. Who does? I wonder.

We talked about the notion of a prime mover. I strongly suspect that Aristotle was not the first person to wrestle with the notion of what it was that tipped the first domino and set the whole universe into motion. My response to the prime mover concept is, “Okay, but what made the first mover move? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers Christendom ever produced, ultimately said that God’s existence had to be taken on faith because there was no proof.

My new friend said he thought it was safer to believe, because what if he’s wrong?

Calvin's wager about Santa. It's the same as Pascal's.

 

“You’ve just described Pascal’s Wager,” I told him. If his preferred deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, why won’t his god know about his doubts? If what he outwardly professed conflicted with what his logical processes and his gut told him, wouldn’t that sort of god-the god our culture is typically familiar with-have a clue?

And furthermore, what if the religion he placed his bet on wasn’t the right one? What if there is some other god that really controls it all? What if there are a lot of gods who control by committee? What if those gods really couldn’t care less what people do – isn’t that the more likely scenario?

Then we talked about using the scientific method to explain things that were only explained in the past by “God did it.” I explained the concept of the God of the Gaps, and how that God keeps getting smaller and smaller with every new discovery and addition to scientific knowledge.

 

god of the gaps - religion plugs holes

 

Finally he confided that he didn’t believe in the Abrahamic god, but he would never admit that to his wife. And, ultimately, that’s why he goes to church.

There are so many of us out there, closeted and questioning.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Happy Birthday, Daddy

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

Final Proof

Imagine that you discover a document that absolutely proves whether or not God exists. Upon reading the document and finding the truth, you must decide whether or not to share the proof with the world. Would you?

Would it make a difference if the document proved the opposite of what you believed until you discovered it?

(Assume, for purposes of this question, that the document itself is proof enough)

What if Guilt Disappeared?

This is an essay question on your final in a philosophy class:

Imagine that scientists create a new drug. When swallowed as a pill, it will completely and permanently eliminate feelings of guilt for prior events. Testing reveals that there are no harmful medical side effects. How should this pill be distributed?

Discuss.

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report

laughing-sutra.jpg

 

Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

‘Well! That wasn’t very Christian!’

Recently I have read blogs about topics that either called for religious responses or were about religion – which is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong – but in a couple of cases I was left with the feeling that either the specific post or the comments in response to the post were sanctimoniously narrow-minded. This never fails to get under my skin.

No offense to its followers, but it really bugs the bejeezus out of me when someone appears to claim that Christianity has the corner on the market of good and charitable acts.

I’m not going to publicize what my religion is. There are exactly four people on my friends list who know what it is, and three of them are closely related to me. I don’t talk about religion a lot, but I do study it. I study it mainly because I tend to study anything controversial, and religion is one of the most controversial things out there. I don’t tend to talk about it much because I never know who’s going to get hacked off thinking that I’m blasting their precious dogma.

So, with the intent of blasting no one’s dogmata with nuclear weapons, here I go, talking about religion. (I know, I should prepare to get blasted myself.)

Fact: There are many different religions practiced on this planet.

According to Wikipedia, the dominant religions and the numbers of their adherents are:

1. Christianity 2.1 billion
2. Islam 1.3 billion
3. Secular/Atheist/Irreligious/Agnostic/Nontheist 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism 900 million
5. Buddhism 708 million
6. Chinese folk religion 394 million
7. Primal indigenous (“Pagan”) 300 million
8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
9. Sikhism 23 million
10. Juche 19 million
11. Spiritism 15 million
12. Judaism 14 million
13. Bahá’í Faith 7 million
14. Jainism 4.2 million
15. Shinto 4 million (see below)
16. Cao Dai 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism 1 million
20. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
21. Rastafari movement 600,000

Yes, Christianity has the largest following of any religion. However, more people in the world are non-Christian than Christian. This is something many Christians just don’t seem to appreciate when they blithely talk about something not being the “Christian” thing to do. Oh, the ignorant arrogance of that statement!

Think about this:

Fact: Every religion, without exception, provides a moral framework for its adherents.

Fact: That moral framework is virtually identical to that of every other religion.

Ergo: All religions are virtually identical in their morality.

When I hear the phrase, “That wasn’t very Christian!” it is usually with the sound of judgment ringing in my ears. The speaker has just measured someone else’s conduct or words and found them lacking. Likewise, when someone says, “I’m a Christian, so I wouldn’t _________” (fill in the blank with your own imagination), they are also normally passing judgment on someone they find to be behaving inappropriately.

If every religion teaches the same moral rules, how is it that Christianity has a corner on the morals market? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. What’s worse for Christianity is that those people passing judgment are doing one of the very things their religion teaches that they should not do: the are judging. I hear either of these two phrases and I assume, from that point forward, that the speaker is a hypocrite.

I have heard an argument that this country was established on Christian values and morals. I respectfully disagree with that assessment. Even a casual reading of what was recorded in The Federalist Papers on this subject will enlighten us. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wrote the establishment clause to give Americans freedom of religion, as well as freedom from it. Not all of the founding fathers were religious men, and at least one was publically an atheist.

School prayer has been a big issue for many Christians. It is challenged only rarely, but always by parents who do not want to have religion thrust down the throats of their children.

As long as there are tests in school, there will be school prayer – just not necessarily praying out loud. We should remember, though, that unless our children go to a school connected with a specific religion, the children there are of many faiths, and not just the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions that worship the same god. Yes, that god is the one worshipped by the most people in this country. But there are Buddhist and Hindu children in our schools, too. Wiccans send their children to school. So do Unitarians. And there are plenty of children who are not being instructed in any form of religion.

What is the function of religion? Basically, religions exist to provide that moral framework I mentioned. It’s something all religions have in common. The tenets of each religion may be different, but the basics are the same. Religions instruct us how to get along with other people in a society.

Most of our morality is actually codified as law, but there are still issues of fairness that simply can’t be codified. Those uncodified morals are the ones we have to make choices about in daily life. Sometimes they can be condemned as situational ethics, which is another entire area of contention, and maybe the subject of another blog. But as for the morality that is not part of the law, we should remember that teaching morals is the province of parents, not the school system. If we want our children to have honor and integrity, we must teach them those things at home. If we want them to be compassionate and generous, we must teach them that at home. If we want them to be faithful to their spouses, nurturing to their children, and keep their flower beds tended as adults, we as parents must teach them that those things are important.

And we should also teach them that when the neighbor parks his boat on our petunias, the neighbor is not being un-Christian, he is being rude and troublesome. No religion would condone such behavior. For that matter, no society would.

Ambition

DAD1 magnify

I love this old photo of my dad as a toddler. The expression on his face is so recognizable! His sense of humor and his devilishness beamed through his personality even when he was a little guy.

Because of my father, I make a great effort to be the best person I can be.

While this may not extend to wearing makeup every day, it does extend to the quality of the work I do and the interactions I have with other people.

I am ambitious. I am generally motivated by the need for achievement. I expect the people around me to be motivated by this need for achievement, too, and I am dumbfounded when it appears they are not. I have lost respect for people close to me who lose ambition or who claim to have it but just don’t work for it.

I desperately want my son to be ambitious enough to achieve the satisfaction of at least moderate success so that he can lead a productive, happy life. Being productive in society is vital to finding satisfaction and happiness, I believe. I don’t think we have to contribute to charity, volunteer at soup kitchens, or invent a new vaccine to be productive.

Parents are productive when they give their children values, structure, and education. When they teach a child how he or she may succeed, a parent is fulfilling his obligation to his child. Possibly one of the most productive things my dad ever did was to imbue each of his children with the confidence to surge forward, to try. He gave us the courage to fail and then to try again.

He loved to quote this poem to us:

 

It Couldn’t be Done
By Edgar Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


Sometimes, ambition counts more than actual success. Trying matters if the effort is an honest and assiduous.

I quote Yoda’s “Try? There is no ‘try.’ There is do, or do not.” But the truth is, Yoda’s maxim really only applies when “do” or “do not” is a choice. It applies to turning in homework. It applies to keeping the house clean. It applies to meeting reasonable deadlines. It applies to yard work. It does not apply to playing the guitar perfectly, to making A’s in math, or to mastering the nuances of the Force without a mentor to demonstrate how the force can be used.

I have to make sure my determination and my belief that others should share my ambition doesn’t cost me my close relationships.

I think it cost me my marriage, in part. I could not understand how my husband seemed to have so little interest in personal achievement, especially as bright as he seemed to be when I first knew him. This was not a failure of his personality, it was simply an aspect of it that I found unfathomable. I failed to recognize this characteristic of his for the destructive force it could be – not to me personally, and not to him because it simply WAS him, but destructive to our relationship.

I lost my respect for him because I perceived his lesser drive to achieve to be a shortcoming that he refused to address. For a long time I did not understand that he couldn’t change it, and why he really had no interest in changing that part of him. But just like my drive and ambition are an integral part of my personality, his are an integral part of his personality. He and I simply don’t manifest our desires for success in the same way, nor do we consider “success” to be of the same importance.

Even when I later came to understand that his level of ambition simply WAS, I could not regain the feelings I had for him before ambition became a defined problem for us. I just didn’t feel the same. I didn’t love him any less, but I recognized how mismatched we were and how frustrated I was by this one aspect of his personality. Recognizing that his level of ambition simply WAS didn’t help me to accept it, because I just didn’t approve of it for someone so close to me.

People with ambition take on projects and see them through to the end. We have ideas, we start planning and collecting information, we put the people and materials together, we oversee the work, we build the ideas up and take them to the next level, and we run the course of things. We don’t quit before we succeed. We are focused and determined. On the rare occasion when a project sputters out or doesn’t work the way we intended, we chalk the failure up to experience and move on to the next idea. We are Movers and Shakers.

Shakers, the people with the ideas, need the Movers to gather the committees of people who can actually make the dream a reality. The Shaker explains to the Mover what the goal is, and perhaps explains a couple of steps along the way. The Mover listens to the idea, considers how to implement it, and puts together a team of people and materials who can get the job done.

Movers direct the Managers and tell them what the Shakers’ ultimate goals are. The Managers are perfectly willing to carry out instructions, but Managers don’t have the innovative ideas. They can take a vision, though, and make it a reality.

Some people are the Craftsmen. They can take an aspect of an idea, hone it to perfection, beauty and grace, and incorporate it into the great scheme of things.

Some people are the Data Entry Operators. They are willing to help and work hard by organizing things or putting them in their places.

Others are the Drones, who are not interested in the work they do but can be counted on to perform adequately and then to put their energies into other aspects of the greater whole: the community or their families.

Each type of person is vital to the operation not just of a business, but of a government, of a society, of a community, of a family. Every person plays every role at one time or another, but the dominant roles they play often are a result of their personal ambitions.

Compatible relationships are those in which the level of ambition are complimentary or alike. A Mover and a Shaker can do well together, but a Shaker and a Data Entry Operator don’t necessarily communicate in the same language. I cannot and will not say where my ex-husband fell in these categories I’ve described. Most likely he fits into more than one depending on the task at hand, just like everyone else. but he and I did not communicate very well when it came to ambition and work, and thus we were frustrated together.

This isn’t the only reason we divorced. There were so many other reasons. This is only one contributing factor. We were very frustrated by each other. I am so glad we parted when we did rather than wait until our frustration levels with one another were so great that we could not remain civil. I treasure my relationship with my ex-husband. It is a sparkling emerald to me – not the hardest or most perfect stone by any means, but a beautiful one that can be clear and bright as well as shattered or murky.

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