“The Raft is Not the Shore” – A Reflection (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of a short series where I reflect on one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan.

Part 1 is available here.
Part 2 is available here.
Part 3 is available here.

Chapter 7: Economics and Religion

"That is why unity can exist among the more liberal monks and the more conservative ones, because behind each monk, each community, there can be no big institutions." - Nhat Hanh

As institutions grow they become less personal and less interested in the individuals themselves. This is a great way to increase the efficiencies of markets, but it is a terrible way to practice spirituality. Large institutions get bogged down in rules and bureaucracy, there is no need to find consensus or understanding because someone at the top of the hierarchy can just make decisions without any strong ramifications (particularly in religion where many people believe they have a monopoly on truth... you can't "vote with your feet" by going to another religion if you believe that all others are false).

"In the States, a source of agony for us has been the immobility and neutrality of the churches facing the tragedy of the last decade. We are convinced that financial interests are at the heart of it. We sense a freedom of conscience in the Buddhist church - the fact that the Buddhists are able to see a moral issue and to follow through on it, even to death itself. Whearas in our country it is so rare to come upon this sense of things." - Berrigan

I don't know much about the financial situation of churches in the US but I wouldn't be surprised if some decisions are weighed in favor of money over morality. Even if it means not doing something because it is illegal or put a church's tax status at risk. When I read stories about people being arrested for giving shelter to the homeless or food to the poor the first thing I wonder is why aren't ALL the churches in that community doing that? Why don't they band together against cruelty from the state. Are Christians so afraid of an overnighter in jail that they will reject Christ's instructions to clothe and feed those in need? And shouldn't the church respond with a stronger voice in the face of stronger injustice?

"If you rely on rich people, then that's the end. But the monks rely on street merchants - people who sell fish and vegetables in the markets - and pedicab drivers. They are the most faithful people in the society. You can trust them; they stick to the struggle." - Nhat Hanh

Rich people and those in power will always support the status quo over revolution. They will always support force to keep things the way they are and they want others (churches, non-profits, politicians, etc.) to be dependent on them.

"I think we're learning that the West is in the last days of a system which has already proven itself antihuman and bankrupt, and this includes the last days of the church as we know it. The church has entirely meshed its destiny and method with that of capitalism and the military. Once you get beyond the religious talk, its institutions are no different. All are making money off the misery of people elsewhere in the world, and are helping weapons systems be created." - Berrigan

Alas, we weren't in the last days then and we aren't in the last days now. I'm afraid that collapse of this system isn't imminent. It would be great if Christians in America were to refuse to serve in the military or work jobs that brought death to innocents, they make up 70% of the population and if they did what was right the military-industrial complex would come to a standstill. But they won't because most aren't true followers of Christ, they are followers of American Jesus (TM) who has lept straight from a misattributed Sinclair Lewis' quote.

"This is part of the torment of younger people, I think, who have some relibious hpe, who would like to identify with the Catholic church or Judaism. But they find that they're being mobilized into a system which is part of the death system." - Berrigan

This seems true today. I think one of the reasons we see a rise in the "spiritual but not religious" and other similar categories among Millennials is that we want some sort of spiritual community but don't know where to find it. Most organized religions are nearly indistinguishable from government organizations, so why go for government light when you can get the whole thing? Churches have been in bed with the government for so long that they are no longer a moderating force or moral light on the hill. The cross has been drenched in the blood of innocent people.

"But I think in the United States there are places where you can just be quiet." - Nhat Hanh

"The war is not in our country; it's 'somewhere else'" - Berrigan

"It's too far away. It's like strange stories, very far away. A kind of isolation. We know that when we transformed our temple into a resistance stronghold, we could no longer merely meditate." - Nhat Hanh

It sure is easy to believe in the power of prayer instead of action when the blood-soaked soil is somewhere else. Vietnam is pretty similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

"But it seems that compassion, but in Buddhism and in Christianity, is so important, so basic, that you can be rich only when you can bear the sight of suffering. If you cannot bear that, you have to give your possessions away." - Nhat Hanh

Fuck. This applies to me, as well as people who follow Christ or the teachings of Buddha. The truth is, we can all bear the sight of suffering pretty easily. We dehumanize people, we justify why our $4 is better spent on a sugary coffee for us instead of a meal for a homeless person. We have extra bedrooms and cars and throw out food on a daily basis. I work to buy stuff I don't need instead of giving my labor and money to those who need it. I need to be better about this. My cost/benefit analysis should involve more than just me, it should involve my community.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/user/show/5292148
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

“The Raft is Not the Shore” – A Reflection (Part 3)

This is the third part of a short series where I reflect on one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan.

Part 1 is available here.
Part 2 is available here.

Chapter 4: Priests and Prisoners

“One of the great tactics of prison authorities is to awaken and make more violent the racism of the prisoners so that they will go at one another’s throats.” – Berrigan

It is interesting to read quotes from a Catholic priest that could be attributed to a prison reform advocate or “social justice warrior”. My experience with Christianity rejected any sort of institutional issues, it was very much an American conservative Christianity which rejected social pressure, norms, or institutional racism or bigotry as having any blame or effects on individuals. It was very much an individualistic spirituality and seemed to have more in common with the Old Testament than Christ.

Chapter 5: Self-Immolation

I didn’t actually highlight any particular parts of this chapter, but I did find it to be an interesting discussion on an act that we would generally call suicide. It makes me think about what part intention plays in an act. If I jump on a hand grenade to try and save other soldiers then that is a noble act and wouldn’t be judged as suicide (even if it is an act that I voluntarily take that will result in my death), but if I take my life in order to bring attention to atrocities or end a war then that would likely be viewed as suicide. I think, in addition to intent, people judge intentional self-death by what other options are available. Jumping on a grenade may be the only option to save a life but self-immolation may be one of many options to end an injustice, and people view the preservation of life as sacred, only to be ended as the last resort. I’m not sure I agree, but that seems to be the cultural (and often religious) perspective.

It also raises questions about how we know other options exist and what the bar is for noble self-death versus a wrongful self-death. If I donate my heart to save a child, knowing I will die, is that noble? What about ending my life to prevent my family from going into debt and suffering? I think life is incredibly valuable and should be cherished, but I don’t think life is necessarily the most important thing above everything else.

Chapter 6: Government and Religion

“It is part of the wisdom, I think, of the religious tradition to always be skeptical of what the governments are doing.” – Berrigan

Wow, what a great first line to a chapter filled with them. I think that if I grew up in a spiritual tradition that was actually skeptical of worldly power then I may still be with that tradition. Too often religious leaders see the state as a potential ally, but they don’t realize that the state is always in competition with religion (and the state has guns). Religion can’t fight the state with violence or else it becomes the state itself.

“But, the idea that being informed leads to more humane decisions or more enlightened politics on the part of those in power, I think, is very questionable. Because the people can very easily, as in the United States, be lulled into a belief in ‘free press’ and ‘free television.’ After all, for twelve years we saw on our screens what we were doing to the Vietnamese people. It’s very questionable that that changed anything. – Berrigan

“Well it’s a problem which goes much deeper than the business of being what they call literate or informed. In fact, the impact of the media can quite possibly be in another direction. People can become so bewildered with the mass of information and news brought down on them that they’re unable to move, they’re paralyzed. So, the question of selecting, meditating, having some interior life of one’s own in the midst of this becomes quite important.” – Berrigan

It is rare that you hear anyone actually question whether having a free press is a good thing. I agree that in theory, a free press is a good thing, but like all rights there comes a certain responsibility and not everyone can (or will) exercise those rights responsibly. It is possible that many, or even most, people are so overwhelmed by the media that it actually causes a form of paralysis. Violence and rights violations on the part of our government become the norm and we are numb to them. We start to think that it is the natural state of things unless, as Berrigan recommends, we are able to select what we view and meditate. This is a synthesis of both Buddhism and Stoicism. The American people have known that we have been bombing, killing, and invading countries for over 16 years now and they really don’t seem to care. Both of the major political parties are pro-war and all the major candidates were hawks.

“Fear and anger are often used for political purposes. Anti-Communism has been very much used and fed, encouraging the fear that Communism will destroy freedom or worship. They stress that fear so that people will not see other aspects of the problem. Because when you consider Communism as the worst of evils, you forget the other evils that are closer to you, that are on the anti-Communist side.” – Nhat Hanh

Holy shit. Things really don’t change. Substitute “communism” with radical Islam, LGBT, immigrants, or even liberalism and you have the modern conservative playbook. If only The Who were right…

“Christians, wo are supposed to be able to cope with persecution, trials, jail, or any kind of human suffering, and still not despair. But it seems the spectre of Communism awakens the utmost despair, a kind of carte blanche to do anything in the name of anti-Communism.” – Berrigan

Yep. That hasn’t changed either.

“if you’re going to recommend speedy death for other people you ought to go and taste it yourself, maybe it wouldn’t appear so attractive.” – Berrigan

The world would be different if the politicians (and those who elected them) were required to serve on the front lines of combat. It is easy to command death from a couch, but to feel, taste, and smell violence first hand and to risk your own life is a very different thing.

“‘Whenever the prophet sits at the king’s table, both are corrupted.’… The priest doesn’t belong there. If he belongs anywhere in the palace precincts, he belongs in the king’s dungeons. He doesn’t belong at his table.” – Berrigan

I wonder if any religious leaders have been arrested for opposing the current wars. I know a lot of them have dined with Presidents.

“Well, it seems to me, it’s a sign of the decline of the whole religious community that priests take on the role of politicians. It’s a loss of a clear-cut sense of their priesthood… Every time priests played politics, there’s been a deleterious effect upon the priesthood, the community, and civil life as well.” – Berrigan

“Once drawn into politics you are caught.” – Nhat Hanh


Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/user/show/5292148
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

“The Raft is Not the Shore” – A Reflection (Part 1)

Every now and then a book stumbles into your life that speaks to your soul. Oftentimes, at least for me, that book sits on the shelf marinating for weeks or months or years until you (or it) are finally ready to consume. I recently read such a book, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan. I don’t remember when I first heard about this book but it has been on my shelf for quite a while. I read the whole thing in less than three days (partly because it is short and easy and partly because I loved the book) and it is now filled with highlighted sections and comments in the margins. In fact, it had such an impact on me that I’ve decided to do a short series of blog posts about the sections that sparked my interest. I hope you enjoy these posts and will consider purchasing the book for yourself.

Chapter 1: Memory, Eucharist, Death

“the future always belongs to the remnant which has come out of slavery.” – Berrigan

Slavery, trials, tribulations, facing evils strengthen us and allow us to be present in the future. Those that live a privileged life struggle to be a part of the future because they grow weak and egotistical, and they are pushed aside by stronger people. When you are on top you are destined to be pulled down.

“the culture is almost totally bankrupt of a vision of what a good life might be. We’re ridden by consumerism, fear, violence, racism – all these terrible mythologies which forever put off any real vision… War becomes the continual occupation and preoccupation in the minds of people who are purportedly trying to get a better life.” – Berrigan

This realization is what originally drew me to Stoicism and Buddhism. There is a lack of “philosophy of life” in today’s society. The good life is seen as little more than getting things or abs or having more sex. There is no analysis of whether that is true or good for the soul. The American mythologies of what is “natural” or “good” are even more flawed than the mythologies that have stood the test of time. America isn’t all bad but any culture that gives rise to such racism, war-mongering, death, and waste must have some problems as well.

Note: Despite growing up in a Christian environment I had to look up the word “eucharist”. It is just Communion, we never called it eucharist.  I didn’t find too much in this section about the eucharist interesting or ground-breaking. Maybe I would if I had more knowledge of Catholicism.

Chapter 2: Religion in the World

“I was struck by two things. First, in Israel and elsewhere, the people who were thoughtful were antireligious. And the religious people we met were very closed in the suppositions about the state, in obedience to the state, and in violence.” – Berrigan

I imagine the same could be said of Americans today. There is a certain American evangelicalism that has wed itself to the state instead of Christ and supports all kinds of offensive and defensive wars (not that we’ve had a truly defensive war in several generations). This is all despite Christ’s teachings and example which involve things like “love thy neighbor”, “turn the other cheek”, “blessed are the merciful”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, “blessed are those who are persecuted”, and other Christian teachings like “Repay no one evil for evil… for it is written, ‘Vengence is Mine, I will repay’, says the Lord”. But, in our culture religion has decided to ally itself with the state (which is at all times a violent institution), they traded their cross and soul for a flag and power.

“By organizing violent resistance, they might have preserved something that is called Buddhism, but they might not be Buddhist at all in substance.” – Nhat Hanh

“I thought that it was quite plain that if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace. Because if you choose Buddhism you sacrifice peace, and Buddhism does not accept that. Furthermore, Buddhism is not a number of temples and organizations. Buddhism is in your heart. Even if you don’t have any temples or monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life.” – Nhat Hanh

Ditto for much of modern American Christianity. They have decided to use violence against immigrants, women, and people abroad, and they think they are somehow living sin-free because they are laundering their support through the state.

“I think there’s a wave passing over the world – a wave of blood, of utter irresponsibility toward others… the mainline religions have joined this effort to make killing acceptable and normal – at least through silence. Usually there is some kind of an obsession with their own well-being.” – Berrigan

“If you are in power, they will try to bring you down. So, you make a compromise in order to be able to continue. You compromise to the point that you become like those whom you opposed before you came to power.” – Nhat Hanh

This is simply a political reality, whether it is in a democracy or after a revolution. If you seek power then you want to keep it, it is easy to justify this desire but the desire exists. To stay in power you need to sacrifice your morals and become what you once hated. There is no such thing as getting “the right people” in power.

“We don’t look for a world in which murder will not occur; that seems unrealistic. But we don’t want murder to be looked upon as virtuous and legitimate.”

Put a uniform on a person and pay them with tax dollars and all of the sudden all sorts of atrocities are “legitimate”.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail about life in general?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”


Fight or Flight

We evolved to survive. Not forever, but long enough for the next generation to become strong enough to survive on their own and reproduce. Unfortunately, the environment in which we evolved in is drastically different than the one we live in. We weren’t designed for the modern world… hell, we weren’t even designed for an agricultural world. Many of the traits that increased the odds of survival in the past are actually harmful in the present.

20,000 years ago the fight-or-flight response triggered by a perceived attack was a very real need. Maybe it was a wild animal or a hostile neighboring tribe that triggered it and that flood of hormones allowed for quick survival. Sometimes our minds made mistakes, that rustling of wild boar in the bushes was really just a squirrel, but the odds of survival was greater due to the false positives. Being wrong 99 times but correct 1 time worked well.

But, we don’t live in the past anymore and the odds have shifted greatly. Not only are the physical dangers when we are out roaming the world nearly non-existent, we are constantly triggering our fight-or-flight in situations where there is absolutely zero chance of real danger.

Take, for example, Facebook. I’m guilty of spending too much time on Facebook. Not only do the constant likes and comments on my post make me feel good (yay, addiction!) but it places me in an environment where it feels dangerous and that I have enemies. It triggers my fear response, which gets the adrenaline going. It is a rollercoaster without the fresh air, a horror movie without the unnecessary topless women running around summer camp.

The chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters isn’t necessarily a bad thing (everyone knows I love a good serotonin rush), but the fight-or-flight response that we evolved with isn’t conducive with modern life. If I want to get a good night’s sleep, the last thing I should do is check Facebook. Seeing a “friend” who posts bigoted stuff is going to pump up my body for battle, not bed. By checking my phone (or even work email) at night I am sabotaging my own desires for a restful night sleep… or anything productive really. This response makes my relationships worse because I focus on the negative instead of the beauty of the world. I’m constantly on edge and stressed out because the system I evolved with is being over stimulated.

So, what can I do about this? Well, recognizing it is the first step, but overcoming it can take some work. As Robert Wright talks about in “Why Buddhism is True”, simply knowing that our mind is responding to evolutionary urges that no longer match our needs doesn’t necessarily lead to overcoming them (just look at food… I know my sugar cravings come from a time when fruit was the sweetest thing around but I still cram donuts in my mouth that destroy my body). What I need

What I need are practices, support, and an incentive system set-up to help me accomplish my goals. That means shutting off Facebook most of the time (particularly before bed), exercising more, reaching out to friends for support, meditating, and finding a way to make my health a moral imperative.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m going to try to get control over my evolution though. That’s what it means to be human, after all. We have urges to reproduce, eat high-calorie food, be slothful, etc., but we can be stronger than our urges. We are not animals that live only to fuck, feast, and sleep. There is nothing special about reproducing, eating, or napping. Embracing our humanity means seeing these things for what they are, tools for happiness and by defaulting to them without conscious thought we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may feel good (because we evolution requires them to feel good) but that doesn’t mean they are good for us.

Got something to say? Wanna buy me a beer? There are many ways you can show support and connect with me! Send me a message anonymously via Sarahah or SurveyMonkey or email me. If you’re interested in a bike adventure I went on you can read my book! And I’m always accepting tips via PayPal or Bitcoin.

Sarahah: pneiger.sarahah.com
SurveyMonkey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Email: pjneiger@gmail.com
Book: http://amzn.to/2f2tkYi
PayPal: pjneiger@gmail.com
Bitcoin: 3BZQcA31awrYj7LAXmMY5armp5s1T2gpsL
Ethereum: 0x05F040cd6FB61377c375d487A37229359Dd6D976

“Buddhism: Plain & Simple” – A Review

Title: Buddhism: Plain & Simple
Author: Steve Hagen
Pages: 159 (including Appendix)
Rating: 5/5 Highly Recommended

It is hard to me to pinpoint exactly when I started to have an interest in Buddhism. I remember learning about it in a high school religion class, but that introduction was little more than “it isn’t really a religion but it kind of is”. I was a hardcore Christian at that time and I have no doubt that I saw Buddhism as simply another Satanic ruse to steal souls from Heaven.

In the decade and a half since high school, my interest in Buddhism has bubbled in my subconscious. I’ve purchased several books about it but rarely finish them. As much as I am interested in Buddhism the works I’ve read seemed unnecessarily vague and complex, I felt like the authors were playing tricks with words instead of just coming out and saying what Buddhism is.

Buddhism: Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen is the opposite of that.

Hagen does a fantastic job of stripping away the ceremony and tradition and supernatural side of Buddhism and gets to the core. He does a great job explaining what the foundation of Buddhism, to simply see the world as it is and to live in the moment. After finishing this book I couldn’t help but see incredible similarities between Buddhism and the Stoic philosophy that I know and love. I can’t help but wonder if followers of Buddha somehow interacted with the Ancient Greeks and helped influence Stoic thought. It seems plausible that in the 200ish years between the life of Buddha and Zeno’s teaching at the Stoa Poikile someone would have made it from India to Greece.

Buddhism and Stoicism are both tools that work to find the truth about the world and encourage rational action in response to the truth. They are about helping individuals live better, happier, more satisfying and authentic lives. This is unlike the faith that I grew up in that demanded obedience to rules and discouraged intellectual inquiry. Buddhism explicitly rejects any hard rules and recognizes that the world is fluid and nuanced and diverse circumstances can easily turn rules into tools of injustice.

Mostly, I enjoy that Buddhism does not need to conflict with scientific discovery. As the Dalai Lama said in the foreword to Destructive Emotions:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understading, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it.

Here was a system of spirituality that didn’t conflict with the natural world, and I believe that is why Buddhism will end up outlasting many of the religions of today. I am still far from an expert on Buddhism, but Buddhism: Plain & Simple laid the groundwork for me to continue my pursuit of knowledge in that direction. It is an easy, quick read that is made up of relatively short and succinct chapters. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding this life philosophy.