“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.

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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

Memento Mori

I’m probably going to die someday. It is possible that medical technology will advance to the point of immortality before my consciousness disintegrates (or transfers to some other existence), but I’m increasingly doubtful. It is also possible that I have some sort of genetic mutation ala “The Man From Earth” and I’m immortal, but that seems even less likely.

So, I’m probably going to die. But I’m okay with that. I don’t fear death, even if I’m not particularly interested in it happening anytime soon. I used to be terrified of death back when I was a Christian, which is kind of ironic. I’m not sure how close the connection is between my spiritual evolution and my comfort with non-existence, but I can’t help but think they are at least somewhat connected.

Religion didn’t give me much peace because there was always this fear that I wasn’t “truly saved”, that I had fucked up something between baptism and death and would be spending eternity being tortured by red-horned demons. Now that I think about it, that is pretty psychologically scaring, particularly for children.

Death is often on my mind, not as a fear but as motivation. If this is all ephemeral, if can truly “leave life right now” then life is put in perspective. It motivates me to make the most out of my time here, but also not to take things too seriously. It is a source of inspiration to write a book, record a podcast, skydive over Antarctica, and try anal sex…. because if I don’t do it today then I may never get a chance to do it.

But, it is also a way to provide a little modesty. I’m simply not that important. I’m going to die like everyone else. My name will be forgotten. I will return to stardust, just like everyone else. And that is a huge relief. I can enjoy life and the moment for exactly what it is. As Hairy Soul Man says in his Stoic Hedonist sonnet, “Fuck Everything”:

Now I know most of you don’t agree
with my bleak outlook on life
But I say, it’s the thing that sets me free.

Cause I don’t give a shit what you think of me
No, I don’t give any shits
That’s right, I don’t got any shits to give

Now I’m not saying you can’t go out
and live a fantastic life
You totally can!

You just need to remember
You’re not the center of the fucking universe

So I want to celebrate the absolute insignificance of our existence by coming together, coming together to say…

Fuck everything

So, today I will go out and live my life because I might leave tomorrow. That means enjoying the good things that are within my control. I will enjoy time with my partner, go outside for a run, test my body and mind, and enjoy that strawberry even if there is a tiger trying to eat me. Also, I will try and ignore the garbage in the world like the news and most of Facebook and trash TV (unless those things provide some mental health benefits). I may die tomorrow, but that’s okay because my life is been lived. Besides, my death won’t matter to me or anyone else in the long run and it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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Divorce Selfies

Yesterday I shared on Facebook an amazing Buzzfeed “article” about Divorce Selfies (also, Bill Murray). Basically, people are getting divorced and taking (mostly) happy pictures of themselves with their ex. There were a few awkward ones where it appears that one party either wasn’t ready for the picture or didn’t really want a divorce. You can’t really tell what’s going on in all of them, a picture may be work a thousand words but those words may not be accurate, but I really love the happy ones.

I think the legal institution of marriage is going to continue to weaken and become more temporary in our world, and that isn’t a bad thing. As a society, we need to recognize that people change and the person we were when we sign a marriage contract (often at a super young age before our brains are fully formed) may not be the same as the person we are 10, 20, or 50 years later. Loyalty to a relationship in which you are no longer happy or no longer helps you grow as a person is not a noble trait. And, as people start to live longer and longer as we inch towards immortality the idea of a committing to an infinite unknown will see ludicrous (check out “The Postmortal” by Drew Magary for a cool dystopian novel that touches on this issue). Additionally, friendship should survive a breakup (as long as nobody was abusive). It is better to end a marriage and remain friends than remain married and end up loathing each other.

I know some people will object to divorce because to them it is a spiritual institution. That is great for those people and a choice they made, but when marriage became a legal institution with benefits that are provided by a secular government the “spiritual” part of it became irrelevant to divorce. I’m not sure how marriage became a legal institution in the United States. I’ve heard all kinds of theories from conservatives wanting to prevent black and white people from marrying each other to the government wanting to discriminate against Mormons to men wanting to be able to legally own women to Christians wanting special treatment under the law, but why it came to be is irrelevant. If something is a legal institution in the United States it is going to expand to include everybody equally (ie Marriage Equality) and people are going to develop a way to alter or leave the contract.

Maybe this should be a lesson to people who want their particular beliefs or institutions to be protected by law. When you get the government involved the incentives may not be what you expect. I think a lot of religious institutions are starting to recognize that, particularly Christianity which has been given special treatment for 200 years. Fox News may claim that there is a “War on Christians” in the United States but that simply isn’t true, the power that Christians hold in this country should never have been concentrated in their hands. They are losing power, yes, but they are losing power they should never have had.

So yes, people are going to get happily divorced and members of the LGBT community will get happily married. Satanists are going to be able to start clubs at high schools and put up monuments on state property as long as Christians can. And as long as city council meetings begin with a prayer then pagans are going to be able to participate. Of course, the simplest solution is to get all religious practices and symbolism completely out of government, but I somehow doubt that will happen any time soon.

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“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.