Know what that is? That’s me repeatedly hitting my head on the keyboard – an anguished “Gaaah!” escaping my lips each time – upon reading the story that Al Gore has been recruited as an advisor on climate change…by the British.
Please, I’m begging you, my American countryfolk – take up your torches and pitchforks and vote next Tuesday so that we might restore something even vaguely resembling sanity and moral compass to America’s public policy – if for no other reason than to prevent further welts from being raised on my forehead.
Now. Moral compass. Good segue for our main topic, which is Another Talk With Tom Terry. You remember Mr. Terry, our very own Mongolia-based fire ‘n’ brimstone evangelical Christian. He’s established a media beachhead with a TV station here for what he hopes to be Mongolia’s eventual transformation into a God-fearing nation complete with right-wing American politics and its ever-tolerant social conservative agenda. He has a blog in which he gives vent to his personal observations and feelings. I would have these talks over there but (I think because of me) he abruptly switched off his comments.
As I said before, I’m mostly content to pay Mr. Terry’s essays no mind. I am striving for happiness, after all. But when I see that he has burped up another acid opinion about Buddhism, disseminating in a public forum his ill-conceived notions of that which has shaped the culture of his remarkably forebearing hosts, well, I’m a-gonna defend them.
I just spent the day at a conference at Gandan Monastery about Chinggis Khan and Buddhism. A truly compelling cross-section of secular and monastic speakers shared serious research into the origins of the Mongols’ adoption of Buddhism, and the ways in which its teachings are uniquely suited to the Mongol character. It was thoughtful and challenging and a stark contrast to the ideas that Mr. Terry is trying to inject into Mongolia.
Mr. Terry’s writes on "The Demons of Public Policy," a long lament on the mounting problems in American public schools, for which he blames, of course, their de-Christianization. People of Mr. Terry's ilk never recognize that America is a pluralistic society, and that the geniuses who created the political framework for the country gave us one of our great gifts – the Constitutional enshrinement of the separation of Church and State. This seminal idea is summed up so perfectly by this quote from Thomas Jefferson:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”
OK, now after you get past the comic interlude – Mr. Terry’s apoplexy upon reading an opinion column in which the author relates that even some self-described conservatives are finding the God-botherers in their political ranks insufferable – you get to this:
“Mongolia is a nation that never enjoyed a vibrant experience with Christianity until the last 15 years. And yet for all of its atheism and Buddhism it doesn’t experience knifings, gang warfare, and routine murder in its public schools. That’s not to say that atheism or Buddhism are responsible for the quiet conditions in Mongolian schools – indeed, they have their own, very serious problems with corruption. America’s mentality in public schools is clearly atheistic and even bends toward eastern religion. So why are things so bad?”
Mr. Terry’s premise here, and throughout his essay, is breathtakingly ignorant – he seems to believe that in the past several millennia, only the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the apostles, as not-always-reliably recorded in the Bible, provide this world with any useful and true ethical guidelines, and without them we’re condemned to possession by demons and the wrath of God.
Mr. Terry, let me ‘splain you somethin'. Six hundred years before Christ appeared, Shakyamuni Buddha engaged in a 42-year teaching career in which he offered not only the most sophisticated and civilizing ethical system the world had ever seen, but the most logically coherent reasons for adopting it both at the personal and societal levels.
But here I need to agree with Mr. Terry for a millisecond. He criticizes the conservative columnist for her view that natural human empathy is enough to foster ethical lives. I agree that it’s not enough. But then Mr. Terry cites his reason: “In fact, our ‘innate human empathy’ is corrupted by sin.”
End of agreement.
In the Buddhist view, our current condition is not naturally conducive to empathy and therefore ethics because we have not freed ourselves from the ignorance of conceiving a "self" separate from others. That's not to say that we don't make good, ethical choices all the time, but the Buddha taught that we run into all our problems because we have a long habit of selfishness. When the chips are down, we will generally opt to take care of “me,” and everything we consider “my” – my family, my friends, my nation, my fellow social conservatives whose view of Christianity is exactly like my own, that sort of thing. But, the Buddha taught, this “self” that we cling to is just a concept and neither its solidity nor that of any phenomena, can withstand careful analysis. Our state of natural perfection can be experienced here and now, once freed from these concepts of self and other.
What does this have to do with ethics, Konchog? Quite a bit, in fact. If it’s established that mental and physical phenomena are ultimately empty of concrete reality, it follows that the only force governing their relative arising and dissipating is not some overarching Divine Judge, but simply the exacting nature of cause and effect relationships, what we call karma. This is the basis of Buddhist ethics: nothing occurs in a vacuum; every action has consequences. Buddhists recognize that the death of the body does not logically imply the discontinuity of consciousness. The physical body is not the root source for immaterial consciousness; a prior moment of consciousness is. So, imprints of our actions on what we call the “mindstream” continue into, and shape the experience of, future lives. The Buddha taught that virtuous actions will result in pleasurable experiences in the future and non-virtuous actions will produce the opposite (this cycle is very rarely completed within one lifetime). To help people avoid suffering, he taught what constitutes non-virtue: killing, stealing, harmful actions in the sexual arena, lying, creating schisms among people, harsh speech, meaningless chatter, covetousness, ill will, and the harboring of wrong views. He also taught many times the obvious truth that intoxicants radically increase your chances of engaging in non-virtue and therefore should be avoided or at least taken in moderation.
From this basic understanding, those genuinely striving for enlightenment strengthen their practice of virtue by making vows concerning their behavior. These vows have an outer, inner and secret dimension but, in my opinion, attain their most gorgeous expression in the Mahayana and its emphasis on bodhicitta. This is the mind that strives for enlightenment solely so that one may then effect the liberation of all other sentient beings. A mind, in other words, saturated in compassion and gradually refined in wisdom.
There are even deeper views, once one enters into the Vajrayana, but such things are not to be discussed lightly in public. For those who are interested in exploring this fascinating subject in more depth, four sources come immediately to mind: Ngari Panchen’s Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows; Jamgon Kongtrul’s Buddhist Ethics; Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher; and, of course, Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.
Now, despite my criticism of what I see as Mr. Terry’s extremely narrow and flawed view of global religious ethics, I am announcing the first DODR link to a Christian blog. People get to this site by searching for the most bizarre things, and sometimes by working back from my stats page, I find great websites. Thus, the other day was I introduced to Zoomtard (Sarah's laughing already). Not only is the blog name fantastic (esp. when you’re given its definition: “To be speedy or efficient by abandoning all pretense of mental competence.”) but the kicker line really made me laugh out loud: “The 14th Most Read Christian Blogger in Dublin.” I knew immediately we were simpatico and, by God, it’s my aim to elevate Zoomie to #13.
Zoomtard is quirky, hilariously Irish, literate, totally integrated into popular culture and technology, and manages to be deeply serious about his Christian faith without taking it too, too, seriously. Sound familiar?
Zoomie made me laugh several times in the last post:
“So the long wait has ended and our Messiah is going to return in 2007. By which I mean, the Pixies are getting back together to rehearse new material for an album in January. You can call off the 24 hour prayer meetings.”
“I work for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Today, the PCI, at least in my experience, is a vibrant, faithful, risk-taking church that earnestly seeks to do its part in rolling in the Kingdom of God- whether that is in the care of orphans, the relief of 3rd world distress, reconciliation initiatives in Norn Iron, sharing the Gospel in dark godless feckless places where nothing good can come out of like Cork…”
And at the same time, he actually absorbed me in a really thoughtful discussion of how to reconcile radically different Christian organizations’ purporting equally to be enacting God’s will on Earth. This is someone I feel I could regularly sit with over a pot of tea, while away the afternoon in discussions about matters over which we may never totally agree, but that would not dampen our respect and affection for one another.
So, I’m curious – there must be others like that on the Web. I’d like to expand a section of links to those who really have something to offer the global spiritual discussion, no matter what tradition they represent. Feel free to share the ones you admire in the comments. It's likely that the only ones that will earn a link will have a sense of humor, especially a self-deprecating one.