Saturday, 28 January 2012

Buddhist Candlemas

February 2nd is Candlemas Day
Candlemas Pagan Origins

This article has now been updated here

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Creationism Crisis for Christianity = Opportunity for Buddhism?

Crisis in Christianity
From the rationalist's point of view, Christianity is deteriorating rapidly, with a headlong retreat into obscurantism, anti-science and general dumbing-down.

Quotes from a recent article at The Huffington Post:  New Survey of Protestant Pastors Shows Rejection of Human Evolution  by Brandon G. Withrow 

"In a new survey of American Protestant pastors by Lifeway, 73 percent of ministers disagree with the statement "I believe God used evolution to create people." Of that large number, 64 percent strongly disagreed. As you might expect, the numbers were close to the same for the question, "I believe Adam and Eve were literal people," with 74 percent strongly agreeing and only 1 percent not sure."

"The survey of 1,000 ... also found that ministers are almost evenly split on whether the earth is thousands of years old."   - In other words, 50% of pastors reject the entire science of geology, instead  they believe that the earth was created according to the Biblical timescale within the last 10,000 years -  a Christian doctrine known as 'Young Earth." 

"Evangelicals tend to be the least likely category for embracing evolution, and here's why: The acceptance of evolution and potential rejection of Adam and Eve can require more changes than just how one reads Genesis 1; it could result in a rewriting of the idea of original sin. It can affect the evangelical narrative. Without the sinful nature acquired by a real Adam, how does one engage the problem of evil and the necessity of the work of Jesus? Does this nullify the evangelium or "good news" of the Bible?

"But is this slippery-slope warning the only way to approach the conversation? Not all are convinced that past evangelical approaches to the Bible are always the best.

"Peter Enns, author of "The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins," recently wrote on his blog that "Evolution threatens the evangelical narrative. And it's not a joke. The threat is real." [Full disclosure: I am a personal friend of Peter Enns]

"He continued: "It really does come down to the ... Bible: what is it and what does it mean to read it well? The evangelical movement has invested a lot of energy in building thick walls around the Bible, ready to defend it against challenges, real or perceived, that threaten its safety."

"Enns' solution, however, is not to flee the threat, but to learn how to write "new narratives ... where openness to theological change is warranted." Enns believes that Evangelicals need to work on, and improve upon, how they read their Bibles, not reject evolution.

"Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham sees it differently. In reacting to the survey by Lifeway on his blog at Answers in Genesis, he sees the main problem (in terms of priority) as that of an old earth instead of evolution. "For the secularists," writes Ham on his blog, "they have to have millions of years -- without this they can't postulate enough time for evolution." The slippery-slope does not start with Adam; for Ham, it starts with the geological timeline.

"Bottom line - -evolution is really not the problem as much as the age of the earth," says Ham. "Millions of years is the problem in today's world that has resulted in a loss of biblical authority in the church and culture and has led to an increasing loss of generations from the church." The belief that the world is millions of years old is, according to Ham, a "lie of Satan in this present world" that "permeates the church."

Shackled to a corpse?
This insistence on the Biblical creation myth is shackling Christianity to a corpse.   The widespread anti-evolution, anti-geology, anti-rationalism attitudes within  the churches will alienate an increasing number of intelligent people.   The Young Earth doctrine also requires believers to reject...

- Plate tectonics
Plate tectonics is the scientific study of earth movements, which proposes that the continents have not always had their present shapes and locations, but have gradually drifted over the course of millions of years. Many of these movements are still continuing. Where plates slide past one another they give rise to seismically active faults such as the San Andreas fault in California and the Great Glen of Scotland.

- Dating by radioactive decay
When the current isotopic composition and rate of decay of radioactive isotopes in rocks is extrapolated backwards, many samples appear to be  hundreds of millions of years old. The fundamentalist counter-argument is  that the rate of decay was much higher in the early days of the earth.  However, this implies that the background radiation immediately post-creation was hundreds of thousands of times what it is now, which would be severely damaging to the reproductive abilities of all creatures.   Living in the Garden of Eden would be equivalent to sitting on top of Chernobyl.

- Cosmology
Many of the galaxies in the Universe are so far away that light has taken millions of years to travel from them. But according to Genesis, God created the stars after the earth, so in theory we shouldn't be able to see them.  The Fundamentalist explanation is that God has constructed a vast planetarium surrounding the solar system, from which He projects the appearance of an old universe towards us in order to tempt sinners into disbelieving the Bible.

- Genetic code
Humans and our nearest primate relatives such as chimpanzees have over 98% of the 'text' of our genetic code in common. The 'alphabet' of the code is identical.  This is totally unacceptable to Christian Fundamentalists and is explained as being a lie spread by secular humanists.

A Teachable Moment for Buddhism? 
As Christianity dumbs down, could Buddhism become more attractive to rational people in search of a religion?  Buddhism does not rely on any particular creation myth, and is philosophically more predisposed to evolution than to creationism.

Special Creation and essentialism
Creationists believe that species are unchanging and derive their forms by reference to a divine blueprint. Theology has long been dominated by the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato, who taught that the species were invariant, deriving their characteristics from reference to 'essences' or 'ideal forms' which were fixed, eternal and inherently existent.

Buddha with cherry blossom

To a Creationist a rose is a rose is a rose, and would smell as sweet by any other name. There is no way a rose bush could fade into a strawberry plant, or a cherry tree, or a tangle of brambles, or a mountain ash, or a raspberry cane, or a hawthorn bush, or an apple tree. These are all totally distinct and immediately recognisable species - separate types of plant with nothing in between. Theologians base their time reckoning on the chronology of the Bible which states that the world and all its species were created in six days of a single week around 4004 BC .

Burnet rose

Evolution and impermanence
Evolutionists believe that species arose by gradual change from simpler forms. Strawberry plants, cherry trees, blackberries, raspberries, hawthorns and apples all have a family likeness because they all arose from a common ancestor, which resembled a primitive rose. Hence botanists call this plant family the Rosaceae.


Similarly, all primates (including humans and apes) have a common ancestor. Going back further, all species of mammals diverged from a common ancestor, and so on into the dim and distant past until we reach one common ancestor of all lifeforms, which originated the DNA coding which is universal for all plants, animals, fungi and bacteria on earth.

Consequently, to evolutionists the biological species concept does not reflect any underlying reality. A species is purely a snapshot of an interbreeding population of organisms at a particular epoch in time, and as time progresses the characteristics of that population will gradually change in response to selective pressures.

From 'Evolution' in Buddhism A to Z

Buddhist philosophy
Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary and thus agrees with the scientists rather than the theologians. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, constantly arising, becoming, changing and fading . Buddhist philosophers consequently rejected the Platonic idea of production from 'ideal forms' as being the fallacy of 'production from inherently existent other'. 
According to most schools of Buddhism there is nothing whatsoever that is inherently or independently existent.

The two main creationist objections to evolution are:
1 Disagreement with Genesis
2 Blurring of the theological distinction between human and animal

Neither of these pose any threat to Buddhist philosophy. The first objection is based on the need to maintain the truth of a particular creation story in order to preserve the underlying basis for all Biblical truth. This is not a worry to Buddhists because there is no corresponding Buddhist creation myth, and Buddhist philosophers have always accepted that the universe is many hundreds of millions of years old.

The second theological objection is that evolution states that there is a continuum between ape and man, i.e. human and animal.(A favourite anti-evolutionary slogan is 'Don't let them make a Monkey of You!). 
This is not a problem for Buddhists, who believe that both humans and animals possess sentient minds which survive death.  However, it is a major problem for theologians. The church has always taught that only humans have immortal souls, whereas animals are automata whose minds cease at death.
Christians believe that humans and animals were created separately and hence are totally different types of being. But if there was a gradual transition between animal and man, as the evolutionists claim, then such theological beliefs fall apart.

The theologians are left with three alternative unpalatable viewpoints:

- Both humans and animals are and always have been automata (the materialist's position).
- Both humans and animals are sentient beings whose minds survive death (the Buddhist position)
- At some arbitrary date in the past, the apemen were suddenly equipped with souls.

The undermining of the doctrine of the distinction of human from animals is probably an even greater threat to the theological viewpoint than doubt about the literal truth of Genesis.

Buddhism could attract increasing numbers of adherents by emphasizing its compatibility with science, in contrast with the increasing irrationalism and intellectual degeneracy of both Christianity and Islam.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Monday, 16 January 2012

Geek week - nurturing your inner nerd.

Can computer analogies help with
understanding Buddhist Philosophy?

Rational Buddhism is celebrating Geek Week, with three articles dedicated to all dharma dweebs, nerds, techies and code-freaks.   The common theme is how computer analogies can be used to illustrate the more obscure aspects of Buddhist philosophy.

Celebrating Geek Week

'Algorithmic compression and the three modes of existential dependence in Buddhism' (how's that for a catchy title!)  looks at how the way things exist can,  up to a point, be modelled by algorithms and datastructures.  But the model breaks down when it comes to understanding the meaning of computer variables, and we are left to contemplate that ultimate Geek Goddess, the mysterious Mother of all Algorithms...

Homage to the Mother of All Algorithms

'Mereology and Buddhism: Mereological Dependence in Buddhist Philosophy ' 
This article introduces the word 'Mereology', which every dweeb should use frequently to maximize geek-cred.  As well as that, the article looks at how relational database concepts can more accurately reflect the 'basis of designation'  than traditional western philosophical terminology.    Bonus topics include isomers, enantiomers, engineering subcomponents and hierarchical bills of materials.

This guy's got Geek-cred

'The dumbing down of computer literacy and decline of programming in educationexamines how the removal of programming from the school curriculum in favor of the Micro Soft-option is making the traditional code-freak into an endangered geek subspecies. 

Endangered species

The replacement of coding skills by 'applications' such as MS Word and Excel has the knock-on effects of general dumbing down, and in particular in reducing the relevance of computer illustrations of dharma topics for the generation currently passing through college.

However the situation may change thanks to a $25 raspberry pi.

Contemplating interconnectedness

Finally, The Metameme  - could the principles of antivirus software be used to destroy terrorist memes within the minds of Jihadists? 

- Sean Robsville



Prayer versus meditation? They’re more alike than we realize

Tao Hong's Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water

From the Vancouver Sun 

'You could call it a religious war of words, with the West Coast serving as one of its most intense battlegrounds.

The bid to win hearts and minds pits Buddhist meditation against Christian prayer, with meditation, especially so-called “mindfulness,” seeming to be gaining ground.

It’s been the focus of more than 60 recent scholarly studies. It’s being embraced by hundreds of psychotherapists, who increasingly offer Buddhist mindfulness to clients dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s been on the cover of Time magazine.

Even though polls show there are 10 times more Christians in the Pacific Northwest than Buddhists, the forms of meditation associated with those on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean are rising to the fore in North America.

Buddhist meditators, who tend to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” claim what they do is not “religious.” That’s part of the appeal of mindfulness. Such meditators complain that Christian (as well as Jewish and Muslim) prayer over-emphasizes pleading with, confessing to or praising a God.

But meditation, Western Buddhists maintain, is simply a “practice.” It’s “secular,” with no traditional God, even while it may also be “spiritual.”

It turns out, however, that the gap between Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer might not be so huge. Indeed, some forms seem almost identical.

Still, the many well-educated, well-off Westerners who have been drawn to Buddhism, including famous Vancouver spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, have scored some important points when they criticize Christian prayer for being too busy, too noisy and too focused on soliciting otherworldly aid.

Indeed, Rev. Ellen Clark-King, the archdeacon of Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral in downtown Vancouver, is among many who acknowledge Western Buddhists may have been doing Christians an indirect favour.

She does, however, go out of her way to cite the dangers inherent in claiming one form of spiritual practice is superior. There are many paths to the holy, she points out.

In her new book, The Path to Our Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (Continuum), she suggests the popularity of Buddhist meditation has prodded many Christians to re-discover some of the tradition’s less well-known meditative and contemplative methods.

“When considering silence as prayer many people’s first thought is of the Eastern, especially the Buddhist, tradition rather than the Christian,” writes Clark-King.

“Buddhism is seen as the natural home of contemplation while Christian prayer is believed by many to focus almost exclusively on intercession, confession and praise – all three very wordy ways of praying. However, this is to ignore a crucial – and central – component of the Christian spiritual path.”

Why has it taken so long for many Christians to seize on to their tradition’s contemplative practices? Clark-King speculates it is hard for anyone, whether Christian or Buddhist, to face the “emptiness” of solitude, which many equate with loneliness. It takes away our distractions and leaves us with only ourselves and, as she says, God.


Silent Christian prayer is closer to Buddhist meditation than many realize

It can be revealing to discover the similarities of Buddhist mindfulness and Christian prayer. The noted Buddhist magazine, The Shambhala Sun, is just one of thousands of sources on mindfulness.

In a how-to article, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche tells those who want to learn mindfulness to first get into a comfortable position and then note when thoughts arise.

Just monitor your thoughts and feelings without getting stuck on them, teaches Sakyong Mipham. “Say to yourself: ‘That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practising meditation.’”

By labelling one’s “wild” thoughts and feelings, Sakyong Mipham says, mindfulness practitioners begin to recognize the mind’s discursiveness. “We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it . without judgment.” The ultimate goal, Sakyong Mipham says, is to keep noticing one’s breath, to reach tranquillity.

Even though Clark-King is not arguing that Buddhist mindfulness and Christian prayer are exactly the same, it is fascinating to note how similar her language is to that of Sakyong Mipham when she describes at least two forms of Christian contemplation.

The first form is set out in The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic book writ-ten anonymously in the 14th century, probably by an English monk.

The Cloud of Unknowing calls for a kind of contemplation that requires radical “openness” to a non-controlling God, Clark-King writes. “All that the pray-er does is keep silence as far as is possible, surrendering every thought as soon as it occurs without paying any attention to it whatsoever...

Read it all at