We are a group of friends engaging in thoughtful discussions of poetry, music, philosophy, and spirituality. Come, read, contribute!

Friday, November 7, 2008

For a few years now, I have struggled with the concept that I am not a poet. It's like a weather forecast: all the conditions are right but the storm just isn't happening. I have bipolar disorder, which usually a side effect is the individual being a bit more creative, and has also lead me into situations and experiences that I frankly would rather never have had. I'm fairly intelligent, even bordering into clever. I have a good command of the english language and I typically spell things correctly.

Prose comes to me like music came to Mozart. The best way to describe anything is with a far fetched bizarre analogy, which I even use in my papers for school. In fact, many of my grades on term papers were saved from lousy research by exotically descriptive prose and a good analogy.

But what is poetry? Ryan studied it, and I have not. Sure, I've read books, and discovered that Dickinson is not to my liking, and so forth. Where does one cross the line. It's like traveling in the United States; adjacent states can be so similar that you may not know you've crossed the line except for the sign. I've heard rap called the poetry of the streets, and I've heard rock stars called poets, but I can't usually accept either of those labels. Rap can be very cleverly rhymed, but what does it do? I don't see past the egocentricity and party boasts. Rock lyrics can be so vague. Some of the songs that used to really move me now seem to me to be nothing more than words chosen at random out of a dictionary by a word-sniffing dog. Unfortunately, this kind of writing is what my attempts usually emulate.

go on
favor everyone but myself
to create just to fail,
and thus fail to create
and the world still anticpates.

No one knows what I'm talking about. This wouldn't get any real respect in academia, or from people who are more literate than limericks. Ryan said writing must be practiced, but I can't fix dribble like I fix my intonation or phrasing in music.

Planes Mistaken For Stars wrote a song that really sums up what I'm feeling (at least to me; in true rock fashion I don't know what they intended to mean).


Poet, I'm sick of your pretty lies.
and it was about the song that sang of the shelves I wished you on, now sing along.
and I used to wish my heart as good, my heart as strong.
Don't say it's gone.
I'll pull the truth to you.
And even if it breaks us both down, don't say it's gone.

I like it because of some clever word play and it's unpretentious nature. I think they are singing about not really writing something that may stand the test of time or will be quoted in readings (except for maybe a blog!). I think the style of writing emulates the message: unmetered, unrhymed, unstanza-ed, unsuave. And I think that they (and myself) know the difference.

But they, and I, both know what we really wish for and want. The conditions are favorable. We want a storm.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Hi all,

I just figured I should introduce myself, and since Ryan's looking for deep writing, I thought a good topic would be how I came to my particular faith.

I'm the primary author over at Unknowing Mind, a blog predominantly focused around my Buddhist writings, as well as some poetry. If you want to know more about me, just peruse my writings there; I think a large part of myself comes out in my writing. I'm ridiculously liberal in my viewpoint (i.e. I vote Green Party; I think all other political issues should take a backseat to ecological issues because if the planet dies, it sure doesn't matter how strong our economy is; I am a pacifist, however I do recognize that strong military action might be necessary under extreme circumstances -- though we are not in such circumstances now -- and I'm glad somebody other than me is running for president because I could never declare war on another country).

So how I came to my Buddhist practice... well, I grew up a Catholic and attended Catholic grammar & high schools. My family went to church regularly -- my dad and I would even go to the 7 AM mass together, and if THAT doesn't show dedication, I don't know what does. :) In approximately 5th grade, I began to recognize that the Christian faith just didn't model the world in which I lived. I just didn't see the world in such a black & white dichotomy, with God being the ultimate good. If I had been a stronger person at the time, I would have refused my 8th Grade confirmation as I was completely non-Christian by that point, though I did not. Anyway, back in about 6th grade, I chose to stop going to church, explaining to my parents that I didn't feel it represented my views. They respected that, which I greatly admire about them.

Starting in 7th grade, I started researching other religions, particularly Pagan faiths, as their focus on Nature and the environment, as well as their ancient heritage, really appealed to me. It was my experience -- and still is -- that the world around us is alive and, in some unique ways different from humans, conscious; a very pantheistic thought. Throughout high school, I would have classified myself as a general Pagan in religion. During college, I didn't have time for religion (nor my beloved sport of Baseball!), so both got pushed aside, and my skills as a shortstop waned.

While in grad school, I started training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art. It was there that I was introduced to Zen meditation, as our dojo was affiliated with a Rinzai Zen temple. (though I was NOT new to meditation and mental focus, as that was a major part of my Pagan practices throughout high school). After I graduated with my Masters degree in electrical engineering, I moved out of my parents house, and unfortunately too far from my Aikido dojo to continue training there. Well, I did continue for awhile, even enough to pass my 4th Kyu test, but then the 1 1/4 hour travel time each way became too much.

After a couple years in that location, I moved into Chicago proper, into the Lincoln Park area. I had always been a bibliophile, with a particular interest in religion & spirituality, but for whatever reason I had never read a single book on Buddhism ... until I moved to Chicago. Then one day, I stumbled on a book at Borders. Honestly, I cannot remember which one, but reading this book, I suddenly realized that Buddhism truly fit the beliefs I had developed; it was almost uncanny!

So I don't leave this point too general, let me give a specific example. In Aikido, one of the practices I had to train for was called Randori, or in other words, defending against multiple attackers. For my 4th Kyu test, I had to face a single attacker who would run at me and perform any grab he or she chose, and I had to defend against it. Then once the attacker got up from my throw, he or she would keep coming right back at me with different grabs, which I had to defend. So it's a continuous assault in which I have to demonstrate a wide variety of techniques on an attack that I cannot predict in advance because the attacker can do anything (this is the predecessor to multi-person attacks with no limitations on the type of attack). I struggled mightily with this. Even though I was highly athletic, which had propelled me up the Aikido ranks quite quickly, I just couldn't grasp this skill. Until this one day. It was a saturday, and we had a small turnout in class -- maybe 5 people. Since we were all fairly highly ranked -- I was the lowest -- our teacher decided to make it a Randori day. So I struggled through it, with rather poor results as normal. Until at one point, Sensei said to me, "Slow down, breathe, and just accept the attacker." Of course he had been telling me something similar for weeks, but for whatever reason, this time, something clicked inside me. I knelt down on the mat in position, took a deep breath and focused on a spot about 3 feet in front of me. My mind had that ultra-calm feeling of being "in the zone" that athletes experience -- something I had felt countless times before. But this time, it went beyond all of those previous experiences. Sensei yelled, "Hajime!" (meaning "Begin" in Japanese), and I bolted up and trained my eyes on the attacker. And a strange thing happened. It was as though I could feel in my own body every move he was about to make. He grabbed for my right shoulder. But I already knew he was going to do that before he moved, having felt it in my own body, and so by the time he was moving for me, I was already moving out of the way and preparing my defense. I threw him. He landed hard and came back, running around behind me to grab both wrists. But again, I knew this before he even started his turn around me, and I stepped aside, led his arms up, and propelled him forward away from me. This continued for about 40 seconds, at which point Sensei stopped the randori.

I had experienced true Interbeing, the interconnected nature of us all that Buddhism proclaims (though, again, I did not know it by this name at this time, not having studied Buddhism at all yet). So while in meditation at home, I wondered how such an approach would function outside the dojo -- this being my normal questioning, probing self, as martial arts training is a life-training by nature, and thus a way to live your entire life, but I had to explore if that were true for myself. And explore I did. And I found that my entire life flowed much more smoothly when that view was operative. When I could sense the interconnectedness of myself with others, life was just easier; I was nearly always calm and collected, I could focus at will despite distraction, I was naturally helpful and generous to others without having to think about it, etc.

When I opened that book at Borders, and I came across the Buddhist teaching on Interbeing, I was sold.

That's just one example of how well Buddhism modeled my life experience. And so I began looking for a Buddhist temple to attend, to deepen my practice. And I found an amazing temple that has helped me greatly along my spiritual path.

Let me give one more specific example of how Buddhism modeled my life experience. One of the things I could never understand -- something which occurred to me as early as 5th grade -- is how people can follow a faith that they've never truly chosen for themselves. So many people I've talked to, from 5th grade to the present, call themselves X (insert whatever religion you want here) because that's what they were raised as. I simply don't get that. At some point, I think one has to make the conscious decision to follow X religion, and one has to work out those reasons for one's self. Without this step, it's blind faith, which in my opinion is a waste of energy as well as insulting to the faith. This doesn't mean you have to go through a "Dark Night of the Soul," but you have to make a conscious decision, backed by reasons and life experiences that lead you to that conclusion, to truly be an adherent of a faith.

The problem I saw is that the Western religions in which I had experience, including Catholocism and several Protestant denominations, didn't want you to question. It's not that they would turn you away if you came to your Pastor questioning, but they didn't teach this as a vital part of the practice of that faith, which I most definitely feel it is.

Fast forward to my trip to Borders in Chicago, where I read this from one of the Buddhist Sutras:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon faith of tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon mere logical reasoning, nor upon mere philosophical reasoning, nor upon mere outward appearances, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher."

But whatever, after due examination and analysis, you yourselves directly know, "These things are wholesome, blameless, prasied by the wise, when adopted and carried out, they are of benefit and lead to well-being, prosperity and happiness," then you should accept and practice them.

It was a Central Buddhist Teaching to always question and confirm for oneself all teachings, including those of the Buddha! Never were we, as Buddhist practitioners, to take teachings at their word. Instead, they must be applied and tested, and only then accepted. This direct knowledge of the truth is the hallmark of Buddhist teachings, and this is a primary reason why I am proud to call myself a Buddhist.

So how about you all? How did you come to choose your particular faith?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Evaluating Truth

1This one's going to be a doozy. But I figure, why start small? I apologize if this seems over-long, but it's not a light subject and I've been in need of some good conversation for quite some time, so this is a bit of a release for me. Questions are at the end.

2I'm in the midst of reading the book Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, by Harold A. Netland. While incredibly thorough in his writing, he makes no attempts to hide his bias towards orthodox Christianity and his belief that it is the only religious system which makes any sense. In his own words, "it is hoped that this book will serve as a kind of defense of Christian exclusivism," which, he concludes, is the only logical end one can attain if they are being, "faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture."

3My initial reaction was to chunk the book and use my time more efficiently playing video games, as he had already admitted that his argument would be contained within the circular logic of scripture. Also, anytime someone refers to the teachings in Scripture as "clear," I'm automatically a bit suspicious, both of their motive and their intellect. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that anyone writing about pluralism and world religions is going to be contained within their own bias. The question is, are they willing to look outside of that bias? Are they willing to attempt to step out of their own worldview and into the Other's? So I'm giving it a shot.

4After several lengthy chapters explaining the basic tenets of 5 major world religions (a very thorough and uncharicatured attempt, I must say), he finally gets to the chapter titled "Evaluating Religious Traditions" and I start to get really interested. Early in the chapter, he attempts to show some of the common tools of evaluation used in comparing religions. For instance, he examines different religious worldviews on the relief of suffering and the aiding of the oppressed (bringing about the Kingdom of God in his Christian vernacular), but determines that this cannot be used as an evaluative tool because the priority, the value of such actions is determined by each religious tradition itself. In other words, how can we hold Muslims to the Christian expectation of the Kingdom, when Muslims are more inclined to hold that each man is given his lot by Allah and that we are not to interfere? Each religion determines its set own set of values and priorities; you can't use one to judge the other.

5So then how can one evaluate religions? What absolutes can be given that are not derived from within one religious perspective? Fear not, for Netland will show us the way. Netland rightly asserts that "In evaluating a religious worldview we are concerned ultimately with the question of its truth." He then goes on to define truth as, "a property of propositions such that a proposition is true if and only if the state of affairs to which it refers is as the proposition asserts it to be. Otherwise it is false." We'll come back to this.

6The next ten pages were Netland trying to create 10 different working logic statements, or principles, which could be used to evaluate religions semi-objectively (he openly admits that it's not a perfect system, but better than most). First, he understands that if you're talking about religious systems, you're talking about the particular beliefs that make up that religious system. So he offers up this definition of a "Defining Belief," or the beliefs that are worth considering.

D1: p is a defining belief of religion R if an only if being an active participant in good standing within the religious community of R entails acceptance of p.

And then he tells us what it means for a religion to be true:
D2: A religion R is true if and only if all of its defining beliefs are true; if any of its defining beliefs are false, then R is false. (emphasis added)

So there're the criteria. If one defining belief is wrong, then we can toss out the whole thing. We'll come back to that as well. To spare your eyes and time, I will provide you with a list of the ten principles, sans Netland's elaboration and explanation of each. I'm pretty sure they're self-explanatory.

P1: If a defining belief p of a religion R is self-contradictory then p is false.

P2: If two or more defining beliefs of R are mutually contradictory at least one of them must be false.

P3: If a defining belief p of R is self-defeating it cannot reasonably be accepted as true.

P4: If the defining beliefs of R are not coherent in the sense of providing a unified perspective on the world, then R cannot be plausibly be regarded as true.

P5: Any religious worldview which is unable to account for fundamental phenomena associate with a religious orientation or which cannot provide adequate answers to central questions in religion should not be accepted as true.

P6: If a defining belief p of R contradicts well-established conclusions in other domains, and if R cannot justify doing so, then p should be rejected as probably false.

P7: If a defining belief p of R depends upon a belief in another domain (e.g., history) which there is good reason to reject as false, then there is good reason to reject p as probably false.

P8: If one or more defining beliefs of R are incompatible with widely accepted and well-established moral values and principles; or if R includes among its essential practices or rites activities which are incompatible with basic moral values and practices, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P9: If the defining beliefs of R entail the denial of the objectivity of basic moral values and principles; or if they entail the denial of the objective distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, then there is good reason for rejecting R as false.

P10: If R is unable to provide adequate answers to basic questions about the phenomena of moral awareness this provides good reason for rejecting R as false.

7Again, Netland is very apparent and unapologetic with his bias. Immediately following his last principle statement (P10), Netland writes the following, "Although this cannot be argued here, I should state that the reason I believe one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true is because it is the only worldview that satisfies the requirements of all the above criteria. Ultimately, this means for Netland that "If indeed one is justified in accepting the Christian faith as true--as I am convinced is the case-- then one is also justified in making judgments about other religious traditions on the basis of Christian teaching, and in rejecting as false those beliefs from other traditions that are incompatible with Christian faith."

So there we have it. We can now objectively evaluate and rank any and all religious systems. So now let's start with the questions! Feel free to discuss or expound upon any part of the questions, or add any of your own. I've numbered the paragraphs for easy reference. For the Principles or Definitions, simply use the references provided (P1, P2, D1, etc.).

Q1: What do we make of Netland's definition of truth provided in paragraph 5? Does the phrase "state of affairs" work for you as an attempt to define reality?

Q2: Is it right to assume, as Netland does, that if there is one "false" principle belief then the entire Religion must be false, as he asserts in D2? As a follow up, how many people do you think fully and completely believe and accept everything their religion teaches as true?

Q3: What do we make of the 10 Principles? Are they as objective as Netland would like them to be? I have serious issues with P8 and P9 because of his use of the phrase "basic moral values" and the failure to define that. Are morals developed independently from religion now to be used as the standard of comparison for those religions? And wouldn't basic moral values be completely determined by geography and cultural settings? P9 seems wrong on a philosophical level, as it requires the assumption that right and wrong exist, that good and evil are indeed factual. Seems like Buddhists are just out of luck on that one. Sorry, Mike.

Q4: I'm very curious as to how Netland thinks Christianity is the only religion that meets the standards he's created. In fact, I'm curious as to how he thinks ANY religion meets the standards he's created. So it's not in the form of a question....sue me. Does your religion hold up to these principles he's created?

Q5: What does it mean to be in "good standing" in a religious community, as provided in D1?

Q6: Just to provide a couple of questions that Netland poses but never attempts to answer, "What constitutes knowledge? Under what conditions is one justified in accepting a particular belief? Must one be able to provide sufficient grounds for, say, belief in God in order to be justified in believing in God? What would constitute such grounds? What kind of contrary evidence would falsify belief in God?"

Q7: Should I finish reading this book? The next chapters are "All Roads Lead to..." "No Other Name: the Question of Jesus," and, "Evangelism, Dialogue, and Tolerance."

I hope all are well and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"The grand show is eternal.  It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising.  Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
John Muir
The Wilderness World of John Muir, p 312

Dawn and gloaming.  The crisp light of sunrise and the slow farewell of the day.  For photographers, twilight is often known as the "magical hour," as it produces the softest and most dramatic natural lighting.  The true color of an object is concealed in the golden glow of the setting sun, an image painted in a dying light.   It is a time when light and shadow intermingle, with one fading into the other as the seconds pass, making each moment that the photographer hesitates a precious vision of beauty forever lost.

So it is with life and the human mind.  As we struggle to understand the world around us in all of its complexity, our perceptions of the world are painted in the dying light of the moment.  The true hues of the world lie just beyond our ability to see them.  And so ideas meld together, as light and shadow, to compose an image, an understanding, a vision of the world that our minds can comprehend and we can accept as real.  We frame these moments in words and expressions.  Most importantly, we share those words with others, making a dialogue of perspectives, a collection of images that helps us understand the larger picture before us; a mosaic of moments.

That's my hope for this blog, that it can be a place where friends and strangers can come together and examine ideas, whether we be in agreement or discord.  A place where questions can be asked, inspirations shared, and our collective images expanded.