Saturday, July 28, 2012

What if God were Amoral: Spirituality and Morality at the Crossroads

Hidden Path leading to Vancouver's English Bay

When it comes to matters of morality, our main focus is on the human race. We, theists and atheists alike, expect humans to behave in an ethically responsible manner. Ethics, in its most simplistic form, can be summed up as and divided into two levels: There are actions that increase happiness, peace and harmony, and others that decrease them or have opposite effects, such as sadness, pain and suffering.

Again, this is at its simplest form since I am fully aware that certain actions may be blessings in disguise in the sense that they seem to foster happiness when, in fact, they are destructive and vice versa. For example, we may smother a child with love and rob their independent functioning in the outside world, or we may punish and discipline them and they might suffer for a while, but the benefits will eventually outweigh the negatives. Incidentally, the ideal would be a harmonious balance between the two.

Morality is mostly a relative issue and in some cases, we may commit certain “bad” acts for ultimately “better” benefits, the famous and controversial Machiavellian means justifying the end. I am not going into details on this point now but just want to underscore that absolute statements about morality, more often than not, lead to a dead end, a cul-de-sac.

However, animals seem to be exempt from those moral standards. Not that they lack mental and rational functioning - in fact, I believe animals to be generally more capable than what we give them credit for - but because their “world” is quite different from ours. In order to survive they must kill to eat. Animals do not have the moral choice of becoming a vegetarian or cannot calculate their calories or how much protein they need to consume to function on a day-to-day basis.

In addition, there is no private property, there are no laws, except the all-embracing “law of the jungle.” One of our main sticky points that fills up tabloid papers and divorce court rooms is the matter of sexuality and its (supposed?) link to morality. Animals act more on their instincts than we do because if we did, we would get into trouble.

From an evolutionary perspective, we can say that morality was necessary for our own survival but more importantly for the survival of our species and civilization. From a religious point of view, at least from a Christian perspective, it is the decree of God to reach eternal salvation through an ominous and mysterious mix between faith and morality, though bizarrely in some cases the former can override the latter.

My argument, however, is the following. I fully support morality from the bottom of my heart, and I think it is the necessary link or glue between religions and philosophies (sorry, Hedonism or your distant cousin Nihilism). We need to behave in a responsible and respectful manner toward ourselves, each other and our environment. Yet I believe that morality and spirituality are not as compatible as they appear to be.

Let me explain. Morality - being good and leading a good life - can lead to the realization of spirituality, call it the awakening of the divine or God. So morality brings us closer to the Almighty or the powers that be. But our problem lies in the fact that we expect this special entity to be the same as us and to have the same conceptions of morality. There is a serious case of anthropomorphic bias here.

Why should higher levels of spirituality be held accountable to and limited by the rules of the lower level? It is like animals insisting and demanding to follow the law of the jungle. In my view, morality may lead to God but breaks down on that level and becomes, from an enlightened point of view, merely the babble of an infant.

I am speaking of the unspeakable and ineffable place sometimes referred to as TAO. Our human conception and understanding of the world may merely be a stepping stone to higher dimensions. Look at our tiny earth in proportion to the universe, and then we claim to have it all figured out! We are the anthill in front of a skyscraper and expect the latter to conform to our limited views and perspective. 

If, as I am claiming, spirituality can be exempt from morality, or rather follow other rules and dictates than the ones that exist for us, then a lot of conceptual problems about ethics can be resolved, to some degree at least.

For example, the problem of evil would not be an issue anymore. God will not be omni-benevolent in a human sense. So the pain and suffering exist for a reason beyond our grasp. Christianity has tried to explain it in the form of free will, that we are to be blamed for it, but that argument loses steam when we talk about children being exposed to suffering. Original Sin or the Fall of Eden story just won't suffice to explain this fact. Christians also use the phrase that the Lord works in mysterious ways but that is saying nothing and everything at the same time.

The second problem that this view would resolve is the issue of determinism. To have morality at all, we need to be aware and held accountable for our own actions. A person who is mentally ill cannot necessarily judge right from wrong (though some may fake it to get out of prison). But let us look at it with a concrete example. If I get intoxicated, get drunk or high and commit a horrible deed under the influence, say kill someone, I may not be directly responsible for the act since it was most likely not premeditated or planned, but at least I am responsible in the sense that I chose to get intoxicated.

Now let us add a twist to it. What if somebody against my will and knowledge spikes my drink with a certain substance that leads to the consequent murder. Now I was not aware of what I was doing and cannot be held responsible for my actions. And let us add that the guy who spiked my drink was not even invited to the party!

This would also solve a personal dilemma I have with morality. What if, and I am influenced by deterministic philosophy here, we do not have free will or a choice at all. We do not choose our genes nor our parents nor our place of birth and have rather limited control over our experiences in daily life. What if some of us are simply born with a brain defect that makes us relish evil acts and blocks the circuit to our sense of compassion.

While, on the other side of the spectrum, there would be people who have the “privilege” of being born and bred with love and goodness all around them. Can we really blame or reward the one over the other? Does the other lose all their spirituality and often their humanity as a result of matters outside of their control? Is that a just way of seeing the world, of judging people? I believe in my idealistic heart that no one in their right mind would want to purposely hurt or cause suffering to others.

So let us bring it all together now. Morality and spirituality may be cousins, but they are not one and the same. In other words, a person who may act in evil ways still contains that level of spirituality whether he knows it or no, whether he acts upon it or not. This is, I must admit, a very Buddhist understanding of human nature, but it helps us explain that everything is spiritual due to the fact of its mere existence.

It is a hopeful view that perhaps one day hatred will be eliminated and that there is a level where the accuser and accused, the perpetrator and the victim can hug each other and can talk about their experiences over afterlife-coffee, free of physical or emotional turmoil. Yes, remember those days on earth. I am sorry for what I did. Oh, you don't have to be. It's not really your fault after all.

No hellfire, no purgatory, only idle chat about a life of illusion that occurred eons ago on a distant planet called earth.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Faces of the Enemy: Media and Threats to Freedom and Democracy in the Western World

An American flag in flames with people attacking each other
From a propaganda comic book 1947

The power of media is undisputed. It has far reaching effects on our psyche and influences our thoughts and perceptions in both conscious and subconscious ways. The problem is that media is not only all around us but its stance is quite often reinforced by us. Although media is an overarching term and there are better and worse fountains of knowledge to quench one's thirst with (BBC vs Fox respectively) the fact is that media, regardless of its reliability, rides a common current.

Apart from a sensationalist perspective that has the heavy tendency to overemphasize the bad over the good hence giving an extremely bleak view of humanity, media is also very topical in nature. For example, over the past decade or so and with increasing vehemence, terrorism has become the major focal point. In other words, the bearded fundamentalist Islamic fellow has been more often than not in the news and has become a staple footage of most media, reliable or not.

There have been other faces in the past. They are usually portrayed as dangerous, a threat to freedom and democracy. In the heyday of media, the face that appeared in the newspaper headlines was the painted and feathered native Indian. Their so-called savagery and bellicose attitude was contrasted with the civilized and peaceful lifestyle of the settlers. The fight of the settlers was naturally one of territory but in the minds of most people of the era (and even today!) it was a moral matter, namely a fight between the goodhearted religious folk, of earnest cowboys and cavalry against the so-called cruel and blood-thirsty Indian.

Then the media shifted its attention -- that is once the threat had been neutralized -- and the focus became the black man. The African American was subjected (and again in many ways still is) to a case of negative stereotyping. Both poverty and crime were blamed on them, mainly due to a disproportionate attention on colored criminals along with some Hollywood typecasting.

The fear of the black man became a naturally occurring and reinforced reaction regardless of the issue of racism. You may be an open-minded person but you would still carry around the conditioned fear and mistrust within you. Just imagine you, a white person, walking down a dark and empty street and a colored man walks towards you. That moment you would probably prefer running into a white person although you swear that some of your best friends are black.

The next common international enemy was a more complex matter because it defied the perimeters of race. Although stereotypically they would be Eastern Europeans with an obviously thick accent and terrible fashion sense and haircuts, their ideas were seen as more contagious and hence much more potent and dangerous for the common folk. In fact, there was the paranoia that even your next door neighbor may be one of them – a communist.

All of this fear, the perceived threat to freedom and democracy in North America and the rest of the Western world led to witch hunts à la McCarthyism and its visual Hollywood representation of horror flicks with zombies and infectious diseases. Yet strangely enough, the same spirit with its witch-hunting and finger-pointing paranoia is still felt and heard across the Western populace even today.

In fact, the most recent enemy to freedom is the first-mentioned long-bearded terrorist who more often than not dwells in cages and wishes to destroy the American dream from a backward and barren wilderness. In fact, he is trying to come up with the most creative ways of instilling fear and panic in the West (more deliberately so than the wicked conniving communist) and is not shy of putting on explosive underwear to get his point across.

Which is what, by the way? What is his point again? Media goes along and claims that the matter is not political but moral and religious. The famed and infamous “Axis of Evil” demonstrates that there is a moral dimension to it all and brings back memories of the settlers' fight against the unruly Indians.

The West then, backed up and bolstered by mass media, is seen as the good and righteous standing up courageously for our rights and freedoms all around the world. I do not claim to diminish or take away the wondrous accomplishments of the Western world, with its current world power both economic and ideological, (still) being the United States.

Yet I wonder if these freedoms can be perceived indeed as so fragile that they are constantly under attack and that our spokesperson, the media, always has to look behind its shoulder to see who the next enemy may be. True confidence and affirmation in one's beliefs and accomplishments should not be deterred or influenced by such threats but should face them squarely and boldly in the eye.

In fact, the consequence of all this fear mongering has led to an evident decrease, not increase of freedoms and rights. The paranoia seems to be pointing back to ourselves, while the powerful media continues to fan our angst and insecurities. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Potential Energy and Being Actually Self-actualized

A close-up of a pink blooming rose

You have a lot of potential, we are sometimes told by other people. For instance, the young may often demonstrate a certain knack for some abilities, be it sports, writing, painting or playing music. We can often – or at least think to – spot talent when we encounter it. Then as a parent, teacher, or friend, we try to encourage these people to capitalize on their talent, i.e. to become famous and make loads of money from it.

Yet the question is whether talent should or needs to be exploited for monetary and commercial reasons. Some call it vocation, or a gift of God, and when it comes to certain activities, these people are indeed substantially better than others at it. They seem to born with it, meaning that we think of it rather as a natural expression than a hard-earned sweat-and-brow effort.

I am thinking of Mozart, the fountain that simply brimmed over with talent and who could, perhaps at will or call, pour out his emotions in such a light, effortless yet constantly grandiose manner that the faces of the competition, i.e. other musicians, must have turned green like Irish pasture.

Although people make you believe that you can be or do anything under the sun that pleases you, in reality, there are many limitations. Mine is painting. I have tried (believe me I have), but not even stick people turn out to be what I intended or what they are supposed to be. Of course, I could work hard, take classes, draw and paint the life out of me, but I will never become the next Picasso (Although some of Picasso's work may look simple, you still have to know how to paint first before you can undertake your own sets of experiments.)

But, to return to my question, why should it be necessary to turn your talent (talents if you are even luckier) into a goldmine? Is it to convince the rest of the world that you have talent like on one of those scouting my country “got talent” shows? 

But then again, true talent or genius has almost always been exposed to mixed, polarized reviews. (I am still in shock that although some recognized and acknowledged its merits, Malick's masterpiece The Tree of Life was booed or walked out upon by others who should actually know better!) All this may come down, at least superficially, to how much money you can make, but then that would mean Roland Emmerich has more talent than Terrence Malick? Really?

To return to our main issue here, it should be your task or duty to not let your special talents to go to waste. In other words, to create what you know and do best and hence to refine and draw upon your given talents. Then, the pleasure that you have found in the artistic or athletic endeavor can (but not must!) be used in order to give pleasure to others, spectators or listeners. Whether they like it or not depends mostly on them and may not always reflect upon the quality of your work as long as you deem the work an honest reflection of yourself and your capabilities.

But let us say that the young talented person decides not to profit from his potential and merely writes and draws in his own corner ultimately for his own pleasure. We might feel disappointed, in extreme cases, even get angry with him because he did not reach the level of fame and fortune we thought he had in him. Why let it all go to waste?

And he might respond, well, what does potential really mean? I mean, we may agree on the matter of talent, but is the fact that I have talent (more so than you) not enough; do I need to prove it (and show it off) to others who might not give a damn anyhow? Do I need to suck the life out of it by making a 9 to 5 profession out of it?

Potential energy means that the energy contained is within it but we won't know for sure until it has been released or actualized. The atomic bomb has the capacity to wreak havoc but we did not fully know this until we actually dropped it (but we are told that our more modern versions are many times more devastating than the first ones and we hope to never find this out!).

That may work for physics, but is it the same for talent? Again, I am certain that talent is the first step and most of us, not being Mozart or Picasso, must work hard to fully develop, hone and ripen those skills. That is then the level of output. If you are keeping it within, you are letting it go to waste unused, the same way a battery has stored energy but if not put to the test resembles any other empty battery ready to be recycled.

At the same time, it could be like Kafka who kept his work mainly locked up and wished to have it destroyed after his death. Thank God, his friend Max Brod did not follow through with it because we would have been deprived of a great and unique voice of the century.

Yet nobody (that I know of) would say that Kafka had potential. He was, in fact, talented and like the aforementioned Mozart or to add Poe to the mix or actually any other host of geniuses, his actualization as an artist had little or nothing to do with money or even his audience; they did what they did best and through this act magically turned potential into self-actualization.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Is Desire the Source and Cause of Suffering?

High Rise Building in downtown Vancouver with a missing window

Desire is often accused of being the principal culprit of unhappiness and suffering. Buddhism ingeniously points the finger at desire as a human flaw or as obstruction on the strenuous path to enlightenment; as a result, this Eastern religion / philosophy gets to the point and lays the blame squarely on our own shoulders.

There is no need for elaborate stories of original sin, a rebellious evil superpower causing disruption and pain, but rather to each his or her own, a karmic explanation of why there is so much pain and suffering in the world because as aptly expressed in the lyrics of the Radiohead song "Just": “you do it to yourself.”

Yes, we need to take a good deep look at ourselves in the mirror, accept our flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings, most of which can be traced back to our selfish and self-interested desires. We are always in the process of desiring this and that. We want a partner for the most part because we are stung and driven by sexual desire, and once this desire is fulfilled, we want another person to renew this desire with.

We want a good job and when that comes along, we feel unfulfilled and look for a “better” one. It seems that the only time our desires will ever give us any rest or respite is when death embraces us. (Although if you believe in an afterlife, then your soul will most likely continue to desire things!)

The solution then might be to eliminate desire. Evidently, it is not desire that gives us happiness as we are never fully satisfied even if the desire has been quenched. To be happy, then is to have no desires, to be free from its drags and pulls, to have no need.

But is this true? There are moments of Zen -- very sparse and too fleeting – where I get a glimpse of what bliss might possibly feel like. It is the state where desire is dormant, when I feel completely at peace and harmony with myself and with others. There is nothing else I may wish for, nowhere else I would rather be.

It is an overwhelming feeling, yes. The fact that I am breathing, walking and seeing feels like a revelation to me. John Lennon comes to mind as he, comfortably nestled in sheets on a bed, told a series of baffled reporters how brushing one's teeth is in itself an accomplishment. It is indeed. There is a certain magic and joy to doing simple things ... well.

When I was younger, I had the desire (!) to become a Buddhist monk (after wanting to be a priest first). I figured that the isolation from the world would help me gain peace and tranquility in my soul and to be better able to blend in with the powers that be, the universe and all. 

Siddhartha did it and the quest would have been a worthwhile one. That my happiness was a mere fraction of the bliss experienced by the Enlightened One, I am fully aware of. I can imagine a happiness that is so strong and overwhelming that you would want to explode.

But I chose not to. I decided to firmly set foot into and leave a mark onto this world of pain and suffering, of illusion, to willingly choose the path of desire. Why? Because say what you may, desire, for better or worse, means being alive.

It is that same desire that has driven humanity toward progress in many ways, the desire to explain the boundaries of possibilities, the limits of the sky and the universe, the nature of reality. There is, in my view, nothing wrong with all or any of that.

Desire itself does not know or have morality. It is as Freud would say created in the dark abyss of our consciousness, the lustful and hungry id. It is our animal instinct, binding and tying us to nature. It wants power, dominance, survival; it can be utilized for good or cruel purposes.

Look at sexual desire, for example. Unless you are puritanical at heart (if you are, then what the hell are you doing reading this post!), there is nothing inherently “wrong” with sexual desire. I mean, come on, we are not blocks of wood, so if you are happily married and desire the stranger next to you, it is OK! I mean there are instances when we “desire” to kill people, a co-worker, a partner, government officials or tax representatives. You don't have to feel bad for having “bad” feelings.

It is not so much our desires that is the problem, but what we choose to do with them, namely our actions. This is Freud's superego telling us that it is either morally wrong or simply not a good idea to have sex in public, especially with a stranger. Sometimes the desire can topple us, but it needs to be controlled and mastered both for our and the common good.

So I am revising my previous statement. It is not desire that causes suffering, but our lack of mastery over it. This is what Buddhists may call attachment. If I am strongly attached to my desire, then I have given up my freedom and am merely a slave to my passions. 

Put differently, it is not bad to be wanting to get a better job or more money as long as this is not your constant obsession, as long as you are not walking over dead bodies to get there.

Desires can be selfish, but they can also be used for altruistic motives, the desire to be helping others. A better income, for instance, could mean more and better opportunities for one's family.

So, in a nutshell, don't kill your desires but don't lose control over them either. Yet most importantly, don't expect your desires to make you happy. They might (for a while that is), but then again, more likely, they might not. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Zero Tolerance for Violence and Cruelty against Children

A number of handful Afghani children looking at the camera
Afghan Children
I believe first off anybody who anywhere under any circumstances commits violence or cruelty against children is a monster. There is, in my view, no reason that can justify this since any kind of violence against children is not only unjust but also immoral. In other words, I cannot see how and why any person with a sense of morality can knowingly hurt children. It may seem a commonplace view, but if you look around you, it is still happening all the time. Scores of children are being mistreated and abused, physically, sexually and psychologically any- and everywhere around the world.

It happens both in times of peace and war. This includes cruelty and killings under the banner of religion, genocide, racism or what-have-you. This makes the killing of Afghan children equally despicable and unacceptable as that of the killing of native Indians and African-American children on the American continent, Jewish children during the Holocaust, as well as Japanese children being maimed and killed by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One might use a utilitarian argument that the latter deaths may have saved millions of lives in the long run by ending the war on Japan; yet I believe it makes it equally immoral as the other cases. Now I need to clarify a few points before I go along. I am usually against absolute statements because when it comes to morality, there are always loopholes and exceptions. It often comes down to an issue of context and relativity.

I do not, for example, claim that killing is “wrong.” It may be necessary in certain circumstances, such as self-defense. Nor do I think that wars are inevitable; they will always exist because people will find reasons for waging them. It is the law of the jungle that cannot be changed and perhaps only be tempered. But even in the case of war, there should be certain moral imperatives.

I know that the counter-argument is that it cannot be helped that civilians will die. It is a price to pay, the unwanted side effects of any war, a by-product. But as long as the civilians are adults, you may have a point. They may already be considered part of the nation and culture and will perhaps (foolish adults that they are) be ready to fight or even die for their country and their ideals.

Yet again nothing justifies the killing of children. The argument that children will grow up to be adults later and hence to extend one's hatred or dislike for a group of people to include them is utterly absurd. People may have their prejudices, yet children, because of their still unformed and innocent nature should not be mixed up in these messy “adult” situations. In other words, children should be left out of any issues of discrimination. Whether they are black, Asian, Indian etc should not hide the overriding fact that they are essentially children.

Also by children, I mean anyone under the age of 14. I know that puts teenagers in a vulnerable spot and I do not condone any violence on them. However, at that point, they may have enough judgment on their own and may be aware of the difference between good and bad actions. They may choose to do violence onto others. They are often, somewhat unfortunately and awkwardly, mini-versions of adults and may even decide to join a war whether they are fully aware of its consequences or not.

By violence, I also do not talk only about killing, but any form of it. That includes the practice of corporal punishment, the hitting and belittling of children, the purposeful cause of pain. What is seen as “good” forms of education or as straightening and toughening up children is, in fact, causing harm and damage to their fragile and developing psychology. It, of course, includes any willful sexual activity and exploitation. Having sex with a child is morally wrong and is done by people who lack conscience and feelings. Pedophilia is never ever acceptable under any circumstances whatsoever.

To sum up, one's “beef” is and should be only with adults. If we cannot help it, then we may, if we really think we have to, discriminate, use violence, wage wars, take revenge on other like-minded adults. But to go after children, to kidnap them, to hurt them in any way is morally wrong and anyone who breaks this rule deserves the harshest punishment because they are hurting our most precious beings in this world, the very fabric and essence of our humanity, our children.