Apr. 10, 2007

Just for the Hell of it

I can't help rather liking Pope Benedict. The man is a bit of an anachronism, but as I've said before, in times like these, anachronism is virtue. He has raised some more controversy by stating that hell is real, causing all kinds of consternation among the modernists, who apparently take objection to the Pope stating Catholic doctrine.

It's fashionable these days in some quarters both Christian and Buddhist to say that hell (and heaven) are just states of mind here in the human realm. This is clearly not what the Buddha taught about other realms. In the Sangarava Sutta (Majjhima 100), for instance, he was asked straight out whether or not there really are gods. His answer was definitive;

When this was said, the brahmin student Sangarava said to the Blessed One: "Master Gotama's striving was unfaltering, Master Gotama's striving was that of a true man, as it should be for an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One. But how is Master Gotama, are there gods? (devas)"

"It is known by me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods."
As for hell, there is quite a long depiction of the torments in Niraya (hell) found in the Devaduta Sutta, Majjhima 130, complete with many gruesome details. It comes as a shock to many westerners interested in Buddhism that we do have our own fire-and-brimstone literature.

Of course, there are crucial differences between the Christian conception of hell and the Buddhist. Most importantly, the Buddhist hell, and the Buddhist heaven too, are not eternal. They are considered as stations of rebirth. As well, hell was not created by anyone as a place of punishment. It is a natural result of certain karmas, particularly the karma of violence and cruelty.

The rationalists are already objecting; but this isn't a real place. By raising this objection they are revealing their adherence to the naive assumption that this human realm is a real place. So is hell real? What do you mean by "real", grasshopper?

The universe we actually live in, the only one we can ever know directly, is the product of our own mind. True, we get faulty and limited signals from some mysterious "out there" in the form of light waves striking the eyes, pressure on the nerve endings, sound-waves striking the ear. But the world we actually experience is fabricated from this external data mediated through the physical apparatus of our senses and the mental apparatus of perception.

There have been schools of Buddhism that postulated that there is no real external universe. This has not been the position of the Theravada. We admit the reality of an external world, we're just not all that interested in it. Why bother about something we can only know second or third hand?

So, we could say that we dream this human world, but the dreaming is constrained by various inputs of data from an external world. The other realms are also experienced as dreams, perhaps somewhat less constrained by the incoming data. The Zen master Dogen once wrote something about how a man, a demon, a naga and a ghost all experience the same river differently. This is much stronger than the modern psychological interpretation, it does posit quite different states of being. However, there is also no reason to rule out the traditional Theravadin interpretation that heaven and hell are actual "places" existing as whole realms distinct from this plane of reality. In fact, it seems quite naive to assume that this realm is the only one.

The existence of heaven and hell make perfect sense within the system of karma and rebirth. A being is reborn according to their predominant karmas and cravings. If these are of an extreme nature, either towards goodness or evil, then the karmic-resultant will also be extreme and for instance, one who has lived by killing and torturing will be reborn into a sphere of killing and torturing.

However, it must not be forgotten that the point of Buddhism in the end is to escape from all of these insubstantial, impermanent and imperfect realms and end the cycle of karma and rebirth once and for all.



Here are a few links for those who haven't raised enough hell yet

The Afterlife in Different Religions
Comparison of Christian and (Mahayana) Buddhist beliefs
Catholic Encyclopedia article on Hell
Tibetan Buddhism article on Hell (scroll down past the Google ads)
Dante's Inferno Test. Which circle of hell is right for you?
And of course, this venerable chestnut; Is Hell exothermic or endothermic?

Apr. 8, 2007

In Defence of America

There's been some very heated discussion in the comments section. While it's good to see that the blog is generating some interest and controversy, it's time for everyone to take a deep and mindful breath. Some of the posts have crossed the line into wrong speech. I'm thinking particularly of Rod's nasty characterization of Americans.

While it's always wrong to slander a whole nationality, it's also rather nonsensical to apply such generalizations to a country as diverse as the United States of America. It's perfectly valid to be critical of American foreign policy, or the current administration, but America is more than that.

In my opinion, for what little it's worth, this presidency will surely go down in history as the worst and most destructive ever. And one of the most damaging aspects of Bush's legacy is what it's done to America's reputation around the world. Sadly, Rod's views are pretty widespread.

Something to consider; Bush was not fairly elected, either time. The first time, in 2000, Al Gore plainly got the most votes and almost certainly actually would of taken Florida if the vote count had not been stopped. In 2004, the election was shamelessly rigged with touch-screen voting. It is highly unlikely that at any time the majority of Americans actually supported Bush.

Something else to consider; most Americans are fundamentally decent and compassionate. The only way the war party has been able to sell their imperial projects has been to package them as humanitarian endeavours, "to spread freedom" and topple dictators. Even now, the most often heard excuse for prolonging the agony of the obviously failed colonization of Iraq is that an American withdrawal would lead to a "humanitarian catastrophe." If the Americans were really as mean and nasty as some would have us believe, Bush and his cronies could have just told the truth; "We're going in to steal their oil and we don't care how many of them we have to kill to do it."

Yes, there are ugly parts of America's history; the genocide of the natives and african slavery the most obvious, but the same is true of most countries. We should not forget the good things that America has given the world.

Unfortunately, when Americans of a conservative bent think of the good they've done, too often their mind goes immediately to military interventions. "America saved Europe twice." Not only does this miss the point and encourage the worst side of the collective American character, it's also historically dubious. America's importance in both world wars has been greatly exaggerated. (They were barely involved in the First, and Russia won the Second; the western front was a diversion at best.)

What America gave the world was first and foremost the concept of a free nation based on the consent of the governed and with a people holding inalienable rights. Remember the American Revolution predated the French one, and was pulled off without a reign of terror. This was quite an accomplishment, even if all they were doing was taking good old British liberties to their logical conclusion. It would be a particular tragedy if they let their constitution fail; it is on shaky grounds these days with even habeas corpus practically abandoned. (Gonzales partying like it's 1214)

As a free nation with a free and prosperous population, America has been a cultural powerhouse. Yes, I know ninety percent of American culture is crap, but as Theodore Sturgeon said about science fiction, ninety percent of everything is crap. It's the ten percent that is so impressive. America gave us Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Walt Whitman. And American cinema, at it's best, has no comparison anywhere. And let's not forget jazz.

And don't forget that when America puts it's technological know-how into something other than killing machines, they can do astonishing things like put a man on the moon. In the sixties. With less electronics on-board than it takes to power up your Nissan.

Most Canadians have mixed feelings about our big neighbour. Best way to summarize it would be to think of a major sporting event, like an international hockey tournament. Nothing makes us happier than whipping the American team, but if the Canadians are elimated we automatically root for the Yanks. Speaking personally, I like America and Americans, I've travelled around the States a fair bit and enjoy their brash self-confident open-hearted cultural persona. (Canadian joke; what's the best thing about Americans? You never have to tell them to speak up.) Which is why I am so troubled by the way the leadership is taking the country.

America is great when it remembers it's a republic, it's horrific when it imagines it is an empire.