Food for thought

Abu Dhabi features many of these hole-in-the-wall bakeries. Two or three men work in them (usually at night when it’s cooler) mixing dough by hand and baking flat bread in this rudimentary oven. They sell the bread to passersby and local grocery stores.

After I took a picture of this one, I asked to buy one piece of bread. They were all smiles inside and insisted on giving me one fresh from the oven.

“How much?”

“One dirham.”

“What a bargain,” I exclaimed. (A dirham is 27 U.S. cents.)

I offered the gentleman a dirham, but he refused to take it. Instead he pointed at me. Then, he pointed at his chest. Then he held up his two pointer fingers and he hooked them together. I don’t speak Arabic and he doesn’t speak English — but, I think I understand exactly what he meant.

I started to refuse the gift, then smartened up. I smiled and put my hands together in front of my chest. I bowed and said “Shokrun. Ma’a Salama.” (Thank you. Goodnight.)

The bread was delicious — and the experience was indeed a bargain.

By | December 5th, 2010|Uncategorized|3 Comments

On the transcendent unity of world religions

Found an interesting op/ed from the Dalai Lama a few days ago. He made the point that the world religions share a common core of beliefs — that they are more similar, perhaps, than different. Here’s a few good bits:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

The Dalai Lama then goes on to outline other similarities in the world’s faith traditions. He concludes:

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Wonderful words — and a perspective that I share. I think that most of the world’s religions are saying the same thing — we just tend to use different metaphors to describe it.

My good friend, Shannon, saw a link to the column on my facebook page and she wrote a lengthy response. I asked her permission to reprint it here because she offers an interesting perspective:

An interesting read. My personal opinion (though not uninformed) is that the similarities among religions are widely overstated. For instance, consider mystical experiences. Most people are under the impression that a mystical experience consists of an amazing, indescribable feeling of oneness with the universe. However, a close look at various religious traditions suggests that this isn’t the case. Christian mystics tend to see visions of Mary or Jesus… Buddhist and Hindu mystics tend to experience the oneness with the Universe… Sufi mystics tend to see–well, very strange things–complex visions! In other words, mystics within a tradition tend to see the visions and have the experiences that their traditions “train” them to see.

There are folks like Huston Smith and the Dalai Lama who believe that there’s an essential core to every religion consisting of compassion and love, etc. I think that does a disservice to the orthopraxic side of religion (the practices). A wiccan Samhain service I attended bore little resemblance to a Christian All Saint’s Day service, even though the two purport to fill a similar purpose. To a certain extent, form *is* function, and the form one’s devotions take heavily influences their outcome. One reason we participate in religion is to be changed, and the practice side of religion tends to change us more than the belief side does.

I do appreciate the sentiment–finding common ground among multiple religions. I worry when the particularities seem to dissolve and people want to create some kind of generic Deistic “faith.” Genuine pluralism means being cognizant of (as well as respectful of) differences among faiths just as much as similarities.

I don’t think I differ that much with Shannon, but I wanted to extrapolate on my thinking. I can certainly understand the hesitance to adopt an uber-inclusive global “faith.” I’m not calling for that — rather, I just want to stress that a common core transcends the world’s religions, so maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned with who’s following the “right” path.

Here’s a good example: I take an approach to life that emphasizes “going with the flow” — that events throughout the day shouldn’t upset my equilibrium. When something doesn’t go my way, I take a deep breath and ask for acceptance of my current situation. (I’m not always successful!) This probably sounds similar to a Buddhist or Daoist philosophy — the Yin and Yang symbol, for instance, emphasizes the importance of fluidity and malleability. However, this perspective can also be seen in all of the other world’s religions — although the metaphor might appear rather different. For instance, a phrase that I’ve heard a lot since arriving in Abu Dhabi is “inshallah” — which means “God willing.” A colleague recently said he’d meet me at noon, “inshallah.” What he meant was that our plans to meet at noon were contingent on God’s will, or — to use less-loaded metaphor — something not going our way. My perception of this phrase is that Muslims are acknowledging that certain things are simply out of their control — and “inshallah” is a palpable reminder of this fact. In this way, this Muslim philosophy doesn’t differ that much from a Daoist or Buddhist — and similar messages can be found in the other Scriptures as well.

There are many other similarities, of course, too many to list here. I will point out that the second part of the current Muslim month of Ramadan focuses on forgiveness — forgiveness of others and ourselves for past mistakes. (“Sin” carries such emotional baggage for me that I choose not to use it.) The focus on forgiveness aligns with the predominant Christian message that we “forgive those who have trespassed against us” as well as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. These core beliefs keep showing up again and again — surely we should pay attention to them.

I don’t think there’s a “right” religion — as Gandhi said, “All religions have truth and all religions have error.” But, I think they all can offer a path toward harmony and good living. (Unfortunately, many can all lead toward intolerance as well.) I appreciate the Dalai Lama’s words because I think it’s important to see that religions hold the same wholesome core of peace, compassion and acceptance. It’s when we start delving deeper into them — explaining why one path is better than the other — that we appear to get into trouble.

I’m not really interested in the devotion part of religion — because it’s the practice part that makes the difference. A religious devotee shouldn’t be judged on how or how often he attends services, but rather how often he’s practicing compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. And any of the world’s major religions can lead a devotee to these practices.

By | August 24th, 2010|Uncategorized|1 Comment

The End of Philosophy

Good column from David Brooks on morality and evolution:

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.


By | April 8th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Roots of Peace

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of this documentary. All texts of most of the world’s religions say essentially the same thing: Live a life of virtue, be kind to one another, don’t be selfish.

But, when we conclude that only our way of looking at the world is correct, that there’s only once path to enlightenment, that’s when all the trouble starts.

By | February 23rd, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments