The Bells of Religious Liberty

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day.  It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993.  President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”

It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state.  Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”

Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.  The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s.  The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea.  And so it remains.

Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S.  Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.

This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era.  The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing.  Read the Pew report for yourself.

Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom:  “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.”  (Jon Butler, Yale University)

Only 20 to 30 percent.

Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution.  Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics.   For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.

Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new.  Our “religious problem” is context.  We are missing the context of history.  We’re largely illiterate about history.  It’s our political problem as well.

And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion.  You don’t have to have a faith.  There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.

I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs.  I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions.  Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided?  I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings.  But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785

We could also begin by going back to our history.  Not just the fun stuff, like war.  I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.

Share

Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

“[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before.  It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings.  Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

“It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world; an inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for the non-fear of death.  Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the present.  As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

Share

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet . . .

I heard someone say on television this week that 2016 was a gut punch.  I believe he meant the hell of the election, and the torture of it’s aftermath.  Or, maybe he was referring to the number of notable deaths we’ve experienced.  For me, the year started with the death of my father.  A punch that keeps on pounding.  And my father’s best friend, my uncle, passed away…  Now, before I get all maudlin here…

Let me say that I’ve never felt too sentimental about the New Year.  I don’t care what year it is really, it’s just a number, a change in the calendar.  That’s not to say I haven’t done my fair share of partying on New Year’s Eve.  On many of those nights, I’ve heard the same song sung after the stroke of midnight, and I’ve sung along, not even remembering what Auld Lang Syne means.

It means ‘for old times’ sake.’  It’s Scottish and the entire world knows this tune.  But not the original tune.

When Scot poet Robert Burns put the lyrics together in 1788, he sent them to the Scots Musical Museum with a note that read, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland’s National Bard, a poet and lyricist associated with the Romantic literary movement.  You may know some of his famous poem/songs, such as “A Red Red Rose,” “Tam o’ Shanter, and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”  While poetry was his primary occupation and he was Scottish by birth, I suspect he may have had a wee bit of the Irish in him, for his other two passions in life were drinking and chasing women.  He died very young, following a dental extraction at age 37.

As Burns mentioned in his note, “Auld Lang Syne” is an old song; in fact, he probably took the first verse from an earlier piece “Old Long Syne.”  The rest of the lyrics are thought to be Burn’s own composition.  However, the melody that we know so well is not the melody Burns used.  A few months ago, I stumbled upon the original melody, and I prefer it.  It seems more tender, and haunting.  And it has awakened my interest and appreciation in the song.

Here is “Auld Lang Syne” sung with Burn’s melody by Paolo Nutinia, a Scottish singer, songwriter.  Below the video are Robert Burns’ lyrics.   You’ll also see the original manuscript of “Auld Lang Syne” penned by Burns on December 7, 1788. which you can click to view in a larger size.

Thank you for for reading The Endless Further.  Regardless of what the new year means to you, let us all take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne…

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .

So here’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .

Share

Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.

Share

Inner Peace on Earth

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”  How many times have we seen and heard this sentiment . . .

It comes from the New Testament, a scene known as “The Annunciation to the shepherds,”  where angels come to a group of shepherds to tell them of the birth of Jesus.  After their announcement, the angels proclaim glory to God “in the highest” and on earth peace and goodwill.  The phrase we are familiar with differs slightly from the various Biblical translations, and was first popularized for Christmas in carols written during the 18th century, and then on about a billion greeting cards.

For most of us, peace on earth means “world peace,” a state of international friendliness, the end of war.  World peace is not yet at hand, and with each act of violence, whether on the streets of Berlin or in Chicago, this lofty goal seems to slip further and further from our grasp. Some people reasonably question if peace on earth is even possible.

However, in another sense, peace on earth is already here. If you are able to achieve a degree of inner peace then this is peace on earth.  In Peace is Every Step, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see.  The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.  We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky.  We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child.  Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.”

We don’t have to wait until Christmas, or any other time, to unwrap peace on earth.  To paraphrase John and Yoko’s anti-war mantra, peace is here . . . if you want it.

“Good will toward men” means compassion.  Buddhism teaches that inner peace is the root of compassion, and if we experience inner peace, we should naturally want to share it with others.

For example, the Dharma-sangiti Sutra reads,

“When one has grasped the fact, that this ‘great essence of inward peace’ for oneself as for one’s neighbors, has as its real meaning the avoidance of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world, one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”

So then, I do not wish you peace on earth.  Instead, may you, and me, all of us, have a real eagerness for peace.

“The development of a kind heart (a feeling of closeness for all human beings) does not involve the religiosity we normally associate with conventional religious practice.  It is not only for people who believe in religion, but is for everyone regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation. It is for anyone who considers himself or herself, above all, a member of the human family and who sees things from this larger and longer perspective. This is a powerful feeling that we should develop and apply; instead, we often neglect it . . .”

– Tenzin Gyatsu, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, A Human Approach to World Peace

Share