Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guilty Verdict in Honor Killings: Practical Buddhist Responds

The story twisted my guts. How could a dad just murder these three beautiful girls and one of his wives, and make his son and another wife accomplices?

Some Christians are crowing: Here's more evidence that Muslims are evil and Islam is false.

Ridiculous. Read Leviticus 21:9.  Or if you want a really gory glorification of God-approved honor killing, see Deuteronomy 13:6-11. No Koran needed.

Religion doesn't cause killing, though a twisted version provides an excuse, whether it's bishops blessing battleships, politicians insisting God is on our side in our wars of aggression, or having clergy on the team at executions -- there's nothing in mainstream religious teaching to justify killing. (Plenty of out of context proof texts can be found, of course).

Buddhism didn't invent compassion or impermanence or respect for all life, or the importance of paying attention.  There is nothing Buddhist about them. They are universal human truths, discovered and expressed in many ways, not just by the Buddha.

Islam didn't invent honor killing. It's also a human truth that evil people will do evil things and turn to religion for justification. Always have, always will.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Ultimate Welfare State: Prison In America

Empty the Prisons and Put them to Work

We imprison more of our citizens, and for longer, than just about any civilized country.  They are mostly black and brown men. Some of them are dangerously violent. Some would steal our property. Many are there due to drug offenses. A few are political criminals and tax cheats. Every one of them is living on the dole.  We pay for their food, lodging, health care needs. We pay for some types of education, make sure they have religious services, and give them a chaplain, a counselor, and a social worker. Usually we do these things poorly and grudgingly, but we don't do them at all for the poor non-criminals on the outside.  In my state it has become nearly impossible for the poor to get mental health care. Unless they are in prison. Vocational training? Forget it, unless they are locked up.

Turn them out, the non-violent ones, and put them to work. Let them earn their bread by labor like the rest of us. Give rapid parole, but with severe penalties for those who decline to work. The state can provide infrastructure jobs and pay the parolees part of what it would have cost to keep them inside, and keep the rest, or spend it on close supervision.

Most lawmakers know the prison rarely rehabilitates and that sentences have become ridiculously long, straining budgets.  They also know that many of their constituents like all those criminals, especially the black and brown ones, being locked away for years and years.  So they have to paint themselves as tough on criminals. No matter how much it costs us. No matter how wasteful it is.

Death Row Inmate: Gentleman of Leisure

Danny Hembree, 50, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., but he's not looking for any pity in the letter he sent to The Gaston Gazette.
"Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three well balanced hot meals a day," Hembree asked in the letter. "I'm housed in a building that connects to the new 55 million dollar hospital with round the clock free medical care 24/7."

The Practical Buddhist Responds

Danny is correct of course, on all counts. He brutally killed a teenage girl, and allegedly at least two other women.  He taunts us by describing death row  advantages we don't have out here, and reminds us it will probably take decades for North Carolina to kill him.

Why do we do this crazy stuff? We are on a global short list for completed executions, just after Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.  (No one knows for sure about the champion, China, but most experts believe their numbers are in the thousands). Seems we're the only ones who house in relative luxury those we plan to kill, and wait so  many years to pull the switch or insert the needle.

It's because we want to do it in icy cold blood. With slow ceremony and ritual and endless rules and interminable debates on which death drugs are more humane. The alternative -- a quick trial and a quicker death while passions for vengeance  are still flaring --  not for us.

It's the opposite for the murderers. If they kill in the heat of a moment, sentences are lighter.  If they think it through and plan it, it's first degree and we can kill them in return, at least in all but 12 states and D. C.

There's no good science to say capital punishment deters. There's plenty of science to show it's unevenly applied.  It's still very popular in some quarters, but so are dozens of things that are bad for our society. 

Why do we keep doing this crazy stuff?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kill the Buddha, Dump Buddhism: Sam Harris

Killing the Buddha
By Sam Harris ( reprinted from Shambala Sun (

New York Times bestsellers, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape are all Sam's books. He is wise, thoughtful, and ever provocative. Here's an article he wrote in 2006. 

 According to Sam, it's senseless, dangerous, and wasteful to make a fetish of the Buddha or a religion of his teachings. 

The article is about 1800 challenging  words long. If you've no time to read it now, check the sentences I've marked in yellow.

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

This is not to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer the world. One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. In a world that has long been terrorized by fratricidal Sky-God religions, the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. But this will not happen. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Buddhism can successfully compete with the relentless evangelizing of Christianity and Islam. Nor should it try to.

The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.

To talk about “Buddhism,” therefore, inevitably imparts a false sense of the Buddha’s teaching to others. So insofar as we maintain a discourse as “Buddhists,” we ensure that the wisdom of the Buddha will do little to inform the development of civilization in the twenty-first century.

Worse still, the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world. At this point in history, this is both morally and intellectually indefensible—especially among affluent, well-educated Westerners who bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas. It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that if you are reading this article, you are in a better position to influence the course of history than almost any person in history. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.

It is true that many exponents of Buddhism, most notably the Dalai Lama, have been remarkably willing to enrich (and even constrain) their view of the world through dialogue with modern science. But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or even the Dalai Lama’s own lineage, is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism. Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving discourse about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.

For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

The Problem of Religion

Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed. Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it has been at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims vs. Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. These are places where religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in recent decades.

Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us–them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics. 

Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.
Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.
It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the occasions for interfaith dialogue. The end game for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. All parties to ecumenical religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide, and yet these very points remain perpetual sources of bewilderment and intolerance for their coreligionists. Political correctness simply does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

A Contemplative Science

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.” 
If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.
There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind. 

It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. We do not yet have anything like a final understanding of such processes, but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.
There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.

Killing The Buddha,
 Sam Harris, Shambhala Sun, March 2006.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Most Popular 2011 News Story: Casey Anthony or World Economic Crisis?

The Practical Buddhist Presents:
MSNBC is reputable, if slightly left-leaning. Sorry Rachel.  I think we can trust their survey of the most popular stories of 2011.

Before you look, take a guess.  Yes, Casey made the top five. Why? She is prodigiously unattractive, self-absorbed, and barely escaped conviction for killing her child. Why does she fascinate so many? For that matter, why is the death of Osama the runaway leader, over the Japanese earthquake or the Arab Spring?

Total of 30,794 votes

Death of Osama bin Laden
(11,766 votes)
Japan earthquake/nuclear crisis
(8,282 votes)
World economic crisis
(3,076 votes)
Arab Spring protests
(1,973 votes)
The trial of Casey Anthony
(1,491 votes)
Occupy Wall Street
(1,043 votes)
US troops withdraw from Iraq
(880 votes)
Penn State sex abuse scandal
(747 votes)
Death of Steve Jobs
(521 votes)
None of the above; see my entry below
(418 votes)
The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords
(408 votes)
GOP presidential race
(189 votes)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cruise Ship Sinks: Very Few Americans Involved


We always want to know how many Americans. If it's a disaster in Asia like the Thai Tsunami, we want to know how many Westerners, how many tourists, not how many Thais died.

The cruise ship held upwards of five thousand. Only 126 were Americans, and they are all accounted for. Whew.  Mostly Italian, it seems.  Like us, but different enough to mute the scale of the disaster.

If it were a Filpino ferry and everybody who drowned was from there, it might not make the evening news. A capsized American rowboat would hold more interest.

It's normal, especially for Americans. The more people look like us, or sound like us (like Canadians), the more we worry about them.  Of course it's a normal extension of worry about ourselves.

It's also un-Buddhist.  They're the only religion that forbids recruiting, and the only one you can join without leaving your old one.  As a religion they're not big on who's in and who's out.  On a good day, a Buddhist sees Cambodians and Canadians as equally impermanent.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Impermanence: Saddam's Missing Buttock

Iraq demands return of Saddam Hussein's buttock
Published January 17, 2012

U.S. Marine Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as Saddam Hussein's statue falls in Baghdad in 2003. Marines gave a former soldier the OK to remove the buttock, to be auctioned off Oct. 27.

Kurds topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Kirkuk, Northern Iraq in 2003.

More than five years after Saddam Hussein was executed, Iraq still wants a piece of its former president: his buttock, currently being held by an ex-UK soldier.

Nigel Ely, 52, grabbed a 2-pound piece of Hussein’s bronze statue – that made up part of his rear-end -- when it was pulled down by Iraqis in 2003, the Sun reports.

Ely claims he is the legal owner of the buttock since he has turned it into a work of art. But the Iraqi government is demanding that he returns it or face possible theft charges, as it views the piece of scrap metal as a “cultural antiquity,” the Sun reports.

British police are investigating ownership of the buttock.

The Practical Buddhist Responds

I’ve never liked Fox News as much as today. Their commentators gush for Santorum and trash the President with equally silly hyperbole.  It’s all forgiven. Now they’ve given us a perfect Buddhist parable.

Aren’t politicians are the best examples of impermanence?  Who will remember Perry or Huntsman, much less Cain? Even now I can’t recall the earliest contenders.

Long term, who will remember Saddam or the case of the missing butt cheek?  And who will remember you and who will remember me?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Play With Your Food: Tips for Healing Childhood Obesity

Play With Your Food: Teaching Kids the Ecstasy of Mindful Eating

     Does it bother you that fat kids are bullied or rejected every day and lead shorter, sicker lives than children of average weight?  If you're a parent and want to help, you have to understand the problem first.
·        Compulsive eating in children arises from too much wealth and a too little  mindfulness. 
Parents counsel and explain but don't model or moderation. We put kids on diets, but we don't teach them the joy of eating that can be found in paying attention. In our society only sommeliers and chefs savor and thoroughly describe what they are tasting and experiencing.

We also set up food as part of a reward system.  "Eat your peas and you can have desert" teaches kids "Yes, peas are disagreeable and unpleasant, but to get you to eat them I will gratify you with food full of fats and sugars." 

 Why not attend to the pea?  Create a story of its planting and growth, and how it was protected and nurtured by nature and farmer alike. Enjoy its shape and color. Play with your food a bit and see how many peas will balance on the blade of a table knife. Tell the story of the princess and the pea, or of Jack and his Beanstalk (close enough.)  Don't teach that peas are ugly but necessary.  Food should never be associated with reward or punishment.

I once counseled aides at an eldercare center to be sure to offer residents their glasses before eating so they could see the food clearly, then discuss the food admiringly to see what memories this might trigger. While they are learning to respect and delight in ordinary food, it's OK for kids to smell it carefully and even touch it gently, and experiment with various utensils and unexpected combinations.

Most childhood obesity comes from compulsive eating by kids who confuse food with love or at least relief, together with poor teaching and the abundance of cheap, concentrated food.

Is Letting a Kid Get Obese a Form of Child Abuse?

How do you feel when you look at this picture? Are you angry with the parents? Child Protective Services in Ohio recently removed a youngster from his parents just because he was enormously fat. They said letting a kid get so big was child abuse. Do you agree? Does it make you worry about your kids, or about yourself?

Parents want everything good for their children and love to see them learn and grow. Few parents really know how to teach their kids to eat with attention and joy, mostly because they don't know how themselves.  

Nurturing and teaching are the key responsibilities of parenting, and they often go together.  Nurturing means providing healthy food that promotes growth and well-being. It also means avoiding using food as a bribe or love-substitute, or withholding food as a punishment.  Kids in supermarkets whine for candy. Parents say "If you're good, you can have one piece."  Perhaps if they are extremely good, they can have the whole bag.

Goodness in a child's mind means only one thing: complying with the parental will, usually by being quiet and unobtrusive.  If you are "good" you will receive highly concentrated simple and complex sugars and fats, which nature designed to feel good in the mouth and brain.

Later, if we are lonely or bored and want love from outside ourselves, our hearts remember to connect love and comfort with sugars and fats, so we watch reruns with a soda and a bag of chips.

Sadly, we don't really taste the Coke or the Doritos. The comfort they provide is primitive, oral, and can never be fully satisfied.

If only we could learn to savor a single chip. Turn off the TV. Hold the chip, notice its texture. Enjoy its colors and how it is translucent to bright light. Smell it slowly, becoming aware of the complexities there. Snap it in half and listen to the sound. Put the half on your tongue and notice again. But wait, the sensations are likely to shift. Slowly chew and then swallow, mentally following the chip all the way down. Describe the experience to yourself, and select words that might communicate the experience to others.

Sound silly?  Maybe, but I remember a monk leading a group of students though an exercise like that as we held and touched and sniffed the big red apples he'd brought us. For nearly an hour. When he finally let us take a bite, it was apple ecstasy for me.  I'll never forget that apple from 40 years ago.

Maybe you've taken wine tasking courses.  They follow most of the steps I suggested for the potato chip, and they have certainly enhanced my appreciation.  Sadly, I often go through the attention exercise only with the first sight and smell and  and sip, then drink the rest of the glass mindlessly.

There are games parents can use to teach kids mindful eating, far better than lectures about "slow down and enjoy your food,"  but the best teaching is through example. 

Dieting rarely works long term. It's about restricting and limiting ourselves temporarily, usually so we can be thinner and feel more attractive. It makes our favorite foods our enemy. When we've learned that food is a substitute for love, food-as-enemy is a recipe for craziness.  Mindful eating can lead to moderate eating with great pleasure, and we can model it for our kids.

How to Make Things Better: Ten Tips for Parents

 Fat kids suffer, and not just because other children are mean. Even teachers favor lean, cute boys and girls, and assume they're smarter. Many assume obese kids are weak, lazy, and unhealthy. Overweight adults know subtle judgment and rejection, but have grown-up defenses.  For kids it’s harder. For them “fat” is a cruel insult that has no response. Here are my ten tips for parents:
                     1. Never, ever reward or punish with food. If you give treats for good behavior, especially sweet and fatty ones, your child can learn to connect fats and sweets with love and approval.  If you withhold food to punish, you’ll reinforce the food-love connection. 
                   2. Be calm about food. It's a law of nature that you pay a lot of attention to a behavior it will increase, even if the attention is negative. Be neutral and matter-of-fact about what kids eat or don’t eat. If a child isn’t eating, stay cool and distant. If kids are eating in a polite and moderate and healthy way, that’s when to show feelings and appreciation. If you get in a power struggle about food you’re sure to lose.
                   3. Model emotionally healthy eating. Let the kids see you eat slowly, with attention and enjoyment. Express delight about tastes and textures and temperatures so that kids stay aware of the eating process without distraction.  By definition, compulsive overeaters don’t pay attention to their food; all they seek is the current fix and the next. Don’t serve food in front of a television or with other major distractions. Mindful eating and compulsive eating are incompatible.
                                        4. Let eating be a pleasant ritual, a ceremony.  Have the kids set the table and decorate it. Light a candle or two, even on ordinary occasions. Assume that eating is that special place, not in the media room or the bedroom, and certainly not in the bed or the car.  If you have to get fast food, slow it down. Go inside and sit at a table, and don’t teach kids to eat in a moving vehicle.
                    5.  Never use shame to get a kid to stop overeating. It won’t work. Compulsive overeaters already associate food with love and approval. A shamed kid will will just eat more to feel better.
                   6.  Be aware of your kids’ metabolism.  Most children’s blood sugar is a little low when they get home from school. A small glass of juice, or better yet, raw fruit, can help smooth things out.  There is no such thing as a “sugar high” (unless the parents expect it) but big doses of refined sugars like soda pop are not kid-friendly.
                                      7.   Please don’t put your kid on a diet. Unless it’s a life-time diet, all you will get is resentment from the child, and short term weight loss. Soon the fat will return.  Deep down we all know that diets rarely work for long-term weight loss. Older kids might want to improve their nutrition and ask for help. That’s different. Research and learn together, when your teen is ready to explore healthier eating for life.
                   8. Don’t provide binge foods. Kids who eat compulsively often have a few items that make them crazy. Like alcoholics, they start and can’t stop until it’s all gone. Chocolate candy bars are a frequent offender: those big molecules of fat feel so comforting in the mouth and the bit sugar hit is so soothing. It could be any food, but it’s likely to be highly concentrated: lots of calories for the size. Just don’t have it in the house.
                   9.  If you’re overwhelmed, get help. Consider sending yourself to counseling instead of your child. You might be your own kid’s best therapist, and the counseling can provide you tools to do it. In my practice I call it "therapy by remote control."
             10. Admit you are ultimately powerless. You can restrict your dog’s food by putting what you want in the bowl, but human food is everywhere. Determined, driven kids will get it, at least when they’re old enough to be sneaky. Start by accepting and enjoying your overweight kid. Start by letting go of all blame and all shame. That's how you'll increase your influence with your child and your ability to help.