Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Notice and a Thank You!

Hello everyone. Thank you very much for reading Crossing Nebraska! I have a message that might be of interest to readers in the European Union. It has come to my attention that E.U. law requires notification regarding the use of cookies by websites and blogs such as this one. As such, you likely saw a banner at the top of the page that looks like this:

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services, to personalize ads and to analyze traffic. Information about your use of this site is shared with Google. By using this site, you agree to its use of cookies.

While I can't begin to vouch for everything that goes on involving cookies collected when you read my blog, I can say that it allows me to know how many visitors I've had, from what countries, and from what referring sites. I don't collect any ad revenue or any other revenue from this site. Given that Google is providing me this blog platform for free, on which I post a wealth of content for free, and which is read all over the world for free, I am considering the collection of cookies a very minor transaction cost.

So, I hope this notice won't keep you from accepting the cookie policy and reading on. It is certainly one of the joys of my existence to know that something that I've written is being enjoyed by people all over the world! Happy New Year!

Mark Frank 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Miraculous Births

I have to admit, the story of Jesus’s birth is a really cool story. This past Sunday I saw a modern retelling of it set to the music of the Beatles and I’m sure that I enjoyed it as much as any of the most devout believers in the audience. In the interest of honesty, however, I must also admit that I could never quite believe that the story really unfolded as it is purported it to have unfolded. Sure, the part about the Immaculate Conception had me wondering from a very early age. But even before I knew much about the biological implications of such a feat I had other questions about the storyline. Think about it. God rearranged the heavens so that a star marked the place of birth of his Son – so that everyone would know that the King was born. Wise men witnessed the appearance of that star and had their hearts moved to the point of following it and concluding that, yes, Jesus was a newborn king. But then the story just sort of ends there. Years later we find that Jesus has grown up to be a carpenter’s son of no particular standing save for his precocious insight into religious and spiritual matters. Is that what happens to newborn kings – they just go off and live their ordinary lives? A funny thing happened on the way to my becoming a Buddhist, though. I stumbled upon the story of the Buddha’s birth and, lo and behold, it was just as miraculous as that of Jesus! In fact, the similarities are striking.

The Buddha’s birth story begins (sort of) with his previous incarnation living out his existence in the heavenly realm of Tusita and contemplating whether conditions are right for his rebirth as a bodhisattva in our humble earthly realm. He concludes that they are and proceeds to die to that world and descend into his mother’s womb in this one. At that time “this ten-thousandfold world system shook and quaked and trembled, and there too a great immeasurable light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared” (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 123.) Now, the future Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, is not presumed to have been a virgin at the time, but upon her realization that she was pregnant “no sensual thought arose in her concerning men, and she was inaccessible to any man having a lustful mind.” For the duration of her pregnancy she was blissful and without fatigue or affliction of any kind. And for the duration of her pregnancy she could see the future Buddha inside of her, fully formed, as if her flesh were translucent. After the birth process was complete, two spouts of water seemed to pour forth from the sky in order to cleanse the future Buddha and his mother. He then stood upright and proceeded to take seven steps to the north, where he then declared himself to be “foremost in the world” – the World Honored One.

Think about the similarities between these two stories:
  1. Both involve beings with supreme intelligence and omniscience who survey the state of humankind on this planet earth and decide that a savior must be dispatched. In Jesus’s case, God sent him as his own incarnation in order to save humankind from its wrongful ways. In Buddha’s case, he sent himself as his own final incarnation in a sequence of many lives spent as a bodhisattva.
  2. Each involves a miraculous conception that bridges heavenly and earthly realms with some sort of “biological creativity.”
  3. Each involves a cosmological event of some kind. In the Buddha’s case “this ten-thousandfold world shook and quaked.” In Jesus’s case, it was the somewhat more humble appearance of a star that was not previously in existence.
  4. The mothers of each of these beings either were exceptionally “virtuous” to begin with or at least became so for the entire time of gestation.
  5. Both mothers paid a huge price for their role in bringing their respective children into this world. Mahamaya died shortly after giving birth to the Buddha. Mary, of course, was destined to see her son tortured and killed at a very young age.
  6. Both Jesus and Buddha are seen in some sense as having arrived here on earth fully formed. In the case of the Buddha we are told as much. He is walking and talking within moments of birth. We see this attitude indirectly in the paintings of early Christian artists who portray the Christ child as a tiny man as opposed to an infant.
  7. Both stories contain an incongruency between the circumstances of birth and those of subsequent youth. In the case of Jesus, a king grows up to be “just another” carpenter’s son. In the case of the Buddha, he grows up as “just another” prince until worldly events transpire that nudge him to take the next step in his journey. Contrary to what one might expect given the circumstances of their respective births, neither seems to have the immediate, perfect and unshakable knowledge of his divine origin. In other words, without the respective birth stories each might be seen as “just another” human who has gone on to receive incredible insight into the workings of humankind and the entire world.
  8. Both Buddha and Jesus go on to provide teachings to the world that profoundly transform the lives of those who truly take them to heart.
What are we to make of these similarities? I’d love to know what others think, but here are a few of my thoughts: Jesus and Buddha are both representative holy figures of the Axial Age, a time of unprecedented spiritual development throughout the world. Both birth stories seem to be gleaned from the same mythic structure in the way that Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell might describe our archetypal myths. Both stories fulfill the same underlying needs of those who believe them. There is a divine plan, for example, an order of some kind to both the universe and our lives. Furthermore, knowledge of this plan is imparted to us via some intercessionary figure that is some combination of human and divine. There also seems to be some great need for the birth of such figures to be out of the ordinary, to be extraordinarily different, to be miraculous in some way. Not everyone has the will, capacity or constitution to think of Jesus or Buddha merely as wise and enlightened teachers. Some need to think of these figures as beings that they might pray to or call on to this very day. As such, these stories are incredibly powerful ones, if not for the sake of one’s soul, then at least for one’s psychological wellbeing.

Merry Christmas, everyone! And I do mean that with all sincerity.  

The Visit of the Wise-Men by Heinrich Hofmann via:


Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta – Wonderful and Marvellous (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 123) The teachings of the Buddha: The middle length discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Nanomoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi). Wisdom Publications, Boston. In association with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Ghost of Lost Attention

I’m back in the so-called “real world” after a weeklong meditation retreat at Sanshin Zen Temple. And what would sesshin be without at least a poem to show for it! {smile} Clearly this particular one was inspired by my having slept in a tent on the temple grounds all week long – something that made this particular rohatsu sesshin of a decidedly different quality than all of the others that I’ve sat. In addition to the obvious Zen influence, you might also see the influence of a beautiful quote by Catherine of Siena that I stumbled across not too long ago: “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.” I love this quote for its obvious grasp, albeit from a Christian perspective, of the non-dual nature of reality – something that is without question when considering the Buddhist concept of shunyata, or emptiness. Also present is the influence of the Quaker propensity for speaking of “that of God in everyone.” I hope you enjoy the poem!

The Ghost of Lost Attention

If I were a ghost
I’d take up quarters in an old stone lantern
Beside a monastery walkway
Between the zendo and the dining hall.
And from time to time as monks passed by
All worn and weary from their zazen
I’d point them to the faintest hint of morning sunlight
On a dark and foggy morning,
Or to a mushroom sprouting in winter
From the hollow of a rotting stump,
Or to the frost-ringed crescent moon
Hovering in infinite blackness,
That they might never doubt their path.

And if I were a ghost
I’d swirl amongst the rocks of a cairn marking a mountain trail
Leading to a lonely stupa holding some old sage’s bones.
I'd lift the hearts of pilgrims,
And encourage them in their rest,
That they will surely know the mind of that old sage and more
If they but come to know
That every step into the thinning air
Is the very home they seek.

Yes, and if I were a ghost
I’d hide between the pages of the holy books
To rise up and whisper in the reader’s ear
That truth lies far beyond those many fingers
Pointing to the moon.
It’s deep within and everywhere.
It’s only time is now.
It’s the Buddha that dwells in everything.
It’s that of God in everyone.

Call me the ghost of lost attention.
For surely all our ills arise from having lost it along the way.
The miracle is blossoming all around us,
Welcoming us back into its fold,
If we would only pay attention.
I’ll be the ghost of lost attention.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Dogen's 'Universal Emptiness'

Koku is one of the shorter fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Notwithstanding its brevity, it is still as dense and difficult to comprehend as many of his other works. One can glimpse the nature of this difficulty by contemplating for a moment the various English translations of the one word title alone: Space (Nishijima, 2009), On the Unbounded (Nearman, 2007), and, of course, Universal Emptiness (Nishiyama, 1975). Each of these reveals a slightly different way of thinking about the Buddhist concept of shunyata (Sanskrit) or ku (Japanese).

According to Okumura (2012) koku actually has three different possible meanings. In our very ordinary way of looking at things it can refer to the empty space that is between objects or which is bounded in some way. It can also refer to space which does not lose its nature on account of being occupied. Yet another meaning, however, points to the most profound of Buddhist teachings, i.e. the emptiness of all phenomena. As Okumura says:
The third meaning of the word koku is empty space as a metaphor for prajna or wisdom, the emptiness of all beings. … Since everything is connected with everything else, the reality of all beings, which is emptiness, pervades and penetrates the whole universe. (p. 122)
It is this third meaning that Dogen expounds upon in Koku.

Before I continue, please allow me to express gratitude towards those who’ve helped make such resources available as those that I’ve already quoted here and will continue to quote. I recall quite well stumbling upon Buddhist texts in my youth in which the word shunyata was translated as “the void” or “voidness.” I know firsthand that a mind that is not yet primed for true understanding can come to think of shunyata in coldly nihilistic terms. I’m pleased then that contemporary English speaking Buddhist practitioners seem to have largely settled on emptiness as the standard translation for shunyata. Emptiness, once one becomes acclimated to it just a little bit, is much more open to being viewed in terms of infinite potential than voidness is. Voidness brings to mind sterile vacuity as opposed to fertile possibility.

It should be readily apparent by now that there is much room for misunderstanding when it comes to this thing called emptiness. Thus, it should come as no surprise that there exists a koan that is intended to deepen one’s understanding of it. Dogen makes reference to it in Koku. It is an exchange between two Zen masters on the nature of emptiness. “Do you understand how to grasp space?” the junior asks of his senior in Nishijima (2009, p. 71). “[D]o you know how to grab hold of Space?” the question is posed in Nearman (2007, p. 846). “Do you know how to comprehend universal emptiness” is the way the question is phrased in Nishiyama (1975, p. 130). The senior master replies that he does and, with further prodding from his junior, proceeds to motion in the air as if he’s grabbing empty space with his hand. Not surprisingly, given our discussion so far, the junior master is critical of this response. He grabs the nose of his senior and proceeds to yank it until he cries out in pain. “Now I’ve got it!” the senior monk cries upon freeing himself (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 130).

Could it be that that Zen master, senior though he was, had fallen into the same trap that I had as a youth when I thought of the so-called voidness of shunyata as vacuity? Thinking of emptiness in this very ordinary way can lead one to believe that this world is nothing but illusion, that nothing really exists, that it is all but a dream. But that is not the truth of shunyata at all. Just because our conventional ideas related to selfhood and the independence of things proves not to be true does not mean that we should run headlong down the road toward the nihilistic view of the non-existence of all phenomenon. However, whereas I found it profoundly unsettling to contemplate a reality that was not reality at all, perhaps that senior Zen master took comfort in feeling as though he “knew” what reality was – even though, in fact, his realization was far from complete.

And so I imagine that, as soon as that junior monk saw one who was his senior blithely stating that he understood the true nature of reality to be nothing but a handful of air, he couldn’t help but spring into action and grab the man’s nose in order to give it a hard squeeze. And as the senior monk experienced that painful squeeze it was an unquestioned reality that the two of them were as one – squeezer and squeezed. Any ideas related to the nature of reality being nothing but a handful of air were swept aside to make room for the actual reality that the entire world, at least for that senior monk at that moment, consisted of nothing but screaming in pain and wriggling to get free. Yes, all phenomena are interrelated, impermanent, empty of independent self-hood, and perhaps quite different from how you presently see them, but that does not make them an illusion!

Likewise, when we think we have these great truths figured out, when we think that the answer to some profound question will always consist of saying a certain number of particular words or recreating some gesture with our body like grabbing a handful of air, then we have succumbed to delusion. Says Dogen:
To say you understand universal emptiness is to defile the truth.… When [the senior monk] grabbed a handful of air it revealed that he understood only the head, but not the tail, of universal emptiness.… Prior to having his nose yanked [he] thought that universal emptiness existed outside of himself, but now he has cast off body and mind. (Nishiyama, 1975, pp. 130-131)

Indeed, we do not simply exist amidst emptiness. We are inextricably interwoven within the fabric of emptiness. In Koku, Dogen also tells the story of an abbot who once visited Baso only to be immediately questioned as to what sutra he was lecturing on at the time. “The Heart Sutra,” was the abbot’s reply. Recall that the Heart Sutra teaches of the emptiness of all phenomena, including the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, and the resultant sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and objects of the mind. The Heart Sutra is the great teaching on shunyata, or emptiness. Form is shunyata, shunyata is form… From here I’ll let Nearman (2007) pick up the story:
Baso then asked him, “And what do you use to lecture on [the Heart Sutra] with?” [The abbot] replied, “I use my mind with which to lecture on It.” Baso then said, “The mind is like the starring actor, our will is like its supporting player, with the six senses playing the accompanying cast. How can these possibly comprehend how to lecture on a Scripture?” [The abbot] responded, “Were the mind unable to give a lecture, surely empty space could hardly do it!” Baso said, “On the contrary, it is Space [Universal Emptiness] that is able to give a lecture.” With a dismissive swish of his sleeve, [the abbot] departed. Baso called after him, “Learned monk! … From birth to old age, It is ever thus.” (p. 849)

There is a bit of pattern emerging here. Someone might be a senior monk, and yet their understanding of emptiness might be incomplete compared to that of even a junior monk. Someone might be the abbot of a monastery, and yet they’ve not yet fully grasped the true nature of emptiness.

In order to show how difficult it can be to communicate these ideas using words, let me now compare two different translations of a single passage of Koku. Let me begin with Nishijima (2009):
[E]very Buddhist patriarch is a sutra lecturer. And sutra lecturing is inevitably in space. Without space, it is impossible to lecture on even a single sutra. Whether lectures are delivered on the mind as a sutra or delivered on the body as a sutra, they are always delivered through the medium of space. (Nishijima, 2009, p. 74)
Perhaps the reader, given the benefit of context, will be able to understand what Dogen is attempting to communicate with this passage. However, this particular representation strikes me as one too easily taken at face value. It seems that someone with even a very conventional appreciation of space could read this and nod along in agreement, and I doubt that that was Dogen’s intention. So let’s look at how Nishiyama (1975) translates this passage:
[A]ll the Buddhas and Patriarchs lecture on the sutra of universal emptiness. To lecture on the sutras is to lecture on universal emptiness. If you fail to lecture with the body and mind of universal emptiness you will not be able to explain even one sutra. You must lecture using universal emptiness. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 132)
Not being able to read the original Japanese myself, I cannot answer the question as to which of these is more faithful to Dogen’s original manuscript. However, what I read in the second passage is much more in accord with my experience of Buddhism and Buddhist teachings. The first sentence of the second passage conveys unequivocally that if you do not lecture on universal emptiness, then you are not a Buddha or Patriarch. The second sentence of the second passage conveys the centrality of the Buddhist teaching on emptiness. It is there in every sutra. The third sentence of the second passage conveys the reality that if a sutra lecturer has not brought the totality of his or her being into accord with universal emptiness, then their explication will be ineffectual at best. And finally: “You must lecture using universal emptiness.” Ah, now THAT is the very quandary that each of us must resolve. Once we come to understand the ultimate reality of universal emptiness, how then shall we actualize it?

Let me close with a teaching that Dogen attributes to one of his teachers:
My late Master, the Old Buddha of Tendō, once said the following, “My whole being is like the mouth of a bell suspended in empty space.” Clearly, you need to recognize that the whole body of space hangs in Space. (Nearman, 2007, p. 849)   
We are universal emptiness actualizing within universal emptiness.



Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Dogen’s original work from 1245.)
Nishijima, G. W., Cross C. (2008). Shobogenzo: the true Dharma-eye treasury, Vol. IV. (G. W. Nishijima & C. Cross, Trans.) Published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. (Dogen’s original work from 1245.)
Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. I. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Dogen’s original work from 1245.)
Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

Image Credits

Bell image by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (1923-2014) via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Thing Called Evil

This may be a challenging post for many folks. So, let me just say right up front the words that I really want to leave you with – before anyone has the chance to get angry or offended:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me begin again.

One of the more interesting questions to be posed of any of the candidates this campaign season is whether or not they would kill the baby Adolf Hitler if they were somehow given the opportunity to go back in time and locate the infant evil incarnate. Certainly it’s an interesting question to pose for the array of answers it might elicit. Most interesting, though, is how the question itself reveals how many of us think about the nature of evil. Evil is “out there.” It’s a dark force that the hapless might stumble upon. It takes up residence in someone such that they then become evil. It’s a conscious entity of some sort – like Satan, for instance – that actively plots ways to get us to do its nefarious bidding.

The fact of the matter is, however, that World War II was not the doing of just one evil man. It was the result of a multitude of causes and conditions as diverse as the humiliation of a people and the economic devastation of a nation in the wake of World War I, the rise of fascism and militarism in various other places around the world, the willing complicity of much of the German populace, and apparently even the success of the concept of manifest destiny that helped create the coast to coast United States that we know of today.

Buddhists who understand the concept of dependent origination look at everything in such terms. Everything is dependent upon everything else. Nothing exists entirely on its own. Nothing arises fully formed and unchangeable. Evil is not just “out there.” If evil exists it is because of the causes and conditions that each of us helps to create and perpetuate. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Buddhists believe that each of us is capable of both good and evil depending upon the circumstances. A person might do something in one moment that is wholesome and good while acting with a mind that is calm and compassionate, and then do something “evil” in the next moment should they allow their mind to succumb to one of the “three poisons” of attachment, aversion, and delusion (or greed, hatred, and ignorance.) Consider the story of a bloodthirsty killer by the name of Angulimala, for instance, so named because he wore a necklace made from the fingers of his victims. The Buddha is reported to have won over the mind of this evil individual to the point that he ended up repenting and becoming a Buddhist monk.

Why does it matter how we think about evil? Well, if we think of evil as something that is “out there” and impossible for “good” people to perpetrate, then we fail to clearly see the nature of our actions and ourselves. We fail to clearly see the nature of other people as well. In order to remind ourselves of the dynamic and ever-present potential for both good and evil depending upon the states of mind that we cultivate, Zen Buddhists commonly recite the Verse of Repentance, which goes something like this:
All the evil actions that I have perpetrated in the past,
arising from beginningless attachment, aversion, and delusion,
and manifested through body, speech, and mind,
I now repent all of them completely.

It is especially important for us to apply a clear-headed view of the nature of evil as we make decisions as to how to respond to such evil acts as the recent terrorist killings of over 130 people in Paris this past weekend. After all, it’s not like we in the West were just minding our own business prior to being put upon by such terrorist activity. And no, no, no, I am not blaming the victims here. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

But even as I seek to refrain from blaming the victims here I nonetheless seek to clearly understand the causes and conditions that made such terror possible. It is not merely my opinion that the formation of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is rooted in the destruction of Iraq at the hands of the U.S. military. It is not merely my opinion that the people of the United States were sold on that war with the false narrative that Iraq’s then leader had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is not merely my opinion that the torture of the guilty and innocent alike at Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay, and various other black operations sites as part of our covert operation of extraordinary rendition helped create perhaps the most bloodthirsty of terrorist groups to ever exist on the face of the earth.

The French, to their credit, were not supportive of that war. However, they do have the dark history of colonizing the predominately Islamic country of Algeria and engaging in acts of brutality in order to keep the Algerian people from becoming independent. Students of history might want to read Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), an autobiographical account of torture at the hands of French forces. Apparently our own military is aware of what is described in this book. The torture technique now known as waterboarding could have been lifted from its pages. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

In the wake of this carnage in Paris, just as there was in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, there will be calls for the eradication of the evil that is ISIS. That would seem to make sense if the evil that we seek to destroy were merely something that is “out there.” But it is not. We all helped to create it. We all help to perpetuate it.

Consider the following: Let’s say that I have terrible housekeeping habits. I never clean. I leave food scraps all around. I’ve let my home become a den of filth and squalor. Not surprisingly, after many months of the accumulation of my very own detritus, my home becomes infested with roaches. So, I’m posed with a couple of options: 1. Spend a whole lot of time and effort cleaning up all of my mess as I should have been doing all along, and then being patient as the roaches die out or leave for other filthy quarters. 2. Hire an exterminator to come in and spray something that will kill all of the crawling critters. The problem with the second option, though, is that the pesticide has the potential to cause cancer and it’s not just me in the house. I’ve got young children who are living here with me. It’s also just a short term solution. The roaches will come back and I’ll have to spray all over again. Unfortunately, I’m lazy. And on top of that I don’t really believe that I created the problem with the roaches in the first place. And another part of me just doesn’t care. You know, I’ve come to hate those damned roaches and I just want to see them all dead right now. I choose the second option. Now my family and I must deal with roaches from time to time for as long as we may live, along with the additional possibility that one of us will contract cancer and suffer much more than just a roach infestation.

My heart goes out to all of the victims of terror and their families. My heart goes out to all of the innocent victims of our war on terror. My heart goes out to all those who engage in acts of terror out of some deluded sense of the rightness of their ways. Yes, even the deaths of the terrorists is a tragic waste of human potential. How about we begin to look at this thing called evil just a little bit more closely and clearly?  And remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Likeness of Angulimala cropped and filtered from original image via:


Alleg, H. (1958) The question. Midnight Press

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Thursday, November 12, 2015

To Touch the Mind Once More

November seems to have become “gratitude month” for many North American Buddhists, no doubt due to it being the month of our Thanksgiving holiday. Don’t be surprised, then, if you should happen to see one of your friends posting a lot on social media lately about all that they have to be grateful for. Just be grateful for the subtle reminder to pay attention to all that you have to be grateful for. It will likely have you feeling all the more settled, content, and happy as a result.

I just committed to sitting Rohatsu sesshin once again – a weeklong practice period commemorating the seven days that the historical Buddha spent in meditation before realizing enlightenment. So, once November draws to a close I’ll begin sitting like a buddha, settling my mind like a buddha, facing my karma like a buddha, and waking up like a buddha. Well…, we’ll see about that last one!

Of course I’m grateful for the opportunity to sit Rohatsu once again. A lot has to fall into place in order to be able to practice with such intensity. One needs health – it’s a pretty physically and mentally arduous endeavor. One needs a little money, and time off from work and other responsibilities. One needs to have glimpsed at least a little bit of one’s bodhi mind in order to have chosen to spend a week in meditation instead of strolling on a beach somewhere, hiking in the mountains, or sightseeing in some exotic locale. One needs a place to practice, and people to practice with as well. Most often this means that one needs to have found a teacher associated with a temple where such practice is valued. For all of these things, I am grateful.

The Soto Zen Center were I first learned Zen forms was not all that big on long meditation retreats. The longest began and ended over the course of a weekend, and much of the time was filled with chanting, bowing and bell-ringing, Dharma talks and work practice, ritualized meals and ritualized interviews with the teacher. Sure, I’m grateful to have experienced all of that, but I’m especially grateful to have become familiar with something known as “sesshin without toys” – a form of meditation retreat that gives the practitioner nowhere to hide within an unrelenting schedule of meditation after meditation after meditation.

Just as I was becoming ripe for a longer meditation retreat it happened that a flyer arrived in the mail at our Zen center informing us of a Rohatsu sesshin to be held on the grounds of an Episcopal retreat center in the Uplands of Indiana. I don’t recall the flyer saying much of anything else about the retreat other than how long it would last and that it would be led by a teacher whom I’d not yet heard of, Shohaku Okumura. I knew nothing of “sesshin without toys” as I walked up to the door of that little cabin in the woods and looked at the schedule taped on the door: 3:40 a.m. wakeup, two periods of meditation before breakfast, five before lunch, five more before dinner, and two periods of meditation to close out the day at 9:00 p.m. There were no “toys” for the mind to play with. There was nothing for the mind to be distracted by save for what it could conjure up on its own. There was no respite and no relief from the experience of mind experiencing itself. Needless to say, it was a transformative experience.

I’ve since come to know that Shohaku Okumura is one of the most respected experts on the Shobogenzo, a compilation of writings by the Zen monk, Eihei Dogen. I’ve also come to know that he learned this Antaiji-style of sesshin from his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and he has practiced it ever since. By the way, Uchiyama Roshi wrote a refreshingly accessible little book called Opening the Hand of Thought in which he expounds upon the subject of “sesshin without toys.”

Anyway, fifteen years have gone by. Shohaku Okumura is now abbot of Sanshinji in Bloomington, Indiana. And over the years I’ve lost track of the number of seven and five and three day sesshins that I’ve done either at that little cabin in the woods or at the established Sanshin Zen Temple. What I’ve not lost track of, however, is the fact that those periods of time dedicated to the experience of mind experiencing itself have been central to my finding my way back home.

I no longer belong to a Zen Center anymore. Suffice to say that practicing forms for the sake of practicing forms holds little meaning for me at this point in my life. I’m grateful to have learned them, for they opened me up to that which is truly transformative. But it seems as though I’ve opened up even further and let it all go. I’m not interested in wrapping my Zen meditation in a tight and tidy religious package anymore. I’m merely interested in that which is my birthright – the direct experience of mind experiencing itself. And I’m grateful to be able to go someplace where, at least for a week, everyone else will feel the same.

Foggy landscape by Carschten via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Friday, October 16, 2015

Utter Meaninglessness

It is dangerous to engage in mystical practice before having attained adequate ego strength to safely do so. This is an important idea that I attribute to C.G. Jung, although I can’t offer any more detailed attribution at the present time. If we scratch just below the surface of such a statement, it appears to contain a contradiction: Since mystical practice involves dismantling or casting aside our egoic constructs and defenses, it would seem that not having fully formed ego strength would just put us that much further along! Is that dangerous, or is it advantageous? Digging further, however, we can see that, since mystical practice can involve the dismantling of everything the practitioner might have assumed about the world and him or herself, there is the distinct danger of a precipitous descent into nihilism – the darkness of utter meaninglessness. Thus, I must begin this post with a warning: If you are young and without a solid sense of how you fit into this world, if you are struggling with depression and are already susceptible to life’s darkest experiences, if you are currently experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness that makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and idea, then please forego reading this post at the present time. Please wait until you have adequate strength. The rest of you need to realize that what follows is not a beautiful meadow full of bright and blossom-like thoughts. It will be more like a stroll down the darkest alley you can imagine! You have been warned…

If you’ve ever taken an introductory economics class, you likely remember something of the history of our monetary system. You know that our money used to be backed by gold. For every dollar in circulation there was a real dollar’s worth of gold sitting in a vault somewhere. Since going off of the “gold standard,” however, a dollar is worth a dollar not because it represents a dollar’s worth of gold, a dollar is worth a dollar because we all agree that it is worth a dollar. A dollar is worth a dollar by fiat.

Meaning can be like this. At first, some of the things that we do have meaning for us because, well, they have meaning – they seem to have the intrinsic value of gold. And so we make plans to achieve great things, to experience wonderful things, to obtain valuable things. When we look at things more deeply, however, when we gain greater awareness, we come to question whether some of what we do is really as meaningful as we might have thought. Perhaps “living the good life” had great meaning for you at one time, but then “the finer things in life” came to leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Perhaps reaching the pinnacle of your career was of utmost importance to you, but then you reached it and came to realize how very unrewarding it actually was. Perhaps you’ve turned your back on all such personal accomplishment and have devoted your life to helping people – feeding them, clothing them, healing them, teaching them, counseling them, ministering to them – but then you fell prey to the despair of realizing that more and more still need to be fed and clothed and healed and taught… You came to see humanity is an endless stream of more and more people with needs without end. The meaning that you had attributed to your work began to evaporate, and everything began to seem completely and utterly meaningless.

The provision of meaning is one of the great benefits of religion. Religion quite often provides the context within which such feelings of meaninglessness can be contained, oriented, and redirected. If our religion teaches of reincarnation, then that which is meaningless over the course of one fleetingly finite life can be seen to have meaning over the course of many lives that have an orientation towards some positive goal. If our religion teaches the existence of a heavenly afterlife, then all of the chaos and suffering and apparent meaninglessness of this life can be seen within the context of our one day returning to our Heavenly Father.

But what if the default meaning that a religion might provide has no meaning for you at all due to your inability to believe? Therein lies the great existential danger that some of us face. For the one who stumbles upon this utter meaninglessness, for the one who tries to regain equilibrium in a world without anything that is really stable to hold on to, the darkness can be darker and more disorienting than the darkest night. This is at least part of why our engagement in mystical practice can be so dangerous for one who does not yet have appropriate ego strength.

Some Buddhists don’t like to consider their meditation practice “mystical.” I won’t quibble over the word. The danger that Jung spoke of, and the one which I speak of now, exists nonetheless. To the extent that your awakening brings you into intimate contact with the impermanence of all things, you will naturally find yourself surveying your landscape for that which is of ultimate meaning. And to the extent that your glimpses of emptiness, shunyata, or no-thingness bring you to wonder of the ultimate meaning of the very practice which has brought you face to face with this emptiness, you will naturally find yourself surveying your landscape for that which is of ultimate meaning.

Someone who looks at Buddhist practice in this way will come to realize that the development of Buddhist practice was not a foregone conclusion in this world. Likewise, those who do not have the same faith as Christians do will not consider the appearance of Jesus Christ on this earth as the inevitability that a Christian might consider it to be. In other words, if life were to begin again on earth – even human life – we cannot assume that someone just like the Buddha or Jesus or whomever would appear again to be our guide and teacher. Whatever guide and teacher happens to appear will arise out of whatever biological, psychological and sociological circumstances happen to come to exist.

What then has ultimate meaning? This is the question that every mystic must be able to live with – whether answered or not. The now-deceased Zen monk, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, addressed this issue during his last formal talk as abbot of Antaiji Zen Monastery. He stated that one of the most important points of Zen practice is to “live by vow and root it deeply.” What vow? Whose vow? Did he have in mind precisely what that vow should be? Did he feel that his vow was the same vow as yours should be? Is there something which is of ultimate meaning that he presumes we are all going to vow to uphold? Live by vow and root it deeply.

And what is the vow with which I live? I have come to realize that my mind arises from the entirety of all that exists. My mind encompasses the entirety of all that exists. Everyone and all of life arises from all that exists just as “I” do. Thus, my vow is to live in harmony with all that arises in order to assist in the blossoming forth of the fullest potential of all “things.” I root this vow in the entirety of all that exists via my practice of meditation. During meditation I encounter the stillness of mind that brings me into harmony with all things. During meditation I encounter the stillness of mind that is rooted in all things. If that sounds mystical, then so be it. You’re only reading this because you’re a mystic too!

If you would like to explore some of the ideas that I touch on here within the context of Zen practice, you might want to check out Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow, which I reviewed in a blog post titled Book Review: Okumura's 'Living By Vow' 


Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

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Mangrove tree by Cesar Paes Barreto via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Beyond Faith and Reason

The commencement of any solitary creative endeavor is an act of faith. Depending upon our area of interest, we sit down with our notebooks or in front of our computers, we reflect upon the materials available to us, or we gaze upon our subject while sitting in front of a fresh white canvas. And as we do we have faith that something will materialize: a poem, a manuscript, a sculpture, a painting, etc. I’m steeped in such faith as I write these words, having promised the world in my last post that I’d have something meaningful to say under the title “Beyond Faith and Reason” -- without my having written a single word on the subject up until now!

In addition to faith, the creative process requires at least a modicum of reason and objectivity. The writing process especially requires a great deal of time spent in rational reflection on the work in progress: Have I made any spelling or grammatical mistakes? Is that the most appropriate word to use in this instance? Have I made my point as clearly as I might? Do my sentences have a pleasing rhythm and cadence, and do they flow well one into the next? These are merely rhetorical questions, by the way. You needn’t answer each one in turn!

But perhaps this is not quite the type of faith you had in mind when you began reading this post. Perhaps it was faith of a more religious or spiritual ilk that I led you to believe I’d be exploring. Indeed. And so it is that I’ll begin this post again in a way that allows even deeper examination of what I mean by “beyond faith and reason.”

We enjoyed a span of cool summer weather a week or so ago -- cool enough to make one realize that autumn will be coming soon. I even saw a flock of geese rise up into the sky and gather into formation as if to begin their flight down south. Perhaps they’re on their way even now. Anyway, it occurred to me as I watched them that they require neither faith nor reason in order to commence their usual migration. In oneness with their world they simply take their next breath, whether on the pond or in the grass or on the wing to warmer climes. A tree, likewise, needs neither faith nor reason for its sap to sink into its roots, thereby causing its leaves to be cast to the wind and its limbs to hang as if dead against the gray skies of winter.

But what do the natural ways of geese and trees have to do with the faith and reason of us humans? Geese and trees are simply part of the natural world. They’ve neither faith nor reason to move beyond. They simply are as the natural world dictates them to be. We humans, on the other hand, have little in the way of instinct to guide our modern lifestyles. What we have is self-awareness, free will, agency, and vast cognitive abilities -- all guided in varying degrees by whatever faith and reason we happen to have collected over the course of our lives. Ah, but is that all we have? Does the total of everything that we are add up to nothing more than the mere sum of our faith and reason? In order to answer that question, I must dispense with generalities and speak of my own experience. Anything else would be a form of reasoning by analogy, and reason (as well as faith) is something that I’m trying move beyond with this post. Here goes:

Year after year I’ve felt it. By the time the leaves begin to fall I too have begun to feel my “sap” sinking within me. The frenetic and outwardly-directed energy that fountained forth in abundance and propelled me through my various activities all summer long begins to wane. It pools for a time, manifesting as calm acceptance and patient watchfulness. And as it flows back to its source it ripples with introspection, contemplation and reflection. There is no denying my naturalness. I’ve lived this time and time again. My existence follows the rhythm of the natural world just as any other plant or animal. Neither faith nor reason makes it so.

This process quite naturally results in a reorientation and rededication of my meditation practice. It becomes easier for me to find the time to sit upon my cushion, and it becomes easier to settle into stillness once I do. It is in stillness that I feel closest to whatever it is that has put me here – whatever process has put me here. It is in stillness that I feel the questions of my existence gradually fade into the answer of my having arisen in conscious form. Does this strike you as a statement of my faith? It is not. Neither is it a statement founded in reason. It is merely a description of experience. It is not something that I believe to be so, nor is it something that I believe will be so. It is simply my experience of that which is.

It’s not that I’ve never acted on faith; I have. Before I realized that my spiritual quest had taken me back to that which I already knew[1], it was indeed a quest. It was a journey that I had faith would take me to my destination. But faith in the Zen Buddhist sense is not like the faith of other religions. Dogen Zenji, one of the great Zen teachers, spoke of cultivation and verification. One can have faith in the Buddha. One can have faith in his teachings. One can have faith that awakening exists, and faith that the path that the Buddha prescribed will get us there. But until we cultivate a practice of our own we will never be able to verify truth for ourselves.

A person without sight can be told that the moon exists. They might have faith in what they’re told about its color and its changing phases and what it means to those who gaze upon it. However, if an operation should ever afford them sight, they will then be able to dispense with whatever faith they might have had. They will have seen for themselves all that they had previously taken as true as a matter of faith. Likewise, one can dispense with faith after the verification that Dogen speaks of. Upon verification, one can forego adopting reasons or conjuring up explanations for why one sits in meditation. I meditate not because I have faith that it will do something. I meditate not because of any list of logical reasons that I might articulate, although I could articulate a few. I meditate because it is the most natural expression of who and what I am -- beyond faith and reason. 

[1] That Which We Already Know is the title of the book that I’m in the final stages of editing. You may check it out here on Crossing Nebraska by searching on “That Which...” under the keywords.

And on that note: I’ll be following my energy into greater stillness as these coming weeks progress. I will return after a brief hiatus. Thank you!

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Friday, August 21, 2015

Must We Choose Between Faith and Reason?

Near the end of my first Faith and Reason post I began to consider the view held by some that the world would be better off if everyone would simply eschew such things as faith, belief, spirituality, and religion in order to become more rational and scientific in their thinking. Sure enough, I’ve seen and heard enough to know what kind of harm can be done in the name of religion and the potentially dangerous dogmas that they sometimes espouse. I’ve seen how the metaphysical realities believed in by some can hinder the more rational thinking individuals in our midst from taking steps to address those problems that are very much a part of our reality here and now. But is it really fair or true to say that religion is the cause of all of those problems, and rational thinking the solution? Does faith, belief, spirituality, and religion really have no place whatsoever in the lives of modern, forward-thinking humans – those who are hoping to build a better world?

Before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps I should say a few words about what I mean by faith, a word that clearly means different things to different people. To some it means belief in the absence of any evidence whatsoever. To others it means belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whereas some view it as little more than a cohort group identifier, others view it as a way to bring the entirety of their being into resonance with that which is bigger than they are. In this regard, it might seem like a form of submission; but it might also be viewed as an opening up to greater possibility. Faith might look like a crutch to those who see it as weakness, or it might look like a tool to those who see it as strength. Regardless, for the purposes of this post I will simply contrast faith with reason. Reason encompasses that which is rational, scientific, quantifiable and verifiable. Faith, then, will be what is left over after that which is in the realm of reason has been identified.

At this point I think we’re ready to springboard right into the depths of the questions posed above by considering the work of Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist whose recent research related to human violence seems to indicate that the world has never been a safer place (at least for us humans.) In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Pinker draws his conclusion after comparing changes in the levels of various forms of individual and state-sponsored violence over time. The abstract on Pinker’s webpage devoted to the book states:
Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence. 
It would seem that reason has won out over faith right out of the gate – to the extent that government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism generally fall within its purview! The data speak for themselves. Reason is helping to make the world a better place. Or is it?

Without a doubt Pinker is a brilliant and compelling researcher with many insights to convey. That notwithstanding, I feel compelled to consider his conclusions within a broader context: Human activity is changing the earth’s climate, thereby pushing species toward extinction – maybe even Homo sapiens. The ever-increasing human population with its commensurate demand for natural resources is putting unprecedented pressure on domestic and international relations as competing interests become nudged further and further toward conflict. Add to this the possibility of more and more nations gaining access to nuclear weapons. Consider the increased potential for a viral pandemic due to overcrowded agricultural operations, increasing temperatures, ecosystem destabilization, and the ease with which people traverse the world. Consider also the economic interdependence that has recently revealed (again) that the world economy behaves like a house of cards under certain circumstances, the collapse of which could propel the world into unprecedented chaos and violence. Given all of these very real challenges, are we to think of our relatively improved human circumstances as existing in stable equilibrium, or should we be concerned that the these recent centuries of declining violence constitute little more than a period of unstable equilibrium from which we might be tipped toward much more dire circumstances by any number of forces? In other words, should we congratulate our species on a job well done for our diminished rates of violence, or should we hang our heads for having brought all of life on earth to the brink of disaster? The stark reality is that our anthropocentric system is really not a very robust one at all. There are too many ways for a catastrophic outcome to result.

Pinker glancingly responds to such concerns. In the FAQ section of his website he considers the possibility of nuclear war:
There is no answer to the question of how to compare the decline in actual deaths from dozens of high-probability categories (homicide, war, domestic abuse, and so on) with the increase in hypothetical deaths from one low-probability category – it is, as they say, a philosophical question.
Indeed, a philosophical question, a question of values, a question of morals and ethics, a question of worldview, perhaps even a question of faith. My contention, then, is as follows: Without a doubt, reason, the scientific method, and rational enquiry are indispensable to our ability to successfully navigate this modern world. On the other hand, if we rely on them alone we risk behaving as mere tool-users devoid of any meaningful way to ascertain the quality of the outcome after all of our hacking and sawing and chiseling has taken place. What will reason have ultimately wrought if it leads to our marching, however peacefully, to a calamitous end that our reasonable minds could do nothing to forestall?

I’m reminded of the Robert Pirsig novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (and also its sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.) The protagonist in ZAMM is an English professor and motorcycle enthusiast who descends into near madness while wrestling with what it means to say that something has quality, whether in regards to quality writing or small engine repair. He is well aware of how motorcycle maintenance is amenable to a rational approach, but he also senses something greater, something much more nebulous and difficult to define: the transcendence of subject and object as the mechanic applies just the right amount of torque to a screw without reliance on anything but the feel of the process; the transcendence of subject and object as the rider becomes one with her machine. Does she feel the road through and in her bike? Does she hear the subtle changes in sound and vibration that indicate what is going on with her machine, with her? We might try to quantify various aspects of these processes in order to arrive at some kind of measure of their quality, but the essence of quality will still somehow manage to slip through our fingers. And so it is that we can examine various measures of societal well-being, as Pinker does, and completely overlook the dangerousness of the circumstances that we’ve gotten ourselves into. We risk getting lost in rational measures that are not necessarily good stand-ins for inherent quality.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the new Cosmos television series, got himself into a bit of hot water recently when a video clip of him answering a question about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seemed to reveal an inability on his part to grasp the significance of the difference between the selective breeding and hybridization that humankind has engaged in for millennia and our modern endeavors in the field of genetic engineering – the “splicing” of genes from a different species or even a different kingdom onto those of another life form, perhaps even the creation of new life forms. DeGrasse Tyson subsequently expounded on and clarified his thoughts on the matter in a social media post. In it he opined on the matter of farmers becoming dependent upon non-reproducing GMO seed stock even as they are struggling to become self-sufficient:
Corporations, even when they work within the law, should not be held immune from moral judgement on these matters.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into deGrasse Tyson’s words in noting that, at least with respect to some circumstances, he understands that scientific measures of safety and nutritional content only go so far. We need also to be mindful of the nature and quality of the processes that bring food to our tables. Some opponents of the labeling of GMO foods point to what they refer to as an inability to find any objective measure by which we might judge GMOs negatively as reason enough to dispense with any labeling by which they could be distinguished by the consumer. What these labeling opponents are not recognizing is that many proponents of a more natural or organic food supply are making a statement about the inherent nature of the food that they want to eat – not merely its safety or nutritional value. They are making a statement about the quality of the food (and the world) that they desire.

Could there be a more inspirational champion of reason than Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist who has risen above his ALS diagnosis to contemplate some of the most vexing cosmological questions of our time? However, despite his vast powers of reason, or perhaps because of them, he’s not above speculating on matters that are more in the realm of philosophy, or even faith for that matter. Given his assessment of our chances of lasting another millennia here on earth, Hawking has posited that we have a moral obligation to colonize space, or to at attempt to do so. In his own words, from ABC News and CNN articles, respectively:
I don't think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.

It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next 100 years, let alone next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.
And you might have thought me a pessimist!

Interestingly, whereas Pinker seems to relegate such “low-probability” hypotheticals as nuclear war to the philosophical realm, without bearing on the focus of his work, Hawking is ready to plunge into the middle of any number of hypothetical annihilators of humankind to conclude that we must act to leave forever this beautiful place that we call home. From what I can tell, however, Hawking’s conclusion isn’t based on any probabilistic study of the likelihood of climate change-induced mass extinction, nuclear devastation, seismic catastrophe, asteroid collision, viral pandemic, supernova explosion, or what have you. From what I can tell, Hawking didn’t even consider our chances for making a successful landing on a habitable planet on which human life might be sustained. Oh, and I don’t believe he took into consideration the cost of such a prolonged initiative, including the opportunity cost of not investing similar sums into ensuring that we don’t kill ourselves off in preventable ways! No, from what I can tell Hawking is relying on a very unscientific and unreasoned assessment of what constitutes quality with respect to the human race. He is making a statement of faith about our world, about life, about our species and our future – not that there’s anything wrong with that!   

Next up: Beyond Faith and Reason.

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Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Faith and Reason

I attended the inaugural Gateway to Reason conference in St. Louis last weekend and very much enjoyed all of the half-dozen or so sessions that I managed to fit into my schedule. Although I don’t consider myself an atheist, for all practical purposes Gateway to Reason could have been referred to as an atheist convention – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Fans of the old Seinfeld television show will recognize that last aside as the reoccurring punchline from one of the episodes, uttered each time one of the show’s characters disavowed being gay. Come to think of it, it’s a fitting punchline to invoke in this context because it quickly became apparent to me that atheists are members of a similarly oppressed subculture here in the U.S.

Being “out” as an atheist is much like being “out” as a gay person, with all of the concomitant dangers of being ostracized, unfriended, disowned, oppressed, and threatened. Questions and comments from those in attendance frequently alluded to being “out,” and some expressly solicited guidance as to how to navigate as a known atheist in a family or community that is so steeped in Christian culture. Take that to the extreme and consider what it would be like for a Christian minister who has lost faith and subsequently “come out” as an atheist. That is precisely what one of the speakers, Teresa MacBain, spoke of during her session. She now directs the Recovering from Religion hotline project, a resource for those who may be suffering deeply for not believing as their families do, or as their community does.  She also spoke of the Clergy Project, a resource for religious professionals who have lost their faith, thereby jeopardizing their livelihood and, if the threats are to be taken seriously, their lives.

Such work is not readily visible, understood, or appreciated by those of us not affiliated with the atheist community. The fact is, however, that this is important, compassionate, and necessary work that benefits all of us. Society as a whole suffers when any one of us is wrestling with feelings of isolation and meaninglessness. Society as a whole also suffers when any one of us is ignorant, uninformed, or misled. And so it was that I appreciated the talk given by Aron Raa rational/intellectual who, among other things, has taken up the cause of trying to keep religious superstition from being inserted into the textbooks used to educate our public school children.

I didn’t manage to catch his talk, but I can even appreciate the work of Lucien Greaves, an atheist and spokesperson for the Satanic Temple whose activism helps call attention in very bold ways to the fact that recent legal and political developments promoting Christianity are not really in the best interests of society. Sometimes it takes something as “shocking” as the proposal to erect a statue of Baphomet on public property to reveal how Christian symbols on public property might appear to those who are not Christian, or to those who simply believe strongly in the constitutional separation of church and state. So, make sure that you really want that Ten Commandments statue to be placed on public property because you might just have to put up with a goat-headed man/deity glowering at you as you pass by! By the way, you might be surprised at how…, well…, reasonable the tenets of the Satanic Temple actually are!

Regular readers of this blog – a rather rational and reasoned exploration of spirituality and religion, if I do say so myself – might think it makes perfect sense that I’d be interested in attending such a convention. After all, spirituality, as I define the word in general, and in my Spirituality and Religion post in particular, is not off-limits to even the staunchest of atheists or rationalists. On the other hand, given the fact that I still call myself a Buddhist, and given the fact that many in attendance likely consider this to be a rather quaint, anachronistic, and irrational system of belief, I did feel a little bit as though I were harboring a secret – despite my being present with the sincerest of intentions. I wondered if some might consider me an outsider at best, a spy at worst, but most certainly not as reasonable as the others in attendance. Indeed, despite much of the conference’s focus on the detrimental impact to all of us caused by the more dogmatic adherents of Christianity, it is not a stretch to say that this pro-reason gathering was also very much an anti-religious gathering – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my first criticism: Despite the preponderance of examples of religious inanity coming from the most stubbornly dogmatic and literal-minded fundamentalist Christian camp, despite most of the “deconverted” speakers in attendance having come from the ranks of Christianity, the conclusion seems to have been drawn that all religions share equally in the guilt by mere association. They are all non-rational in their various ways and therefore subject to dismissal out of hand.

Let me be clear, I consider myself to be anti-religious in many respects. I’m anti-religious when it comes to religion being used as a basis to deny the science of climate change. I’m anti-religious when certain adherents want all children to be taught a blindingly ignorant version of creation in lieu of the solidly scientific version that is indisputable to all but the “faithful.” I’m anti-religious when a certain religious group thinks that they are divinely entitled to the land of others. I’m anti-religious when a powerful religious hierarchy goes out of its way to protect pedophile priests. I’m anti-religious when those in the U.S. government want to base foreign policy on some misguided modern biblical interpretation of what the so-called “end times” are supposed to look like. Yes, I’m anti-religious when Christians are killing Muslims and vice versa. I’m anti-religious when Jews are killing Muslims and vice-versa. I’m anti-religious when Buddhists (yes those ostensibly peaceful Buddhists!) are killing Muslims, or anyone else for that matter. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of Buddhism: I’m anti-religious when it comes to Buddhist practices that are imbued with sexist attitudes, and when teachers are little more than sexual predators masquerading as enlightened beings. I’m anti-religious when a narcissistic Buddhist teacher stops at nothing to hold onto the absolute power of his position, and others reflexively support him. Yes, and I’m anti-religious when the hierarchical organization of which that teacher is a part remains silent in tacit approval of his actions. Check out Buddhism and the Suspension of Critical Thinking and my August, 2013 series beginning with Power - A Prelude if you would like the backstory for these latter remarks.

So…, if I’m as rational as I say I am…, if I’m as peacefully and selectively anti-religious as I am…, if I was present during this Gateway to Reason conference with the sincerest of intentions…, why then did I still feel a little bit like a mole who’d popped up out of his burrow with hundreds of hawks circling around overhead? I think the reason is that, whereas I describe myself as peacefully and selectively anti-religious, my perception was that many in attendance were peacefully anti-religious, period, with no selectivity about it – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that!

Which brings me to my second criticism: Most of the presenters that I listened to seemed to be of the opinion that the world would be much better off if everyone would just cast off the yoke of superstitious and destructive belief and become a rationalist, an atheist, or what have you. Much of the focus seemed to be on winning arguments and changing minds, thereby incrementally moving the world in a better direction. The problem is that ALL religion seems to be considered superstitious and destructive. As you can see, I’m very ready to call a spade a spade, but I am not quite ready to draw the conclusion that the world would be better off without religion. Sure, John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion” is a fruitful one to consider. But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean that we are not spiritual either? Are we still spiritual but we just don’t allow ourselves to be tainted by religiosity? Should we eschew both spirituality and religion in order to become purely rational beings – whatever Spock-like entity that might be? Is that what will make the world a better place? That’s a lot to consider! I only think it reasonable to revisit such questions in a future post!

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank