Personal Reflections: Buddhism

Personal liberation and self-discovery are powerful, driving forces in many people’s lives, including my own. As a boy, I was raised in a protestant family that believed strongly in the existence of God, and the truth of the Bible. My mother was particularly focused on the evils of the world, and spent much time warning my younger sister and I to beware the many tricks Satan might play on us. Devotion to God, following his commandments, and not being caught up in the worldliness of others were paramount to our immortal future. Getting into heaven was the ultimate goal. To be distracted from God were seen as detrimental – even fatal. Going to hell was a very real consequence of disobeying God’s laws.

In my late teens, I began questioning my beliefs and the stories that I had been told by my parents. Though I did not know it at the time, I had set out on a path of personal liberation and self-discovery. That path would ultimately lead me away from my faith as a Christian, but ironically it deepened my curiosity about the nature of faith and religion. Many years later that curiosity is still burning strong.

I was recently privileged with the opportunity to tour two Buddhist temples as part of an Eastern religions class I enrolled in. Although I had a long-standing interest in Buddhism – even reading a few books on the subject – my knowledge of the customs and traditions was limited.  In-class lectures provided some much needed insight on Buddhist practices, but visiting actual temples and hearing from faithful practitioners is what brought those insights to life.

It was a chilly, November morning when I visited the temples. Arriving early, I exlored the first temple of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association, in quiet solitude. My instructor had also arrived early; she offered me some jasmine tea, which I gladly accepted.

The Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association is a Mahayana temple. Mahayana Buddhists refer to their faith as a great vehicle. Until recently, Mahayana Buddhists thought of other branches of Buddhism as lesser vehicles.

The architecture of the temple, which was modeled upon Chinese style temples, was striking, as were the many religious objects and images. A large open area with red pillars dominated the main floor; from the ceiling hung a variety of oriental, rice paper lamps. The temple also housed a number of impressive effigies, including the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva – which is the primary deity of the temple – as well as Di Zang Bodhisattva, Amitabha Buddha and Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, to name a few. A table before the Earth God, Tu Di Gong, in the Ancestral Hall displayed offerings such as apples, oranges and rice. Beautiful bouquets of flowers were also on display.

Red donation boxes were also placed around the temple. I found a small donation box in a corner and made a donation. My classmates and I were encouraged to take a small statuette of a Buddha in return for our donation, so I selected a small bronze-coloured one.

Once the entire class was present, an elderly woman named Shun Yee, introduced herself and told us a few facts about the temple. She was a very likeable and friendly woman, quick to smile. She wore a jacket with a mandarin collar and a lovely jade bracelet. Standing before the group, she pointed out the goddess of mercy and compassion, longevity lanterns, rhythm fish, and Joss divination sticks, which are selected and then matched to a pink sheet. The sheets, written in Chinese, offer suggestions on what action a person should undertake.

After a time, some Buddhist practitioners arrived. One woman came in holding a bundle of incense sticks. She bowed, knelt, and left shortly thereafter.

Following our short tour, the class was invited to partake in a vegetarian meal in the downstairs kitchen area. We were treated to some delicious Vietnamese subs, soup and pink-coloured dumplings. A small shrine to the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, reminded us that food is a blessing, and it is something to be grateful for.

Following the meal, we proceeded to the next stop on our field trip: The True Buddha Pai Yuin temple. The Pai Yuin temple is a Vajrayana Buddhist temple. Vajrayana Buddhism is the newest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists are unique in their use of tantras, which are instructions on how to achieve enlightenment.

In stark contrast with the Indo-Chinese temple, which was open, airy and somewhat minimalist, the Pai Yuin was enclosed and filled to the rafters with colourful Buddhas and guardians of all shapes and sizes. The sheer number of statues on display — ranging in size from 10ft tall to a few inches tall – captured my imagination and left me with a feeling of awe. It was a feast for the eyes and senses.

A table near the front of the temple was piled up with food offerings including chips, cookies, instant noodles, cereals and candy.

A number of nuns with shaved heads and traditional maroon robes were moving about and at one point they carried out a ritual while chanting mantras. After the small ceremony, my classmates and I were free to explore the steps of the temple and to take pictures.

The colours, smells and sounds of the Pai Yuin temple altered my mental state, inducing wonderment and curiosity. Also, I was struck by an immediate desire to return to the temple at a later date in the hopes of tapping into the peace and tranquility it alluded to.  I was not alone in this. Other students also expressed a desire to return; maybe they had glimpsed the same possibility of new knowledge. I cannot be sure.

Many questions swirled through my mind, but what I can be sure of is this: experiencing other cultures and religions first-hand makes opens windows to new exciting new perceptions. Seeing Buddhists pray and chant reminded me of my early childhood experiences in Christian churches. Although the rituals and theologies are different, there are some striking commonalities. For instance, the reverence one feels during a ceremony or prayer is the same, no matter what god is being honoured. Although I do not subscribe to superstition, I nonetheless understand the goals and objectives of religion. Finding inner peace, doing good deeds, seeking meaning in life, and respecting the powers of nature are all noble pursuits. However, despite the commonalities of religions, Buddhists also offer unique insights into the natural state of humanity. The Eightfold Path and the removal of kleshas – ignorance, greed and hatred – are wonderful examples of the wisdom of Buddhist thinking. Most importantly, Buddhism recognizes that the goal is not to gain something, but to remove something. It is possible to see through anatman, the illusion of self, and to be enlightened. In that sense Buddhism, like other religions, offers hope — hope for the possibility of peace, compassion, joy, equanimity and loving kindness. Importantly, these results are absolutely attainable without belief in the supernatural. It is results we should be focusing on, adopting the best ideas, and discarding the rest.

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Reason, Religion & Faith

Critics of religion often succumb to the same flawed thinking as those they oppose: moral absolutism. It’s not uncommon to hear even moderate atheists and agnostics blaming religion for the many wars and atrocities that fill the pages of history. Many so-called ‘new atheists’ see religion as a wholly bad thing, with no redeeming qualities. To them, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are of particular distain.  Religion’s malevolence, they say, is absolute. However, by taking an absolutist position, so-called neoatheists are simply following in the very same footsteps as the dogmatic and fanatical zealots they regularly berate.

While there are certainly problems with religion, it’s unreasonable to ignore the benefits it has afforded humanity. Without doubt many good deeds have been done in the name of religion. Religion provides strong communal connections amongst its adherents.  Religion also provides believers with security and continuity in their lives through traditional practices and rituals. Science has affirmed the benefits of religious practices; prayer and meditation help lower blood pressure and reduce harmful stress hormones. A myriad of advantages are imparted by religion and it’s fallacious to paint all religious practice as detrimental. Unfortunately, religion has an achilles’ heel: faith.

Faith is commonly defined as “belief that is not based on empirical proof.” Although people often use the word faith interchangeably with words like belief and trust, the faith that I refer to is religious faith. I am in no way saying that trust or belief (within reason) is undesirable.  Trust, as Immanuel Kant reasoned, is paramount to the functioning of society. Faith in your loved ones, or faith that the sun will rise tomorrow is very much unlike religious faith.  When one has faith that the sun will rise in the morning, that faith is based on predictable and testable events. Religious faith is independent of empiricism; it is unfalsifiable and is not dependent on proofs. In order to have faith in the religious sense, reason must be dismissed or, at the very least, diminished. Faith therefore by its very nature is unreasonable.

Religious faith is a learned ability. Small children naturally require proof when a claim is made. This is exampled on playgrounds everywhere with children imploring their playmates to “prove it.” Children are generally apt to forgo observable proofs in lieu of authoritative testimony – at least temporarily. Eventually children get wise to the authority figure who makes claims about the world that cannot be proven. However, Christianity and other religions verily celebrate the ability to believe a thing even when evidence for it is either lacking or contrary to the held belief. Indeed, the greater the lack of proof, the greater the faith. The bible illustrates this point:  “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” – John 20:29

If someone holds a strong belief based on faith, no amount of reasoning or evidence can dispel it. In fact, the faithful should be able to withstand any bombardment of facts and proofs. This ability to deny any evidence that runs counter to their thinking is greatly admired amongst the faithful. So what’s the problem with resistance to facts? Simply put, people do not generally agree on matters of faith. Asides matters of faith, people are apt to disagree on almost every aspect of life. Faith interferes with the resolution of arguments and disputes. In secular society, disagreements can be resolved – to a degree – through appeal to reason. Logical arguments and empirical proofs are useful tools in resolving disputes when the facts are up for debate; however, if a disagreement hinges on an article of faith it can never be resolved since faith is incontrovertible. Faith promotes entrenched thinking that ignores facts about the world and instead upholds dogma.

Religion certainly has its redeeming qualities, but when paired with religious faith, it becomes a serious impediment towards peaceful coexistence and human progress. Admittedly, faith can – and does – motivate good deeds, but faith is not the only means by which to inspire philanthropy. In fact, the most philanthropic countries are the least religious.

Humanity would be well served in ceasing to celebrate religious faith. Instead, humanity should be using its unique capacity for reason and logic in the effort to promote human flourishing. Only when reason overcomes blind faith, can humanity ever hope to achieve its full potential.

Review of Peter A. Goddard’s “The Devil in New France: Jesuit Demonology”

The essay The Devil in New France: Jesuit Demonology, 1611-50 by Peter A. Goddard is an informative and well researched look at the attitudes and opinions of the Jesuits and early missionaries regarding demonology during the pre-enlightenment period of the early to mid-seventeenth century in New France. Goddard’s opening paragraph focuses on the observations of a number of pioneering missionaries and Jesuits which lends credence to the theory that demonology was alive and well in the minds of these religious men. Quoted or paraphrased sources include Paul Le Jeune, Jean de Brébeuf and Pierre Biard. These sources are especially relevant as they supply the reader with firsthand observations by people that lived in the culture and time in question, namely between 1611-50. Goddard presents ample evidence suggesting Jesuits truly believed Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples where directly influenced by the Devil. Bruce Trigger, Karen Anderson and William Eccles concur that Jesuits had an ardent belief in the Devil and that New France was “truly a fertile ground for the Demon.”

The clash of cultures between European explorers and First Nations people reveals a host of differences in attitudes, beliefs and core values that often led to misunderstandings and even armed conflicts. First Nations were generally matrilineal, while the Jesuits where patrilineal. The multitude of cultural differences led to mutual suspicion and distrust. Although both Europeans and First Nations had colourful and well-entrenched beliefs in the afterlife, the European’s dogmatic approach and religious zeal framed their mission to convert the so-called savages. Since the native’s beliefs were not organized or hierarchical, the Europeans did not consider them to be true religion. They believed that the only path to eternal salvation lay in the acceptance of the Catholic religion through baptism. It can be argued that First Nations people may have been more accepting of Catholicism if not for the fact that many baptized people were struck down by disease and illnesses. The Jesuits exhibited a number of other characteristics that further exacerbated the issue, for example they had a tendency to dress in all black, they had mysterious contrivances, such as clocks and the written word. First Nations relied on oral tradition in the form of stories or songs in order to pass on information and to record their history as a people. These cultural differences led many First Nations to distrust the white men and to think of them as sorcerers and workers of evil magic.

For their part, the Europeans had their own misconceptions regarding the native people. Initially, they were quick to assign devilish influences whenever they witnessed practices they considered to be irreligious.  Dream guidance was one such issue of contention. Jean de Brébeuf states that the natives “consider the dream as the master of their lives, it is the God in their country.” The issue of dream guidance is also referenced in the film Black Robe, released in 1991. In the film, Chimona, the Algonquin Chief, has a prophetic dream about Jean LaForgue, a Jesuit priest who is traveling with them. With great import and reverence he recounts the dream to his men. His dream suggests a course of action, which is interpreted as the need to leave Jean LaForgue, the Black Robe, behind. When one of Chimona’s warriors says, “a dream is more real than death and battle” it further illustrates the importance of dreams to the First Nations people. The early Jesuits saw these dreams as evidence of direct communication between the Devil and the heathens.

The concept of good and evil, heaven and hell, and the struggle between God and the Devil was pervasive during the seventeenth century. The Jesuits used these themes to underscore the importance of conversion. Through the use of illustrations or pictures, Jesuits could communicate exoterically to their intended converts. It is worth noting that when the Jesuits requested images from Europe they asked for demonic depictions of hell, not the gentler and uplifting images of Jesus and heaven. This may have been a tool used to frighten the people into accepting baptism. Contrary to the use of fear and scare tactics, the Europeans also gave gifts as a way to incent co-operation. These gifts included basic tools and implements as well as the highly prized muskets, which according to French policy were only given to “First Nations people that were baptized.”

The ultimate goal of the Jesuits was to bring religion, and therefore salvation, to the natives. They saw this as their heavenly mandate, but their progress was slow and setbacks were common. In order to explain their lack of progress, the Jesuits often referred to the Devil as being the source of their problems. Whether they truly believed this or were using it as an excuse is difficult to determine, but it is clear that explaining natural events in the light of demonology was still an accepted practice.

By 1650 the Devil was seen as an ever-present agent working against the Jesuits in an overarching sense if not in a direct way. This fact is evidenced in the Relations sent back to France. Whether or not the Devil was involved in specific and individual events remained an open question, although skepticism was a growing position among progressive Jesuits. In fact, Jesuits began to interrogate the “unlearned and religiously suspect witnesses” in order to disprove their claims of diabolic activity. The burden of proof for demonic interference, and miracles alike, was being raised. It can be argued that rampant demonology threatened to spiral out of control and therefore needed to be reined in if the Jesuits wanted to maintain their authority on matters of the divine and supernatural. As demonology came under heavier scrutiny it was used less and less as a way to explain the undesirable customs of the natives. Paul Ragueneau was pragmatic in entreating his fellow Jesuits to treat irreligion as mere stupidity. He may have been shrewd enough to know that humiliating the natives by pointing out the silliness of their actions was more efficacious than doggedly forbidding native customs as crimes against God. Paul Ragueneau was also reluctant to attribute dream guidance as direct intercourse with the Devil, rather attributing these claims to “herd mentality and suggestibility.” Using this approach the Jesuits were apt to discredit native beliefs and to substitute their own biased ideas. It is possible the Jesuits were able to discern the tactics of the shamans to  “invent … new contrivances to keep his people in a state of agitation and to make himself popular” because they used these same tactics themselves.

Both First Nations and Europeans had deeply entrenched worldviews. They both viewed the customs and practices of the other party through the lens of superstition and fear. Ultimately, that clash of cultures led to the destruction of many lives, and even the extinction of entire populations. As Goddard’s essay makes clear, the tendency for people to invent elaborate fantasies to explain that which they do not understand is a reoccurring theme. It is a lesson that must not be forgotten, lest we slip back into ignorance and false ideology.