FORGETTING THE FREAKS
Andrew Goodwin’s review of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Fall 2007) is slanted and confused. Although Goodwin applauds the book (except where it applies to Buddhism), he uses the review as a podium from which to preach his own hostile view of theism and religion, two separate if overlapping categories he regularly confuses.
The theism that Goodwin assaults posits a straw god constructed of crude anthropomorphic parts, an unworthy figure for a serious discussion of theism. From this shaky base he goes on to claim that theism is invalid because of the “perfectly complete absence of empirical evidence for god’s existence.” This proclamation censors the testimony of saints, masters, freaks, monks, visionaries, shamans, mystics, theologians, and the mad, as well as those who claim near-death, out-of-body, or reincarnation experiencesâ€”in short, all those whose lives achieve depth and wonder by adventuring into the geographies of the nonmaterial.
Goodwin’s rant does not advance the discussion of such a profound and meaningful subject as theism. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, the problem with the Goodwin approach is that it fails to do justice to the diverse histories of real human beings. It is an impoverishment of the richness of human experience.
Bill Burke, Flagstaff, AZ
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON BUDDHA
I enjoyed Jeff Greenwald’s insightful, highly technical article, “The Mindful Scalpel,” in your Winter 2007 issue. Besides examining the territory shared by Buddhism and science, Mr. Greenwald produced fascinating portraits of neurosurgeons Werner Doyle and Katrina Firlik.
The neuroplasticity described by Dr. Firlik may account for physical changes to the brain’s neural networks as the result of a mature meditation practice. Dr. Michael Merzenich, of University of California, San Francisco, is quoted in the article as stating, “We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work. We choose who we will be the next moment, in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.” This means that every man creates his own brain over the course of his lifetime. We are free every moment to be either a buddha or a hell being.
Kevin McLaughlin, Palm City, FL
FOR THE RECORD
I am so saddened to see again and again the continuing pro-Mahayana, anti-Theravada stance in Western Buddhist magazines. The latest sadness I felt was on reading the excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go (“Simply Stop,” Insights, Fall 2007): “In Theravada Buddhism the ideal person was the arhat, someone who practiced to attain his own enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal person was the bodhisattva, a compassionate being who, on the path to enlightenment, helped others.”
In Theravada Buddhism, a person seeking to “attain his own enlightenment” is a person seeking to cut the roots of suffering: greed, anger, and delusion. Such a person is thus cultivating generosity, lovingkindness, compassion, clarity, and understanding. A person practicing to “attain one’s own enlightenment” is, therefore, a compassionate being who, on the path to enlightenment, helps others. One can hardly have a selfish enlightenment if enlightenment is about getting rid of the roots of selfishness.
I hope that Tricycle and Thich Nhat Hanh, who both do so much for Buddhism in the West and globally, will work to discontinue these patterns of misunderstanding that subtly and not so subtly undermine the fine tradition of Theravada Buddhism.
Sid Brown, Professor of Religion
Sewanee: The University of the South
Andrew Schelling’s article on renga poetry, “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Winter 2007) brought back memories from ten years ago, when I was staffing a booth that educated people about clearcut logging at the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival. By bringing the issue to public attention, we hoped that the scars created by this techno-mechanistic form of tree harvesting could be healed.
At the poetry festival, we wanted to help people to collaborate in creating a spontaneous poem based on an environmental theme, which would be read aloud at the end of the festival. Renga poetry offered us the perfect form for our project.
On a large roll of paper suspended from the booth, we composed three lines on the subject of clearcut logging. After a passerby added three more lines, we would roll up the scroll so that only the latest addition was visible to the next contributor. In this way the last thought of the previous poet was always in view, inspiring the next three lines.
The final product, although not an exact interpretation of the renga form, was quite remarkable for its cohesiveness. Although individual poems wandered, they always returned to the thought of “home”â€”quite effortlessly, it seemed. And the meanderings were surprising in their creativity, shedding new light on the issue at hand.
Renga was a great way to get people to think creatively about an environmental issue that might not be considered an easily accessible subject. People enjoyed interacting with the unknown poet who had written the previous three lines, and the form gave them freedom to invent and made them eager to have the mystery of the hidden lines revealed. I am happy to know that the spirit of renga is alive and well.
Mary Kwart, Anchorage, AK
MAKE PETS, NOT DINNER
I was glad to see “Gifts That Keep Giving” (Winter 2007) encouraging readers to give gifts through compassionate charities, but shocked to see that Heifer International was included in the list.
For Buddhists, a donation through Heifer violates the First Precept about not killing. These animals and their offspring will be killed, and killed specifically at the request of the donor. Even if the donated animal is kept for milk or egg production, there is still killing involved: the female animals’ unwanted male siblings have most likely been slaughtered.
The Buddha’s teaching considers animals to be sentient beings, yet to Heifer, Oxfam, and similar organizations they are simply commodities. For example, rabbits are described in a Heifer brochure as “a great source of protein” instead of being recognized as intelligent beings worthy of respect. (I live with three house rabbits, so I’ve been able to observe firsthand what complex creatures they are.)
Also, farming animals is inefficient, expensive, and environmentally destructive way of producing food. Non-native livestock are introduced to fragile habitats, where grazing destroys the fertility of the land and reduces the amount of farmland available to local people. Maneka Gandhi, former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection, comments: “It is madness to send goats, cows, and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification. . . . Within two years the people who get goats have an even poorer lifestyle.” In addition, many recipients of gift animals are unable to feed them to maturity, much less feed and raise offspring.
We need to turn away from bloodshed and environmental degradation and spend our charitable dollars on more compassionate hunger relief. Give fruit trees (treesforlife.org) or training in soybean production (plenty.org) instead, or donate groceries to a local food bank.
Kate Lawrence, Denver, CO
HEIFER INTERNATIONAL RESPONDS
Heifer International agrees that it is wrong to use livestock where they will hurt the environment, be killed needlessly, or raised inhumanely. However, that is not what we do.
Before providing community groups with livestock, Heifer asks communities to submit a strategic plan describing how they will care for the animals and how livestock will substantially increase their livelihood. Only then does Heifer provide support. Farmers use manure as organic fertilizer to increase crop production and plant trees to preserve the environment. For many people, livestock bring hope for a better life.
Public Information Director
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