Archive for November 30th, 2009

Christopher Hitchens: Where is Bernard Law?

| November 30, 2009 | 5 Replies
Christopher Hitchens:  Where is Bernard Law?

In this lecture, Christopher Hitchens asks about the whereabouts of Cardinal Bernard Law, who is guilty of crimes “too hideous to describe.” The undeniable fact is that Law is currently a powerful member of the Catholic clergy in Rome–he is one of the people held in high enough esteem that he has the power and privilege of voting to choose Popes. Any organization whose leaders have basic moral decency would have put such a man into handcuffs and delivered him to the police.

Hitchens has many more questions for the Catholic Church too, and not an unfair attack among them, in my opinion. Examples include forbidding condom usage in Africa, where AIDs is an epidemic. This is not an academic issue–it is killing thousands of people. I also know many thinking Catholics who are driven to distraction by the official church teachings in regard to gays and birth control.

Here’s what Hitchens has to say about the need for the Catholic Church to apologize:

I do not post this video to condemn lay Catholics, many of whom are good-hearted people who do inspiring works of kindness in the name of the church. Instead, I’ve posted this video because I have become weary of seeing the Church automatically and publicly presented as a font of moral judgment just because it is a church (or, in some circles, The Church). I am wondering if we will ever see a day when the Catholic Church (and every other church) is not judged favorably merely because it is a church. I’m wondering whether we will ever see the day when, in response to a claim that we should follow rule because “It is a rule of a church,” people will generally ask: “What kind of church?” or “What is the track record of that church?” In any regard, we should never assume that a church is wise or moral just because it is a church. The current job title of Bernard Law compels this.

Bottom line: No more free passes for churches. Or for any entity or any person, for that matter.

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The Possibilities are Emptiness!

| November 30, 2009 | 8 Replies
The Possibilities are Emptiness!

“Emptiness is described as the basis that makes everything possible”
-
The Twelfth Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha

“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
- Pema Chodron


Buddhism makes people uncomfortable when it talks of emptiness. Most Western minds immediately go to “nothingness” as the equivalent, which I am learning is not accurate. Mingur Rinpoche has a fantastic chapter on emptiness in The Joy of Living. In it he makes my language geek happy by explaining the Tibetan words for emptiness – “tongpa-nyi”. He says Tongpa does mean empty, but only in the sense of something we can’t capture with our senses, and better words would be inconceivable or unnameable. Nyi, he says, has no particular meaning but when added to a word conveys a sense of “possibility”. Suddenly, instead of nihilism, we have an “unlimited potential for anything to change, appear, or disappear.” That is cool stuff.

We, as human beings, simply can’t conceive emptiness in that sense. Our minds are limited – they can only deal with so much – even with training. The assumptions we make and the perspectives we develop and yes, even the absolutes we live (and too often die) by, are simply our own constructions helping us navigate a reality that would otherwise overwhelm us. I’m not just talking about moral or ethical realms here, I also mean our physical reality. We are comforted by the thought that the chair we sit in and the floor we walk on are “solid” but science teaches us something else. The history of science itself demonstrates our understanding of the world is evolving. Quantum mechanics shows us things we didn’t dream of 100 years ago. We keep learning new and better ways to grasp how the world works – our knowledge shifts constantly like sand in a desert storm.

Facing the possibility of everything being in flux frightens us, and so we create shields that offer protection, that make us comfortable. We then think we can know ourselves, the world, and those around us. We know what to expect, we know what to accept. We order our existence, and we feel safe. Often we don’t know that we are creating a structure with which to experience the world. We are born into them as much as we seek them out, but the effects are the same.

Habits of knowing, like habits of behavior, are comfortable, like well-worn shoes or a tasty turkey pot pie. Fear of losing that comfort and the accompanying feeling of safety is why we, collectively, often lash out at anyone or anything that is different from us. In those situations our core concepts of who we are and how we live are at risk. But when our worldview is so rigid it prevents us from adapting to what is, our carefully constructed truths are no longer places of refuge, they more resemble prison cells.

Consider a man who has been laid off from his job as a machinist who can only see himself going into work at a factory, but all of the factories in his town have closed. His options for factory work in his town are nonexistent. If that is all he can see for himself his options are very bleak. But if he can open his mind and see another way to put his skills to use – not as an employee of a factory – he can devise a plan of action. I don’t mean that he will transform himself into something different with brand new skills. But if he can let go of the rigidity of what work once meant to him, he has a better chance of finding ways to leverage what he currently has to offer.

The challenge is to hold lightly to everything I believe, and to see the lack of fixity as a source of possibility instead of a recipe for loss. As someone just getting started on this practice, I can say it feels much like standing and stretching luxuriously after being stuck in a painfully cramped space. One can learn to do a fine backstroke in the abyss, and abyss is more a fertile sea of possibility than terrifying vacuum. What a happy surprise.

Image: © Rozum | Dreamstime.com

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Mean Phoneme Meme

| November 30, 2009 | 2 Replies
Mean Phoneme Meme

During a bout of insomnia, I pondered an underrepresented phoneme. I first learned about these essential quanta of spoken words while I was earning my degree in psychology back in the early 1980′s, and researching computer speech synthesis for fun. What popped into my head these wee hours was the word, “vacuum”.

Say it aloud with me, “Vacuum”. Listen to yourself say it. Vacuum.

Break it down. It starts with the vee, a vocalized eff. Then “a” as in “can”. And a full-stop kay. No surprises, so far.

Did you just utter “Ee”? As in “Keep”? We will get back to that.

Next it depends on your dialect. Maybe you said “oo” as in “broom”, or maybe oo-uh as in “you-uns”. And end with a nice vocalized “mm”. This is the only case that I can think of where a double-U really is.

But, what was that in the middle? Ee? Vakeeoom?

Part of the institutional mis-education in our country is that even teachers are unaware of a double standard in teaching the relationship between spoken and written English. We have “silent-E” drilled into us…

(Digression for mathematician Tom Lehrer’s version on The Electric Company)

… but what about all those hidden, non-silent “E”s? They are everywhere in our spoken words, but not in the written ones. Even many words with silent E have unwritten spoken long-E’s embedded.

Take “lake”, for example. Listen to yourself say it. There is no hint of the written E on the end. But in the middle? L-eh-ee-k. Long “A” is really short-E-long-E. Always. (Ah-l-oo-eh-ee-z)

Take a cue from “cue”. K-ee-oo. Do you, like, like “like”? L-ah-ee-k?

So my obscure title simply means that I mean to bring attention to the essential idea of a troublesome yet common (mean, mean) spoken sound. I’m usually easy to amuse, but sleep deprivation stunts my self-censorship.

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