The Dhammapada exploration – part 3: The Mind

This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.

Now we’re getting to a juicy part, one of the most fertile subjects for Buddhists to talk about: the mind. We’ve seen some of this in part 1, where it was established that phenomena are mind-wrought. Since Buddhism often occupies itself with phenomena, here’s a whole chapter of the Dhammapada just about the mind. I’m using the Buddharakkhita translation this time, but just because Thanissaro’s is a bit hard to copy/paste from. Do read both versions if you’re interested, there is a link to Thanissaro’s on the page at Access to Insight.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – part 3: The Mind”

The Dhammapada exploration – part 2: Heedfulness

This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.

New resources

I’d like to introduce some more useful resources for the Buddhist learner:

  • A very fast Pali dictionary. At some point in your studies you will develop a sort of suspicion of which Pali words translators meant when you read certain English words (“mind” and “heart” both pointing to mana is one example, but mana can also mean consciousness, so which one is it?).I find it sometimes helps to have multiple definitions of a word and reverse-engineering things from the original Pali can be enlightening. But don’t think that you have to do this to understand. Native English-speaking authors and teachers can drive those Pali points home just as well in English, even if English is lacking a lot of spiritual vocabulary.
  • Digital Dictionaries of South Asia Pali Dictionary.
  • Another Pali dictionary.
  • Treasury of Truth’s Illustrated Dhammapada. Next to being beautifully illustrated, it often gave me more concise explanations of the verses to work from than I could have found myself so easily.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – part 2: Heedfulness”

The Dhammapada exploration – introduction and part 1: Pairs

After my failed Qu’ran reading experiment I was asked whether I might want to do the same for Buddhist texts (which I know a little better). At first I wasn’t sure and referred people to Dr. Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha taught” and some of my favorite teachers like Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Amaro, Thich Nhat Hanh and Brad Warner. But then it struck me that it’s been more than ten years since I’ve last read the Dhammapada, one of the more easily understood canonical texts that is a good introduction for laypeople.

So, do you want to read it with me? It’s only 70-something pages of very large and sparse text.

Continue reading “The Dhammapada exploration – introduction and part 1: Pairs”

The Qu’ran reading experiment: Summary

I tried my best, but after over 100 pages of “you will burn in fire forever,” and very little in terms of wisdom, I don’t think the Qu’ran has earned more of my time. I’m glad that I don’t need to do extensive criticism of the book, because others have done that.

I went into this with as open a mind as I could, and I will research Islam more (just like  Jainism, Judaism, Bahá’í, Yazidi and Druze) but without the use of the Qu’ran. I deeply despise dogma in religions, and the Qu’ran is nothing if not full of it.

I have no doubt that there are Muslims who manage to interpret, twist, tweak and hack Islam into something that enriches their lives. I don’t think they can do this while actually also believing every word they read there. Although maybe they can, cognitive dissonance is not uncommon in religious people and it seems to bother them a lot less than it bothers me.

This journey for me is about understanding religious people, and I think despite reading the angry words of a punishing and hateful Allah, I think I now have a tiny inkling of what’s going on there. I see some elegance in what Islam can be, somewhere in the distance, and I sincerely hope so do all happy, cheerful Muslims.

Forced into Islam

It is said in some places of the Qu’ran that one submits to Islam voluntarily. At the same time we know that after the death of Muhammad, many wanted to leave Islam, but the remaining Muslims threatened and slaughtered them so they would remain Muslims. This is similar to how today, some Muslim nations place the death penalty on leaving Islam. And in the lands conquered by Muslims, people usually had the choice of being slaughtered, converting forcibly to Islam or becoming slaves of Muslim households.

How can this be such a good, peaceful, benevolent religion when it has to threaten those who want to leave with death? Wouldn’t a religion that is in itself fulfilling be so wonderful that you wouldn’t want to leave? There are many reasons to leave Islam. Why don’t they let people leave?

Of course the Christians weren’t any better, the choices when they conquered Europe were either to convert, to be killed or to leave the kingdom hoping that a neighboring king would grant asylum to a heretic. That was 500 years ago. Can Islam fast-forward itself into the now?

There will be blood

When reading about Muhammad’s life and the Qu’ran, I couldn’t help but notice that he lived in very bloodthirsty times and that he was quite happy to partake in the bloodshed when he thought it would be to his advantage.

Religion based on an exclusive worship of a single deity is a concept that is broken on so many levels that it’s hard to disentangle the mess, but let’s operate for now on some basic assumptions that these religions share:

  1. A single creator has created the universe.
  2. That creator has sometimes sent messages to prophets among humans (all of them male, but that’s another problem).

But, but, but!

  1. The monotheistic Abrahamic religions claim that there is an all-knowing creator that loves his creation and desperately needs to be loved back (or else throws a hissy fit and destroys or punishes believers and non-believers alike).
  2. Islam claims only they know the truth about this creator. Jews and Christians disagree. Everyone is mad at everyone else.
  3. Each religion through military and political power has tried to force the members of the other religions to believe what they believe. Sometimes they claim to have had divine aid from their creator (like the Muslims in the Battle of Badr) to prove that they are indeed the creator’s favorite people.
  4. This continues to this day, nearly two thousand years of bloodshed, torture, destruction and intolerance, plus self-loathing and family trouble for e.g. homosexual Muslims.

What benefit could possibly outweigh all this conflict? And how did we not manage to stop this for nearly 1500 years?

Muhammad ordered battles that killed an unknown number of innocents. In just one example, he slaughtered the people of Jurash behind the back of their ambassadors even though those had come to him respectfully for peace talks. He took sex slaves from the conquered tribes. He was an insatiable maniac bent on domination. And why? All for a better afterlife?

Did he really think that by force-converting everyone to his system he would be rewarding his victims, like the Spanish conquistadors thought they were helping indigenous children by baptising them before smashing their skulls open against the rocks?

As a Muslim I would ask myself: How much love and compassion can you learn from a warlord?

Sufi Islam

I think that there were some Muslims who asked themselves the same things and that weren’t happy with the horrors of religious doctrine either. I found a branch of Islam that adds warmth and exploration to the mix.

Sufi Islam also mixes a lot of meditation into its practice, and I have no doubt that some of the leading Sufi mystics have attained what the Buddhists call enlightenment or realization.

Sufi Muslims suffer under the whip of their Muslim brothers and sisters, maybe precisely because they dare to think for themselves. In some areas orthodox Muslims force-convert Sufis to one of the less flexible branches. Extremists destroy Sufi shrines and claim that Allah has ordered them to do so.

I personally find this infighting even worse than the Shi’a/Sunni schism because to me Sufism presents one of the most progressive elements within Islam, and this just goes to show how backwards the other branches are.

Meanwhile Sufis appear almost syncretic, are happy to co-meditate with Buddhists and open their practice even to those hated Jews, atheists, agnostics, anyone. If there is a noble, loving creator, wouldn’t such collaboration be precisely what he wants? And why so much intolerance for the Sufi Muslims by their own brothers and sisters? Does Islam always have to smother any attempts at opening it, at reform or integration?

I wasn’t born with the religious gene, so all I can do is watch from the outside. This saves me from some of the grief you have if you think you have to defend your god against all others. But it doesn’t immunize me against religion. After decades of watching all the major religions, all I feel is very sad for religious people.

 

Qu’ran reading experiment 4: Surah an-Nisā’

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

Surah 4 deals among other things with how to distribute the belongings of orphans. You shouldn’t steal them or embellish them, instead there are specific instructions for how to distribute them. This arose apparently because one of Muhammad’s many battles didn’t go quite as well as he’d hope and many Muslim children lost their parents.

There’s also a bit about how to deal with inheritance. Female children receive only half of what boys get. There are other instructions e.g. for how much surviving parents would receive. I have no clue if this was progressive (“wow, women get a full half of what men get!”) or par for the course of the time. But can you guess what happens if you don’t distribute things properly or if you steal from orphans? That’s right, Allah punishes you by roasting you in eternal fire.

Allah can forgive, though. It seems he can forgive adulterers (“unlawful sexual intercourse”) if they confess and regret what they’ve done (4:16-18). So finally some niceness is shining through all the grim burning and eternal fire, alḥamdulillāh! The Qu’ran also establishes that surviving male heirs have no right to marry the widow. And that if a man chooses a new wife and sends his former wife off with gifts, he cannot later reclaim those gifts. Plus, no marrying women who your fathers have already married before. Some bits about no marrying sisters, etc., and 4:25 seems to say that if you get very horny and can’t find a wife to marry freely, you can marry a slave girl instead of giving in to sin.

Of course this is all directed at men, no one asked the women what they think about it. In fact, the Qu’ran establishes with absolutely no margin for error or misinterpretation that “men are in charge of women” (4:34) (husbands are in charge of wives, not women in general). But at least  in this surah we have some instructions for (what was perceived as) good moral conduct.

Fun nugget of history, in Switzerland, even into the years of the early feminist movement, women had to have their husband’s signature to open a bank account. So the Qu’ran is no worse here.

Forgiveness and good advice

Also, hey, Allah forgives even more things. If you get rid of your major sins, your minor ones are to be stripped off as well. Could it be that the Qu’ran gets cheerful at this chapter? Yes, it does!

4:35 – 4:44 is a treasure trove of truly good avice! You should be nice to your neighbor, your friends, do good to your relatives, parents, your slaves! Do not be stingy with the things Allah has given you, but do not be boastful if you have plenty. Allah will repay you many times over for any good things you have done. You shouldn’t pray while intoxicated (wait until you know what you’re saying again – so much for forbidding alcohol, that’s not in the Qu’ran so far at least). Don’t come back from the toilet or having sex without washing your hands and face first, especially if you’re ill.

I’m not trying to take the piss, I’m genuinely impressed, there is some really good advice here. Of course the Buddhists had this same wisdom nearly a thousand years earlier, without having to create a punishing God-figure, but hey, good job anyway.

Of course at 4:46 the book is back to criticizing Jews, but let’s give the Qu’ran its moment of glory for a second here.

Back to the gory business

The interlude of love and happiness is brief, however. Surah 4 is actually home to some of the most gruesome threats of torture that I’ve read so far in the Qu’ran, and the book is full of threats of torture on every page. Get this:

4:56: Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a fire.
Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment. Indeed, God is ever Exalted in Might and Wise.

Wow. This is some tough shit. Hannibal Lector? A limp-wristed pussy in comparison to Allah’s magnificent torture methods. Then 4:74 says that if you fight in the cause of Allah and die, you will be rewarded richly (a previous verse in surah 2 said the same thing). It really is easy to see how someone who wants to set off a suicide bomb to kill unbelievers could take these verses as motivation. This book offers him a divine truth from Allah, and would Allah lie about this? Surely not. Surely there will be a reward. Surely western troops marching into Iraq can be seen as enemies of Allah that we need to defend against.

Allah does seem to have an interest in military campaigns:

4:84: So fight, [O Muhammad], in the cause of God; you are not held responsible
except for yourself. And encourage the believers [to join you] that perhaps God
will restrain the [military] might of those who disbelieve. And God is greater in might and stronger in [exemplary] punishment.

Fighting without accepting responsibility for your actions. Exemplary punishment. Yes, of course. Allah is just like Kim Jong-Un, then.

That’s as much as I can take. I am not making things up when I say that on almost every single page of the Qu’ran, you are threatened with eternal fire, death, damnation and punishment. I don’t want to read this anymore, it’s sickening. My next thing will be a summary of what I’ve read so far.

Qu’ran reading experiment 3: Surah Ale-‘Imrān

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

This surah is again directed at Christians, Jews and Muslims and establishes that the Jews and Christians have distorted their religions and should convert to Islam to follow the only truth. It doesn’t explain what that truth is, in what this truth might be better than some other theories. Instead, it threatens that people will be punished (by Allah, in the afterlife) if they don’t believe. It also says unbelievers will be “fuel for the fire”. Is that a threat against me?

Very nice. So instead of giving me solid advice, a functional theory or any sort of moral compass, the book threatens me with punishment and death simply for not believing what it says. And it hasn’t said anything so far except that Allah is best and everyone else is worth less than Muslims. That Islam is truth and everything else is distortion. Not a very convincing argument. Philosophers writing two thousand years earlier, both east and west of Mekkah and Medinah, have provided a much more convincing argument.

Continue reading “Qu’ran reading experiment 3: Surah Ale-‘Imrān”

Qu’ran reading experiment 2: Surah Al-Baqarah

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

The experiment slowed down because I didn’t check the length of the surahs before making my bold claims. If the others are as long as Surah Al-Baqarah, there’s no way I can do one per day. With the New Testament I also consulted a lot of secondary literature, historical information, theological analysis and the like, to slot the information into context.

I am not a theologian, but I can claim that while I was looking at the New Testament, I at least had a reasonable grasp of the geopolitical/theological problems of the years 30 – 600, the position of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Roman Empire and how a young Christianity fit into this. I also had some light background in early Greek philosophy and the theology that went with it.

With all this, you can’t afford to forget the medical issues of the self-appointed prophets, like the epileptic visions that converted St. Paul and the temporal lobe epilepsy and other mental complications Muhammad suffered from.

Continue reading “Qu’ran reading experiment 2: Surah Al-Baqarah”