A Few Thoughts Towards The Free Will Debate

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I’m currently sitting at my desk reading the latest issue of Philosophy Now, specifically the article, “Free Will Is Still Alive!” A few thoughts occurred to me that I have yet to see addressed in the debate (though they may have been in more technical writings).

  1. The assumption of the independence of events: How far a cause can be separated from an effect is difficult to say. Perhaps it can only be measured at the most minute level capable to science currently – either a substance at the subatomic scale or the thinnest slice of a second.
  2. The assumption that a state of cause or effect persists: When exactly does an effect cease to be an effect? That may sound dumb, but hear me out. At what point during an event does the cause turn into effect? Can it be labeled? Is it simply the same as the hypothetical “now” of the present moment?
  3. The confusion of levels of existence between events: Related to the above point, when does the subatomic parts of a microchip become information? Once individual parts are gathered into a composite, there is a new level of existence regardless of what is going on underneath.
  4. Agency is difficult enough to define. Think about how you define “agency” and then move on to the next point if you agree it has “something to do with something’s ability to do something.” And then think about how poor that idea is….
  5. Do agents really make decisions so precisely to give credence to the hypothetical problems philosophers devise? When I make a decision, I usually am not aware of what I am deciding unless I act automatically. And when I do try to make a decision, I have a difficult time (like picking out what to watch on Netflix… Sheesh….)

Just wanted to throw these out there. I used to think about the issue of causality only within a religious context, but it goes far beyond that. It is an epistemological and metaphysical (ontological?) issue that continues to allude us. And I can’t escape the feeling that language gets in the way of an answer.

And We’re Off!

I get to start this dieting/exercise journey on a rainy Monday, so yeah, very motivating…

I’m clocking in heavier than I thought at 179 lbs. I was 150 this past summer, but I led stress eating over take me with school work. And with lack of time, exercise was impossible. I literally worked on school work as soon as the kids went to bed until midnight or later each night. And having two jobs takes away all hours of daylight, weekends, and then some.

This diet thing has got me thinking about aesthetic philosophy. Is beauty and fitness a social or personal concept? Is it objective or subjective? Obviously, this type of analytical dissection of reality is a flawed artifact of Western thinking. And there is truth to each aspect regarding aesthetics.

In my mind, I have a general idea of what healthy looks like for me. Frankly, as long as I can look down without feeling discomfort in my neck, as well as not have a potbelly in my T-shirts, then I’m pretty OK with my weight and size. So we’ll see where this journey goes. I will update this once a month on progress, that way I don’t annoy anybody about bickering and complaining about how hungry I am or how tired I am.

Thanks!

Lessons from Religious Visits/What Christianity Can Learn From Other Religions

As I traveled quickly through several religions of the world, I learned numerous lessons about people and religions in general. I also gained a renewed appreciation for my own Christian heritage. I hope to just quickly summarize it all here.

  1. Community as Identity – Religion isn’t simply about believing a certain set of doctrine or practicing certain rituals. It is about how a certain community contributes to your identity. Most of the groups I visited had a particular language that bound them together, even if that language was confined to the religious texts themselves: Hinduism – Gujarati and Hindi; Judaism – Hebrew; Buddhism – Vietnamese; Islam – Arabic. Even Christianity had a designated language for many centuries, Latin (Vatican II helped end this in the last century, but Protestantism broke away centuries ago). These groups were often sets of families or immigrants. Religion helped bind these people together and define a part of who they are.
  2. A Generation is Absent – There were very few teenagers at any of these religious services. Badi Ali, on our drive back to the Islamic Temple, pointed out that the American school system prevented many youth from joining Friday prayers. Kim told me that Buddhism in the area was effected by a laxity of belief and adherence, primarily from American value of individualism and a tendency towards apathy. Although the synagogue I visited was large enough for nearly two hundred people, there were barely fifty people there and only two or three teenagers.
  3. We Are Ignorant – All of these faith groups exist in the same cities and yet, very few people even realize this. I introduced the Baha’i Faith to many people by having to explain what the religion was about. There are fears of these separate groups, especially in evangelical Christian circles, but these fears could be put at ease through lovingly reaching out and getting to know people in these different groups. But this would inevitably lead to issues of proselytizing, so it is difficult to make such interaction possible.

What Christianity Can Learn

  1. From Hinduism – diverse methods of worship and teaching; use drama and videos alongside music and preaching; break up the message by interjecting other elements.
  2. From Judaism – everyone participates, no matter their age or if they come in late; teach children your heritage and traditions; go out of your way to welcome outsiders and help them understand the teachings.
  3. From Buddhism – bright colors and a taste of natural beauty goes a long way; love others and be patient with those who fall away; lessons can be taught through art, especially statues; the aesthetics of a building creates an atmosphere of  transcendence.
  4. From Islam – radically embrace different people, especially immigrants; there shouldn’t be black churches, white churches, hispanic churches – there should be one group of people intertwined in worship; reverence – there is high value in group silence and respect.
  5. From Baha’i – all persons are equal and should be treated so in practice and speech, not just in theory; home visits foster a great spirit of unity and equality; they are able to reach out more with less money because they do not pay salaries among other things (the house church movement has already learned this!).

What’s to come?

Honestly, I am not sure what I will do next. I am juggling a few ideas. I plan on attending a Seventh-Day Adventist church, Mormon church, and Jehovah’s Witness’ Kingdom Hall soon. But I want to keep reaching out beyond Christianity, perhaps to a local Wiccan group I have found online. I am taking a two month break from school so I at least plan to go to bed early, read Nietzsche, and start a diet to lose 25 lbs.  Any ideas are welcome, but I can’t commit too much – I want my lazy break!

Feature Image: Immanuel – Image:Symbols of Religions.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3966889

Happy Vietnamese New Year!

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I took my daughter with me to the New Year’s celebration at Chua Quan Am where I did my visit for Buddhism a few weeks ago. I ran into Kim too! This time around, the temple was busy and loud. I walked my daughter around outside to check out the statues and the koi pond. From my previous visit, I was able to tell her what most of the statues meant and that was a dad-score moment for me.

The evening started off with introductory drumming and then the Flower Dance. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a good video because I was sitting right where the dancers started and behind where there were facing the entire time.

After that dance, there was a short (30 min) service. My daughter kept asking me about the smell (incense) and what everyone was saying. I explained that they were praying and likely giving thanks for the previous year and the next since it was New Year’s. The temple handed out paper pamphlets with the words for chanting, but it was all in Vietnamese. If you have never tried to read Vietnamese, just know that your vowel sounds will change – and quickly!

Then came the drumming again and we knew it was almost time for the dragons! What we weren’t expecting was the longest firecracker I had ever heard. At least half of all ~150 people in that room had their hands over their ears. The rest needed their hands for their phones. Then the dragons came in and excitement filled the air even more! It’s hard to describe the atmosphere we experience because, at least for me, it was so easy to get lost in the moment. Just getting to see the wonder on my daughter’s face was amazing for me. And knowing that she was getting to engage in a culture she never would have on her own, well to me that is priceless.

As the dragons dance, children come up and “feed” dollar bills to the dragons for good luck. At the end, everyone had a chance to bull a token treat from the trees near the altar. I held my daughter up and she was able to grab one of the high ones. We got home after midnight and still managed to make it to school/work on time in the morning. Pretty good for a kindergartener!

Link to Chua Quan Am site (you’ll need a translation tool): http://www.chuaquanam.com/

The short video shows part of the Dragon Dance and the long video has the entire firecracker explosion and start.

My Baha’i Home Visit

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Sign outside of the home I visited.

Baha’i’s strongly believe in home visits. You might call them a fellowship, a study session, or just a get-together. Whatever you want to call the home visits, I walked into a home full of Persian hospitality. My hostess, Hayedeh, comes from Iran and it was reflected by her home. As I got out of my car, she called out a welcome from her carport. I was the first to arrive. She walked me into her house, through the kitchen, and into a living room with a raised ceiling. Couches and chairs sat in a rectangular shape on top of a crimson, patterned Persian rug. In the center was square coffee table with pink orchids in the middle. Beside it was a bowl of green pears and oranges along with fine china plates.

Hayedeh’s husband, Wayne, was sitting in one of the chairs as I walked in. He stood up, shook my hand with a friendly smile, and introduced himself. We talked about the assignment at hand briefly and Hayedeh explained that we were waiting on another person to show up, and Mrs. Marcus arrived very soon after that. For this particular home visit, there would only be four of us.

Hayedeh read from the Kitab-I-Aqdas, the most holy book of the Baha’i. She had asked what I wanted to talk about and told her my paper would be over the concept of salvation so the passages focus on that. We each took a turn reading. Hayedeh then stepped out of the room and returned with a full tray of tea. I mean the complete works – sugar bowl, saucers, beautiful tea cups, and tea spoons. I was nervous that I would spill cause a mess or break something! It was hot so we mostly held onto it while we discussed concepts together.

We began to discuss the passages and what salvation was within the Baha’i faith. Instead of a personal salvation that gets one into heaven, Baha’is believe that salvation is a process and that it is for humanity as a whole. The goal is equality, love, and peace for all men and women on earth, regardless of any constraining social setting he or she may have. Wayne told me that there is a concept of heaven, but that it is not the same as I may think about it. All of creation is temporary; everything is impermanent. History is progressing towards the perfect creation that God intended the Earth to be. Heaven and hell are not physical locations, but states of nearness to God (1).

As we finished our teas and moved onto other topics, Hayedeh brought out vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberry puree she had made that day. It was delicious! The group of us began to discuss the influence of science on religious thought, especially creation. I mentioned how much I loved the photograph, Pale Blue Dot, and how it makes me really appreciate how small and yet important we humans are. We also discussed the newest Baha’i Temple built in Santiago, Chile. Hayedeh and Wayne had a Baha’i magazine with pictures of the building. One from night time is the featured image and the one below is from the day time.

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New Santiago, Chile Baha’i Temple by FOPF – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54900697

Each Baha’i Temple has nine doors, they told me, one for each major religion. Inside, there is one common meeting room, which represents how all of the faiths merge into one. Naturally, this led me to ask about their structure and normal services. Baha’is strongly encourage home visits because of the personal nature of them. There are no clergy and Baha’i Centers are used for community events. Really, Baha’is can meet anywhere and it is up to the organizers to decide what takes place.

Hayedeh took up the crystal dishes after we finished the ice cream. But she wasn’t done yet! Next, she brought up freshly cut pineapple. I took a few, but had to insist that I was full at this point. The conversation shifted to personal matters such as what jobs we had and about the recent snow that had temporarily shut down our area. Wayne asked me a few questions about my personal beliefs and told me his story of conversion from Christianity to Baha’i. He attributed the old preaching of “hell fire and brimstone” in his youth as a strong reason he left Christianity. Baha’i offers hope and a goal that everyone on earth can work towards – social justice and global salvation.

After about two hours, it was time to leave. I gave my farewells and began my half-hour drive back home. Hayedeh followed up with me in an email just the other day letting me know about future events in case I wanted to bring my wife to any of them. I think I’ll write back now. Thank you all for taking your time to read these posts. It has been an incredible journey exploring these different faiths first-hand. There are more faiths out there though and I hope I can add them to my experiences as well.


Special thanks for the Featured Image of the new Baha’i Temple in Santiago, Chile by Tiago Masrour – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53054032.


Works Cited

(1) “Heaven and Hell” What Bahá’ís Believe. http://www.bahai.org/beliefs/life-spirit/human-soul/heaven-hell. Accessed 13 February 2018.

Making Peace With the Religion of Peace (My Trip to the Islamic Center of the Triad)

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Friday prayers, Jumu’ah Khutbah, are communal prayers within Islam. At the Islamic Center of the Triad (ICT), over 250 men and women come to pray together each week. I made arrangements to attend this past Friday through Badi Ali, the president of the ICT.

As I drove towards the road that the Masjed is on (Masjed means the place of prayer, Badi told me), a police car with blue lights flashing sat at the intersection. I immediate worried that the road was blocked off, but, to my relief, he was only directing traffic along with other volunteers from the center. I turned away from the ICT and parked a good walking distance away. There was a constant flux of men walking towards the center, so I added myself to their number. One of the men directing traffic greeted me with “As-Salaam Alaikum,” to which I only smiled. I didn’t quite catch what he said, but after hearing it dozens of times, I picked it up. It is the way Muslims greet one another – “peace be upon you” – and reflects the positive use of language as Allah gave to man.

I was actually a little confused about the location because the website showed an image of the mosque that the center was raising funds to complete construction on. What I saw was a large warehouse building with a roll-up garage door in the center, wide open to those coming in. I stepped in and noticed men in the distant corner already sitting, but many more were coming in and out of a bathroom to my left where ritual washing, wudu, was taking place. Wudu involves three washings of the hands, arms, face and head, mouth, nose, and feet. I stepped over to the right and placed my shoes on one of the large wooden shelves, as I suspected I would need to do before I arrived. I spotted a young man who entered when I did and so I crossed my fingers that he spoke English, which he did good enough. I explained what I was there for and that I needed to find Badi. He asked me to sit while he did his wudu and then he went to get Badi for me.

As I sat facing the entrance, I watched many men enter and shake hands with as many other men as they encountered. Behind me was a large poster of the mosque they were funding to build. It said “Whoever builds a mosque for Allah, then Allah will build for him a house like it in Paradise.” To my left, at the entrance to the main prayer room (I was in the overflow area), was a large box with openings for giving to ICT. I was struck by a large box on top of a room to my far left. The closer I looked, it appeared to be shaped like a coffin and had “GAZA” painted on it. As I continued to look around the room, wondering how out of place I was, in walked Badi.

He shook my hand and I walked with him to the shoe rack. While he was taking his shoes off, he told me if I prayed, I could sit with him. I told him I didn’t know how to do it correctly, but he simply said that I could just follow him. We walked into the prayer room and I finally understood why the men were sitting the way they were. The carpet had distinctive lines, about six or more inches wide, that point towards Mecca. I sat down next to Badi on one of these lines. The young man who helped find Badi for me was immediately in front of me. Badi pulled out his phone and opened his Quran app and told me that the readings were from Surah Al-Kahf that day. But barely a few seconds had passed and he said that he must be quiet now. If fact, the quiet, reverent attitude is what stood out to me the most. I had never been in such a large crowd and experienced such a silence.

A man in the crowd stood up and gave a call to prayer. As he did so, an African man came to the front and took his place to read from the Quran, I cannot remember what country Badi said he originated from. That is the second thing that struck me. There were so many different countries and races represented in that room together. It was a beautiful site to see so much diversity joined together. Arabic filled the air as the man began reading. It felt like it went on for a long time, but it may have just been my legs getting uncomfortable. We were all sitting cross-legged and adjusted as we needed to. Inside, I was feeling quite timid. I did not want to do anything that may viewed as offensive, so I tried to stay still. When that man finished reading, a young Middle Eastern man stood up and gave a brief message in English on generosity.  Then there was more reading by the former man in Arabic.

Then came the moment I was most nervous about – the bowing. Everyone stood up and my heart began to race. I am a middle-class, white, American, Christian-raised male. There were certain misconceptions I knew about and tried to push from my mind, but I was afraid I would mess up and offend someone. There was a calling out in Arabic and a response. I wasn’t sure what was just said, but I tried to imitate the sound. Another call in Arabic and everyone reached down and put their hands on their knees, this is called ruku. As we held our position, silence rang out. There was a call again and we stood erect. I wondered if the women on the other side of the wall were doing the same thing we were. Another call and everyone shifted to the floor into the sujud bowing position. Silence again. Then another call and we all stood up. This was repeated; the silence during the prayer was only broken once by an interrupting phone, promptly silenced. Then, the service was over with some concluding announcements.

Badi told me he wanted to introduce me to some people. “Some” is the wrong word. He introduced me to so many people, I thought I was in a political campaign. There were men from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and several other countries and they all greeted each other with smiles, laughter, and occasional hugs. I then rode with Badi to a nearby Dunkin Donuts where he bought me a coffee and doughnut. We sat with two men from ICT we happened to meet there and discussed a variety of topics. The most intriguing to me was the discussion of Jannah, heaven. Two more men joined us as we talked. After nearly an hour, it was time to leave. Badi drove me back to my car at the Center. On the way we discussed the administration of ICT, the safety concerns Badi had for his people (thus, the police that stayed on site), and the message he will be bringing this coming Friday on the use of bad language.

I cannot say that everyone I met made me feel comfortable (some looked rich and powerful), but the majority did. I now understand why Muslims say Islam is a religion of peace. I am thankful for the experience and look forward to visiting Badi again when they inaugurate their new mosque.

Three Is A Magic Number (My Buddhist Temple Experience)

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Three is a magic number – at least that is what School House Rock and Jack Johnson taught me growing up. Perhaps “magic” is the wrong word, but my visit to Chùa Quan Âm revealed to me just how important the number three is within Buddhism.

“Do you know why there are three doors? Think about it.” I was caught off guard when my liaison, Kim, asked me this, so I told her I was not sure. She said that the three doors stood for the past, the present and the future. Even more so, they stood for the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). From reading so my Thich Nhat Hanh, I was shocked that I actually could not recall this answer. Chùa Quan Âm is of the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism and more specifically, it is of the Pure Land school.

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During the cold months, the temple keeps the front doors open, so Kim led me around to the side where an assistant monk stood in an ochre colored robe. Kim exchanged a work of greeting with him and led me into a common area with tables for the lunch later that day. To our right were shoe racks with stairs leading up into the back of the temple. As I slipped my shoes off and stepped into the back foyer, the scent of incense overwhelmed me. It was not pungent, just enough to fill the area. I followed Kim down the left side of the prayer hall and sat at the back where I sat on a step and crossed my legs on a thin saffron zafu.

The prayer hall was nearly filled when the monks came in with the Venerable Master, Thích Đạo Chơn. Suddenly, an enormous bell rang out on my right and a large drum rumbled on my left. Everyone stood up and folded their hands high upon their chests. The monks faced the three large statues of Amitāba Buddha and two bhodisattvas and began chanting. Kim explained that they offered several items in celebration of life and remembrance of the impermanence of life: flowers for the beauty of life; fresh fruit, the goodness of life; water, essential and cleansing; grain, a basic staple needed to sustain life; incense, permeates the air as good deeds should permeate one’s life; and light, which extinguishes darkness as wisdom expels ignorance.

Then a bell or a bowl was sounded and everyone sat down and opened their prayer book. It was in Vietnamese and Kim wanted me to follow along. I laughed to myself a bit because I could not see that being a possibility. However, as the chanting began, I found it fairly easy to follow when everyone was going slow. But the chanting frequently changed pace and ended with three bows by everyone in the congregation – one each for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The aroma of the incense and flowers, the booming of the voices, the ringing of the bells, the rigid stance and folding of hands, and the rhythmic chanting  – all of these made for an atmosphere where the senses were completely overwhelmed. Even the mere space of the room felt intoxicatingly mystical. After the chants, the Venerable Master then turned and stood just behind the laughing Buddha statue. He was a rather young man, in my opinion, and he spoke light heartedly. Kim told me that it was the anniversary of the Buddha’s awakening and we were giving celebration. Normally, the message would have waited while five to ten minutes were dedicated to silent meditation.

When the Venerable Master finished, everyone stood and recited chants from memory, bowing after each recitation – again, three times. I was caught off guard again by such an abrupt ending, but I suppose when you are used to it, the ending would not seem abrupt. Most everyone in the assembly went back to the dining area and slipped on their shoes back on, a few others stayed behind for a remembrance memorial. A teenager from the temple had committed suicide the week before because of school bullying.

Kim explained all this to me as we sat down for a Q&A session that lasted for over an hour. We naturally discussed how Buddhists understand tragedy and death, especially in those so young. Reincarnation and karma were at the forefront of this. The Buddha had taught that perhaps a soul only needed to live a short amount of time before completing its tasks from another life. Alternatively, though, there could have been bad karma from either parent.

We also discussed intellectual and social aspects of Buddhism like five precepts (Refain from killing, adultery, lying, speaking ill of others, and drinking), the purpose of bowing, the meaning of the colors in the Buddhist flag, and the eight-fold path. I was most intrigued by the eight-fold path because each aspect was needed together and could be used to strengthen the other aspects. These are: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness, and right meditation. It was quite a noisy conversation as the children and teens were in a Vietnamese language class in the next room, but it was a delightful experience in itself.

As I was about to leave, lunch was being served. I think I was offered four different bowls as I was walking out. In the end, I left with a plate of sticky rice with peanuts and a green, spongy cake slice of Bánh Bò Nướng. Kim walked me out and told me that if I understood one statue in the front yard, I would understand all of Buddhism. We made our way around front as the rain picked up, but we ignored it. We stopped in front of a statue of a very fat laughing Buddha. He had five children playing on him. She said that the children were the five sense and yet they were innocent. The Buddha learned to love and protect his senses. And as for that bulging belly that seemed to suggest indulgence; it was full of compassion, not food.

I thanked Kim and we bid each other goodbye, but before I left I had to take a picture of the outside. In the top picture you see three words: Từ Bi, Chùa Quan Âm, and Trí Tuệ. The middle is the name of the temple, but the first word is Vietnamese for compassion and the second is wisdom. These three words hang above three doors. In front of the doors are three statues of different aspect of the Buddha. Is “three” magical? Depends on what you mean by magic, I suppose.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Beth David Synagogue’s Google image. (C) 2016.

Shabbat Shalom! This phrase echoed through every voice Beth David Synagogue today. I unexpectedly ended up there. Originally, I had arranged to attend a service at Temple Emmanuel, a Reform Judaism synagogue. However, after arriving I learned that two of the rabbis were out sick and service had been cancelled. Luckily, I met a lady named Emily and her two sons who told me about Beth David, a Conservative Judaism synagogue. I drove behind her for only six minutes or so before we arrived. As I walked towards the prayer hall, Emily stopped me and pointed towards a bin with kippahs, those little Jewish hats I had seen before. She said that the men wear them as a sign of respect in the prayer hall. So, I took a grayish-blue kippah and placed it on my head and waited a moment to enter because you cannot enter the prayer hall while the Torah is being read. Since I had to drive from one synagogue to another, I was over an hour late as this service began at 9:30 opposed to the 10:30 start for the other synagogue.

Emily and her boys took a seat near the children’s section and I sat on the inner isle in the very last seat. I wanted a good view of everything. After only a few minutes, an older lady in front of me introduced herself as Anne and offered me her chumash, a large red book containing the Torah in Hebrew and English, as well as a commentary. Only a few minutes later and Anne moved to sit next to me. Apparently, students from UNC Greensboro often visited for World Religion courses. She filled me in on everything I had missed. The service starts with readings from their prayer book, the siddur. Then a group of men and women go up and read from Torah scroll at the bimah, a large, flat podium that held the Torah.

This was wear I had entered. I sat and listened to the group take turns reading. Well, actually, reading is not the word for it. They were chanting, almost singing, the words in a restricted melody and rhythm. All of it was in Hebrew. Thanks for my few months of Hebrew at a former school, I was able to find particular words and somewhat follow along in the chumash. Every time they stopped reading the Torah, there would cover it with a cloth – and this took place several times. Then the service went back to using the siddur and each of the chumash were collected and placed on a shelf. Prayers for the sick and remembrance of the dead were read and people came to the front who wished to participate. A young woman, possibly a teenager, came out and stood at a podium on the ground with her back facing the group. She led a series of readings and congregational responses in the same Hebrew chanting as the others. Then, the Torah was closed, covered, and marched around the room. The woman carried it in her arms and continued chanting. Everyone reached out and touched the Torah with either their hand, chumash, or tallit (a prayer shaw with fringed corners).

The Torah was returned to the platform and placed inside the Torah Ark, which lies behind the painted sliding doors in the center of this picture. The rabbi then stood up, not on the platform, but down on the floor. His short message was about change and what moves a person to continue on their journey when change must take place. The most interesting aspect of this part of the service is the amount of interaction the group had with the rabbi, offering responses and even courteous disagreements. Not everyone participated, in fact, there was a rather loud snoring coming from my left somewhere, but a large number of people did. As the service returned to the siddur, more prayers were offered and the children were brought in. They stood on the platform where the leaders had returned to and chanted the closing songs while the doors of the Ark were closed. The children were then seated while announcements were made. The service ended with many happy children receiving suckers and many happy faces repeating, “Shabbat Shalom.”

My Visit to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Hindu Temple)

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I had quite the evening tonight! My wife accompanied me to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Greensboro to experience one of their services. As we entered the building, we were greeted by a man who motioned that we should place our shoes on the shelves in the entryway. The women’s shoes went on the left in between the women’s restroom and the entrance to the assembly hall. The men’s side, on the right, mirrored the women’s. So my wife gave me a slight wave and entered on her side while I hurried to remove my shoes. I could hear that the music had already started inside. Once inside, I secured a place on the back row, joining a group of forty that would eventually grow to over one hundred before the end of my visit. My wife, however, ended up in the only empty seat on the front next to a very helpful English speaking young woman. And it was lucky that she did because I could not understand a word of what was going on. I afterwards learned that the music and speaking was in Gujarati and the videos were in Hindi, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The shrine consisted of eight murti and intricately carved woodwork. On the far left and not pictured are Shiva, Pavarti, and Ganesh. Next to them stand Krisha and Radha. I have to guess at the two in the center because I failed to identify them for sure, but I would think that they are Vishnu and Lakshmi. Then there were four paintings of past and present BAPS spiritual leaders. On the far right stood Rama and Sita with Hanuman sitting at their feet.

As you can tell from the photo, there was a little boy helping with the music by ringing little bells and occasionally trying to sing. He was cute as could be and he enjoyed getting to be right next to, I strongly believe, his father. There were three songs accompanied by a hand organ of some type, two hand drums and the bells. At the break, the musicians left the stage and a devotional video played. When it ended, some men came forth, some of whom were the musicians, that were dressed up and the put on a drama. I wish I knew what happened because several people would occasionally laugh at the performance. Another video began as the men reset the stage, followed by a song and another, longer video. That video demonstrated the wretchedness of trying to satisfy your life by gambling, drinking, smoking, bribery, and ignoring the pleas of the needy. Such themes transcend language and I easily understood.

About an hour into the service, one of the leaders sat on the floor and delivered a message, followed by another short video and a song. At this point that little boy I mentioned ended up falling into the wall and hurting his head. There didn’t seem to be enough room for all of his rescuers to get to him, but he was fine. Another video started and I learned that this one was made especially for the  150th anniversary of the BAPS organization. It ended with a blessing, recorded this week, by the current spiritual leader of the group. After that, a man came to the podium and gave a series of what sounded like prayer requests because he would speak for a bit and then mention nearby towns. He then issued a special thanks to my wife and I by name (they had come around and asked us to write down our names separately).

The final part of the service was called Aarti. The leaders brought down small, red and painted plates with lit ghee candles and handed them to those in the crowd. One of them handed it to me and instructed me to move it clock-wise. And so, once the music started up and I saw others do so, I followed along.  My wife received a plate at the start as well. Those without plates sang and clapped to the music. After some time, the plates were passed along so that everyone had the chance to offer the light to the murti at the shrine. Once the Aarti plates were collected, the light was offered on at the shrine directly to each murti and image of the spiritual leaders. Then, the light was carried back to each and every member where they could receive the blessing and give a monetary gift to the temple. I followed the example of those in front of me and symbolically pulled the flame from the candle to my forehead. Then there was more music that led into a fast chant and then it just ended. I admit that I was a bit confused when it ended, but stood up and wen to put up my chair with the others.

Afterwards, we were invited to stay and eat, but I did not want to have a dinner separated from my wife so we left. We told each other our side of the story on our way to pick up the kids. I learned that the women were separated from the men simply reduce distractions – even from the stage. I had wondered why it was only the men who were directly addressed. But the people there were very kind. The sense of family was definitely strong in the assembly. Even though it lasted over two hours and we couldn’t understand a word, my wife and I greatly enjoyed it.

The Absurdity We All Must Live With – Part 3

Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully wrote in his narrative work, Old Path White Clouds:

Gautama entered even more deeply into meditation. He saw how countless worlds arose and fell, were created and destroyed. He saw how countless beings pass through countless births and death. He saw that these births and deaths were but outward appearances and not true reality, just as millions of waves rise and fall incessantly on the surface of the sea, while the sea itself is beyond birth and death. If the waves understood that they themselves were water, they would transcend birth and death and alive at true inner peace, overcoming all fear. This realization enabled Gautama to transcend the net of birth and death, and he smiled.(1)

If you are like me, you exclude the whole reincarnation bit in whatever form it may be (2). But the key here is that everything is passing away and so much new is coming to be.
Impermanence. Everything is constantly changing. Take a look at pictures from a decade ago – do you really think that you are that same person? If you do, not much has changed in your life. I barely feel connected to that ‘me’ because so much has changed. When you see the face of an old lover and realize that they no longer look like the person you remember. When you step out of bed and feel a kink in your back every morning and know that your body is wearing out. This is you changing.
Love changes. How many people fall out of love because of whatever reason? It’s idiotic to assume that love is that intoxicating rush into another’s arms to explore feelings that are unique to that particular relationship. Once every area in that relationship has been explored, then what? It must evolve or die.
Tastes change. Today, I could hardly listen to the teenage angst screamo music of my high school years. I now enjoy the flavors of wasabi and ginger, whereas a decade ago I was limited to ketchup and honey mustard exclusively.
Goals in life change. Beliefs change. Purpose changes as well.
Now all of this us back to the absurd – to the nihilistic pangs of existence. But look closer at impermanence.
The pain from the lost of a loved one – by heartbreak or death – starts to fade away with time. How could you go on with that pain as strong as ever? Addiction makes way for new habits with continuous effort and restructuring. A child grows into a beautiful adult. A seed turns to wheat and turns to bread and so on.
Impermanence, even though it makes everything seem pointless, allows life to continue. Desire glues us to the past, to what we cannot have, to what is also fading. How many ghosts have we chased to realize that the memory of a loved one is just that – a memory, a fading one at that. A seeming paradox arises – if nothing means anything, everything means everything. How much money would you pay for one breath? Not much unless it was your final one.
Value comes from the relations between subjects and objects. Subjects are always changing; objects are always changing; and relations between them are always changing. Why try to hold on to water? Let it go and smile at it falling from your hand. Sit and watch your child play. Love because the moment feels right. If you use your head too much, you’ll become to attached to your ideas and constructed identity. Live in the moment and experience freedom.
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(1) Thich Nhat Hanh. Old Path White Clouds. Paralax Press, 1991. pg. 157.
(2) Unless you have seen Jupiter Rising, in which case you could say there is a practical element to the idea as a genetic or atomic structuralism.