Faith, Hope, Metta

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Asia, Religion

Although — for reasons I went on and on about in the Wisdom of Doubt series — I object to using the words faith and religion as synonyms, I still liked this op ed by Sam Leith in The Telegraph — “The power of faith against the bullet.”

This – these monks staring down the guns – presents a problem for a militant secularist in the Dawkins or Hitchens mould. I don’t mean that it has any bearing on the argument about whether there is or is not a God. Buddhist monks don’t worship anything resembling the God on whom the Dawkins guns are trained in any case; and the fact that they stare down the guns doesn’t make a difference to whether or not what they believe is true.

BTW, this week, while much of the world’s attention was riveted on the monks of Burma, the great blowhard Christopher Hitchens appeared at the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” site, ranting about “The Subtle, Lethal Poison of Religion.”

So much for Hitchens. Here’s more Leith:

But stare down those guns they do – and their behaviour does have a strong bearing on the question of whether religious belief “poisons everything”, as Hitchens puts it. I’d submit, as an irreligious bystander, that one of the things that helps those monks hold the line is faith. The form that their resistance takes is shaped by that faith – and it is uniquely powerful.

The monks’ action is a demonstration of faith, but not belief. In religion — including Christianity, IMO — belief and faith are two different things, although this is a point lost on fundies and atheists alike.

They can’t be written off as “terrorists” or “communists”. They are not a rival faction seeking power. They can’t be co-opted into a fight. That is their strength against a regime that has only repressive force at its disposal.

If someone’s shooting at you, or throwing rocks at you, it’s not very long before the rights and wrongs of the original dispute get entirely lost amid the fighting. But if someone’s sitting patiently in the street, unarmed, daring you to shoot him dead … One of the reports from Burma has soldiers in tears. Early reports also suggested that more shots have been fired into the air than into the crowds.

In Burma, and in much of southeast Asia, it is customary for a young man to spend at least a few months as a monk before taking up his adult activities as a husband, father, and worker. It’s probable some of those soldiers have been monks themselves. I believe there was some hope soldiers would switch sides and join the monks, but I haven’t heard this has happened.

But what does this say about the nexus of political power and moral authority? They can’t be written off as “terrorists” or “communists”. They are not a rival faction seeking power. They can’t be co-opted into a fight. Religionists in America have waged an all-out campaign to get political power, and along the way they’ve proved themselves to be as morally frail and corruptible as any other human, “believer” or not. The monks of Burma renunciate power, and that renunciation is the source of their power.

That renunciation is also true religious faith. Religionists who seek political power in order to carry out some doctrinal agenda are demonstrating their own faithlessness.

I am encouraged by the fact that many of these soldiers will themselves be Buddhists; that they are facing crowds of fellow citizens who are also Buddhists; and that they know those fellow citizens are also prepared to take a bullet for their basic freedoms.

That reminds me of a Zen story, although a relatively modern one, taking place when the Japanese were overrunning Korea in the 1930s. Japanese soldiers entered a Korean Zen monastery and found most of the monks gone. But the abbot remained, sitting like an iron lotus in the zendo. The officer in charge drew his sword, walked up to the abbot, and said, “I could run you through without blinking an eye!” The abbot roared back, “I can be run through without blinking an eye!” The soldiers left the old man alone. I believe that really happened.

That suggests that a tipping point might be reached. It suggests that – as Patti Smith puts it – they might “get ’em like Gandhi; get ’em with the numbers”. Small flowers crack concrete.

Here’s the bad news — the tipping point may be postponed. The Buddhist Channel reports that monks are locked into their monasteries.

Thousands of monks had provided the backbone of the protests, but they were besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire surrounding the compounds in the two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Troops stood guard outside and blocked nearby roads to keep the clergymen isolated.

The monks remained inside their monasteries late Saturday morning (Sept 29) with troops remaining on guard outside and blocking nearby roads. The streets of the two Yangon and Mandalay were quiet.

Many Yangon residents seemed pessimistic over the crackdown, fearing it fatally weakened a movement that began nearly six weeks ago as small protests over fuel price hikes and grew into demonstrations by tens of thousands demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.

The corralling of monks was a serious blow. They carry high moral authority in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million people and the protests had mushroomed when the clergymen joined in.

“The monks are the ones who give us courage. I don’t think that we have any more hope to win,” said a young woman who had taken part in a huge demonstration Thursday that broke up when troops shot protesters. She said she had not seen her boyfriend and feared he was arrested.

The monks themselves have not given up hope.

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most important Buddhist temple, about 300 armed policemen and soldiers sat around the compound eating snacks while keeping an eye on the monks.

“I’m not afraid of the soldiers. We live and then we die,” said one monk. “We will win this time because the international community is putting a lot of pressure.”

Condemnation of the junta has been strong around the world. On Friday, people protested outside Myanmar embassies in Australia, Britain, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.

The Tao Teh Ching says nothing is softer or weaker than water, yet water wears down what is hard and strong. Whatever happens in the next few days, the monks of Burma will, eventually, prevail.

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22 Comments

21 Comments

  1. felicity  •  Sep 29, 2007 @12:19 pm

    The blather of Hitchens isn’t worth agitating one’s little white cells over.

    It is very odd how ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ are used as synonyms. Religion we create. Faith we can’t create. How is it possible to equate the two?

  2. SamFromUtah  •  Sep 29, 2007 @1:11 pm

    Thank you for this excellent series. It’s been fascinating reading, and the distinctions among faith, religion, and belief have long been important to me.

    The monks’ moral courage is very impressive.

    Slightly OT – do the Myanmar Buddhists consider soldiering to be a tolerable profession? I seem to remember hearing that different branches of Buddhism viewed that differently.

  3. maha  •  Sep 29, 2007 @1:34 pm

    do the Myanmar Buddhists consider soldiering to be a tolerable profession?

    I honestly don’t know.

  4. wplasvegas  •  Sep 29, 2007 @2:05 pm

    I have heard that Zen story several times but attributed to earlier eras, one even citing the two participants as being none other than Bodhidharma and Genghis Khan (a true miracle since they lived six hundred years apart). In them the operative line was usually, “I can slay you and not even care,” and the reply was, “I can be slain and not even care.” The story may be apocryphal but the sentiment is so quintessentially Zen I believe it to be true as there have certainly been enough opportunities for such an encounter during the last millennia.

    Here’s one from Vietnam told to me by a friend who claimed to be a participant:

    My friend said he and two buddies set up a claymore booby-trap along a trail to see what they could catch. Sure enough, a few hours later some thirty or fort Viet-Cong came trotting down the trail. In the middle of the column was a Buddhist monk in his saffron robe chanting in time to their pace. The soldiers set off the claymores and when the smoke cleared, there was the monk standing stock still, unscathed in the midst of the carnage, all of the Cong soldiers ripped and dead. The monk looked at the death in front of him, then at the death behind him, then picking up his chant, trotted off down the trail. SOP would have been to shoot the monk too, since it was a combat group, but the Americans were too amazed to shoot at him. Afterwards they admitted that they were glad they didn’t and praised the monk for his coolness under fire.

    Perhaps soldiers and monks have more in common than we think, since they are both highly aware that every action has its consequences, and they know what it means to have fate intervene.

  5. just my 2 cents  •  Sep 29, 2007 @3:24 pm

    as my Lama loves to point out, theres a vast different between blind faith and intelligent faith
    the monks and soldiers have nothing in common with each other– monks understand and trust the law of karma– their faith is based logic and reason; soldiers — I don’t think so

  6. No More Mr. Nice Guy!  •  Sep 29, 2007 @4:46 pm

    Hitchens loves to push religious people’s buttons, and they fall for it every time. I would not be so bold as to claim that religion poisons everything, but he does make some good points and can not be dismissed out of hand. I would like to see Maha’s response to his challenge: “Can they name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever?” (Provided it is a substantive response and not “I ain’t your monkey.”)

  7. maha  •  Sep 29, 2007 @4:53 pm

    I would like to see Maha’s response to his challenge: “Can they name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever?” (Provided it is a substantive response and not “I ain’t your monkey.”)

    For my part it’s a straw-man question. I do not think, and have never said, that religion has any special claims on morality. The notion that the central purpose of religion is to make people behave, while popular, is wrong-headed and a fundamental misunderstanding of what religion is.

    That said, I would point out that the great nonviolent resistance movements of our age have mostly been led by religious people. However, I would hesitate to say that only a religious person could lead such a movement.

  8. Jeb  •  Sep 29, 2007 @7:05 pm

    It’s Burma, not myanmar. It’s United States of America, not homeland security agency.

  9. Clavis  •  Oct 1, 2007 @2:48 pm

    I don’t see why support for the monks in Burma needs to turn into yet another atheist-bashing session. “Oh, yes, those atheists are the worst — they’re so shrill and fundamentalist!”

    Are the monks engaged in nonviolent protest because they believe a magical being or force demands it, or because such actions fit with their philosophical standards?

    In other words, if you adopt a spiritual philosophy of behavior that demands certain actions in certain circumstances, what does that have to do with “religion”, except in the most diffuse definition of “religion”?

    Don’t mistake strong words in the service of truth and knowledge for strong words said out of hatred or prejudice.

  10. Clavis  •  Oct 1, 2007 @2:53 pm

    And Christopher Hitchens’ line —

    “Can they name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever?”

    — has always been intended as a response to people who *do* assert that our morality comes from religion. And far from being a “straw-man”, this is essentially an inevitable defense/attack from religious representatives. Your average American Presidential candidate usually pays some lip services, for example, at least once in his campaign, to the notion that Christianity (or, more politically, “his/my ‘faith'”) is a/the source of moral principles and guidance.

    Anyone who thinks this assertion — that religion is the only source of morality — is a straw-man has clearly not listened to, watched or read about the debates and public statements on this subject.

  11. maha  •  Oct 1, 2007 @3:07 pm

    Anyone who thinks this assertion — that religion is the only source of morality — is a straw-man has clearly not listened to, watched or read about the debates and public statements on this subject.

    Any who who thinks I haven’t listened to, watched or read about the debates and public statements on this subject hasn’t read this blog before. I have addressed this directly many times, such as here.

    Also, dear, I never bash atheists per se; only idiots. And Christopher Hitchens.

  12. Clavis  •  Oct 1, 2007 @3:37 pm

    Okay, I think I see the confusion:

    Someone wondered aloud what you, Maha, would say in response to Christopher Hitchens’ ‘riddle’. You said it was a straw-man because you didn’t feel that way. I mistook your statement to mean that Hitchens’ question was a straw-man in general, when, by the example you give in your link (Ratzinger, the f’in Pope!), it clearly isn’t. I’m glad to hear you don’t think morality has to come from religion. I’m also glad to hear you recognize how many people *do* think that — that was my point, anyway.

    The idea, even, that *most* benevolent movement leaders were religious is, to me, yet another consequence of the phenomenon in which social forces prevented the ascension and independence of atheistic or naturalist spiritual, intellectual and populist movements for thousands of years. Hell, even token lip service toward agnosticism was enough to get you blacklisted, excommunicated or worse for a long, long time. Is it any wonder that atheists don’t own a city/country the way Catholics do?

  13. maha  •  Oct 1, 2007 @3:54 pm

    You said it was a straw-man because you didn’t feel that way. I mistook your statement to mean that Hitchens’ question was a straw-man in general, when, by the example you give in your link (Ratzinger, the f’in Pope!), it clearly isn’t.

    The argument that religion is good because it makes people behave is a kind of post hoc apology that has been kicked around for the past three centuries or so, basically since the legitimacy of religion was challenged by people like Hobbes. However, I do not think that enforcing morality is the principal point of religion. Therefore, whether religion does or does not make people more “moral” is irrelevant to whether religion has value or legitimacy.

  14. Clavis  •  Oct 1, 2007 @4:23 pm

    Interesting choice of words. I would suggest that, as a human phenomenon that has arisen irrespective of any individual human’s wishes or intentions, religion cannot have a principal “point”, anymore than the letter “Z” can have a point.

  15. maha  •  Oct 1, 2007 @5:35 pm

    Irrespective of any individual human’s wishes or intentions? I’d say a lot of religion arises from wishes and intentions.

    I’d say the principal point is what Paul Tillich called the “ultimate concern” of being and non-being, but right now I don’t have the time or strength to go into explanations.

  16. Gil  •  Oct 2, 2007 @5:43 am

    “…belief and faith are two different things, although this is a point lost on fundies and atheists alike”.

    What the point actually is seems beside the point considering both are expressions of a personality given over to magical thinking.

    “Feel the Force, Luke”.

  17. maha  •  Oct 2, 2007 @7:07 am

    What the point actually is seems beside the point considering both are expressions of a personality given over to magical thinking.

    Genuine religious faith does not require believing in anything supernatural.

  18. Gil  •  Oct 2, 2007 @7:32 pm

    “Genuine religious faith does not require believing in anything supernatural”.

    And which “genuine” religious faith would that apply to?

  19. maha  •  Oct 2, 2007 @10:06 pm

    And which “genuine” religious faith would that apply to?

    If this subject actually interests you, please read the “Wisdom of Doubt” series, and then if you have questions we can discuss. If this subject doesn’t actually interest you, then let’s not waste each others’ time.

  20. Gil  •  Oct 3, 2007 @1:25 pm

    I simply don’t understand how you can, in one post, take great pride in disproving a premise with applied mathematics, and then turn 180 degrees and argue a proposition employing wholly subjective variables (faith, belief, spirtuality) which cannot form the basis of a testable theory.

    IDers operate that way. It’s dissonant to me.

    By the way, I went and read the first part of the series. Taken on face value, the one glaring omission I would cite is that with all that mention about faith, faith, faith, you never actually provide a definition of what faith is or is supposed to be, what it does or what it’s supposed to do—apart from being posited as the inverse of doubt.

    Which only left me with another question before I even got to the 3rd paragraph: doubt about what impels faith in what?

    What’s the first proposition? Does that come later in the series, because, yes, I’m not interested in reading an author who combats dissonance with just more dissonance. They don’t cancel one another out.

  21. maha  •  Oct 3, 2007 @3:07 pm

    Which only left me with another question before I even got to the 3rd paragraph: doubt about what impels faith in what?

    It’s a difficult concept to get across, particularly when people are stuck in the notion that faith is “believing in” some supernatural characters or events or epistemic state. And certainly, with some people that’s exactly what it is. But in most religions, including much Christian theology throughout the ages, beliefs aren’t the main point.

    The Christian theologian Paul Tillich defined “faith” as the state of being ultimately concerned. “Faith is a total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern.” If the ultimate concern is centered outside the self, such as in some supernatural creature or object, that’s a basic definition of idolatry, he said. A lot of that going around. The nature of the “ultimate concern” is something you have to work out for yourself, but usually we’re talking about the big ticket items like being and nonbeing, birth and death, time and matter, self and other.

    For example, if you understand your existence as finite and you are OK with that, and accept mortality with full and centered presence of mind, that’s an act of faith. You don’t have to believe anything in particular, except that you’re going to die. If, on the other hand, you tend to shove death out of the center of your concern and avoid thinking about it, that’s not faith.

    What’s the first proposition?

    I don’t do propositions. Beliefs don’t interest me, except as an observable phenomenon — e.g., all the damnfool stuff people believe.

    Now, I don’t have time for private tutoring. I understand you may not be interested in slogging through the whole Wisdom of Doubt series, but I hope you see it’s rather an imposition to expect me to take the time to re-explain it all to you.

    The last two posts in the series might speak to your questions a little more directly.

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