If you spend any amount of time reading books on Buddhism, or hanging out with Buddhists, you’re likely to encounter the mysterious idea known as the “doctrine of emptiness”. I’ve never understood it, yet always liked it, probably because I’m perversely drawn to how bleakly depressing it sounds. (Buddhism is full of this downbeat stuff: for example, did you know that reincarnation, traditionally, was seen a bad thing? The goal of meditation was to stop yourself being reborn next time. It’s less a religion of smiles and flowers, more a death cult.) According to the doctrine of emptiness, all existence is, in some sense, empty. I still don’t totally understand what that means. But I’m a lot closer thanks to Robert Wright’s superb, level-headed new book Why Buddhism Is True. And the answer, it turns out, isn’t even very depressing: it could be a much-needed antidote to our increasingly angry times.
Tag Archives: Religion
Can Christians stay in the Middle East now that they are being persecuted for their ancient religion?
So there I was this week, staring at a picture of the Virgin Mary, painted at Melitene (now Malatya in present-day Turkey), its real home in Damascus – since it belongs to the Syriac Patriarchate, but is currently kept in Lebanon because of the war – and stunned at Mary’s deeply embroidered cloak (black and blue) and the brassy shine of her golden halo. And I noticed the date. 1065. Harold had yet a year to live before his death at the Battle of Hastings. We survived the Normans. But will Christians survive the Middle East?
Every night as dusk falls in Piazza Gastone in the Noce district of Palermo, a tall, imposing Ghanaian woman dressed in traditional west African robes stands before a small congregation sweating in rows of plastic chairs before her.The Pentecostal Church of Odasani has been converted from an old garage in a backstreet into a place of worship, albeit one unrecognised by any formal faith group. But what many of the congregation – largely young Nigerian women – have come for tonight is more than prayer; it is freedom.“Nigerian women come to me for help, they have bad spirits that have been put inside their bodies by people who want to make money from them,” says the self-proclaimed prophetess, as she prepares to start her service.
No diré que no tengo miedo, porque lo tengo.No diré que no tengo rabia, porque la tengo.No diré que no me siento impotente, porque así me siento.No diré que no estoy triste, porque desde el jueves estoy muy triste.¿Y saben qué otras cosa no haré? Hablar de religión, de civilización, de “nuestros” valores, de libertad y convivencia. Y lo que no voy a hacer de ningún modo es hablar de los peligros de la islamofobia. Con los cuerpos de las víctimas aún calientes no entraré en esto, no dejaré que la paranoia que ellos mismos han sembrado me haga trazar una línea inexistente, una separación que ya he borrado desde hace tiempo entre ‘nosotros’ y ‘vosotros’. Los terroristas forman un ‘nosotros’ suyo hecho de odio y muerte. Mi ‘nosotros’ es el de la persona y no van a conseguir que, de nuevo, empiece a fijarme en los rostros de quienes me rodean para averiguar si me miran de un modo distinto. Porque hay dos tipos de personas: los que rechazan y los que no, y a los primeros no les hacen falta terroristas para justificar sus posiciones. Ahora sacan toda la bilis porque tienen la oportunidad y se sienten legitimados, pero no se equivoquen, son los mismos de siempre.
Christian conservatives don’t support Donald Trump despite his vulgarity – they support him because of it
How to account for the strange fact that Donald Trump, a lewd and morally destitute person, the very opposite of Christian decency, can function as the chosen hero of the Christian conservatives? The explanation one usually hears is that, while Christian conservatives are well aware of the problematic character of Trump’s personality, they have chosen to ignore this side of things since what really matters to them is Trump’s agenda, especially his anti-abortion stance.
If he succeeds in naming conservative new members of the Supreme Court, which will then overturn Roe v Wade, then this act will obliterate all his sins, it seems. But are things as simple as that? What if the very duality of Trump’s personality – his high moral stance accompanied by personal lewdness and vulgarities – is what makes him attractive to Christian conservatives? What if they secretly identify with this very duality?
I first read Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. I was living alone in Chicago’s southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the spectre of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass.
At Bible school, I had studied a branch of theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth. We were told we were living in the “Dispensation of Grace”, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the “Millennial Kingdom”, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending towards a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves.
Christians are under attack in the Middle East – and not even a visit from the Pope can convince them to stay
Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, I wrote a story for the front page of what was then The Independent’s Weekend Review. It was headlined: “Exodus: a story of Christians”. It told the tragedy of those people of the faith who were fleeing the lands of the forefathers.
I interviewed the only hermit left in Lebanon, in a cave in the north of the country, and he said to me: “I am the only hermit left in all the Middle East.” His eyes creased in happiness when I acknowledged his unique theological condition. “I will never leave Lebanon,” he said. “No Christian should leave the Holy Land. Those who have left will come back.”
He exuded faith: childlike, passionate, precise, untrammelled by contradiction or facts. And he was wrong.
The recent violence in southern Thailand began on 4 January 2004, when Malay Muslim insurgents invaded a Thai Army depot in the southernmost province of Narathiwat. The next day, after the burning of 20 schools and several bomb attacks in a neighbouring province, the Thai government declared martial law over the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Shortly after, two Buddhist monks were killed during their morning alms, and a third injured. In these provinces, the majority population is Muslim, and Buddhists are a minority. By the summer, journalists and scholars had written articles about the insurgents and the role of Islam in the violence. But since Buddhism was associated with peace, no one thought to investigate the role of Buddhism. How could a Buddhist monk participate in the violence? Yet clearly, Buddhism was involved in the conflict.
This week’s decision by the European court of justice to allow the hijab to be banned in the workplace is yet another sign of the continent’s obsession with how Muslim women dress.
The ruling states that the hijab can be banned only as part of a policy barring all religious and political symbols – and so framed in a way that doesn’t directly target Muslim women. Indeed, the Conference of European Rabbis was outraged, saying that the ruling sent a clear message that Europe’s faith communities were no longer welcome – and a number of religious communities, including Sikhs, will be affected.
Since the dawn of anthropology, sociology and psychology, religion has been an object of fascination. Founding figures such as Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber all attempted to dissect it, taxonomise it, and explore its psychological and social functions. And long before the advent of the modern social sciences, philosophers such as Xenophanes, Lucretius, David Hume and Ludwig Feuerbach have pondered the origins of religion.
In the century since the founding of the social sciences, interest in religion has not waned – but confidence in grand theorising about it has. Few would now endorse Freud’s insistence that the origins of religion are entwined with Oedipal sexual desires towards mothers. Weber’s linkage of a Protestant work ethic and the origins of capitalism might remain influential, but his broader comparisons between the religion and culture of the occidental and oriental worlds are now rightly regarded as historically inaccurate and deeply Euro-centric.