Sunday, October 27, 2013

Debate Tip #7: Sum It Up

I think that one of the most frustrating things about any communication is when it appears that the person you are talking to does not have a clue of what you just said.  At the same level of annoyance is when that person does not appear to even have considered what you've said.  It is a fundamental sign of respect to illustrate that you have understood what you have been told and considered it, even if you disagree with it.

Show that respect.  The more respect you provide your opponent, the more likely they are to show respect to you, and actually consider what you are saying.

So, when your opponent states a position one way or another, take a moment to summarize what your opponent just said in the reply.  This helps to ensure that you actually know what your opponent meant, because he or she will have the chance to correct you.  It also demonstrates to them that you have actually considered their words.

Then proceed to rip their position to shreds with countering facts... doing so in a respectful manner, of course.  ;-)

You don't have to do this with every reply.  Just do so as it feels necessary.  Once you have done this on your own two or three times, you will be in a better position to ask them to do the same for you, if they haven't already picked up the trend of doing so.

If they appear to be completely ignoring your points, just kindly say something like "I am not sure that you fully understand my position.  Would you mind summarizing my point(s) and elaborating on why you object to them?"  Through this act, they will be forced to reconsider your position, or, alternately, you will be able to see where their misunderstanding/mental impediment is in understanding you.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

HfM:Ch5 The Threefold Training

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 5: The Threefold Training here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 5: The Threefold Training

You can eliminate dukkha through the Threefold Training.  (Dukkha is an all-inclusive sense of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, defined in Chapter 2.)  The three steps are:
  1. Morality - Controlling your actions and speech to promote peace and harmony, and to avoid undesirable effects.
  2. Concentration - Constraining the mind such that it is fit to do its work.
  3. Wisdom -  Developing the complete understanding (insight) of the true nature of things.
The "understanding" should not be thought of in the sense of either rational cognition or a conceptualization relative to each individual's experience.  Instead, it is a status of penetrating and intuitive-level wisdom, such that all things are inherently considered for what they truly are without any sense of enchantment, attachment, or bias whatsoever.

An intellectual understanding only provides the means to evaluate each desire as it comes; reasoning through the Three Universal Characteristics to become disenchanted.  However, with genuine insight, disenchantment has replaced desire at the most fundamental level, such that desire never arises.

Training in morality provides a foundation for gaining insight, because a moral mindset provides stability and limits perturbations.

Training in concentration is similar to training in morality, but instead of controlling your speech and actions, the goal is to control the mind.  "Good behavior" for the mind is unwavering, undistracted, deep concentration.  When successfully trained, this level of mind control is accompanied by other special abilities and benefits which are far outside the realm of what comes with naturally occurring or normally developed concentration.  To achieve this level of concentration requires endurance of hardships and intense training.

Training on concentration is even more relevant today than back in the time of Buddha, given the pace of our modern lives and our many distractions.  Such concentration will make all of our efforts more effective.

With the mind concentrated, we are prepared to see things the way they really are.  Often, the answer to a problem exists within our subconscious, but as long as we actively try to solve the problem, the answer will not come because the mind is not fit for its work.  Once the mind is concentrated, that subconscious solution becomes readily available.  Or, if there was no subconscious answer present, concentrated introspection will put us in the right mode to examine the problem and arrive at the solution.  The Buddha was in such a concentrated state before becoming enlightened to the true nature of things.

Solutions come when the mind is calm, undisturbed, and well concentrated.  Insight and concentration build off of each other, such that with better concentration, you will have better insight, and with better insight (particularly in understanding the way the mind works) you will have better concentration.

Buddhist wisdom (insight) is the ability to clearly see the reality of everything around you, and with that insight naturally comes detachment.  Outwardly we would appear to behave somewhat normally with things, but inwardly we would be independent and free from the bondage of desiring things we like.

Things we dislike also cause enslavement if we can't remain unmoved by them.  The emotional response to either liking or disliking causes us to be slaves to those things, because we will act according to our desires.  However, through insight, we can be freed and purified from the influence of things.  Freed of that bondage, we will have blissful enlightenment.

Buddhist wisdom gives us the ability to break the shackles of the Four Kinds of Attachment.  Examine the truth of this for yourself.

Buddhism conflicts with no other religion, and yet it is superlative to all others in its ability to eliminate all forms of attachment, completely liberating individuals from the bondage of things and beings such that the individual becomes completely self-reliant.

Buddhism is the universal religion because it deals with the fundamental problem which every being experiences:  it demonstrates how to eliminate dukkha, which is caused by our desires.

My Take

In my opinion, moral behavior is really the foundation for becoming a better person.  No duh, right?!?!  Well, hold on a minute.

I don't mean better as in good or righteous, but better as in a more complete person.  If acting morally becomes intuitive to you, that frees your mind, body, and other resources up even more to do the positive things that you want to do; like study, teach, mentor, volunteer, explore, create, etc.  These are the types of enriching activities which truly make life worthwhile.

In contrast, struggling with moral choices or acting immoral on a regular basis constrains your resources, and, depending on the types of actions, possibly puts you at risk for seriously negative outcomes, such as prison, or even death.

So I can understand the morality-as-a-foundation teaching.

The concentration aspect in this chapter is particularly interesting, because, in most of the book, the difficulties in achieving the "right" level of concentration are somewhat glossed over.  Briefly Buddhadasa mentions having to undergo various hardships during concentration training.  This conjures up one of the classic images of Buddhist rites of passage (at least, classic in my eyes); that of the Monk attempting to meditate while being pummeled by a frigid, two-hundred foot tall waterfall.

I can see the benefit of that kind of training rigor; the if-you-can-focus-here-you-can-focus-anywhere endurance test.  The natural translation is that such training prepares you for any situation.

Yet that seems a little extreme, make that very extreme, for people like me who are trying to gleam the most practical teachings from Buddhism.  I don't think that level of training necessary for us, and, given that Buddhadasa mentions it almost in passing here and all but calls it unnecessary elsewhere in this book, I wonder if he would have felt the same way in general.  But then, I am pretty sure I know how Buddhadasa would feel about me just selectively picking teachings!

So I can certainly see how concentration is necessary for insight.  I just don't think that much concentration is necessary for some benefit.  In fact, in a couple chapters, we'll discuss that idea in greater detail.

On a final note, it was interesting to see Buddhadasa close out the chapter in a fundamentalist/apologist manner, claiming Buddhism to the be universal religion, and better than all others.  Within the confines of Buddhist thought, I can definitely see his point.  But in the grand marketplace of ideas, philosophies, and religions, I'm not so sure that holds up.  Each major religion, from the confines of their doctrinal thought, appears to be the best for the world.  ;-)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Debate Tip #6: Choose Wisely

The wise prevail through great power,
    and those who have knowledge muster their strength.
Surely you need guidance to wage war,
    and victory is won through many advisers. NIV Proverbs 24:5-6

In any one theological debate that you've got the chance to effectively make only one or two points which will leave any kind of lasting impact.  Make that impact matter.  At least, do so whenever you can.  I know, you can't always choose the debate topic, but sometimes you can steer the conversation to something of more substance.

Don't debate a simple Scriptural contradiction.  Nearly every time, those contradictions can be rationalized away.  And if they can't, they'll just be ignored.

I advise against a debate about evolution (unless you're trying to defend teaching it in school!).  For faithful believers who don't believe in evolution, their belief in the Bible is founded on other stuff.  In other words, they believe in Creationism because it aligns with the Bible, not the other way around.  They will surely take God's word over yours!

For the same reason as for evolution, I would advise not debating about whether or not a god exists in general, because their god is not a god, but rather the God.

It comes down to this:  It doesn't matter if evolution is true or if a god exists.  It does matter if the Bible is true and if God exists.  At least, that is the perspective of those who put their faith in that least-read-best-selling Book.

So I would advise that, if you can, you center the debate around God and the Bible.  Not loosely though.  Feel out your opponent.  Get a sense of their core beliefs.  Then pick one or two and demonstrate to them how God or the Bible is not what they perceive it to be on those specific points.  Let other "advisers" argue other points to them, or simply save them for a later debate.

Of course, that does require some strength in Scriptures to do so, but I've made that a little easier for you.  ;-)

Maybe you, like most Christians ;-), have no interest in deeply studying Scripture, but you love evolution or the philosophical realm of knowing how to know if a god exists or doesn't.  That's fine.  Argue your strengths.  But know that 1) your impact on their faith is likely limited, and 2) a similar strategy of trying to find the core for their beliefs, and addressing them specifically, will probably be the most effective strategy as well.

At least, that is my perspective based on my experience in deconversion.  Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

HfM:Ch4 The Power of Attachment

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 4: The Power of Attachment (Grasping and Clinging) here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 4: The Power of Attachment

In order to be liberated from all things, we must understand what causes our desires.  Our desires are the result of four kinds of clinging attachment:

  1. Sensual Attachment - From birth, we instinctively cling to what is pleasurable to see, touch, taste, hear, smell, or mentally envision.  Our sensual desires are only reinforced with time, becoming obstacles to acting appropriately.  All dereliction can be traced to this sensual clinging.  All of our motivation, be it positive or negative, originates from sensuality.  In turn, we can see then that all the trouble and chaos in the world has a foundation in sensuality.  And so sensual desires must be kept under some control to be good people, and must be completely eliminated to be free of dukkha.(Dukkha is an all-inclusive sense of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, defined in Chapter 2.)

  2. Attachment to Opinions - Stubbornly clinging to our own opinions is just as dangerous as sensual desires, as they can delude us from the truth.  We must work diligently to refine and correct our opinions to better align with the truth.  The most problematic form of opinions are those which are systematically supported, such as by religion or cultural tradition.  We must come to realize that our views are based on incomplete knowledge or ignorance, and further realize our own tendencies of not wanting to admit we are wrong and of rejecting truths which counter our opinions.  These tendencies are a real threat towards progressing in the knowledge of the true nature of things.

  3. Attachment to Rites and Rituals - Traditions and their associated beliefs are usually passed down from generation to generation without any thought.  Ceremonies, magical objects, homage to spirits, angels, and celestial beings, etc.  These things are commonly held as sacred, but are completely irrational.  Buddhists should be free of such things, but there are those who practice Buddhist teachings without understanding their original intent, resulting in errant views and magical thinking.  These errant "Buddhist" mindlessly follow the traditions and practices expecting it to yield status, power, and influence.  We must be sure to practice with proper understanding, or else our effort will be wasted.

  4. Attachment to the Idea of Self - At some level, belief in the self is a primal instinct observable even beyond our species, as seen in the drives to eat, avoid danger, procreate, etc.  These are drives to preserve and perpetuate the individual idea of "self", and they are needed for species survival.  Yet these drives, these desires are inherently a source of dukkha as we grasp at or cling to these goals of self preservation. It is from this perspective that the Buddha simply and profoundly summarized that life is dukkha, dukkha is life (usually translated as "life is suffering, suffering is life").  This understanding, unique to Buddhism, puts us in the position to completely eliminate dukkha.

    In order to eliminate attachment, we must recognize when it is present.  The concept of self, the basis for life, is instinctive, and so attachment to it is inevitable.  However, through employing Buddhist principles, that attachment can be curbed, and even eliminated.  The dukkha we experience will be reduced in proportion to how well we understand the truth of the self.

Understanding the nature of these four types of attachments reveals the sources of our enslavement to things.  Such understanding reveals the inherent danger in things; how our attachments drive us to inappropriate actions.  Employing Buddhist principles will help us do away with unskilful grasping and clinging.  Followed through, this insight liberates us from things and eliminates dukkha.  We'll be able to work and live in a state of peaceful equanimity.

The key to Buddhism is to develop "the mind free from attachment".  Freedom from attachment liberates us from the world of things which enslave us.  Such a mind is freed from the cycle of birth and death, freed from things, and has transcended the world.

My Take

Reading through to this point, it had become clear that Buddhadasa was not saying that dukkha was continuous and perpetual; an idea that I would find inconsistent with reality.  Rather, dukkha had discrete causes, just as our desires at any given moment are particular and discrete.

Taking a look at yourself, and how you handle sensuality, your opinions, and rites and rituals can be incredibly revealing.  I can say from personal experience that by going through a period of introspection, especially after acting in a way that you are not exactly proud of, you can identify your motivations, your strengths, your weaknesses, your triggers, etc.  Knowing these things about yourself helps you change your behavior for the better each time you bring these things to mind.

You weren't born with an instruction manual.  You have to invest some effort to understand how you work.

(Apparently, in this regard, I've been on a Buddhist path for quite some time already!  Although, I am a bit inconsistent about my "practice".)

The attachment to the idea of self was a little odd to me.  On one hand, self is necessary for life.  On the other, preservation of self causes dukkha.  It almost seemed like Buddhadasa was advocating suicide here.  In way, he was; the killing of your self.  This concept would become more clear as the book progressed, particularly in Chapter 6, and it was far from suicide.

On a final note, Buddhadasa briefly mentioned that with enlightenment would come an end to the cycle of birth and death; an end of reincarnation.  The idea there being that the mind, under the clinging influences of these attachments, re-installs itself into a birth upon its death, but an enlightened mind would let go of life completely at death, and thus not be drive itself to be reborn.  This is only one version of reincarnation out of many you'll find in Eastern religions, and one Eastern concept that I don't hold much stock in.  Until better evidence is exhibited, I reject the notion of reincarnation.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Debate Tip #5: It's Not About the Facts

How much better to get wisdom than gold,
    to get insight rather than silver! NIV Proverbs 16:16
Facts are critical to developing a right understanding of the world around us, but they don't always have much to do with our beliefs.  That is especially true with complex systems of belief such as religious faith.

Of course, that makes it rather difficult to have a meaningful, fact-based debate!

Beliefs serve various purposes, as well as truly creating a world view, even if that world view is false!.

Beliefs may comfort in moments of distress, provide a fundamental aspect of identity, provide direction and hope for the future, etc.

The world view constructed by beliefs may see the world as something rightfully under the dominion of man, conjure up images of invisible forces at work behind the scenes, paint any opposing voice as an instrument of Satan, etc.

So when you are in a debate, you should be sensitive to clues in your opponent's language which give away how their beliefs may be meeting deep-seated needs that they have, and how their world view is preventing them from seeing the world as it really is.  This is their foundation.

If you happen to detect aspects of their foundation, it is probably best to discontinue the debate on whatever you were talking about, and instead probe those beliefs more deeply.  Change is most probable when those foundational beliefs are affected.  On the other hand, correcting some other errant ancillary belief is not likely to alter their perspective much at all.

For example, though not engaged in a real debate, a recent commenter on the My Angle post by the name "BB" made this comment (edited for clarity):

"Atheists believe that life is simply random, and completely up to chance... If this is their truth, I pose the question; what's the meaning and purpose in life?"

If you see a comment like this, where there is a fundamental misunderstanding of life, either of the theist or atheist perspective, stop the debate about whatever topic and center on this misunderstanding.  In this case, BB misunderstood what actually provides meaning and purpose in life, which is a pretty big gaff!

Gently, but firmly, enlighten your opponent on a different perspective; you know, like the perspective that actually matches reality!  ;-)  The better they can understand the viewpoints of other people, the more likely you are going to be successful in changing their minds in the long run.  So it is worth ditching everything else in the debate just to show them that their foundational thinking is build on sand.  :-)