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Example One: Intelligent Design

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It seems that a great contemporary example of the debate between what Berry identifies as the ‘traditional religious worldview’ and science is the debate over evolution and intelligent design. No doubt you are all familiar with the theory of evolution. The theory of ‘intelligent design’ is generally associated with religious adherents, and is the claim that life is too complex to be adequately explained by the process of evolution, and that there must be an ‘intelligent designer’ overseeing the process.

First of all, listen to the following 35 minute Radio Show from National Public Radio on the Evolution/Intelligent Design Debate. Click HERE (Links to an external site.) and then click on the ‘listen’ link to hear it.

This debate still rages in the news. My intention in this module is NOT to enter into this debate. However, I mention it here because it seems that the two ‘sides’ to this debate – the ‘evolution scientists’ versus those (generally religious groups) who support intelligent design almost exactly fit the description of the two camps that Berry criticizes in his article.

Quite apart from the ‘factual correctness’ of the respective views, religious proponents, including those who support intelligent design, claim that evolution science reduces life to blind processes, to just bundles of atoms, and thus strips it of its awe and mystery. In this sense, evolution science has a cultural as well as a scientific legacy. This exemplifies the critique made by Berry of science – that it does not create room for a sense of the numinous.

On the other hand, how do you think that Berry might respond to proponents of intelligent design? Intelligent design does try to locate, if you like, the “presence of the divine” on the earth, by claiming that life shows evidence of a designer. In that sense, perhaps it would escape form Berry’s criticism that some religious beliefs tend to be world-denying, and too focused on redemption. In fact, Berry’s own words have certain echoes of ‘intelligent design theories’: “It is clear that the primordial intention of the universe is to produce variety in all things, from atomic structures to the living world of plant and animal thoughts …” However, there is a difference between attributing an ‘intention’ to the universe and postulating a divine designer. One of the many criticisms of ‘intelligent design’ theories is that they represent a reactionary response to science by the religious community. In the history of science/religion interactions, religious hypotheses have often been used to ‘plug the gaps’ in scientific understanding. When science makes more discoveries, these religious hypotheses are gradually forced to retreat. In the case of the evolution debate, a criticism of intelligent design is that it is just another ‘god-of-the-gaps (Links to an external site.)‘ theory – it identifies problems with the scientific theory of evolution, but instead of giving an empirically-testable hypothesis to plug the gaps, offers an untestable religious claim. In fact, the view that life provides evidence for the existence of a divine designer is a centuries-old theory, known as the Teleological Argument. (Links to an external site.)

So there’s a case here for arguing that Berry would critique the intelligent design proponents for exemplifying the phenomenon ofretreating to old, outdated views or values in the face of new discoveries, instead of working out new and more appropriate narratives for dealing with our contemporary world.

Module 5 Buddhism

Introduction

Welcome to this topic on Buddhism.  This is a two-week module – in other words, you have two weeks to complete your studies of the module. All the of the assignments are due by the end of that period.  Try not to leave it all to the last minute, though, or you will be overwhelmed!

Let’s look again at the chart, below, to get some framework.  Buddhism is described here as an extra-cosmic myth of liberation.

 

So let’s unpack that a little.  Last module we looked at Taoism, which is an intra-cosmic myth of harmony.  Intra-cosmic means that “within the universe”.  As we saw, Taoism’s goal is fundamentally to live peacefully and efficiently in alignment with the forces of the universe.  It does not really address questions about what might exist beyond the universe, or how we might transcend that reality.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism, in contrast, think that our experience of the universe is partial and distorted, and one of the reasons why we suffer is because we don’t see reality clearly. Both allude to a state and condition of liberation, where we are not ‘bound’ by the rules of the universe, rules such as the fact that everything is subject to change and decay.

The liberation part, for Buddhism, is about being free from the suffering inherent in the universe. This is attained by understanding reality correctly, recognizing how our own mental habits and physical actions contribute to our own suffering, and changing our thoughts and actions so that we are no longer creating that suffering.  The fundamental teaching of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, guides people how to do that.

Like Taoism, Buddhism is non-theistic; that is, while it does recognize the existence of gods, it does not see them as essential to our liberation, or as the ultimate reality. In this sense it is very different from monotheistic traditions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  In the chart above, Esposito describes Buddhism as being a form of mysticism. Broadly speaking, mysticism means attaining a non-ordinary state of consciousness when one sees or merges with ultimate reality through acts of contemplation and spiritual practice.

As you’ll see from the timeline image below, Buddhism began approximately around the same time as Taoism.

 

Its founder was the Buddha, who is thought to have been born around 560 BCE, although there is some disagreement about the dates among historians.  ‘Buddha’ is an honorific title and means ‘Awakened One’; it was a title given to him by his followers after his enlightenment.  His given name was Siddhartha Gotama. In this module, we will learn about his life by reading and watching a documentary, then we will explore some key teachings of Buddhism, and briefly learn about the different schools of Buddhism.  As usual, remember that we are just scratching the surface here – as with the other traditions we have looked at, I hope that this will whet your appetite to learn more, and you’ll have a framework to start from.

 

 

Study Notes.  

In this module we’ll look at a documentary about the life of the Buddha, and explore some other supplemental  materials to go with the readings.

First, let’s get a bit of context about Buddhism today.  Take a look at this link from the Pew Research Forum: Five facts about Buddhists around the world. (Links to an external site.) You will see that the number of Buddhists in the world is expected to decline. Most Buddhists in the world are in the Asia-Pacific region.

 

 

In the US, about 1% of the adult population is Buddhists, and two thirds of those are Asian Americans.  The population of Buddhists in the US is expected to rise (Links to an external site.).  Christianity is the most popular religion in the US, but this map below shows the most popular religions by state after Christianity.  You’ll see that Buddhism is pretty popular, especially in the West (and also how Islam has  large following):

 

While considering this data, though, remember that it is complicated by the fact that many people subscribe to Buddhist teachings and philosophies without calling themselves ‘Buddhist’, or they may consider themselves to be, for example, Christian and Buddhist.  Also remember that Buddhists typically don’t try to convert others … all these things mean that people may be practicing Buddhism without it showing up in the data.

 

The life of the Buddha

Please take a look at this documentary, as well as reading  pages 82-119 of The World’s Religions

From your watching and reading, you’re asked in your study questions to think about the insights that the Buddha brought to the human condition, the problem he was trying to solve, and his prescription for doing that. You will explore how he broke with tradition in many ways, rebelling against the status quo.

So what is the ‘really real’ for Buddhism? Remember that in the chart above, Taoism is described as focusing on intra-cosmic harmony, while Buddhism focuses on extra-cosmic harmony.  To clarify what this means, let’s explore a piece of art called the Wheel of Becoming (or Wheel of Life) that illustrates Buddhist teachings. Take a look at this 4 minute clip:

You’ll note from this that, according to the Buddha, all unenlightened beings are enmeshed in this wheel of existence (samsara). You can interpret the different realms as actual realms (i.e. many Buddhists believe in actual rebirth into different existences), or as metaphors for mental states. For example, in one day you can have blissful experiences (the gods realm) or horrifying ones (the hell realm), or ones in between.  Even though life has its high points, it is ultimately unsatisfactory because the good times never last, and suffering is inevitable. The term for this unsatisfactoriness and suffering is dukkha. Everything in cyclic existence, according to the Buddha, is tainted with the three marks of existence; they are impermanent, they are subject to or lead to suffering, and they are not-self (more on this idea later). In other words, the wheel of life is fundamentally afflicted by these three marks, so truly finding harmony within it is impossible (contrast this with Taoism).

The key to liberation is to break out of the cycle, which as you have seen, is driven by the mental poisons of greed (or lust), hatred and ignorance. Others can help train us on this path, but for most forms of Buddhism, it is our ultimately our own perceptions and behaviors that need to change in order to be liberated or enlightened (to reach nirvana) The teachings of Buddhism are the prescription of how to do this. These teachings are referred to as the Dharma, and the community of Buddhism is called the Sangha.  Buddha, dharma and sangha are described as the three jewels of Buddhism, which often show up in Buddhist art:

 

Another thing to notice about the wheel of life is that the realm of the gods is one of the segments.  This demonstrates that for Buddhism, gods are understood to exist, but they, too, are subject to the wheel of existence and are not fully liberated.  For Buddhism, then, gods are not ultimate, even though they exist.

Key Buddhist Teachings

Work you way through both readings and the study notes below. From your readings and watchings, make sure that you have a basic understanding of the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path.

Here’s a brief (1:41) clip with an overview of the Four Noble Truths that may help you consolidate what you have learned:

Notice from this clip that changing the way we see things leads to changes in our actions, ultimately leading us to freedom from suffering, or Nirvana (Nibbana).  The concept of Nirvana is hard (or even impossible) to get our heads around. It’s not a place, but rather what reality looks like to the enlightened mind (see p.75, Novak for some descriptions), and its is free of the three marks of impermanence, not-self and suffering.  Please watch this video below by a well-respected monk in the Zen Buddhism tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh.  In it he describes Nirvana. I think this is helpful because it makes the connection between our suffering and our misapprehension of reality:

Let’s briefly touch on the complicated teaching of not-self (anatta), which Thich Nhat Hanh touches on in this clip. Remember that according to Buddhist teaching, our craving for things to be other than they are is a cause of suffering. Part of the problem is that we are ignorant of the way things really are.  The idea of having a fixed and unchanging self is a symptom of that ignorance.  We think that there is an ‘I’ which we try to defend, but when we look deeply, it’s impossible to see what or where this ‘I’ is.  Our suffering arises from the disconnect from how we think reality is and how it actually is.

Reality is an ever-changing flow of mental and physical events; everything is in a constant state of flux.  Think about Thich Nhat Hanh’s example of the cloud; it is water in a particular formation, but it’s always changing.  When the water in the cloud transforms into a different form, like rain, it doesn’t ‘die’ – it just changes form.  There’s no ‘essence’ to the cloud. In the same way, we humans are a constant flow of ever-changing mental and physical events; there is no part of us that can be described as an unchanging essence.  To people who maintain that they have a ‘soul’ or an ‘essence’, Buddhism might respond: “okay, so where is it? Point to it. What part of you and your experience is always stable and unchanging? If it exists, how come you can’t find it?”

Here are two brief clips that I hope will help to unpack this complex idea. The first (2 minutes) gives you a bit of context, and the second (3 minutes) gets more philosophical. Please take a look at both of them.

If you are finding yourself to be confused at this point, don’t worry!  These teachings challenge the fundamental ways most of us understand reality, so it’s totally normal to feel a bit disoriented and confused! Hopefully this material will give you food for thought as you ponder the question of ‘what is a human being?’ for Buddhism.

The theme of interconnectedness continues in the teaching of the eightfold path – each of the eight elements condition each other.  Our perceptions, our behavior and our mental state all influence each other.  For example, if we are consumed with hatred, we may engage in unethical behavior such as committing acts of violence. The hatred itself comes from a wrong perception – perhaps, for example, from wanting to control what cannot be controlled, or own what isn’t ours (check out the graphic ‘sandcastle’ parable on p.106 of the World’s Wisdom!). The violent behavior has negative internal consequences in terms of unsettling our mental stability and calmness, as well as potential negative experiences, which in turn cause more distress.  Thus we become enmeshed in a negative cycle. Developing the factors of the eightfold path in their positive aspect has the opposite effect, promoting a ‘virtuous cycle’ towards well-being.

 

Types of Buddhism, and Buddhist Scriptures

Another key take-away for this module is an understanding of the different kinds of Buddhism.  All of them feature the four noble truths and the teaching of not-self, but as you will see from the reading, they have different emphases and varying ways of practicing. See the chart below – there are two fundamental types of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.  There is a third branch, Vajrayana (Tibetan), which shares many of the Mahayana teachings.

 

Theravada Buddhism was the earliest form of Buddhism; Mahayana, and then Vajrayana, developed hundreds of years later.  As you’ll learn from your reading, Theravada tends to be more monastic, and puts emphasis on finding liberation by ones owns efforts.  Mahayana has more emphasis on ritual and on other teachers and beings helping us to become enlightened.

The Buddha’s teachings were passed along orally for the first decades after his passing. Eventually a group of monks got together to recite them, and wrote them down.  This earliest form of Buddhist scriptures is called the Pali Canon and has three parts – one, the Vinaya, has rules for monks and nuns, the second, the Suttas, contains stories about the Buddha’s teaching, and the third, the Abhidhamma, is a philosophical analysis of his teachings.  All three branches of Buddhism acknowledge the Pali Canon, but Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions added more texts, teachings and commentaries to their collection of sacred texts.  The Chinese Canon has 80,000 pages!  When you read Novak’s chapter, the extracts in it are picked from a wide selection of these texts, across the different traditions.   If you are interested in learning more about Buddhist scriptures (optional), click here.  (Links to an external site.)

Try to get an understanding of the main differences between the schools of Buddhism. Smith gives a good summary of this in the ‘Big Raft and Little’ section of his chapter.  To supplement your reading, this clip gives an overview of the different kinds of Buddhism:

To round out this module, let’s hear from a practicing Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.  She is ordained in the Tibetan tradition, though she was born and is based in North America.  I’m sharing this with you as I think it helps to tie together many of the concepts we have learned about, giving them a very human face.  It is a 50 minute interview.

 

Congratulations on reaching the end of this module.  Please complete the assignments for this module by June 7.  Remember that for the discussions you need to respond to each other, so please don’t leave it to the last minute to post.

If you’d like to deepen your studies of Buddhism, I am teaching a class in Buddhist Thought (TRELIG 333) either in winter or spring 2021.

 

Total 6 parts. Writing each part respectively. And provide subtitle. Thank you.

Part 1:  200 words

Contemplative reflection

This contemplative exercise is designed to help you cultivate an appreciation of other forms of life, and your interconnectedness with nature.

 

  1. Go outdoors, preferably to a peaceful place where there are trees.
  2. Hone in on a particular large tree that appeals to you. Be sure that it is accessible so that you can lean against it or sit at the base of its trunk.
  3. Spend a few moments sitting or standing with your back leaning against the tree. Take some deep breaths, and pay attention to the sounds and sensations around you. Imagine the tree as an extension of your spine. Cultivate an awareness of the energy that flows through the tree, from the deep roots to the leaves; visualize it connecting with the movement and energy (nerves, blood, oxygen) that animates your body.
  4. As you visualize the roots of the trunk spreading out under the ground, think about all the nutrients and forms of life in the earth. Consider how you, too, are dependent upon the ground and the soil for your existence.
  5. Pay attention to the branches and trunk stretching up and spreading out above you. Think about the dependence on sunlight, water and air that you share with the tree.
  6. Still imagining the tree as an extension of your spine, breathe in and out, cultivating a sense of the energy that unites you, the tree, and the surroundings. Try to cultivate a sense of appreciation and openness towards the experience. Note thoughts and feelings that arise, whether they are positive or negative.
  7. Whenever you are ready, bring the exercise to a close and then reflect upon the experience in a discussion posting. You may improvise with the above instructions, removing or adding elements as you see fit, but please still write about the experience.

 

 

Part 2:  200 words

Textbook Chapter Fifteen: Thomas Berry, “The New Story “, (pp.525-531)

http://thomasberry.org/assets/attachments/Thomas_Berry-The_New_Story.pdf

read the textbook ch 15 and study notes. And then answer below question.

 

How do you think Berry would react to the Intelligent Design debate, and why?

 

Part 3:  200 words.

Read Philip Novak, Chapter Two,  Buddhism, in The World’s Wisdom, pp. 49-109

Watch  documentary The Life of the Buddha, the Faith and Reason interview with Pema Chodron, and the other short video clips in the Buddhism study notes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Heho8bXXLi4&feature=emb_logo

 

What are the three most important or interesting things that you have learned about Buddhism in this module?What questions or reactions come up for you?

 

Part 4: 300 words

Please read Chapter Three from Philip Novak’s book, which contains a collection of extracts from different Buddhist texts.  As you read through, notice which passages really speak to you, either because you are drawn to the message, or because it mystifies or puzzles you.  Choose one of these passages (it could be a sentence or a whole section, or something in between) and proceed through the following steps, and post your answers in the discussion box below.

 

  1. Explain what it means to you or how it speaks to you.
  2. Explain what it tells you or others about how to be or how to act. What does it tell you about Buddhist values or teachings?
  3. What is your personal reaction to this teaching? What engages you about it, and why?
  4. Compare or contrast this teaching with elements of either Islam or Taoism. Do you see similarities or differences. How?

 

Part 5: 150 words

From the documentary or the readings, (or both) what do you see as a key turning point of SiddarthaGotama’s life, and why?

 

Part 6: 150 words

From the Life of Buddha documentary, why are Buddhist teachings sometimes described more as a philosophy or psychotherapy rather than a religion? How would you describe it?

 

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