Sunday, January 14, 2007

What the war is *really* about

I had this 11th grade history teacher, who I'll call Mr. R, who told us one day in class what the seven reasons for the US civil war were. Then on the test we had to list them. If I recall correctly, the question was, "What were the seven reasons for the civil war?"

At the time I think the sum total of my internal reaction to this was "History is boring", but after taking some more thoughtful history courses in college, I began wondering how Mr. R decided what the seven reasons were (or more to the point, how the textbook writers decided; Mr. R taught with the textbook open on his podium for reference; I don't think he liked history any more than I did).

Nowadays I think that every participant in a war, from soldier to politician to journalist, had differing and complex reasons why they participate. A war itself doesn't have a purpose; purposes are things people have.

I keep hearing that the war in Iraq is "really" about oil, and I just can't believe that. It's plausible that profits to oil companies are high on the president's list of concerns -- I understand his family and their friends have concerns in that business so it makes sense that he might see things from an oilman's perspective. But I can't believe it's his only reason, or even his main reason. People are more complex than that.

And furthermore, even if W were totally and solely focussed on oil, he wouldn't have been able to convince the Congress to go to war without pitching other reasons: fear of terrorism, fear of nuclear or chemical weapons, the promise of a new Arab democracy to set an example. Since those ideas were critical to convincing Congress to declare war, why shouldn't they count as "reasons" for the war, regardless of the president's personal motives?

And to take it a step further, what if Congress threw a war and no one came? Americans participate as soldiers for various reasons, including the ones stated, as well as individual reasons ranging from loyalty and patriotism, to unemployment, desperation, rage, curiosity, or a thousand other things. Then there the Iraqis and all the other nationalities fighting on both sides, whose many reasons I probably can't even guess at.

I don't think the US is doing the right thing in Iraq. But the reasons we are there are complicated and I don't think it helps to claim they are simple. If all the world's oil were gone tomorrow, we'd still have wars. It's useful to look at and consider the influence of oil on the equation, but in the end, wars are emergent phenomena that are very hard to explain, and therefore very hard to prevent. I hope we figure it out soon, but I'm not all that optimistic.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Barbie visits the Bardo

In filling out grad school applications and writing essays for them this fall, I found that the most difficult aspect of it was defining myself: telling a story describing my life, experiences, and interests that would let admissions committees know who I am. I found that I needed to write three different essays for the three different schools; each of them was very honest, I think, but they all told different stories. I've been thinking about what that means.

Seems to me that the relationship between what we really are and what we say about ourselves, is kind of like the relationship between a quantum state and a classical state in quantum physics. (I'm not claiming that quantum physics really has anything particular to do with how the mind works; I just think it's a good metaphor). What we really are is a bundle of contradictory possibilities; but when we describe ourselves or make choices in our lives, we make some of the possibilities manifest and turn the others into might-have-beens.

For example, suppose there's someone you know, and you really haven't decided if you like them or not yet. They say what they mean and ask for what they want; they could be assertive and self-confident, or maybe they're pushy and egotistical. You haven't really thought about it.

Then someone asks you for an opinion. You think about it, talk about it, reach a conclusion. After that, you're more likely to see evidence that that person fits your judgment; if you said they were egotistical, everything self-confident about them will feel like egotism to you. What was a contradictory, ill-defined collection of impressions has become a preconception that every new impression is now fitted to.

Here's an article talking about how people choose "friends" on MySpace; what is a fluid and ill-defined thing in the real world has to be narrowed down to a black and white decision on a social networking site. There's people you like when you're in one frame of mind and dislike when you're in another, kind of like that poor cat that's both alive and dead, but rather mistreated either way.

This all makes it sound like I think it's a bad thing to have to describe yourself. In fact, I think it's what life is all about. In doing these grad school essays, and playing around with my profile on social networking sites, I've been realizing how much a different attitude towards the same set of facts and expressions of interests, can make a person seem totally different, without being the least bit dishonest. It's just good to maintain your awareness of the fact that these manufactured identities, that you use for grad school essays, friendster profiles, and smalltalk in bars, are just roles we play in the stories we make of our days; but in fact we're much foggier and full of potential.

A naked Barbie doll is full of potential; you can dress her up as a nurse or a ninja or a firefighter or a fashion model, and then she's fun to play with because there's a story to tell. Her power comes from her versatility, but it's not realized until she adopts an identity: temporarily limited, she trades breadth for depth, and has an adventure in her spacesuit as the first woman on the moon, before returning to the foggy bardo of naked plastic non-being from which the next adventure will begin!

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go forth and adopt a different identity for a day, and see how you like it. The rules: you can't lie about yourself; you have to take the actual facts of your life and see if you can tell a different story about yourself. Emphasize a different subset of your experiences; be confident about different things and vulnerable about different things. Dress differently than you normally do. Meet someone you don't know and strike up a conversation as that new person, and see what it's like. The goal of the mission is to notice that you're a naked Barbie doll on the inside, and the way you present yourself to people is an optional set of accessories; fun and rewarding, perhaps, but totally interchangeable.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mega-scale prayer turbines

This page on Tibetan Spiritual Technology outlines different methods of machine-assisted mantra recital. Electric and steam-powered drums with the mantra, "Om mane padme hum" written on them can produce the same spiritual effect as merely reciting the phrase.

Like the Amish, it seems that Tibetan Buddhists put conscious thought into how to integrate technology with their religious beliefs. They come to some different conclusions, obviously, but they're questioning the same set of assumptions that most of us take for granted -- does the use of this cell phone or this car or this television set help or hurt my spiritual development?

I can't help thinking though, how cool it would be to take this to its extreme. Imagine row on row of ten-story high prayer turbines, each inscribed with the mantra billions of times, perhaps laser etched at a nanoscale on a teflon surface. Monks could inscribe prayers on trees, which would be chopped down by giant logging machines, and fed into a blast furnace. The furnace would boil water, and the steam would turn the prayer turbines at thousands of rotations per second. Just how fast can Chenrezig read? The smoke from the furnace would be a prayer in itself, much as the threads ripped by prayer flags by the wind constitute a prayer.

Output of the turbines would be measured in kM/s, kilomantras per second. Measured of course by an Ommeter. A nation could have a spiritual accounting office to keep track of its gross national karmic product (GNKP), balancing industrial mantra production against a tally of such negatives as war casualties inflicted, crime rates, and estimated instances of corporate malfeasance.

(Thanks to Liz Highleyman and LHOON for the images!)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

It's hard to research small religions

I've just had a curious experience trying to google info about a religious organization called FISU (the Foundation for International Spiritual Unfoldment). They have a brand new Wikipedia page, all created by one person, and I wondered if it was basically an advertisement for a new group, that didn't deserve to be in an encyclopedia yet. They claim to have thousands of members in the UK, and be sponsoring meditation lessons all over the world. But every reference to them I can find on Google is merely an ad they've placed, on an astonishing variety of directories, going back at least 10 years. No one refers to them in a blog, or in a newspaper article, as far as I can tell. The only information available about them comes from their own PR.

I had a similar experience last year trying to research New Kadampa Tradition Buddhism; they have a meditation center in my neighborhood and I was trying to find out more about it. They weren't quite so elusive -- there was a stink between them and the Dalai Lama some time back, so you'll find articles about that; and generally they're kind of hooked in, positively or negatively, with other branches of Tibetan Buddhism. But if you want to know solid, useful, information from an outside source about a group like NKT or FISU -- how large they really are; are they high-pressure fundraisers or evangelists; how does their philosophy and practice compare to other sects -- you pretty much have to just check them out personally and trust your instincts.

I don't particularly have a bad instinct about either group, by the way; I haven't visited them; their practices sound like they are inoffensive but would not suit me personally. I'm curious about these things because I respect people that put their values on the line and work with idealistic organizations like this, but I'm also wary of religious organizations in general; so many have been tools for abusing people. Maybe there should be something like a Better Business Bureau for religions.