Monday, May 7, 2007

Heaven & Earth

I keep thinking of those three toddlers who were killed on Friday when the SUV in which they were riding was rear-ended by a big rig on the freeway, only a few miles south from where Ellie and I happened to be driving, at that very moment, on our way from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach. Their mother and grandmother were critically injured, while the driver of the big rig walked away without a scratch--in one of those searing ironies that remind us of the seeming injustice of the universe.

These sudden deaths were compounded, over the weekend, by news of the tornado in the Midwest which wiped an entire town off the map in an instant--a town that had taken decades, if not centuries to grow, and which represented the collective lives and aspirations of some fifteen hundred human souls. With casual swipes like this, Mother Nature continues to remind us of her power--and our fragility. We may kid ourselves that we humans are in charge of this planet that we live on, but it's increasingly difficult to maintain that arrogant view. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Earth has been trying to educate us on the subject recently with some pretty harsh lessons in humility.

All of which prompts the reminder that Buddhism certainly helps us in learning to accept the truth that death is inevitable for us mortal beings, and that it can come at any moment. If you go that far--and as I have written in these pages before, I myself have difficulty going there--the belief in rebirth might provide some grounds for comfort when it comes to the loss of this human form we are loaned for a period of time that often seems all too brief. The principle of karma, too, provides a way for the mind to wrap itself around such tragedies, though the hearts of those close to victims of this kind would likely find little solace in its wisdom.

I wonder if Christianity has an edge in this regard? An unwavering belief that such events in human affairs are the expression of God's will, and more specifically that human souls--particularly the souls of innocents like those toddlers--will be transported to a new and better life in heaven, must surely be of comfort to both heart and mind. My skeptical mind insists that this thinking is delusional, a story invented by human beings unable to accept the awful finality of death, but some part of me still envies that escape clause available to believing Christians.

The Buddhist belief in rebirth is, of course, subject to dismissal in the light of that same skepticism, and for the same reasons. That's why my mind has such difficulty with it. And yet, if we think of our human existence in terms of the flux of energies, it makes sense to believe that those energies do not simply disappear off the face of the earth, but that they get rechanneled into other forms. I'm no scientist, but I understand that this kind of thinking does not conflct with a rational scientific understanding of reality.

I like the fact that in Buddhist thought, science and religion are not mutually exclusive theories, but that they can coexist and support each other. And as always I'd be interested to hear what others think...


Mark said...

The first stanza really makes me wonder about what is "justice" and what is "injustice." From a Buddhist perspective, did the toddlers have some bad karma from a past life track them down? Does the truck driver now have immense amounts of bad karma after him, even though he didn't mean to do it and is incredibly remorseful? Does karma account for accidents? I really don't know any of this stuff, just wondering aloud.

From a Christian perspective, I often think about tragedy. Why does God allow it to happen if God is all-powerful and can stop it? Why do bad things happen? From a biblical standpoint, these things happen because God doesn't own the earth. We do. God has the potential to stop natural disasters and not allow injustice to happen, but stopping injustice would negate the free will that humans have, wouldn't it? The conclusion I've come to about evil's presence on the planet is that the choice must exist so people can choose good, but because the choice exists some choose the opposite. Any thoughts?

Cardozo said...

Mark -

Although not from a Christian perspective, I've thought a lot about this too, and concluded that evil (i.e. conscious intent to do harm merely for the sake of harm) doesn't exist except as an extremely rare psychological disorder.

Normally, when people "choose" to do bad things, it's because of a lack of love/joy in their lives, or it's a knee-jerk response to some form of trauma. This is not to say we shouldn't hold people accountable for actions that hurt others, but only to suggest that such accountability should be supplemented with support, guidance, and affirmation of their inherent goodness.

Anonymous said...

I've heard two main viewpoints from Christians about people who die without having been exposed to proselytizing. One camp is willing to extend Heaven to "innocent" people. The other camp is a little different: it seems to deny paradise to adults who have died as anything other than Christian (even if the deceased lives on some island and has never heard of Christ), but they have difficulty extend that same damnation toward infants, maybe fearful that they will be seen as monsters.

As for myself, I take a page from "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis. In the story, people start out in the Gray Town, then go to a garden where they meet spirits who try to convince them to come to the Mountains, or Heaven. I think that no matter how good or bad you've been in your life, there are still steps you have to take after death, and I can't say that it's too late to start taking steps in the right direction after you die. If God's love is perfect and complete, then it seems to me that He wouldn't turn someone away if they realize at the gates that they've been wrong their whole life and want to make amends, because in the end everyone from the worst sinners to the greatest saints has flawed in his or her life, and to me it's impossible to fully realize that here on Earth.

In regards to religious dogma, my life is a vehicle for truth. I'm interested in understanding, and I can't limit myself to one viewpoint claiming to hold absolute truth. I don't like that many Christians seem to have this dualistic approach to religion and science, mainly because I feel that there are many verses in the Bible that support scientific finding. One of my favorite quotes is one mentioned in your convocation last semester about how religions often reject science, preferring their "little gods," instead of using science to make their deity that much more wonderful. It would be really great if more people felt that way.

They call him James Ure said...

One of the things that brought me around to believing in rebirth was the changing of the seasons.

The Dalai Lama has said that if science proves something different then what Buddhism teaches that Buddhism should change to adapt:

"If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts,"

Dr. William Mobley director of the Neuroscience Institute at Standford
similarly, said:

"Buddhists have methods for introspective inquiry of the mind that might inform science— provided science is willing to listen."