Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Zen of Nothingness

It must be a Zen thing.  How to think about . . . nothing.  No really. Try thinking about . . . nothing.  I think we can’t do it.  The best you can do is to think about thinking about nothing.

But imagine for a second that Jesus Christ, Mohamed, Buddha and Krishna were all real, but just, well, guys. You know, dudes who were born, grew up, said a lot of interesting things, hung out with some other interesting dudes, and then, at some stage, died, that is, ceased to exist.  And that was it.  They didn’t rise to heaven, or wherever it is a Buddha or Mohamed might go (into the energy ether, I suppose). No, they simply ceased functioning and their earthly shells gradually deteriorated, like everyone else.
And the reason? Well, one possibility would be that, there is nothing that follows life. And that’s why you might want to imagine/think about nothing. Because, some day, that just might happen. That is, you’re alive at one second, and not the next. And you don’t wake up in a bus that is carrying you to heaven, along with a bunch of other passengers. Neither do you emerge into a fairy land in which all of your close friends and family are awaiting your arrival. Instead, your mind simply ceases to function. It all goes blank—dark I suppose, except that dark always implies light somewhere. Instead, there is . . . nothing.  And you don’t know it. Because you are no longer here, there, or anywhere. What would that be like? Well, I imagine it wouldn’t be “like” anything.
Suppose, just suppose that it’s true. Nothing follows being.  See, that’s what I have trouble conceiving. That nothing thing.
And, I imagine, that was one of several reasons that early people, dudes mainly, invented God and heaven and all that fairy tale stuff.  People couldn’t look around them, see all of the world’s wonders and imagine that there wasn’t some big guy somewhere who  invented all that stuff.  And like everything else that develops slowly over a long time, the fairy tale just kept getting larger and more elaborate over that very long time. Then someone invented writing and guys began writing down what they had been told by other guys. And guys in different parts of the world invented different versions of this fairy tale, much as plants and animals emerge differently over very long time periods in different parts of the world.  If plants become very complicated as they develop over eons, surely the fairy tale would become very complicated.
Now, the fairy tale was invented for more than one reason surely. First and foremost is this notion that we can’t really grasp this concept of living one second and not living the next. I mean, we know it happens, because we see it routinely. But what we don’t see is the possible reality that nothing follows something. We needed to invent a continuum of somethings that follow the dying bit. But, the more clever dudes who were writing this all down, or maybe the ones who were dictating the tale, began thinking that they might become relatively more influential with this crowd of dummies if they could pretend to knowledge that they didn’t have, I.e., the knowledge of what happens after the dying thing.
Because if they have some special knowledge, then the dummies—ordinary folks like you and me—might go to them for advice. And soon, people would be lined up at the door, asking questions. And the more questions the smart dude answered, the more elaborate would become his “understanding” of the fairy tale. And he would continue elaborating the fairy tale, until it spilled over into multiple chapters and then the chapters into “books”.
Soon, the dude would begin dressing differently, so that he would be recognized whenever he left his house. And the ordinary folks might begin deferring to him, clearing a path, bowing.
Thus beginneth the lesson about priests.
And think for a moment, how elaborate that tale could become over, say a thousand years.  And how the fairy tale would become multiple fairy tales, depending on where you live. So, a fairy tale in India might include stories about the different strata of people, and how some types of people are better than other types of people.
But the biggie in all these tales would be what happens after the dying thing.  Each culture would invent something different, including that oldie but goodie-- the  return to a new life thing that Hindu’s prefer. I have never really understood the appeal of that one, if you never realize you are in a subsequent life. I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to portray a follow-on life as a state of being in which you get smarter?
I can sort of “get” the afterlife thing in which you join with your family and your buddies, and sit around on clouds playing harps and flapping your angelic wings once in a while. But I have always wondered about the crowds. Do you get your own cloud space? And can you actually converse with your great, great grandfolks, or, better yet, with dudes like John Kennedy, or Napoleon? And does everyone speak English up there?? And what about all the cockroaches?
I really wonder about the 71 virgin thing. Some dude gets killed defending the regime and then, when he arrives in heaven, he is given 71 virgin playthings?  So, what did they do to deserve that fate??
See, lots of questions.
So, for me, the fairy tale is about as plausible as Santa hiding away in some really cold North Pole location, with his factory manned by elves, making toys to be delivered by sleigh to good boys and girls.  Yeah, right . . .
Which brings me right back to square one—the nothing thing. As much as I really, really hate the idea, it seems the most plausible outcome. One second, you’re a living, sentient being. The next your mind is gone. And even “gone” is misleading, because it implies a journey. No, what I think happens is that we simply cease to function and we aren’t anywhere. And we don’t know it, because there is no mind any longer.
So, what does nothing mean?  Unless of course, it means nothing.
But even if we could derive some understanding of this nothing thing, what would it mean, were everyone on earth to awaken tomorrow morning and decide that sometime in their future, they would enter this state of nothing and cease to exist, sort of like a light bulb burning out? Would they act nicer to other people, or would they all turn into schmucks like Mitt Romney, deciding that, since nothing follows, I have to get it all here and now, and nobody better get in my way? Is that what might happen? Would guys still strap dynamite vests on and go out to blow themselves and other to oblivion?  What’s the payoff to doing that? Better, perhaps, to have another cup of wine and dream about a better tomorrow.  Would guys with rifles and bayonets still charge the hill to kill other guys, knowing that they might well get killed--cease to exist-- in the process?
I rather imagine that a lot of things might change, perhaps the biggest being one’s willingness to die for God and Country. I had enough trouble with that one even before the nothing thing entered my brain. But now, I cannot even imagine what would cause someone to join the marines, or the infantry, knowing that you might be told to “win Gallipoli” for the Gipper.  I guess being a flyer, or a navy guy might still look ok, since you have all that hardware between you and the presumed bad guys.
But, I wonder, in the absence of any belief in the hereafter, or any belief in the Big Guy up in the sky, or the Big Guy’s prophets, would there be any point to “Alternate Belief Systems” wars? I mean, what would we fight about then?  I guess we could still decide to fight to give Mitt a larger share of the pie than he already has, but guys with a limited lifespan and nothing to follow, might just tire of trying to make Mitt even richer than he already is.  So greed would work as a warrior theme, only if the guys charging that hill were guaranteed a share of the larger pie that might follow, say their own oil well in Iraq.
Now, I think that everyone would not suddenly turn nice and act reasonable, or even civil. Some people are genetically programmed to act stupidly, or recklessly. I suppose they would continue acting that way. But still, there probably wouldn’t be any more of them than we have now, arguably  fewer I imagine.
Well, this all requires some more imagining, you know, since thinking about nothing is so damned difficult.  We’ll return another day. Perhaps a nice nap would be good . . .
So endeth the first lesson about Nothingness.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When Anarchy Matters

There is much discussion now concerning the extent to which various “nations” in the Middle East have functional governments. The latest to be questioned is Tunisia, but Libya, Afghanistan,  Iraq all seem to be candidates for the term anarchic states.  Anarchy exists when the people in a region do not demand the rule of law. This would characterize virtually the entire Arab world, a region in which Israel has been the only nation with a democratically elected government. And why Israel?? Well, what is Israel but a European nation state that has been transplanted into the Middle East? So, a little slice of Europe has been set down in a region of nomadic, vaguely 13th century peoples, all of whom are ruled by tyrants.  I have often believed that we would have been better off, far better, had we donated Florida to the Jewish people after WW II to found the democratic state of Israel there. Think of the global troubles the world would have avoided. Think of how many people would be alive today had we done that.

With innocents convinced routinely if not daily to strap dynamite around their middle, walk into a crowded marketplace and detonate themselves, this satisfies my definition of anarchy.  Anarchy exists when you cannot count on going outside without running the risk of being shot, or blown up by someone with whom you have no quarrel. It would be like getting into your car, entering the street without the assurance that people will agree to stay on their side of the road.
Now, throughout the Middle East, it has been the case that such rules exist only by virtue of the tyrants who rule the region with an iron fist—police states modeled on the monarchies that used to exist centuries ago. The Emperor Babur would probably feel comfortable wandering around Afghanistan and most of the Middle East today. And, now, with the Arab Spring unleashed on the world, most of the tyrants have been swept away (Iran and Syria excepted of course) leaving behind the detritus of their tyrannies, but lacking all of the social controls. We have vaguely crazed peoples, heavily armed with nary a thought about rules of law.  How else to explain the manic reaction to a stupid video that purports to insult the Islamic prophet?
Really . . . some idiot produces  an insulting and terminally stupid video and the entire Islamic world goes berserk, shooting and killing innocents randomly, including a few people who had befriended and assisted the crazed mobs to regain some semblance of freedom.  That is how you defend your prophet? How pathetic is that?
The problem here is that it has become difficult if not impossible to define rational solutions to this problem which, at its core, is simple anarchy.  It occurs to me that the people in this instance are practically demanding the return of their tyrants, because they refuse to join the civilized world. How would one introduce the concept of a representative democracy to people who seem to think it is ok to convince innocent children to blow themselves up in order to kill other innocents for no reason beyond promoting the concept of anarchy?
So, perhaps our own leaders will need to either label the entire region of Muslim anarchic states as wards of the United Nations, or we will need to recruit new tyrannicals to come in to rule these places in between.   Failing that, perhaps we can convince the Republican Party to take over and invite Mitt Romney to become the leader of these lost tribes. He could surely do no worse than he has been dong as a candidate for President here. And republicans do seem to love their guns. Seems a potentially nice fit.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Honor Code of Blood

Ahhh . . . yet another demonstration of religion at its worst, as though we needed another one. And, yet again, Islamists come through to demonstrate their amazing insecurity about their religion, and their capacity to do monumentally stupid things. Only this time, instead of sending some poor dope to blow himself up in a marketplace, their normal method of protest, they chose the old fashioned way—storming the gates and setting things and people on fire.  One of the people in this case was an ambassador who had supported them during their period of great need.  What a great way to show your gratitude.

And all because of some twinkie who produced a film making fun of Islam. And it wasn’t even the American government making fun of Islam, although heaven knows they have cause. No, it’s just some creative schlunk who decided to make fun, despite all of the evidence that Islamists have no sense of humor.  Now a rational people would have  made fun of the movie and turned its creator into an object of humor and derision. But that approach can only be chosen by people who are basically secure in themselves and in their chosen religion.  This group clearly is neither.  It’s kind of like criticizing a bunch of four year olds, which results in a lot of whining and crying. Except in ArabLand it results in blowing things up and killing as many people as possible.
And these are the people we keep thinking we can help in becoming true democratic societies fit for life in this 21st century. Instead, apparently, they are bent on maintaining their 12th centry lifestyle and customs. Stoning anyone???

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Night for which there is no morning

Listening to the NPR report about the young teenager who blew himself up in Afghanistan made me beyond sad.  The Taliban, that corrupt and disgusting bunch who lurk in the shadows of real life, immediately claimed responsibility. Something to do with trying to kill CIA agents. Their motive is always the same. They wish to kill foreign “infidels”. Mainly, they always want to kill someone else. And each and every time, they manage to convince some poor lost soul, often someone quite young, to kill himself while also killing others. It is said that they promise martyrdom, and a place in heaven, hopefully with the ubiquitous 71 virgins. What ever do they promise the young women who kill themselves? And I note, it is never an official of the Taliban who blows himself up in a marketplace, but rather some young innocent who has been corrupted into thinking that something exists once life on earth ceases.
I keep wondering. What if they knew . . . really knew . . . all of them . . . that actually, nothing exists beyond the grave. That, should you choose to end your life—in whatever form—you simply cease to exist. You will not be reborn. You will not enter the kingdom of heaven, or hell.  You will not get your 71 virgins. You will not meet god. You will instead, simply cease to exist and you will never again know anything. You are as a light bulb that burns out.
I wonder. Suppose they knew that. Would they still choose to end their lives? Or would the Taliban monsters who now rule the lives of these innocents suddenly lose their power to recruit suicide bombers? Would they then have to do their own dirty work?
This promise, ever present in most religions is a fraud, the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on humankind.  Maybe someone should tell them. When it’s over, it’s really over. You will feel no pain to be sure, because you will never again feel anything.
They will enter that night, for which there is no morning.
Maybe it’s time they knew.