Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that he is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The main problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary mistake at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, then religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

warnerb-sitdownandshutupBrad Warner is a Zen Buddhist priest who runs a group called Dogen Sangha in Los Angeles. Dogen was a monk who lived in the 12th century and authored a Buddhist book called Shobogenzo. This work is Warner’s primary reference point for his own philosophy. And Sit Down and Shut Up is his attempt to write a commentary on excerpts from Shobogenzo.

Shobozgenzo should not be understood as a Buddhist equivalent of what the Bible is to Christians. There is nothing divinely inspired about a 12th century text (nor about the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself). It just so happens that Warner agrees with the bulk of Dogen’s philosophy, and so it becomes the main reference point for his life. He is also not averse to poking fun at some of the more culturally irrelevant aspects of the ancient book. Warner’s commentary is not dry and technical. He often defends Dogen’s insights by drawing from his own life experience – both as a priest and a punk rock musician.

Sit Down and Shut Up is the second book in Warner’s canon – a follow-up to his highly successful Hardcore Zen. Having read several later books by Warner, I can see that the volume under review here contains essays that are the genesis of themes that the author later expanded into whole books. The essay “Sex and Sin” provides the basis for his book Sex, Sin, and Zen. In the essay “Zazen by Alone,” Warner discusses the holier-than-thou personality that spiritual teachers have a tendency to project; this was destined to flower into his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. And although I have yet to read Warner’s book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, I have a feeling that his essay “God” is where that book germinated.

There isn’t really one overall theme to Sit Down and Shut Up. The book’s title is a reference to the importance that the author places upon the practice of zazen meditation – something that I don’t often practice and I’m not convinced is a necessity for my life. Although I will say that psychological health is certainly maintained by any practice where one sits down and shuts up. In other words, you stop busying yourself as a means of running away from yourself. Give your mind the breathing space it needs to sort itself out. Warner’s elaboration about zazen allowed me to see parallels in my own life, even in my past as a Christian where I would go off somewhere quiet to be alone with God. It didn’t matter that this “personal God” was a figment of my imagination. The practice itself had a healing effect of its own. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by zazen in particular, and I have a mind to try it out more seriously, to see what all the fuss is about.

In summary, this is an excellent book. In comparison to Warner’s other works, it’s hard to say where it ranks, because they’re all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking for diverse content, this is a particularly good one to read. But I would read everthing written by Warner (and I plan to), which is the highest praise I can give to an author.

Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku

tulkut-timespaceknowledgeThis book was recommended to me as a means of getting to grips with the philosophy non-duality. The author, a Tibetan lama living in California, approaches it from the Buddhist perspective, although he does not use any Buddhist terminology.

The book places a heavy emphasis on visualisation exercises as a means of getting past our conditioned understanding of the world. For the most part I didn’t pause to try these out, as I’m already accustomed to viewing life in non-dual terms, but the exercises did strike me as useful to newcomers. I’ve even developed a few of my own in the course of writing my own book on esoteric matters.

Tulku suggests a model of reality that views it as consisting of three fundamentals: space, time, and knowledge. These are not really separate, as each cannot exist without the others. Scientifically minded readers will already be familiar with the term space-time and will know that we cannot properly consider time without space, nor space without time. Tulku suggests a “trinity” of inseparable elements: space-time-knowledge. This is very similar to my own personal view of reality as mind-space-time.

The real drawback of the book is in how technical it becomes. It is very easy to become confused when reading. And yet I would not accuse the author of being pretentious. There were sufficient cues in the text that let me know he a man of considerable insight. As an effective communicator, however, he fails. Alan Watts, for instance, has communicated similarly stunning insights with far more straightforward argumentation and vocabulary. If Space, Time, and Knowledge had been my first step into non-dual philosophy, I think I would have given up in frustration.

In the end, Tulku also commits the great error of so many spiritual teachers: a lack of realism about life. He asserts that life can be lived with a drastically different sense of awareness from what is common. While that is true to an extent, I always like to remind myself that one day I might find myself being chased down an alley by an assailant. In such a situation, does the philosophy of this book help me in any way? No. That’s the real acid test. So all this talk about every experience being an unending feast of beauty is mere talk.

Overall, Tarthang Tulku communicates much less fluff than Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Time, Space, and Knowledge is a deep but unnecessarily difficult book. It has its moments, but I would not consider it essential reading.

Standing in Two Circles: The Collected Works of Boyd Rice by Boyd Rice (edited by Brian M. Clark)

riceb-standingintwocirclesI’ve been curious about this Boyd Rice character for a few years, mainly because of his friendship with Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. Rice was apparently LaVey’s personal choice as successor after his death, but Rice declined the offer. I find LaVey’s philosophy fascinating, so I was eager to find out whether Rice was a man of similar depth and insight. The volume under review contains a sizeable illustrated biography of Rice’s life written by Brian M. Clark, a collection of essays written by Rice spanning several decades, photography by Rice, and lyrics to many of Rice’s songs.

The main section of interest to me was the essays. They were a mixed bag. Rice, like LaVey, is a student of human nature and a prankster at heart. He relates some humorous stories of the various pranks he has played upon people in the past, like breaking into a neighbour’s house to leave an open umbrella on his bed – not to steal anything. The real motivation behind Rice’s slightly criminal activities was to connect with life on a more primal level. There’s definitely something profound about that. Modern life is very safe and sanitised; the average 21st century human is a very dull creature in comparison to his hunter-gatherer ancestor.

Rice has a very interesting take on monism (which is my personal philosophy). He’s a monist, but unlike most monists he doesn’t preach “love and light” spirituality. The aggressive and predatory aspects of human behaviour as just as much a manifestion of the oneness as love. This is so true, but hardly any monists see it.

The most startling essay in the volume was themed around the moral justification of rape. I not sure how serious Rice is being here, because in other places in the book, he clearly has respect for women as more than mere objects to be used. Rice is infamous for wearing a black T-shirt with the word “RAPE” printed in bold across the front. He’s also infamous for flirting with Nazi symbolism. He is a Social Darwinist and views fascism as the form of government most in keeping with nature, since the whole animal kingdom is organised around power struggles: predator against prey. I’m not entirely convinced by all of Rice’s arguments, but he makes a real stab at articulating his personal philosophy rationally, which makes these essays stimulating reading.

In another fascinating essay, Rice talks about enjoyable times spent with LaVey. At one time, Rice also became fascinated with Charles Manson, to the point of arranging regular visits with him in prison. Rice retells snippets from these interviews, allowing the reader a rare snapshot in to the mind of one of America’s most notorious convicts.

On the downside, the volume contains some forgettable essays about Rice’s travels to famous places and his various drunken escapades with friends. Rice also expresses a longtime fascination with his own ancestry and the bloodline of Christ, which struck me as the least credible of his passions – bordering on the ridiculous.

While reading the book, I got hold of some of Rice’s music. He’s known as a noise musician. Personally, I don’t find much to like about the genre. On one record, he had the hole in the middle placed slightly off-centre, so that the speed of the record would fluctuate as it played. Profound or pretentious? You decide. I did enjoy one of his more melodious albums, entitled “Music, Martinis and Misanthropy.” He doesn’t really sing, but rather talks (usually in poetic verse) while the music is playing. It words quite well, actually.

The strangest thing about Boyd Rice is that he seems to thrive on being hated. And the more he can do to increase this kind of notoriety, the better – that seems to be his thinking. A fascinating oddity among us humans. Standing in Two Circles is a rare book and fetches quite a penny. It’s worth a read, but for me it’s not a “keeper.” My copy will be going back on eBay.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again by Brad Warner

warnerb-hardcorezenstrikesaBrad Warner has written several books since the publication of his excellent volume Hardcore Zen in 2003. If that book were a DVD, Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, would be the equivalent of the “Extras” menu. It’s about 150 pages consisting of seventeen chapters: some are essays from Warner’s early blogging days, others are chapters that the editor of Hardcore Zen deemed unworthy to include in the original book. Does that make the present volume a collection of inferior material? Not really. Most of the cuts were on the grounds of relavance, not quality. And I think the editor made the right choices. The chapter on vegetarianism was interesting, but comes across as a rather verbose side-issue. And the chapter on Warner’s career in the Japanese monster movie industry is really only of relevance to readers who are particularly interested in learning about the author.

Warner’s early writing was more brash than it is today, in keeping with his punk roots. But it’s no less effective. For example, this is how he desribes phoney spirituality:

All that peace and calm is a bit of a cheat, though. It’s a come-on, like a hooker flashing you a bit of leg. She’s not lying. Not exactly. That leg really is a lovely thing. And when it’s wrapped around your back it will feel very nice indeed. But it’s going to cost you. You might get caught by the cops or by your spouse, or catch some terrible disease. You’re risking a hell of a lot for that little bit of leg. Buddhist temples are like that. They show you a little taste of inner peace. But most of them won’t tell you how high a price you’re going to have to pay to make that peace your own. They sure won’t tell you it’s going to kill you.

The book doesn’t really have a distinct theme. The chapters are random, can be read in any order, and don’t build towards any sort of conclusion. They cover a variety of subjects, from a Zen Buddhist perspective: individuality, fake enlightenment, religion, the nature of reality, afterlife ideas, reincarnation, duality and non-duality, the nature of time, vegetarianism, and even writing tips. Most of it is really interesting, and Warner has a pithy way of stating matters that is very quotable. Here are a few gems that I took note particular note of:

Authority is the coward’s way of deferring responsibility for his actions.

Reality exists before our attempts to explain it as matter or as spirit. The truth exists before we give it a name.

It is only when people believe that something is above questioning, beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be.

Mystical types like to say that we have to realize we are God. I prefer the converse. God has to realize that He is just you and me.

You need both doubt and faith. Faith keeps you going forward. Doubt keeps you from going forward with a blindfold on.

You cannot be alone because you are always surrounded by you. You extend all the way out beyond the farthest stars. And you are as intimate as the air that embraces you and slips its way inside your body. There’s nothing here but you. Yet you’re never alone.

Each essay is accompanied by an introduction and afterword, where Warner talks about how he feels nowadays in comparison to how he felt at the time of writing. This struck me as a little odd. Wouldn’t it be better just to revise the content of the essays themselves? But I think the intention behind this book was more to provide a snapshot of the author’s life at a particular time. It feels like a “filler” book – an extra for the existing fans between the publication schedule of the “real” books. And that’s okay, because I’m a Warner fan. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this guy. I only wish a little more care had been taken with Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I notice it wasn’t put out by Warner’s usual publisher, and it shows. Clumsy typos abound, and for some reason the publishing company chose to use unjustified text throughout and a blank line between every paragraph. Nevertheless, there is nothing amateur about Warner’s mind. Well worth reading.