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.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.

Impossibility by John D. Barrow

barrowjd-impossibilityThe subtitle of this book is what really attracted me to it: “The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits”. As a philosopher, I’m fascinated by the idea that there are not only things we don’t know, but things we can’t know. Some scientists are searching for a theory of everything – a set of equations that will account for everything in the Universe. I don’t believe such a thing is possible for us, because it’s not possible for, say, a goldfish. Mankind is just another branch on the evotionary tree, subject to much the same limitations of perception and cognition. I read this book as an attempt to get some additional clarity on this issue.

The content of the book is diverse and deep, covering many areas, from language to mathematics to cosmology, and more. There’s a great deal packed into 250 pages. The most memorable section, for me personally, was a discussion on how complexity occurs on a particular fractal level of the Universe (terrestrial life), not at the extremes of the very large (stars and galaxies) or the very small (atoms and sub-atomic particles). The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe, and this gives us reason to speculate that the very function of the Universe could be to bring about the likes of us. We tend to assume that size equals importance, and the images from the Hubble Space Telescope certainly make us feel very unimportant. But what if complexity equals importance?

The book also contains a fascinating discussion on how the speed of light restricts us from ever getting a complete view of the Universe. When we look into deep space, we see it as it was billions of years ago, not as it is today, because it takes so long for light to reach us. And we can’t see the more distant parts of space at all, because the light emitted by very distant stars hasn’t yet had time to reach Earth at all. This puts us in a fishbowl of sorts and it causes us to make assumptions about what is beyond our knowledge. Since we are able to identify inflexible laws of nature in the part of the Universe that we can see, we assume that these laws apply across the entire Universe. But we simply don’t know, and furthermore, we can’t know.

Some of the content of the book was beyond me, particularly the more mathematical parts. Also, some of the content struck me as irrelevant to anything of practical value, such as a section on time travel paradoxes. If anything, this illustrated the importance of philosophy alongside science. It’s very easy to think of time as something physically real, but the only place that time exists, in the sense of a recording of events, is inside brains. Hence, no time travel paradoxes are possible, because there is no time. There is only an ever-changing now. Any discussion of time travel involves a misperception of time as a literal thing making a literal recording of the cosmos as it moves. This material in the book was a waste of time – no pun intended. The book culminated in a discussion of hidden problems in the voting process, which was a bit flat for an ending.

Overall, I felt this was an important book for me to read. The author has a very rational mind and a broad range of knowledge.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

suzukis-zenmindbeginnersmindThis short book is a transcription of several talks given by author on the rights and wrongs of Zen meditation practice. It’s very simple and non-intellectual. No attempt is made to qualify assertions with arguments. Suzuki often just says, “This is the right understanding,” or “This is not the right understanding,” and he doesn’t explain why. This is a little irritating for a reader like me, but I also undersand that Zen is about doing, not thinking. I imagine the author is speaking with a “try it and see” attitude.

I definitely got some clarity about Zen practice as a result of reading, particular on the notion that Zen is not goal-oriented. You don’t do it to get something specific out of it. Enlightenment (a word I hate), according to Suzuki, is not something you achieve through the practice; the practice itself is enlightenment. I think I sort of get what he means. In meditation, you just let whatever happens happen. The mind takes care of itself without conscious intrusion. So, there are results from meditation, but you can’t set out with an idea of what those results should be beforehand.

I’m fascinated by Zen meditation, but I’m still not convinced that it’s any kind of necessity. I think the same results can be obtained by simply going for peaceful walks regularly. Ultimately, one should make room in one’s life for periods of non-thinking and non-stimulation. It seems to restore psychological wellbeing and channel creativity.

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell & Thomas M. Campbell

campbelltc-chinastudyThis book is a detailed study of nutrition containing some shocking assertions about what the common Western diet is doing to our health. What separates it from the mass of “fad diet” books is that it is attempting to identify the natural diet of the human species, and it makes a compelling case that this is plants, not animals.

The unusual title of the volume comes from a medical study in China that sought to account for the the high incidence of cancer among affluent people, compared to a low incidence among the poor. After extensive study, differences in diet were the prime suspect. Affluent people had a far greater intake of meat.

You’ve probably heard the argument against vegetarianism that goes “Where are you going to get your protein?” The book blasts this misconception, asserting that we get all the protein we need from plants. It goes as far as saying that the cause of our health problems is an overabundance of protein from animal food sources. The arguments are detailed and appear sound, but since I’m not a scientist, I have to be a little cautious. Sometimes what we don’t know from the opposing corner can change what we think we know about an issue.

That said, I did personally make the move to a diet that is 95% vegan, from a diet where I was eating red meat five days per week. I did this less because of the technical arguments in this book, and more because of a simple observation: no animal is fundamentally confused about its own nature (including its diet). Humans do not have the elogated fangs of a predator, nor the short intestine that digests animal protein quickly, and we have a natural aversion to gore. What comes naturally to the lion does not come naturally to the human. We have to go through an elaborate cooking ritual just to make the meat safe, and we take no pleasure in even handling uncooked meat. This is telling us something about our natural dietary inclinations. We’re plant eaters.

The reason I am 95% vegan and not 100% is because of a lack of interesting vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants. So occasionally I will indulge in meat, usually fish or chicken. I’m just not hardcore enough to go the full 100%. But I can tell you that having a high plant low meat intake has been very beneficial to my health. Food passes through my system much more cleanly and easily than ever. I used to have the impression that vegans were scrawny people who lacked physical strength and stamina, but that’s not the case at all. That’s what happens if you don’t eat enough food. But on a vegan diet, you can satisfy your appetite wholeheartedly with big meals, and not run the same risks of weight gain because there’s far less fat in the diet.

Whatever an expert may think of a book like The China Study, what is undeniable is that rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer are far higher today than they were several decades ago. And food is the main factor in this. The bottom line is that something’s got to change. The first step is to educate ourselves about what our eating habits are doing to us.

I highly recommend this book for anyone considering a change in diet.