Archive for the ‘religion’ Category


Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

Walter Freeman, the inventor of the transorbital lobotomy, traveled around in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a car he called the “lobotomobile”, carrying the tools of his trade, icepick and mallet. This is the story of the upcoming film A Hole In One, starring Meat Loaf.

It is interesting to consider the effects of prefrontal lobotomies on religious behavior. Here is an excerpt from an old psychosurgery manual at

We have not infrequently operated upon patients who have experienced religious exaltation and others too numerous to mention who have considered themselves endowed with mystic powers or under the influence, beneficent or malign, of unexplained spiritual forces. These tend to disappear after operation, and their place is taken by rather matter-of-fact mode of religious observance to which they have been accustomed but without deep conviction or enthusiasm…In most instances—beyond attending church and singing with the congregation or in the choir—the externals appear to be sufficient. These patients are direct, practical and uninspired. Their beliefs are somewhat childlike, are seldom spoken of and are passed over, when direct inquiries are made, as of no particular importance. It is readily perceived that the spiritual life is gravely affected by prefrontal lobotomy.

And also:

Eliminating the affective components supplied by the thalamus does away with preoccupation with the self and the future, and consequently abolishes the demoralization that is synonymous with psychosis or neurosis..[The individual] goes through the forms of social and religious observance, but without the deep emotional conviction that characterized him before his illness.

A coherent theory of biotheology will explain such effects of lobotomies on religious belief and behavior.

Beyond neurotheology

Saturday, March 12th, 2005

In Newsweek’s 2001-05-01 cover article, “Faith Is More Than A Feeling”, Kenneth L. Woodward wrote:

The problem with neurotheology is that it confuses spiritual experiences—which few believers actually have—with religion.

Well, that’s not a “problem with neurotheology”, but it does point out how neurotheology has failed to properly categorize its subjects of inquiry, and chosen a misleading term to apply to itself. There are problems with both the “neuro” part and the “theology” part.

“Neuro” liimts the focus too narrowly to the brain. We don’t know much about how our entire organism implements the human predilection to religion, but it is possible, even probably, that more is involved than just the brain. That would argue for the prefix “bio”, which has already been used in the alternative term “biotheology”.

But the “theology” part is problematic as well. The dictionary definition that is relevant is:

  • the study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions

which seems broad enough, but in fact most people interpret the term “theology” more narrowly, with an emphasis on “God” or established religions, which doesn’t encompass so-called religious or transcendant experience, which is indeed what many “neurotheologians” are focusing on.

We need a clear taxonomy and clear terms to apply to its categories:

  • biotranscendance: study how biological mechanisms interact with transcedant religious experience
  • bionumenology: focus on how biology promotes human experiences of and beliefs in the divine and supernatural
  • biomythology: study how human wiring gives rise to human societies sharing and passing down myths of every kind, including but not limited to beliefs in bearded white men in robes controlling everything
  • biological study of ritual: show how biological systems impose or are satisfied by ritual
  • biological bases of human emotional growth: learn the correlation between changes in the brain and other biological components and upward personal evolution

Leaving the Saints

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

Martha Beck has written a book Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, about her father, the celebrated Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, abusing her as a child.

It’s like a bad TV show: she accuses her father of raping her ritualistically while making incantations about Abraham and Isaac.

In general, I believe we have to treat recalled-memory situations with the utmost care. But without passing judgment, in this case one must admit a ring-of-truth aspect.

Web site

Neurotheology of obesity

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

A 1998 Purdue Univeristy study found a statistically significant correlation between obesity and religiosity. Sort of confirms what we suspected. Non-Christian believers, including Buddhists, were the least overweight, however.

The author of this study inexplicably fails to offer any hypotheses for this phenomenon, other than to mention that churches fail to teach restraint, and that they may be overly accepting of fatties.

It may or may not be relevant that the estimates of the heritability of a tendency toward obesity range around the 0.5 mark, remarkably close to the estimates for the heritability of religiosity.

Perhaps the same semi-addictive tendencies that lie behind some cases of obesity may also be work in cases of religiosity.

Or, research proves that people eat more when they dine with others while religious behavior has been shown to be related to socialization drives. So perhaps religious people eat more often with other people, getting fat in the process.

Such correlates of religiosity may be easier to deal with than with religiosity itself, and as such are attractive routes of inquiry, since such correlations may be based on common underlying neurological mechanisms.

Reference: Nature Neuroscience focus on neurobiology of obesity.

Believe in God, catch the clap

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

Religion contributes to a more stable, healthy, prosperous society. Right?

A recent study paints a dramatically different picture. Published in the Journal of Religion and Society, it pulls together existing studies about the statistical relationship between religious belief at the societal level and metrics of social health. Although it reaches some interesting conclusions, it raises more questions than it answers.

  • In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

Fascinating, but what is the mechanism at work? Are the people getting gonorrhea the same ones that believe in God, are they the believers’ kids, or are they people way over on the other side of town? Is the mechanism at work here something as simple as zealots preventing sex education in the schools, or is there something about the American style of belief in God that actually promotes unprotected sex and suicide?

  • The U.S. is…the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health.

Doubtlessly true, but what evidence is there that this is correlated with the high index of religiosity? It could be a parallel American personality trait, albeit one correlated with religious orientation, causing this: a deep-rooted tendency towards shooting from the hip, ignoring problems until it’s too late, and living with messiness.

  • There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.

Ah, yes. The graphic above shows gonorrhea incidence by region in the US; notice how “red” the “red” states are.

The author is a dinosaur researcher, author, and illustrator. In this study he unquestionably has an agenda related to the evolution vs. intelligent design tiff. His findings include, unsurprisingly, the fact that the advanced secular democracies such as Japan, which do better than the US on the social measures, also share strong belief in evolution. By showing this, he hopes to defang the arguments of those like newly-indicted Congressional leader Tom Delay, who once stated

…high crime rates and tragedies like the Columbine assault will continue as long schools teach children “that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud.

What is the neurotheological, or religiobiological, connection? Possibly none, since here we are in the realm of socioreligion. One could hypothesize, however, that the same biological mechanism which predisposes people to theist beliefs also make them more promiscuous. One starting point would be to analyze the sexual behavior of mentally ill people with religious delusions.


Deconstructing Dogen

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Why did Dogen write? Why do we read him? And what do these questions mean for how we should translate him?

I’d like to thank Lisa Melyan for inspiring these questions with her comment on my post Dogen again, discussing the translation of Dogen’s famous syllogism, which starts:

Following the Buddha Way really means following yourself.

Her comment in its entirety:

You say you do not know what it means to be “enlightened by all things,” and perhaps you take issue with the phrase “actualized by myriad things” as well.

These phrases and Dongshan’s “teaching of the inanimate” have jumped out at me as my practice has deepened, and they have the ring of deep truth in my direct experience of reality.

The concept is concrete, not wishy-washy, in my experience. I believe it refers to the ability to respond in all conditions, to start from zero and simply respond spontaneously. When I quickly jump over rocks and driftwood at the beach, I am being enlightened by those things, “actualized” by them- jump here, turn here. No thought. Those who think think think (should I step here, I’m not sure) are stuck at the other end of the shoreline.

Lots of meat here, but I’ll focus on the subtle issues her comment raises about the meaning, purpose, and process of Dogen’s writings and/or their translation. When reading Dogen, on the one hand, we can focus on the fact that, at this moment, I see a page in front of me with squiggly black ink marks forming Roman letters making up English words composing sentences which via some physical and mental process I have developed I interpret and as a consequence experience certain sensations and “thoughts”. I may further experience those sensations as pleasant or rewarding, in the broadest sense of the term. The reward may take the form of a feeling of religious awe, or derive from a sense that I have learned something new that will be useful to me in the future (such as on my path of self-development), be related to “recognition”, a known pleasure factor, or be correlated with a sense of shared consciousness, which may take on added weight in this case since the sharing in question is occurring across a span of more than seven hundred years.

Potentially more usefully, we can also take a deconstructionist tack and view Dogen’s writings and their translations in the context of the societal structure, the implicit and explicit assumptions, and the intentions that generated them. Why did Dogen write Shobogenzo?

Why did Dogen write?

It’s reasonable to assume that a highly actualized person like Dogen had a crystal clear internal model of what he was doing—he was presumably not simply writing out of boredom. Perhaps Shobogenzo was a form of meditation for our medieval master, a type of private painting, with the scroll as canvas and calligraphic ink as paint, a structured way for him to clarify and build out his own thinking? I have no doubt that his writings do involve that aspect, but when you consider that Dogen devoted the greater portion of his life to building and running Eiheiji as a place for teaching and practice, we have to conclude that a major objective of his in writing Shobogenzo was teaching—to convey some kind of message, or provide some kind of insight, or offer some kind of motivation, to students of the way.

This interpretation is supported by the fact that Dogen gave explicit instructions on the order of the SBGZ fascicles, placing Genjo Koan at the beginning, something he hardly would have worried about if this was his private notes. Elsewhere as well, he explicitly states that his objective is to teach others.

Even a document the objective of which we agree is to teach or communicate could have very different meanings depending on exactly who it targets. Was Dogen addressing advanced master students, monks, laypeople, amateurs like us? Dogen switched gears over the years on the issue of whether shukke (leaving your home and entering the priesthood) was a prerequisite for making meaningful spiritual progress, as he aged moving towards the position that in fact it was, so it’s likely that he did not think beyond the monks at Eiheiji when considering his target audience, but in reality the monks at Eiheiji in the first half of the thirteenth century were probably much like those there today: many had to be there to learn the family business; others entered the priesthood out of an accident of birth; the majority were probably just going through the paces. I suggest that it was those people—not so different from you and me—that Dogen was targeting with SBGZ.

Implications for translators

We see, then, that Dogen’s magnum opus was a teaching document targeting the average student. What does this imply about how it should be translated?

It’s too much to hope that we will uncover a forgotten fascicle, “Instructions for the Translator”, as the manuscript of Bendowa was discovered, three centuries after Dogen’s death, hidden in a Kyoto monastery. Of course, it’s understandable that Dogen saw fit to leave instructions for the tenzo (cook), but not the translator; the tenzo is in many ways the linchpin of the monastery, as well as being an extremely challenging position from the point of view of practice. Given the huge volumes of Chinese Buddhist literature that he clearly knew in depth, not to mention the fact that he studied in China and probably spoke the language fluently, Dogen must have understood the question of translation, but sadly failed to leave us with any clues as to how we, as translators, should proceed.

But if we are correct that Dogen wrote SBGZ to teach the average student, certainly that must also be the goal of a translation. This means that our translations should not make unnecessary use of expert jargon. You may say that the words Dogen used, perhaps manpou (myriad dharmas), to take just one example, were expert jargon, but they were most assuredly not—such words were familiar everyday terms to the people of that era.

The purpose of this post is not to praise my own translations, but a religious teacher who has asked me not to use his name commented on my Genjo Koan translation as follows:

Also, I like the fact that you do not use terms like “dharma,” the use of which I think is a cop-out…Unlike many other translations on the market, you help people become clear instead of becoming confused.

Translating manpou as “myriad things” also qualifies as a “cop-out”, absolving the translators of the need to figure out what it means and how to render it in a meaningful way in the target language. But actually it’s worse than laziness, because it confuses and distracts the reader, completely contradicting Dogen’s intent, namely that his writings teach. Readers who have read enough of this type of translation may begin to imagine they actually “know” what this construct means. Translators also use these literal translations, as far as I can tell, as a means to give their work more of a “religous”, “scriptural” patina.

Because that’s what this is, scripture, right? It’s a really important, religious book, about really holy, religious stuff, written by a really sanctified, religious guy, right? For us Westerners that attended Sunday School or its equivalent in our childhood, “scripture” retains a unique emotional smell, no matter how far we have come from our Judeo-Christian roots. The biblical verses “God created the heavens and the earth”, or “The meek shall inherit the earth”, resonate in our minds far beyond their surface meanings; they are songs of angels, the voice of God, still yielding that old internal tingle. So it’s not surprising that Western translators of Dogen, working with something that obviously has heavy “scriptural” aspects, would, consciously or not, choose a style which invokes their own scriptural tradition, both in terms of vocabulary and phrase structure.

Which is particularly ironic since Dogen is precisely the one who warns us against scripture, such as in Bendowa, where he cautions us:

Make no use of incense or bowing or chanting or ceremonies or scriptures.

Another implication for the translator of the fact that Dogen is addressing the typical student is not only that we should avoid overwrought vocabulary and sentence structure, but that in trying to figure out what Dogen is saying in his original medieval Japanese we should prefer an interpretation which matches a scenario where he is preaching to the average practitioner—a guideline of no small import, considering the paucity of other clues at our disposal in trying to decipher Dogen’s dense, opaque, and unconventional language. Many translators, however, take exactly the opposite tack—they prefer (or invent) an interpretation which is most complex or superficially “Zen-like”, as if Dogen had been addressing only the small number of fully enlightened beings on the planet.

I am not saying that SBGZ should be interpreted at the least-common-denominator level, or that what Dogen is saying is simple or trivial. SBGZ is, in fact, a tour de force presentation of an integrated philosophical and religious view of the utmost profundity. But Dogen’s genius lies precisely in his ability to present those ideas in a way which resonated deeply with the typical practitioner of his day. And so by the same token, the responsibility of those who take it upon themselves to translate Dogen is to map his squiggles from eight centuries ago into a form that accomplishes the same effect for Western students in the 21st century.

In a future post, I’ll apply the thoughts above to Lisa’s insightful comments.

Film review: Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

“Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?” is Yong-Kyun Bae’s spellbinding, succulent commentary on the meaning of life.

Zen aficionados may relate to the Zen setting. A dying master, an adept, and a child live together in a mountain retreat.

Beyond the story or the message of this film, however, is the breathtaking cinematography. The director is said to have spent seven years planning the film in great detail, resulting in a “script” ten times longer than normal—then spent another three full years shooting the movie. The result is a visual feast of lush, compelling imagery. A trained painter and teacher of painting, Bae has created a film which is in itself a painting.

I lay no claim to any definitive interpretation of this film, but to me it spoke about the human being and the necessity of his relationship to society. Just to make sure we get the point, although the monastery is remote, Bae places a bustling city at the foot of the mountain. The old master is so uncomfortable in society that even the main monastery is too much for him; he retreats to an even more isolated hut deep in the mountains where he meditates with his back against frozen ice, hastening his decline. The adept leaves his blind, widowed mother in the slum of the city to selfishly pursue his own enlightenment. The child. an orphan whom the master brought back to his mountain retreat almost as a pet, is deprived of every normal childhood pleasure—in the mountains, he is missing not only ihs parents but his entire social context.

A major subtheme in the film is the boy accidentally killing a bird, which he then buries, later noticing that maggots are devouring its corpse. Far from being a symbol of a child learning about death and evanescence, this scene emphasizes how impoverished the boy’s environment was—one bird dying is literally the sum total of his emotional learning experience that he could have in such an isolated environment.

Although the film speaks within the context of Korea, I am sure, about the nature of our involvement with society as we grow or attempt to do so, the lessons it teaches us apply equally, or even more so, to the West.

Interestingly, the director makes reference to the West in his notes as quoted on the Milestone Films website :

The action takes place around a monastery where an old Zen master lives. The central interest of thiswork is absolutely not Zen in of itself — in effect, Zen assumes the role in this film of an environment of profound significance. I chose this setting because it is of great interest and beauty and is perfectly suited to express my search for life’s meaning.

The teachings of Zen Buddhism allowed the Far East to develop its own culture and esthetic, but Zen also influenced many Western thinkers. One can discover examples in existential philosophy (especially in the writings of Martin Heidegger), in the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, in surrealist art and in contemporary music and art.

I am also deeply interested in Erich Fromm’s assertion that the way of Zen is in harmony with the goals of Western psychoanalysis — self-fulfillment. I am convinced that, contrary to the extremely rational methodology of psychoanalysis, Zen allows the discovery of the reality of things and the foundations of the soul.

The movie was chosen as “One of the Ten Best Films of All Time” by three international film critics in the 1993 “Sight & Sound” Critics’ Poll.

IMDB listing

Newsweek misses the boat on spirituality in America

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

How can a major newsmagazine spend nearly 20 pages on a cover story about spirituality in America and shed almost zero light on the subject?

The magazine in question is Newsweek, in its September 5, 2005 issue. What could have been most interesting, the poll, was deeply flawed by poor design. They asked people to categorize themselves as religious or spiritual or both or neither, but never bothered to define the terms! They found that 29% of Americans reports they meditate every day—a ludicrously high number, doubtless inflated by people who thought they were “meditating” if they stopped for a minute on their way past the fridge to think about the girl at work. Although the poll asked people whether they thought God created the Universe (80% say yes!), they didn’t even bother to ask what kind of thing/guy/concept/force people thought God was.

Zen Buddhism does not fare very well at the hands of these feckless journalists. It’s mentioned just three times: once quoting a Time article from the 60s pairing Zen with drugs and psychiatry; a four-line definition, saying “rooted in Buddhism, Zen involves meditation in search of enlightenment. Practitioners often focus on apparently nonsensical questions called koans”; and a bizarre quote by a Jewish scholar claiming that “…Kabbalah…conveys the message that God’s power depends on humanity’s actions. God needs our worship. It’s the same impulse behind Zen Buddhism, Tibetan masters, Hopi Indians.” My goodness, how very confused we are.

Although I realize that neurotheology is not exactly in the mainstream, it still strikes me as odd that not once in 20 pages in a single mention made of the brain, especially since the article focused on the trend towards personal experience. Whether you believe God made the brain or the brain made God or something halfway in between, the brain is still key to this riddle.


Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Religion is uniquely human.

Or is it? Finding precursors or analogs to human religious behavior in animals would represent an incredible step forward in understanding the evolutionary and neurological correlates of religion.

Perhaps our assumption that animals could not believe in God has prevented us from seeing their particular way of doing so. As Stephen Jay Gould writes in Ever since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History:

Chimps…have long been the battleground for our search for uniqueness; for if we could establish an unambiguous distinction…between ourselves and our closest relatives, we might gain the justification long sought for our cosmic arrogance.

Intuitively, stating that only humans are religious has a dubious ring to it. We share a huge percentage of our genome with the primates. To me, it seems likely that we have simply failed to observe religious behaviors in animals, or, more likely, failed to correctly interpret them as religious.

We know that chimpanzees hold “funerals” for their dead, something humans would consider a religous ceremony. The chimp funerals involve

crying, displaying, and hurling rocks in all directions, the chimpanzees were embracing, mounting, touching, and patting tne another with big, nervous grins on their faces. Later, the chimpanzees stared at the body, one juvenile female for more than an hour.

Other than the mounting part, sounds like many funerals I’ve been to.

Another prototypical element of religous observance is ritual chanting or other rhythmic behaviors. It is known that chimps drum on hollow trees as a means of communication, but it has also been reported that such drumming may sometimes continue for hours—certainly much longer than necessary to alert your troupe to a nearby predator.

These and other observations of potentially religious behavior in animals could lead to the design of experiments impossible to carry out on humans. If in doing so we came to understand the neurological bases of the animals’ religious behaviors, we could then search for correlates in the human brain, roughly analogous to how scientists compared the FOXP2 language and speech gene in humans and chimps .

Of course, we can approach this problem from a different angle. A robust theory of neurotheoanthropology (the human equivalent of neurotheozoology) should provide us with clues to detecting religious behaviors in animals. Conversely, if a neurotheoanthropological theory does not provide such clues, that may indicate that it is flawed or circular. The neurotheology of Newberg and d’Aquili, for example, which I have not discussed here yet, seems to suffer from exactly that defect.

A toy theory and its application

Just to see how this would work, we’ll walk though a “toy” theory of neurotheology. In this theory, the development of the left-brained capacity to assign names to represent objects (or, more generally, to process symbols), while obviously of huge adaptive value, gave rise to an unending struggle on the part of the organism to reconcile the existential gap between the name and the named, or between the hemispheres if you will. In this theory, religion is an indispensable mechanism to soothe this tension, by engaging in a series of rituals which bring together the name and its referent in a temporary unity, or, in the hemispheric interpretation, leading to a particular type of information transfer across the hemisphere divide, or, possibly, causing physiological changes which promote such transfer.

Under this theory, if an animal can process names, which chimps can, it should have the existential tension, and is likely to have developed religious behaviors in response. The behaviors to look for would be those that would invoke some physiological change in brain state. Drumming on the tree is an obvious example, but chimps may also engage in meditative behavior—something the researcher sitting in his blind would hardly attribute to a chimp “just sitting there”. Other possible behaviors are those related to names and symbols, such as reorganizing and pondering objects.

Perhaps animal religion will be the topic of the research winning one of the increasing number of prizes in neuroscience, such as the Peter Gruber Prize, first awarded last year, or the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience scheduled to be awarded in 2008.

Dogen and women

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

750 years ago, Dogen repudiated religious discimination between the sexes, saying, “The desire to hear Dharma and the search for enlightenment do not necessarily rely on the difference in sex.”

I wish more of our current religious “leaders” had figured this out.

Dogen also had trenchant comments to make on sexual objectification:

Some people, foolish to the extreme, think of a woman as nothing but an object of sensual pleasure…A Buddhist should not do so. Both man and woman become objects, and thus become equally involved in defilement.

Dogen made these comments in the Raihai Tokuzui fascicle of Shobo Genzo. Translations are by Hee-jin Kim, from Dogen, Mystical Realist.