Rotten Deals Faithfully Accepted

In the March 3 issue of TIME, there was an interview of the Holiness Dala Lama by the TIME reporter Elizabeth Dias who specializes in theologies. I presume it was for the occasion of celebrating International Woman’s Day on March 8. One of the questions was:

“What do you think Pope Francis and the Catholic Church can learn from Buddhism’s view of Women.”?

On first glance, the question seems to suggest that Buddhism has a higher level of wisdom on the status of women. Dala Lama’s answer was: (complete quote)

“Generally speaking, each one should follow their traditional way, (but) sometimes we have to judge according to a new reality. For example, female rights are very important. His holiness, the Pope, I think is very, very realistic and quite strict. I really admired his dismissing one German bishop (who was living) his own private life in a very sort of expensive, luxurious (way).”

Honestly, I cannot sense any wisdom in such an answer…. but then I am not surprised at all.

When I was a small kid, I remember one day I overheard my mother ranting to her best friends, “I don’t want to be a woman next life!”

At that time, I was too young to understand anything about it.

When I got older, one day I happened to find a Buddhism pamphlet called “The Book of Three Lives (Reincarnations)”, which “explains” why we have such and such a life this round. The idea is to “teach” people how to build up good Karma for the next life from lessons in the past life.

It has lines like “Wonder why you always lose money in business this life; that is because you owed money from others last life.”

“Wonder why you are born into a rich family; that is because you gave generously to the poor last life”.

And then I found this one. ” Wonder why you are a woman this life; that is because you did no good in the past life.” My heart sank. O my Mom!

When I looked at other religious books, I found the same pattern. Women are secondary and inferior.

In the Book of Genesis, when I read that the first woman was made from the rib of a man, and that, after listening to a talking snake and eating a forbidden apple, she was condemned to suffer labor pain for child birth and that she had to obey her husband, I said to myself “ O Really?” When my wife was struggling with labor pain in the delivery room for my kids, I never felt that she deserved it because another woman did something wrong before. Instead, I felt I had to love her more because she was willing to go through that suffering for our family.

As for Islam, I wonder what would I feel if I have to share my loving wife with four other men, and that I have to cover from head to toe in black walking in 40-degree heat.

The most ridiculous (and horrific) case I found was the Devadasi in Hinduism, where young poor girls are “offered” to the temple for sacred duties. In reality, they simply become entertainment objects of the holy men in the church: the infamous Prostitutes of God offering “Sacred Sex”.

Why do women get all such rotten deals from religions?

Even worse, why would women be willing to accept these rotten deals and do not see them as exploitation in disguise? Apparently, they are under the chokehold of having to be faithful to their religions. In my humble opinion, all these great religions will be so much the better by removing these questionable (literally Man-made) gender biases built into their scriptures. These biases will only benefit the leaders, not the people following the religions.

When I remember my mother said she did not want to be a woman next life, it makes me feel that she did this one just for me.

 

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The Joy of Holding A Lottery Ticket

 

 

A month ago, I got news from Hong Kong that one of my aunts just got baptized. She was in her mid-70s, so I found it a bit surprising. Why did she not pick up a religion when she was young? What was she doing it for now?

Last week, when I was waiting for a bus home, I met an old gentleman at the stop and started a casual little chat. I mentioned about my aunt being baptized at such an old age. He said, “Well, you don’t get an afterlife unless you have a religion.” He seemed to be a well-educated man. While I was trying to figure out what he meant, his bus came and we parted.

On my way home through the mall, I walked by a lottery booth. It displayed a big sign “20 Million Dollar Jackpot This Friday”. There was a line buying tickets. Out of curiosity, I bought a ticket for $2.

That night I when looked at the ticket, wonderful thoughts came to me. What if I win? What do I do with 20 million bucks? I could buy a big house, a fast car, a beautiful yacht and even perhaps a private jet. In short, I should have no problem finishing up everything on my bucket list.  How wonderful, if I win!

Even though I knew I had a virtually zero chance of winning with that ticket, yet I felt so happy fantasizing about a fortune just because there was a chance, however minute.

Then came the draw on Friday night, and of course my ticket did not win. By Saturday morning, life had already returned to normal, the fantasies all disappeared but I still remembered the happy feeling I had holding that lottery ticket for the past several days like in a sweet dream. In the end, it was just false hope but I got three happy days for $2. On looking back, even though I knew full well that it was just about impossible for me to win and yet I could not control the warm feeling of fantasizing about “financial freedom” every minute before the draw. I may be fooling myself, but it was worth it.

And then I remembered what the man said at the bus stop.

Although I do not believe in afterlife, what if there is really one? My science professor said nothing could be absolutely certain. That is why we do science. What appears to be impossible now may become possible in the future someday. So just in case there is really an afterlife, imagine how wonderful it would be. We will no longer have to worry about our health (because we will never die again). That means we will effectively get back our youth and stay in it forever. We can even meet our deceased love ones, our parents, our grandparents and old friends. The list of happiness is endless. Indeed, for older people like myself, just the sheer thought of having an afterlife would bring up a lot of hope and happiness. The pipe dream is exactly like buying a lottery ticket and fantasizing about the riches.

So, after the day I die, if I find out that there is really no afterlife, it would still be OK. I will not be able to come back to complain about it anyway, but I would have already enjoyed a period of happy fantasy for the final years of my life when everything else is gloomy and sad. Happiness is what counts in life.

Now I understand why the idea of an afterlife is more and more appealing as one gets older and older.

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It is Easy to be a Psychic.

In this beginning of the year, I notice that the social media, magazines, newspapers and even YouTube, are filled with predictions and horoscopes for the year 2014, presented by various professional psychics and “gifted” people with divine powers.

For these, I always have these basic questions.

  1. How do these gifted people come up with those wonderful predictions? Why can’t they tell us?
  2. How accurate are these predictions? By this I mean do they ever come back at the end of the year to review what percentage of their predictions come true?
  3. Why different psychics have different predictions? Are they not “gifted” by the same divine power? In contrast to this, different scientists all over the world give essentially the same predictions.

To my great disappointment, I find that people seldom ask those questions. For the first one, they do not ask simply because they do not want to offend “sacred” people with divine powers. For the second one, they are easily impressed by the predictions that are fulfilled and not questioning those that failed. For the third one, it seems that they just assume the psychics are “gifted” in different ways.

In view of the above, I would like to introduce this “Measure of Divinity”, which is on a scale of 0 to 10. The higher the number, the more “divine” the forecast will be. For instance, predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow from the East has a measure of 0, while predicting the whole set of tomorrow’s lottery numbers will be close to 10. When I look at all the predictions of the gifted psychics in front of me, I would say virtually all of them would measure in the order of about 1, or 2.

So it seems to me that it is not difficult to be a psychic after all. You can simply say that something is going to happen to somebody or to the world. The easy part is that you do not have to explain why, other than saying that it comes from your gifted divine power. The best part of it is that only part of what you say need to be correct and people will still be happy.

So I will do my share of psychic contribution as below.

As a totally “ungifted” person with absolutely no divine power (that I know of), I would like to present my 10 predictions for the year 2014 as follows;

  1. There will be new outbreak of unrest in the Middle East and in surrounding countries.
  2. Some important world political leaders will be involved in scandals that may lead to their stepping down.
  3. Forest fires will hit California and Australia, while floods will hit East and South Asia.
  4. Hurricanes will hit Cuba and Florida, while typhoons will hit Taiwan and the Philippines.
  5. One or more top Hollywood movie stars will pass away.
  6. Gun violence will hit US schools or shopping malls.
  7. Major earthquakes will hit the Pacific Rim countries.
  8. One or more countries in Europe will develope financial problems.
  9. Terrorist strikes will hit the US or Europe.
  10. Some new electronic gadgets will appear on the market and become very popular.

For now, it is not necessary for you to ask me how I come up with these “foresights”, but I am pretty sure by January 2015, when we review these “predictions”, you will think I must have some divine power.

So by then you can call me a psychic.

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Celebrating Christmas without Christ

 

During a Christmas holiday gathering last week, a Christian friend asked me, “If you do not believe in God, why do you celebrate Christmas?”

Well, she could have asked a more “deadly” question, “If you do not believe in God, why do you take holidays?”

It almost got me started, but I figured it was not a good time to get into it. Indeed, from past experience, I had learned that it would be better to avoid debating about religions unless it was absolutely necessary. Besides, it was probably just a friendly question, just trying to introduce me to God.

Just to cool it off, I simply said, ”Christmas is a good time to be with friends and families. Why not?”

Actually, I do not see any problem for me to celebrate Christmas, or any religious and non-religious festivals for that matter. In fact, I celebrate religious festivals out of respect to these religions, while I reserve my rights not to have a particular religion. On looking back, I think there is a good reason for me to do so.

I was brought up in a cultural melting-pot place called Hong Kong, where we had traditions and religions from both East and West. Many of my friends and teachers outside are Catholics and Protestants and followed western traditions, while at home, our parents, grand parents and relatives followed Taoism and Buddhism together with eastern traditions associated with them. As a result, I was exposed to different mutually exclusive religions and ended up with an “open mind” not to have any, but not rejecting any religion.

Furthermore, the British colonial government of Hong Kong of those days also had an “open mind” to incorporate festivals from both cultures as official holidays. For instance, we had holidays for the Dragon Boat and the Mid-Autumn Festivals from the Chinese culture, and Christmas and Easter from the West. Since these festivals all bring us wonderful days called “holidays” that we do not have to work and get paid, or go to school, no matter what religion it comes from, we found very little excuses to reject them. In other words, we got the “best” out of the mixed culture, or to put it in political correct terms, we were culturally and religiously “tolerant”.

For each festival, there is always a legend behind, and most often the legend is derived from a religious story. We accept these legends in the same way as we enjoy reading fairy tale novels. For those of us who do not have a religion, we know these legends are not real, but since they are so beautiful, we still enjoy these stories and would even pass them on to our kids to enjoy. We hope that after being exposed similarly to the “best” of the mixed world culture, our kids will develop an “open mind” on their own.

There may or may not be a God, but we all love Santa Claus, and enjoy our Christmas holiday.

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The Right To Be Stupid

 

In the Column of Quotes in last year’s TIME magazine, I read that the once American presidential candidate John Kerry said, during a talk to some German students, “Americans have the right to be stupid”.

It sounded real funny. What a stupid thing to say! My friends and I had some big laugh about it. No wonder there were so many weird things Americans did, such as those in the Darwin Awards. Indeed, YouTube is filled with thousands of “stupid American” contributions.

Two recent events made me realize how serious this “stupidity” matter actually was.

Couple of weeks ago, when one of my term deposits matured, a bank sale called up and offered me a “good deal”. One new investment could bring me returns as high as 20% annually and at worst I could still keep my principal. I just had to “pay a little more attention to the market”. I told her that I did not want to gamble and preferred to remain at the present rate of 2%. She then started to lecture me on how “unwise” it would be to keep money in low return investments, which would lose out to inflation. The “good deal” was not a gamble. A wise investor would watch the market daily and there would be plenty of opportunities to make a lot of money if one can play the market right. Blah, blah, blah.

I said to her,” I am retired now and I want a relaxing life, so I do not like to spend time watching financial news everyday. At my age, life is more important than money.” After about 10 minutes of further unproductive discussion, she finally said. “Don’t be stupid. If you can make more money, why not?” Still, I said “No. Thanks”.

Last weekend, two well-dressed Mormon fellows were at my door preaching their religion. They asked me whether I believe in God, I said no. They asked why; I said I do not believe in miracles. One of them then gave me an example. “My aunt’s doctor said she had only 3 months to live, we prayed to God, and then she lived for two years, is that not a miracles?” I said, “ In this case, mostly likely, the doctor made a mistake. Doctors are not perfect.” (I am sure about that after working in hospitals all my life)

He then asked me “Do you ever pray?”

I said ”No. I think some people are just fooling themselves when they pray to God to get rich, to win a football game, to pass an exam, to locate a missing pet etc. If God can answer prayers, he should first take care of those hungry dying kids who are praying just to get some food.”

From there on, we moved to unproductive exchanges, during which they continued to try to introduce me to God, while I continued to say I was not interested. After about an hour, I realized that we were not going anywhere, so I finally said ”I fully respect your religion, I hope you also respect my lack of religion. Thank you”.

They then left with the following parting words, “ Sorry we are just trying to save you. Even if you do not see God now, you should be smart enough to know that Jesus died fore your sin.” Then they walked away shaking their heads.

I am sure in their minds, these people are genuinely trying to help me. The fact that I did not choose to follow their recommendations is “stupidity” in their definition.

Then I ask myself the chilling question, “What if I live in a land where I cannot choose, even just to be stupid?”

 

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Air Travel To The US Used To Be Fun.

 

When I first came to North America in the early 70”s, there was virtually no security checks for air traveling to the US. Air travel was so free and fun.

My first air travel was in 1970 when I came over to Canada to continue my schooling. My Philippine Air Line plane made a refueling stop in Honolulu during my flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco (on the way through Chicago to Toronto). There was no direct flight yet. We had 3 hours to wander freely out of the airport to look at the famous mountains and beaches. I happened to be walking along with a lady seatmate that I just met on the plane. A pair of local couple thought we were lovers and gave us a pair of that famous Honolulu flower necklace (I think it is called the Lei) to wear back on the plane. I have never seen that lady again after the flight.

Then in 1974, after I settled down in Vancouver and became a Canadian citizen, I made my first business trip to US.  At that time in terms of air travel, the Americans seemed to treat Canadians as part of their own family (or Canada as one of their States) and so flights from Canada were regarded as domestic flights within the US. There were only some very minor immigration and custom checks at the Canadian Airports. Once we got on the plane, we were like being on America soil already and can walk freely out of the destination airport without any further checks. The same as I was in Honolulu.

The US “Custom Check” in the Vancouver Airport at the time was largely just handing over the luggage to some US officials to get on the conveying belt. I could bring as much as I could carry on the plane. More interestingly, the “Immigration Check” was a joke on today’s standard. It was simply a small desk placed on the side of the hallway on our way to the departing gates, somewhat like a coffee booth these days at our airports.  It was staffed only by an elderly gentleman with a friendly face like a salesman, in sharp contrast to those hostile gun-carrying poker-faced ones you see today. As air passengers walked by, the gentleman would look and occasionally ask one or two for their citizenships. It seemed to be an honor system then and air passengers were treated as welcomed friendly visitors to their country (as it should be).

For my case, it went like this.

As I approached the desk, I saw that gentleman was looking at me, so I knew that I was to be “asked”.

I walked over to him with a light smile. He asked, ”citizenship?”

I said, “Canadian”.

I was about to pull out my citizenship card, but he waved his hand and said,” It is OK. Have a good trip. Welcome to the US”.

Yes, it was a good trip. I felt at home in the US.

My next trip was even more “spectacular”. I was with my boss and we were quite late with only minutes to go when we got to the airport, so we had to run. Fast.

My boss ran a little ahead of me. As we passed close to the “immigration desk” in the corridor, to my great surprise, my boss simply raised his right hand and yelled to the gentleman, “Canadian!” and ran right past him! Of course, I had to follow suit and we both made it onto the plane with only seconds to spare. Nobody chased after us.

Imagine if we do that nowadays, we would be pinned own on the floor by FBI agents in no time, with guns pointing at our heads.

Now, 40 years later, all that is history.

In recent years when I traveled to the US, I had to be at the airport two hours before the flight, brought my passport and other Ids and explained that I was not going to be an illegal citizen in the US, went through both security and custom lineups like prisoners checking in, removed my coats and wallets etc for the scan, being petted all over my body for weapons and even had to remove my shoes and belt for potential bombs, all in the name of “Homeland Security”. Air passengers are now all potential enemies rather than friendly visitors to the US. To a certain extend, we are being humiliated rather than respected in the process.

With all these new “improvements in airport securities”, they may or may not have succeeded in getting the terrorists out, but the terrorists have certainly succeeded in getting the fun out of our air travel.

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Religion and Freedom

The other day when I was downtown, there was a nice looking lady standing shyly at the corner of the street holding some religious pamphlets. As I approached, she came over and asked, a little nervously, “I like to invite you to come to our church this Sunday.”

I said, “Sorry I am a Buddhist.” (Actually I am not)

She said, “It does not matter, you are still welcome to our church.”

I said, “ How about you coming to our temple this weekend?”

She said, ”Sorry, we Christians are not allowed to go to temples.”

Instead of asking her why, I just smiled and said thanks goodbye.

I was thinking of saying this “You are not allowed to go to temples because you are a Christian, and yet you do not see any problem for a Buddhist to come to your church?” That does not seem fair, but I understand that the rule of the game is: once you pick up a religion, there will be a certain number of things you cannot do, and, more importantly, certain things you have to do, whether you enjoy it or not.

Once a Christian friend asked me, “If you do not read the bible, where do you get your moral standards?” It sounds like they have a problem with me. In the worst case, I heard on the radio someone said, “Atheists are immoral. They are evil, on the same par as rapists”. My goodness! That is serious.

IMHO, my religious friends have it all wrong. I believe that moral standards are a natural product of the process of social evolution of human societies developed since pre-historic times. Communities in which people could kill, lie, steal and covet freely would be very chaotic and unstable like barbarians. As a result, these communities were unsuccessful and eventually all died out and disappeared from history. The remaining surviving stable communities were those that had developed workable social practices setting rules to protect against these destructive human ills and hence could evolve to became our great ancient civilizations in various parts of the world. That is why every ancient culture, east and west, irrespective of its religion, developed essentially the same basic moral codes against killing, stealing, lying, adultery, etc.

Since religions were developed only after these ancient civilizations had been established, it seems more logical that the religion pioneers adopted the then existing moral codes in these ancient societies, rather than the other way round as present theists believed. For instance, in the case of Judaism, it was likely that they incorporated the basic moral codes of the time and then, understandably, added a few more God-related codes at the top to protect their religion, and that became the 10 commandments that we know of today. However, in the daily practices in the present human society in the developed world, it is still those basic moral codes, i.e. kill, steal, lie, covet etc that matters in the courts.

Hence, I can see atheists can have just as much morals as theists. Not to kill, lie, steal and covet is simply a part of our basic human instinct for a peaceful and stable society that all citizens share today. The only difference is that atheists do not have to believe that it came from some holy book or holy person.

Indeed, I feel very free when my moral code is not tied to any religion. My moral codes are applicable to different cultures of the world, and I have freedom to challenge the authority whenever I find it unreasonable.

On the other hand, I also have more fun this way. Even though I do not believe hell exists, I will still tell someone to burn in hell if I hate him/her enough. I will tell  my baby daughter if she does not pick up the toys on the ground before bedtime, Santa Claus will not bring her any toys this Christmas. On the other hand, I will not tell her that she cannot go to heaven if she does not read the bible.

Lastly, most atheists also know enough not to follow these codes blindly. For instance, when the situation becomes desperate enough, we will not hesitate to lie to protect our families from predators, to steal to save our dying friends, and to kill to defend our own countries.

 

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