Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Rather Formless Rant About Religion - Yet Again.

Well, I gave it some thought, and after some conferring online with Guruka Singh Khalsa, who has a bunch of great and informative videos on YouTube, I now consider myself a sahajdhari Sikh.

It's a work-in-progress, naturally. Slowly I'll phase tobacco and alcohol out of my diet, and maybe someday if I feel so led I'll no longer cut my hair or trim my facial hair. This week I'm going to try meditation, and I do not expect for it to simply click after my first few goes at it. Even non-believers say that meditation offers benefits like stress relief, which at this point in the semester I am in desperate need of.

I have a teacher's audition this Tuesday at the Kaplan Center on Kings Highway, near where Shelley lives. Although her landlady said she would charge more for a couple, perhaps (once there's enough money stashed away under both of our names) once we get married I'll move into her place. It's right by the Q line, which runs infinitely faster than the 2.

This week I have to present in my class tomorrow on madrigal music, which I really enjoy. Gesualdo is my favorite of the two we've got on our listening list. I love his tinkering with harmonies...the note intervals he uses may not be "holy" intervals like the guys who wrote songs for the Pope, but they sound amazing. The piece of his we're discussing, "Moro Lasso," is on the YouTube. You don't need to know a damn thing about music to appreciate how beautiful and haunting this piece is.

I guess that's one thing I'm realizing about music - in spite of McCartney's assertion that if he learned how to read music at this point in life it would take the magic out of it - all the neat little tricks you can do with intervals to create these majestic, otherworldly harmonies. Once I flush the punk out of my system and finally record something, I might have to take some serious stabs at composition.

Holy shit, I'm learning things I didn't think I needed to know! Isn't that strange how things work out like that...and at a SCHOOL, no less?! (I hope my sarcasm is easily detected.)

My brother celebrated his 26th birthday last week, and since I have no money, I instead wrote a short story about the time we went to the Madison State Hospital to visit an inmate who had become pen pals with him. Wonder what he thought of it.

Yesterday, thinking aloud to Shelley, I toyed with the idea of writing about the various religious cultures of New York City. Since we are living in a Post-Postmodern world, a quick search reveals two other scholars have beat me to this. On the one hand, this has me thinking - especially since each source is from NYU and Columbia, both pretty big names in academia - maybe it was a hare-brained notion. But then I also think of how many books on Shakespeare get published in the course of a year. Each scholar, provide they are of sound ethics (and trust me, I am; I'm the king of citations), would theoretically bring an entirely different experience to the table.

A quick skim through Huston Smith's book on world religions, considered to be THE text on comparative religion, and one will see he limits Sikhism to two and a half measly pages. It gets worse. These two and a half pages are at the end of a 70-page chapter on Hinduism. The passage on Sikhism is an appendix, beginning by stating how many Hindus consider Sikhs to be a sect of their own faith. He continues by suggesting there is a degree of synthesis between Hinduism and Islam, going so far as to say it may have been a subconscious notion in the mind of Guru Nanak to reap the "best" of each tradition while injecting little unique on his end.

That is an insult, implying that Guru Nanak was attempting to reconcile two disparate beliefs. He had been born Hindu, but was against the caste system, against rituals, and the notion that women could not read the Vedas. The Islamic leadership meant the presence of a religion that did (and in many parts of the world still does) separate women from men in terms of practice, held to many ritualistic practices, and professed the idea of a corporeal God.

What I won't deny is that yes, this culture fostered Guru Nanak's writing. He walked away from his Hindu caste and after a three-day period of prayer and meditation, emerged with what would become the basis of the Sikh faith. What Smith seems to ignore is that perhaps God indeed did speak to Nanak; indeed, he writes that all paths lead to God, the way of the Sikh is but one. It is permissible to be a Muslim or a Hindu, just difficult and more prone to falling into blind rituals.

Nanak championed equality, regardless of gender or class, in the late 15th and early 16th Century, at a time where feudalism and slavery was in practice throughout Europe and the Orient. Even if you don't believe in God, you can at least give that much to Nanak.

Smith's attitude reminds me of a condescending ethnographer from a more backwards time, and yet he is reverent and insightful in his discussions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Should it be any surprise that he studied and practiced these two faiths? I don't want to put the guy down too much, as he is the granddaddy of comparative religion, but Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world. This was a status obtained without waging holy wars, invading neighboring territories, or actively proselytizing to non-believers.

Smith also completely (!) ignores Zoroastrianism, the seminal religion that brought us the notions of monotheism, good versus evil, and free will, while the Baha'i Faith gets a solitary mention:

"...[the Baha'i Faith] originated in the hope of rallying the major religions around the beliefs they held in common, [but] has settled into being another religion among many."

Again, it's an almost condescending perspective. We have friends who are members of the Baha'i Faith, and they are among the nicest, happiest, and deep-thinking people in our age bracket that we've ever met. I don't agree with the notion that Baha'u'llah wrote of all religions uniting under the Baha'i banner someday, but since I can safely wager that this will never happen. Hell, I even agree with the allegory Smith depicts:

"There are people who want to have their own followers. They would prefer to head their own flock, however small, than be second-in-command in the largest congregation. This suggests that if we were to find ourselves with a single religion tomorrow, it is likely that there would be two the day after."

We've gone to many devotionals with our Baha'i friends, and it is a moving experience to hear similar verses from faiths all across the globe touching on the same themes. Since our friends are interested in the Middle East, a majority comes from the mystic poet Rumi, Sufism, and the Qu'ran, although there's been material from the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, quotes from the Tao, Confucius (who, in spite of all the latent racist "proverbs" jokingly attributed to him featuring minced English - or "Engrish" - actually had some damn good things to say), and the Buddha, an occasional verse from Zoroaster, and even secular poetry. I don't think we've had much of anything from the Old Testament / Tanakh and nothing from some of the more problematic religions like Scientology, Mormonism, or Paganism.

What draws me to Sikhism, though, is that it recognizes that all right-minded paths lead to God. No faith is more right than the other, including Sikhism. It encourages mysticism through meditation and prayer, worship consists of hearing the sacred texts put to music, and from the very get-go followers are urged to steer away from ritual practices and superstitious beliefs.

It has no syncretic agenda, and the underlying message is a beautiful one: recognize God's presence in others, do good deeds, live honestly, pray and meditate, and the cycle of birth/death/rebirth will be broken.

In my investigation of both Liberal Quakerism and the Unitarian Universalists, I was bugged to learn that while you might go to a UU service and hear a non-Christian discussion of Bible as philosophy, you could also go to a UU service and hear a Neo-Paganist read some half-baked poem about Mother Earth and tree worship. I also don't like the Universalist half of the UU church. That's the notion that Christ's mercy will save all nonbelievers.

The Unitarians I like, with their rejection of the Trinity. Try talking to a Christian about the Trinity, and it will get confusing - they don't even get it. In fact, they attribute the nebulous idea of God in three persons, yet these three make up a whole, as something we aren't meant to understand. To them, the fact we can't "get" this concept is proof of the complex nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

It reminds me of Roger in American Dad when he says Christianity sounds like "the diary of a madman." I should stop before I start stomping on toes.

Anyway, whether my idea falls through or not about documenting the cultures of various religions in the city (there's even a center for Tenrikyo in Manhattan; I'm not saying it would be easy work, but what an experience it would be!), it's becoming obvious that I'm not just a music writer, a film critic, journalist, a cultural analyst, or a sociocultural polemicist. I'm all those things and more, with both seeker of truth and mystic being added to the laundry list. I don't mean to sound arrogant; in fact, I don't really like talking about myself in a positive manner. Like, ever. But I don't know if I could manage to be bound by any one field.

The remedy is obvious: I need to write, and I need to get published. And not only that, I need to get published in at least two different milieus so as not to be pigeon-holed. Rock critics are only known as rock critics. Huston Smith's work has solely been on faith. There's got to be some way to get my name out there under several different umbrellas.

Until then, I'll just keep on keeping on. I always do.

PS - I don't know how many of you actively use Blogger, but when you are adding tags to your post, make sure not to press enter unless you are finished, otherwise it will publish your unfinished entry.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Religion: A Very Special Blog Post

Welcome to this, my 150th post. You'll find beer in the fridge, sodas in the cooler, and of course there's punch, peanuts, and chips. I also made Chex Mix.

Let's get down to brass tacks. I'm about ready to consider myself a member of the Sikh faith, though I do plan to cut my hair and periodically shave. This would make me a sahajdhari Sikh. The service we went to was a big deal for me: the message spoke to me, the music was beautiful, the people were friendly, and the food? Wonderful.

Having said all that, I want to issue a message to people my age, a generation older or a generation younger: don't let your upbringing in a religion that was forced onto you by your parents, your nation, or your culture turn you off of God. I know too many people who were raised Christian who, after 18 years of having crammed down their throat, declared themselves either atheist or hid under the umbrella of "I'm spiritual, not religious," or "I believe in God, but I don't like organized religion."

I'll get to atheism in a second. First, those latter two options are cheap and lazy. Get off your ass and investigate. Actually, thanks to the Internet, you don't even need to get off your ass. Hell, you can even do this in the nude.

To begin, think about what you feel is right. Do you think God is formless? Do you believe in multiple Gods? That sort of stuff, the basic questions to get you thinking.

This quiz, while not comprehensive (something with that sort of depth and breadth would be insane, but totally awesome), can point you in the right direction. In fact, taking it is what got me to snoop around New York and see what sort of options were out there. Now, I have the luxury of being in an incredibly multicultural city. For just $2.25, I can hop on a subway train and get to a Jain temple or a Sikh gurdwara.

This brings us back to the eternal reach of the Internet. No Buddhist temples in Cortland, Indiana? That's okay. First of all, you might not be as far from one as you might think (there's one in Bloomington and one in Indianapolis, for example). Even if the drive is too much for you to do even on a semi-regular basis, get in touch with them. Someone will be glad to share information with you.

As I said before, the quiz from isn't perfect. Japanese folk religions, newer faiths that might be a little more syncretic in nature like Cao Đài, Zoroastrianism, and Ayyavazhi are all absent from the results. In other words, you might have to go beyond the scope of that list. (In all fairness, it's a very Western-centric site, with even the Eastern traditions being compared to Western thoughts.)

Here is a list of the major world religions and spiritual traditions. Start reading. After all that, if you still find yourself thinking you're spiritual but not religious, fine. Go ahead. You've earned it.

Atheism? My problem with modern atheism is these dour English academics like Dawkins and Hitchens who are blaming all of society's ills on the big three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and, based on the actions of radicals from each camp, are putting down all of religion. Their rhetoric is as close-minded, angry, and contemptuous as that of their targets. Also, Dawkins' refusal to debate a Creationist is sheer arrogance. That's like the Orthodox rabbi, priest, or cleric who doesn't accept invites to interfaith discussions.

If you consider yourself atheist, give some thought to agnosticism. That at least leaves the possibility open that - GASP! - you might not be right.

Anyway, that about wraps it up for now. I just want people to actively search out the answers to their questions. Don't be lazy.

Word of the day: agnosticism. Note its difference from atheism.