1 Lions Roar

From Digha Nikaya, Sutta 8 22. Kassapa, it may be that wanderers of other sects will say: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, but only in empty places, not in company.” They should be told that this is not true: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, and he roars it in company.” Or they may say: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, and in company, but he does so without confidence.” They should be told that this is not true: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, in company and confidently.” Or they may say: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, and in company, and confidently, but they do not question him.” They should be told that this is not true: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar..and they question him.” Or they may say: ”..and they question him, but he does not answer.” ...Or they may say: ”...he answers, but he does not win them over with his answers.”... Or they may say: ”..he wins them over with his answers, but they don’t find it pleasing.” .. Or they may say: ”...they find it pleasing but they are not satisfied with what they have heard.” ... Or they may say: ”...they find it pleasing and are satisfied with what they have heard, but they don’t behave as if they were satisfied.” .. Or they may say: ”...they behave as if they were satisfied, but they are not on the path of truth.” ... Or they may say: ”.. they are on the path of truth, but they are not satisfied with the practice.” They should be told that this is not true: ”The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, in company and confidently, they question him and he answers, he wins them over with his answers, they find it pleasing and are satisfied with what they have heard, they behave as if they were satisfied, they are on the path of truth, and they are satisfied with the practice.” That, Kassapa, is what they should be told.

2 Sermon

A band called Storyhill has a question in their lyrics I have been thinking about. The question is: ”If faith can move a mountain, tell me, what can move my faith?” There are many things I have faith about. I have faith that when I am speeding down the highway at around a mile a minute, the cars on the other side of a painted line will not crash into me. I have faith that little pieces of colored paper have worth (holding up a dollar bill). I have faith that humanity can still be around 100,000 years from now. I have faith that science is the best way of finding out information for the types of questions that science can answer. I have faith that I have made mistakes, or maybe I have experience on that one, and I have faith that I will make more mistakes in the future.

The first definition the online dictionary Wiktionary has for faith is “A feeling, conviction or belief that something is true, real, or will happen.” I act on my beliefs as if many things are true, even tho I know that they are not always true. As I go thru my list of beliefs I have faith in, I realize that they all are wrong sometimes. Cars cross the centerline and crash, money can become worthless, humans are completely capable of destroying ourselves long before 100,000 years, science can be wrong, and someday I will make my last mistake.

I have faith despite the times when I have seen my beliefs contradicted. Yet the events of my life have affected what I believe. It goes both ways since my beliefs affect how I interpret my experiences, and my experiences shape my belief.

Of course, there are many causes that make it possible to misinterpret our perceptions. Thru the centuries, individuals have had many different religious experiences. Two example religious experiences are mystics experiencing being out of body, or a Christian experiencing God talking to them. At least some of those centuries of religious experiences are inconsistent with the religious experiences of other individuals. They are not all mutually consistent. It seems to me that in at least some of them, people think they are experiencing more than they really are. They get more out the experience than what they see and thinking would allow. On the other-hand, we have to extrapolate and extend our experiences, we don’t want to spend our lives watching apple trees to see if any of the apples fall up instead of down to the ground.

As I see it, there is a truth out there, however our human knowledge of it is imperfect. Some things we know we can be quite certain of. For example, I am quite certain that 1+1=2, um, well, to be perfectly clear, the number after zero (hold up one finger) plus the number after zero (hold up one finger on other hand) equals the number after the number after zero (lower finger on one hand and raise second finger on other hand). I am even more certain of that fact than I am of my own physical existence. On the other hand, I believe that Garth Brooks is the best English poet of the second half of the 20th century, but I am not very certain of that.

Of course I have a little uncertainty in all my beliefs. As Robert T. Weston said: ”A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.” I agree with Robert Weston. I have developed a simple test to guess how many of my beliefs are wrong. I assume that for my beliefs when other people believe differently than I, that at least half the time I am the one that started out with the wrong belief. In that case I have to change my mind or I will continue believing the wrong thing. So, to use this test, I just think back on how many times I have changed my mind about something important. The last two times I changed my mind suddenly were both at the Flathead lake United Methodist church camp in 1997.

The first instance happened when at the suggestion of the camp councilor Huston Green, I reread the gospels. I didn’t like everything I read in the Gospels, but I found many parts that I had forgotten about or missed the last time I had heard them, and I changed my mind about the Christian gospels’ worth. I had found parts I liked and found good.

In the second case, I became more accepting of homosexual individuals because of a talk given by Carolyn, a lesbian camp councilor.

I usually don’t change my mind so quickly. In fact, I rarely change my mind. Since I don’t change my mind very often, maybe I should hope that I am always right. ”O Lord, grant that I may always be right, for you know I will never change my mind.” I’m not sure that works very well in practice.

Actually, I think it is not that I don’t change my mind, but rather, I change my mind so slowly, I barely even realize I am changing. For example, I read Carl Sagan’s book ”The Demon Haunted World” when I was a teenager, and then again in my late twenties, and I was amazed at how different a book it seemed each time. Same book, different me.

I have occasionally set out to find the truth. For example, I spent several months on and off in college trying to figure out which was more likely to be true, the pessimistic view set forth in The Limits to Growth, by Meadows, Meadows and Randers. This view holds that humanity is probably going to collapse in the next hundred years, versus the alternative, more optimistic view by people such as Julian Simon that humans would continue to invent our way out of problems. My conclusion was that both groups made some factual mistakes, but that either could be right, and time would be the ultimate judge.

Discovering the truth is helped by having discussions with other people who think differently than you. When two people have two different ideas there is more chance that one of them is right. I have a confession to make. Part of the reason I am giving this sermon is that hopefully some of you disagree with me, and so maybe I will find out where I am wrong. And as the Buddha discussed in our opening reading, the mark of a great idea is that you can tell it to people, they question you, you answer, and they leave satisfied and live better because of it ( Digha Nikaya, Sutta 8).

I have a friend, Brian, whom I have known since second grade. We have been discussing religion for nearly two decades, hundreds of lunches and emails and neither of us has yet convinced the other. We still disagree about basic Epistemology questions such as is the Bible or science a more reliable guide to truth. Both of us fail the Buddha’s test since we cannot convince the other. Of course, what do we have to offer each other? I cannot really speak for him, but I only have a rock-solid faith in doubt and uncertainty to offer him. Changing the other’s mind would involve shattering his beliefs down to the core, and then destroying those as well. Its probably not going to happen.

In the end, I have no answer to the question of what can move my faith. Some of my faith is very unlikely to change, but parts might change, but only with sufficiently large amounts of time and thought. I’ll finish with a poem I wrote at the end of a long discussion with my friend Brian:

Argue with me, I will defend myself
Scare me, I will flee
Lecture me, I may listen
Live your lesson, I will see
Only love can change the soul

3 An Essay on Man

From An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope. Portion of Epistles II

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.