Quote of the Afternoon

We have to free ourselves of childish expectations; we must not pray like children whining to our parents. We must also reject any latent feudalism in our hearts: we still call our gods “lords” and act like serfs begging for consideration. Neither infantile wailing nor medieval supplication is the prayer we need.

— Deng Ming-Dao, The Lunar Tao

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The Lunar Tao (and Quote of the Morning)

On Monday, I came across a copy of a book that I didn’t know about by a favorite author of mine, Deng Ming-Dao. The book, The Lunar Tao, is a couple of years old, but this last two or three years has been very rough for us and I haven’t been keeping up with new books much.

Some years back, Mr. Deng wrote a terrific book called 365 Tao, which is a series of daily meditations on living in harmony with the Tao. Each of the short essays is connected with a day of the year, and many of them are tied in some way to the seasons in various ways. (A nice touch is that the essays are not dated but are numbered 1 to 365, with a table in the back where you look up which number corresponds to a particular date; different sets of correspondences are given for the northern and southern hemispheres.)

This book, The Lunar Tao, is also a series of daily meditations, but tied to the days of the lunar calendar. Appropriately enough, Monday was the first day of the year by the Chinese lunar calendar, so I’ve been able to start right from the beginning. Each page also contains a sidebar about the significance of the day in the Chinese calendar or some other aspect of Chinese culture or writings that is relevant to the day’s meditation, and the meditations are interspersed with information about festivals, short poems, historical information, and traditional physical exercises. I’m looking forward to getting deeper into it.

Anyway, today’s meditation, on the parable of the Kitchen God and the virtue of humility, contains a line that I like a lot:

Those who are truly lucky suffer mildly from their mistakes and learn early.

Oh, yeah, ain’t that the truth. The meditation ends with a line worth jotting down, too:

We claim the center by being humble.

Quote of the Morning

From Pope Francis’s homily for a mass for new cardinals:

I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper — whether in body or soul — who encounters discrimination. We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized.

It’s Not That Easy Seeing Green

From an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

Take again the case of color and wavelength. Wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

The crucial point, in one sentence:

The brain computes models that are caricatures of real things.

Of course, many Buddhists and mystics and philosophers and others have been saying this for centuries (only they say it in Sanskrit instead of scientific language, which makes it easier to read), but it looks like science is rapidly catching up.

Quote of the Afternoon

By ethical argument
And moral principle
The greatest crimes are eventually shown
To have been necessary, and, in fact
A signal benefit
To mankind.

— Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu], translated by Thomas Merton

(I hope it’s clear even out of context that Zhuangzi was disdaining ethical arguments and moral principles, and not defending great crimes.)

Thought

The trails start out so widely separated at the base that those who have never been more than thirty feet above sea level suppose that it matters vitally which trail you start out on, and that the trails stay just as far apart all the way up to the top of the mountain.

The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel

John is the gospel I know the least well, and part of that is that I’m repelled somehow by all the emphasis on miracles — not that the other three gospels avoid miracles completely, but the miracles are few enough and there is enough other stuff in between them that I can ignore them and concentrate on the parables and other teachings.

But a few days ago I came across a book on John, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, and it was written by William Countryman, who wrote a very good book on the morality of the Old and New Testaments with the great title of Dirt, Greed, and Sex. That book for me was one of those on-first-looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experiences, revealing to me all sorts of connections and contexts for various parts of the Bible that I had not seen or noticed before. So I picked up the book on John on a whim — it was only four bucks in a used book store — and I’ve started it.

Probably half my books come from used book stores, and it’s kind of amazing and a little frightening to me to think back and realize the extent to which my thinking has been shaped over the decades by books that just randomly happened to be on the shelf and catch my eye in this or that used book store. Some of the books that have most seriously influenced me, I picked up on a whim because they were on the 99-cent table and looked kind of interesting. It’s a bit humbling and disturbing to wonder how different a person I might be if somebody I never knew had not decided to get rid of that old book when he or she did, or if somebody else had seen the book and decided to buy it the day before I walked into the bookstore.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve started reading the book on John, and even though I’m not very far into it, I’m surprised to already be seeing something about John that I have never noticed before, even though it seems to be right there on the surface and which shows how uncarefully I have read it before. Because while it’s true that John’s gospel is irritatingly thick with miracles, Jesus also accompanies them with a recurring commentary on how shallow a person’s faith is if miracles are the reason for it. For some reason I’ve always been so turned off by the miracles in John that I never let myself notice that the attitude Jesus is said to take toward them is one I can certainly get behind.

On the other hand, Jesus’s first miracle in John, the wedding at Cana, is always going to have special associations for me because of the breathtaking way that Robertson Davies developed it as a metaphor in What’s Bred in the Bone, which may be my favorite novel ever. So I can give John that one.