Tibetan monks, day 3

Another picture of the monks working; the monk closest to the camera is incising a design into a background using a stylus (the point of a compass, actually); the monk at rear is adding a line of sand to the incised design:

At the end of the day today, the mandala was nearly complete:

It is hard to see in this photo, but the mandala is not a two-dimensional work; the sand is built up in low relief that is difficult to capture in a photograph.

Tibetan monks in Palo Alto

We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:

Here’s a close-up:

Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.

Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”

Mental illness, civility, and violence

Buried in yesterday’s huge volume of news stories on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, I came across an article that interviewed several experts who specialize in mental illness:

Details about Mr. Loughner are still emerging, and only an examining doctor will be able to make a definitive diagnosis. But the writings and comments attributed to him point strongly to the kind of delusional thinking that is common in schizophrenia.

“I’d say the chances are 99 percent that he has schizophrenia,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in ARlington, Va., which advocates stronger laws to require treatment for people with mental illnesses. “He was together enough to take courses, and people with untreated schizophrenia can function very well for periods. But when you see these rambling, incoherent writings and comments, there is almost no other disorder where this is a prominent symptom.”

Many of Mr. Loughner’s reported comments — about currency and government — also suggest a growing paranoia….

“Red Flags at a College, but Tied Hands,” By Benedict Carey, New York Times, 11 January 2011, pr. A18.

Did the current political climate and heated partisan rhetoric have any effect on Loughner? The experts interviewed by the New York Times disagreed. One expert said it was possible that a psychosis could pick up on “the grand themes of the day,” while Dr. Torrey argued that “It’s not political thinking, it’s psychotic thinking.”

Either way, I think that’s not what’s important. Quite a few people have been arguing that various politicians who use inflamatory rhetoric can create a climate that could incite people like Loughner to violence, but I’m not convinced that’s a productive argument to be having right now. From my perch on the far left of the American political spectrum, I’d have to say that the political rhetoric among both liberals and conservatives has been, and continues to be, uncivil, nasty, threatening, and/or mean-spirited. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m in a preschool classroom filled with children who are misbehaving, and who all need a good, long time out.

I have no interest in blaming conservative politicians for Loughner’s behavior, becuase I believe we should be having two other far more productive conversations right now. The first productive conversation we should be having is how we as a society deal with people who have serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who has had relatives with serious mental illness, our society needs to talk more openly about what mental illnesses look like, who has them, and how to deal with them. The second productive conversation we should be having is how we can be a more civil society. Whether or not the inflammatory rhetoric used by today’s politicians did or didn’t incite Loughner to violence, we all need to stop acting like misbehaving preschool children, and start treating all persons the way we ourselves would like to be treated.

You could sum it all up quite simply — it’s all about the Golden Rule.

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Important religion news

Amy sent along a link to a news story that is of great importance to anyone involved with religion: Report: Majority Of Money Donated At Church Doesn’t Make It To God.

A source within the financial department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) said that her department has been aware of this situation for some time. “We have known for some time that the IRS has been investigating where church donations actually go,” said the source. “Fortunately, with our congregational polity, we have long counseled Unitarian Universalist congregations to retain all their revenues for use in their own congregation, with the exception of expenditures on social justice, and dues paid to the UUA and districts.” The source, who asked to remain anonymous because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, added, “We feel that most Unitarian Universalist congregations have nothing to fear from the ongoing IRS investigation.”

However, there’s potentially serious news for Unitarian Universalism at the end of this article. Virginia Raeburn, a spokesperson for God LLC, stated that God “may be forced to shutter a number of under-performing religions.” It is widely rumored that God LLC is taking a hard look at Unitarian Universalism because the religion has so few members. However, Professor John Quackenbush at Starr King School for the Ministry, an expert on God LLC, stated he believes the real reason is that Unitarian Universalist congregations send too little money to God. “My analysis has God LLC cutting all formal ties with Unitarian Universalism within a year,” said Quackenbush. “They can put up with the humanists and atheists, but the lack of revenue puts God LLC in an awkward position.”

Stupid joke

There’s this small town, and everyone who lives there is a fundamentalist except one Unitarian Universalist guy. The Great Recession hit this Unitarian Universalist hard, his work dried up, now he’s got no money. One of the fundamentalists, the richest guy in town, hires the Unitarian Universalist to keep an eye out for Christ’s second coming. “You sit right here out in front of my house and holler when you see Christ,” says the rich guy. “What are you going to pay me?” “Two bucks a day.” The Unitarian Universalist takes the job, and sits down on the front steps to start work. Someone says to him, “What a lousy salary you got.” “Yeah,” says the Unitarian Universalist, “but great job security.”

Another reason I like church people

My dad is getting a knee replacement, so he’s in the hospital for a few days. Several of his friends visited him, friends who also happen to belong to his congregation. He belongs to a small group in his congregation (a so-called “extended family,” a type of small group that predates the current fad for small group ministries), and during their meeting they called him up and all talked with him.

None of this implies that people who belong to congregations are any better than people who don’t belong to congregations. But congregations tend to set up structures that help us reach out to each other; and congregations tend to set expectations that we will reach out to each other.

Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the “philosopher king of American white race theory” because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for em bodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.

Klamath Falls UU church building burns

The building of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Klamath County burned on Tuesday. When firefighters arrived on the scene, the building, which was located at 9669 Hwy 140 East, Klamath Falls, Oregon, was fully engulfed by flames. Firefighters were forced to let the fire burn itself out, and the building is a total loss. Photographs of the fire and a brief news story are on television station KDRV’s Web site. A later news story from KDRV states that the cause of the fire was accidental, and the building, valued $142,000 with contents valued at $20,000, was a total loss. As of 20 hours ago, the fire was still smoldering in places. According to the fellowship’s Web site, this Sunday’s service will be held at Fourth and Pine in Klamath Falls. [Update: news stories have been taken down.]

The fellowship is quite small, reporting 20 members (up from 17 members a decade ago). It was organized in 1957 at the height of the fellowship movement, and affiliated with the American Unitarian Association in 1960. The wood frame building, formerly Pine Grove School, was over a hundred years old.

Thanks to Jack O. for the tip.