Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time


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The Revival of Musar

A woman writes in her journal every night, focusing on her struggles with anger. Two friends sit down over coffee and discuss their recent efforts to perform at least three acts of generosity every day. A man posts on an online forum about how easily he is distracted by needless concerns but how daily Jewish prayer has helped him to focus his mind. A group studies Jewish teachings on greed, and they commit themselves to taking concrete steps to limit their consumption. Another group pores over a medieval Hebrew text about pride, and they conclude their weekly study session by chanting some of its words out loud to a haunting Jewish melody.

These American Jews display a good deal of moral seriousness, a tendency towards introspection, and a concern with the virtues to a degree that is somewhat uncommon in mainstream American Jewish culture. In describing their behavior, they might refer to the Jewish tradition of “Musar” (“moral discipline”) and explain that they are carrying on the legacy of a nineteenth-century, Lithuania-based movement known as the “Musar movement.” Most American Jews have not heard of the Musar movement, and many, upon learning about it, would write it off as requiring too much self-criticism, too much moralizing, and too much work. And yet interest in Musar has been steadily growing in contemporary America, in part as a counter-cultural phenomenon….

Institute for Advanced Studies In Culture


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The Value and Harm of Religion

People who believe that I am an Atheist sometimes seem nonplussed that I’m tolerant of religion in general.  There appears to be an idea amongst some non-believers that they must either be completely disinterested in religious ideas, or vehemently opposed and outspoken about it.  In either case, it seems, they must be prepared to pooh-pooh “superstition” and point out at the drop of a hat all the evils perpetrated in the names of various gods throughout history, and all of the ways that the shamans take advantage of the folks they’ve hoodwinked.  While I find the former positions distastefully closed-minded, I am indeed inclined to agree with the latter — at least when it involves the religious hierarchy.

My feeling is that those who are obtrusively dogmatic, pro or con, are just as bound up by the chains of their beliefs as any fanatic building bombs in the mountains of Pakistan.  To paraphrase John Bradshaw, a 180 degree turn leaves us in the same rut, only now we’re moving against the flow and annoying the other travelers.  If we want to change things, we need to get off the treadmill for a different perspective.

For the record, I am neither an Atheist nor an Agnostic. The latter claim that they are not convinced of the existence of a god or gods, the former that they are convinced that there are no such entities.  I am Ignostic, one who believes that no discussion about the question of gods’ existence can even be held, because it is not possible to come up with a coherent definition of a god.  To put it another way, I believe that when it comes to gods, no one really knows what they’re talking about, and no one ever will.

But I am not anti-religious.  I try to practice Buddhism which is, by most definitions, a religion.  While I accept that definition, I do not practice for religious reasons, but because Buddhist teachings give me a structure, based on pure logic, around which I can try to live my life and discipline my thinking.

That gets around to my position on religion in general.  I believe it is inevitable, for most people in most circumstances, and that generally-speaking it does far more good than harm.  It provides structure, guidance, community, hope — in short, a framework for living.  It matters not a whit to me whether the underlying beliefs are pure superstition or divine revelation, except when religious teachings are used for ill rather than good; to separate, rather than to draw people together.

The folks who administer religion are usually the problem in that regard.  They are the ones who teach, by their example, inflexibility, lack of compassion (although many of them give great lip service), and who perpetuate the tribal concepts of “us” and “other,” with their implied conclusions that “we are right” and “they are wrong.”  They are the ones who foster self-serving and self-congratulatory, complacent followers who seem unwilling or unable to think for themselves.

This tribal thinking is, perhaps, hard-wired into some people’s brains.  We are beginning to learn that the brains of liberals literally function  somewhat differently than those of conservatives.  There is every reason to believe that such dichotomies are necessary in primitive societies.  They are not, however, appropriate to situations such as those that exist on the Earth at present, with many people in need, and many who are unwilling to share.  This seems often to involve use of force on both sides, and in many circles it seems that two wrongs are presumed to make a right…or, at least, a lot of money for the people who profit from wars and strife in general.

Those are character defects that are engendered and supported by some shamans in the guise of the “will of God/Allah,” and in that respect religion is not a good thing at all.

The troubles in the world today cannot, it seems to me, be resolved by black and white thinking.  The True Believer in the hut is evidence of that, and those who attempt to hunt him down, without regard to the number of innocents killed in the process, are yet another.  People who seem to feel that they must contradict the beliefs of others, and put down the intelligence of those who believe other than they, are a third.  That ain’t how you build togetherness, folks.

Ben Franklin wrote at another critical point in history, “If we do not hang together, we shall certainly hang separately.”  As long as we continue to blame our problems on the other guy, we continue our trek to the gallows. To the extent that religion (or non-religion) supports that journey, it is most certainly at fault.


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Health vs. Pork: The Farm Bill

The Farm Bill, a massive piece of federal legislation making its way through Congress, governs what children are fed in schools and what food assistance programs can distribute to recipients. The bill provides billions of dollars in subsidies, much of which goes to huge agribusinesses producing feed crops, such as corn and soy, which are then fed to animals. By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products—the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies.

The government also purchases surplus foods like cheese, milk, pork, and beef for distribution to food assistance programs—including school lunches. The government is not required to purchase nutritious foods.

This article was written in 2007, but nothing has changed yet.  Lots more, including diagrams showing how subsidies are spent…


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A 50-Watt Cellular Network

Technology Review: A 50-Watt Cellular Network

An Indian telecom company is deploying simple cell phone base stations that need as little as 50 watts of solar-provided power. It will soon announce plans to sell the equipment in Africa, expanding cell phone access to new ranks of rural villagers who live far from electricity supplies.


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China Is Leading the Race to Make Renewable Energy

TIANJIN, China — China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States last year to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year.

China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. And the country is pushing equally hard to build nuclear reactors and the most efficient types of coal power plants.

Reminds me of the story about the fellow leaning on his shovel in the shade, saying, “One of these days I’m gonna run this company!” How long before we’re holding our place in the world by force instead of by offering it something worthwhile?  Oh, wait…


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The Happiest People

Op-Ed Columnist – The Happiest People – NYTimes.com

What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.