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Author of this essay:

Email: Shi Ming Zhen
(November 9, 2006)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

Recently, Peter Ford, an Australian audio expert, announced that he had analyzed the recording of the comment Neil Armstrong made when he stepped off the Eagle's ladder and set his foot on the moon. Armstrong seemed to have said the non-sensical, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" (man and mankind being equivalent expressions and "small step" and "giant leap" being contradictory); but by the time Armstrong returned to earth and quietly insisted that he had actually said, "a man" (meaning only himself) and that the article "a" had undergone a glitch's removal, the media had already publicized the garbled version; and that was that. No one bothered to check the recording scientifically; and though NASA took his word for it and credited him with that elusive "a," history books have concretized the inane version.

The question is simply: why is it that we do not question? Why do we succumb to an intellectual laziness and just accept as Gospel whatever we're told by any source in which we've placed even a modicum of trust? No matter how bizarre a statement is, if it accords with a comfortable prejudice or indifference, we do not care to disturb it by poking and probing for evidence of veracity.

Just as the eye cannot see itself, we cannot see that it is something in us that prefers to nurture an absurdity rather than demolish it by examination. That missing "a" may not affect people's lives, but other instances of intellectual dereliction do.

An egregious example of this occurred in South Africa. Nelson Mandela's successor to the presidency, Mr.Thabo Mbeki, comfortably believed U. C. Berkeley scientist Dr. Peter Duesberg's theories about AIDS. Duesberg contended that the disease called AIDS was actually a complex of diseases which owed their origins to people's lifestyle. Homosexual men were more inclined to use certain recreational drugs that made them vulnerable to Kaposi's sarcoma and a rare form of pneumonia; and AZT, the expensive medication prescribed to treat AIDS, was a toxic drug that actually hastened a patient's death. Malnutrition and poor sanitation were also serious contributing factors.

Duesberg's theories fed into President Mbeki's suspicion that pharmaceutical companies were more interested in South African gold than South African misery, and since his afflicted countrymen couldn't be drug addicts or homosexuals and he saw little benefit in poisoning people with AZT, he would rely on nutrition and sanitation to curtail the spread of the disease. With a Berkeley scientist's authority to support him, he proclaimed that AIDS was not a contagious disease but was simply a collection of coincidental maladies that was being exploited by racists, intellectual snobs, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and, yes, space aliens. Despite South Africa's having the highest rate of AIDS infection on the globe (an estimated 20% of the population) his Minister of Health also rejected the need for medical interventions. As prophylaxis or therapy, she advised a diet which included lots of olive oil, garlic, and lemons. The contagion ignored this gourmet regimen and continued its ravenous course.

At our prison sangha, due to the high turnover rate, the subject of AIDS comes up frequently. Where had this mysterious disease come from? The answer that it originated in Africa causes indignation among African-American inmates. They know that religious Fundamentalists, after having been disabused of the disease's Divine Wrath Visited Upon Homosexuals' etiology, had revised their homilies to fit a more scientific determination of its source: the monkeys of Africa. Preachers voiced the revelation that AIDS had infected humans when African men had sexual intercourse with monkeys. The African-American inmates, understandably resenting the charge, sought to negate Fundamentalist ignorance with anti-Fundamentalist ignorance. There was no Africa-simian etiology: the claim was racist propaganda. We explained the obvious: people who live in a jungle environment do not have herds of sheep or cattle to eat. What meadows are to sheep, the tree-top canopy is to monkeys. Needing protein, people eat monkeys, and since it is usually better to kill one before eating it, blood from an infected monkey can easily pass the virus through a cut in a human handler's skin.

Waterbearer Because temples were always built on high ground, water had to be carried up to them on the backs of bearers. Water carrier; ceramic; from San Mateo Tepetilla; Teotihuacan; A.D. 400-900; M.N.A.H. [Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico City.]

One class in particular wondered why it was so easy to mislead people. Why were experts we automatically trust - scientists, heads of state, clergymen - deceptive or just plain wrong, and why were people so gullible? I brought to our next meeting two books, one containing startling photos of the huge pyramid temples of Teotihuacan, an ancient temple complex near Mexico City; and the other, Mexico: a history in Art, by Bradley Smith, (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). First I showed the men the photos of the temples and then I opened the other book and showed them the full-page picture attached here. I read its caption: "Because temples were always built on high ground, water had to be carried up to them on the backs of bearers." I also quoted the illustration's citation: "Water carrier; ceramic; from San Mateo Tepetilla; Teotihuacan; A.D. 400-900; ht.: 18.4 cm.; M.N.A.H." [Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico City.]

Holding up the "water carrier" photograph, I asked, "What can you tell me about this young man?" Nobody said anything.

I prodded. "A picture's worth a thousand words. Give me at least one!" A man finally ventured to note what had obviously been overlooked by the book's author, "He's black." Two Latinos concurred. "He's not a Mexican."

And then the excitement of discovery, of pure thought, of seeing with one's own eyes instead of accepting what someone else says he sees, rallied the group. "How old is that thing?" AD 400-900. "That's before Columbus. What's a black man doing in Mexico a thousand years before Columbus?" "Well, he ain't carrying water up anything with that bucket. Pyramid steps are steep. Every time he took one he'd have to lean forward and the water would spill out." "Yeah... he would need a narrow-necked bottle." "He doesn't look strong enough to carry the load." "The weight would need a tump line around his forehead for support. As it is there, it would pull him backwards down the steps." "I guess he's supposed to be a slave, but he doesn't look like a slave." "He's wearing a loin cloth... and earrings and a necklace. How come a laborer is wearing so much jewelry?" "And his hair is in corn-rows! Do you know how long it would take women to braid his hair like that?" (This last one got them all laughing.) "His hands and feet don't look like they've ever done any work." "You see that bow-tie belt in Bible movies... on Egyptian pharaohs." (And in Mayan hieroglyphics, too, as part of an ascension glyph. )

Glyph Taken from John Montgomery's Dictionary of Maya hieroglyphs (Hippocrene Books, New York, 2002.)

We guessed that the 7 inch ceramic piece was probably a vase that had been decorated with the boy's effigy. Racially, there was no question. He was African or of African descent. Further, since only aristocrats were permitted to wear ear plugs, the boy was obviously of high rank. But according to the book, he was neither a prince nor a Ganymede; neither a master nor a master's libation bearer. He was a low caste Gunga Din, a water boy who labored in the sun in the service of other laborers. Surely the book was checked by editors before it went to print. How could educated experts ignore what was obvious to the uneducated men in prison? The answer is contained within that sad combination of intellectual laziness; academic arrogance; comforting reinforcement of a prejudice; and the slavish acceptance of an "authoritative" presentation.

In Buddhism, we find the same problems of assumptions casually being made about our respective beliefs and methodologies. Other religions are acknowledged to have many different sects; but Buddhism is perceived as an amorphous singularity.

There are many Paths in the Buddha's Way, and any one of them, when diligently followed, will deliver the devotee. The Paths differ in significant ways - not simply in liturgy or clerical lifestyle, but in basic doctrine: reincarnation or not; bodhisattva or not; thirty-six Tattvas (principles of existence) which provide for divine beings - or only thirty tattvas which exclude them; ritualistic sexual practices or not; dietary restrictions or not, and even on what constitutes reality and illusion. Yet the public perception is that Buddhism is one large politically active organization. Accordingly, Buddhists are expected to be so non-violent that they will refuse to eat meat; will claim conscientious objection when asked to fight in wartime; will protest nuclear research; or, when unmasked during voir dire in a criminal case will and should be excused by the prosecution from serving on the jury. Animal Rights activists expect that Buddhists will join protest marches outside fish-bait shops, slaughter houses, and rodeos, just as those who oppose abortion and the death penalty expect Buddhists to join their protests. (A current TV ad has a Buddhist monk ask for forgiveness for blowing his nose and killing all those innocent viruses.) In Asia, where countries identify themselves as Buddhist, there are wars; death penalties; meat eating; tissues; and an astonishing number of abortions. That Buddhism, perhaps more than any other religion, advocates a retreat from the material world and not a conflict with it, doesn't seem to register.

Interpretations of The Four Noble Truths also vary and influence a Path's doctrines. In our particular Path, it is understood that, "Life is bitter and painful" refers to the suffering of the ego's life in the material world. It then follows that this bitterness and pain is the hellish disease, the delusionary state, which finds its cure in a diligent adherence to the Eightfold Path. With a reformed or humbled ego, it is then possible in this lifetime to transcend the material world's barriers and to gain Nirvanic clarity and bliss. Such salvation is available to anyone. When karma is understood to be the infinite network of causes and effects, the nature and nurture given us which determine our actions and reactions, there then cannot be a provision for a karmic punishment-or-reward eschatology. This egoistic material world with all its endless desire and disappointment is already the hell from which we seek deliverance. Judgment day for us is the day we decide we can struggle no longer and send up that white flag, begging for the mercy that will lead us to a better way to live. Other Buddhist Paths accomplish the same goals with entirely different theory and practice.

A Path is a coherent line which must be either followed or abandoned. There is no "mix and match philosophy" possible. Since each Path logically progresses along its own philosophical lines, problems arise when someone who is not well-versed in the Path he has selected accepts, unthinkingly, a doctrine from another Path. Coherence is lost. The integration of theory and practice ceases. The first step a Path Climber takes is Right Understanding - and this includes an investigation of the Path he has chosen. He does not memorize a lesson without bothering to learn it. He considers and tests. Once he is satisfied, whenever he encounters a new scripture or practice, he can examine it with respect and objectivity and ask himself, "Does this jibe with my program?

In our last Ordination ceremony, Abbot John, referring to the need to be intellectually vigilant, included in his address a passage from John Locke's Meditations:

"For once, having established this tenet – that there are innate principles – it puts their followers upon the necessity of receiving some doctrines, as such it serves to put them 'off' from the use of their own reason and judgment, and put them 'on' believing and taking them upon trust and without further examination. In this posture of blind credulity, they might be more easily governed, and made more useful to some sort of men, who have the skill and the office to instill their own principles and guides."

There will always be authoritative persons who for any reason seek "to instill their own principles" in others. One of them supposed that the boy in the photograph was just another water boy working hard amidst the splendor of mesoamerican architecture.

Humming Bird