Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Quiet Religions

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

There are some aspects of some religions that I like (Judaism’s emphasis on life, Buddhism’s emphasis on finding one’s own path, etc). There are some aspects of some religions that I don’t like (Catholicism’s use of guilt, the caste system in Hinduism, etc).

I’ve discovered another aspect of religion that I don’t like. Noise.

I don’t particularly care how noisy the religion is when it is inside its house of worship. I don’t mind how much singing, bell ringing, shouting, drumming, clapping, etc there is inside the building. What I’m not so keen on is what can be heard outside the building.

The Muslim call to prayer. The Christian church bells.

And now, in Poonthura, in India I’ve found another example.

There is a Hindu festival on at the time of writing this post. It lasts for 10 days. There are loudspeakers up around town broadcasting the noise from the temple. This is usually songs: some popular music, some folk songs, some devotional music. There was a drama on the other night. There is chanting. There are bells and drums.

We are two houses away from the loudspeakers. With the doors and windows closed inside the house, we can still hear it as if someone had the radio on in the room. In some parts of the house and garden it is really loud. And we are very rarely inside the house with doors and windows closed – it’s hot in this country.

The broadcasting starts at 4:30 in the morning and finishes sometime after 1am. There are gaps of half an hour or so at various times during the day, but not many of them.

This festival goes for 10 days. Fortunately today is the last day.

Note: since then, a new Catholic Church opened nearby with about 2 or 3 days of singing and sermons being broadcast, only a few hours per day. And then another Hindu worship was going on a couple of days ago in the afternoon and evening that was again being broadcast. Then a residents association meeting thing that was even louder than the others. The music for that started at about 11am and finished at about 11pm. I heard Jingle Bells three times – it’s January! I went for a nap at one point and my bed was vibrating with the noise! So it’s not just religious groups. 🙂

Decline Mythology

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Sometime in November the papers in Sri Lanka were full of news of the end of the world. It was going to end on the 21st of December 2012. I think this is due to the Mayan calendar. Anyway, the daughter in our host family seemed surprised that we didn’t already know this and that we didn’t seem too worried by it.

I’m fairly sure the world has been due to end several times in the past few years and I’m pleased to say it has been stubbornly recalcitrant in this matter. 🙂

I think the best one though, was the night before the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was switched on and I went out with several friends to have an end of the world party. It was one of the best nights out I’ve ever had. But fun times at the Maypole aside, I’m not a big believer in end of the world mythology. I figure it’ll end at some point. Either I’ll be here or I won’t. I don’t suppose there is much I’ll be able to do about it when it happens. Knowing about it in advance is unlikely to be particularly helpful so I’ll just live in ignorance/denial/unconcern until it actually happens (if it does).

But, this whole thing got me thinking. In Buddhism there is a story that Buddha said that the world (as we know it) would not last more than 5,000 years. Towards the end of that time society would decline markedly. It has only be about 2,600 since Buddha made this prediction but already people are saying that they can see the decline in the world around them.

Now maybe this is all harmless. The end of the world, the decline of civilisation. It all sells papers and gives people something to moan about, something to tut about and something to worry about. But it seems to me that decline mythologies in a culture or a religion are perhaps not a good thing. I feel somewhat uncomfortable with a society that has an in-built pessimism in it. I don’t like the thought that people look to the bad things that happen in the world and say “well, yes, we’d expect that, it’s the decline of civilisation”, “there’s nothing we can (or should) do about it, it’s the decline of civilisation”. I don’t like the negativity. It must be quite sad to live with such negativity. And I don’t like that this may well breed resignation. Plus, I really don’t like any system that builds fear in its participants as a matter of course.

But I’m not going to worry myself about whether I should worry about it.

I shan’t buy any papers. I shan’t worry about it. I shan’t complain about it. I shan’t tut about it.

If anything, it just means I should eat a lot more mangoes, kotthu, fruit salad & ice cream and cake in the next few weeks. Just in case!


Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

I’m torn about religions. On the one hand I want to learn about them and be tolerant of them. I understand that some aspects of some of them are forces for immense good. On the other hand I do believe that they are, on the whole, institutions which are negative and detrimental. On the whole they teach abdication of personal responsibility, they teach guilt and self-hatred, they deny science and health care (contraception being a very important example), they breed intolerance of those of other religions, they abuse their power and position of trust, they accumulate wealth at the expense of the very poorest, they brainwash, they subjugate women, they persecute homosexuals, they are hypocritical.

So I find it difficult being in the midst of religious ceremony (any religion, any country). To me, they are mostly men in funny clothes (and they are almost all men) chanting incomprehensible words (even when in English) and performing pointless acts. They are strange and uncomfortable at best and are absurd and farcical at worst.

This does not mean to say that I think religious people are detrimental, absurd or farcical. Some are, most aren’t. Just that I find the institutions to generally be detrimental, absurd and farcical and it is very strange for me as a non-religious person to be in the middle of a religious ceremony.

Covering Up

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

I don’t know very many Muslim women. And I haven’t spoken to them much about clothing. But I have heard stories from people and have gathered a few observations. So this post is far more of my own thoughts and opinions than some other posts. And I’m very happy for this to be the starting point of a discussion, because I would really like to hear the viewpoints of other people. But I want to talk about women covering up.

I’ve been with Asian and western friends in different places (for example the beach at Kovalam in India) when we’ve seen women walking past who are completely covered up. I’m not sure of the differences between the burka, hijab, etc. But there is one mode of dress that shows only the eyes. The feet are covered (black socks in flip flops/sandals). Hands are covered (gloves). Body, neck and head are covered. I think these coverings are always black but I do know that the clothing underneath need not be.

I know that not all Muslim women cover up to that extent. Some cover the head and face, some just the head, some just the body, some are no more covered up than any other women.

I know some of these women cover up because they choose to. Some because they are told to. Some because they believe it is expected of them.

I know that there are not similar rules for men.

I have seen my friends bristle when a topless man wearing only shorts walks down the beach in the midday heat of an Indian summer with his wife (presumably) who is covered from top to toe in black.

I know many people think this is disgraceful. Why should women have to cover up so much? Particularly when men don’t?

Why are Muslim women not allowed to be seen at all, and yet many Muslim men (the ones standing next to their fully covered wives) seem to be allowed to gape open-mouthed at the other women on the beach.

I believe that one of the problems is that men are tempted when they see beautiful women. So why do we not bind the eyes of men instead of covering the women? It seems like we’re addressing the wrong problem.

I know that for many women this is a symbol of intense persecution. It is one part of a much bigger story. It is denying women the right to express themselves, to control their image, to control what they wear. It is a curtailment of freedom that goes much, much deeper than clothing.

But I likewise know that for some women it is a relief. It is a blessing. It is a salvation. It is a refuge. To be able to step (not hide) behind the clothing means that they will not be stared at as if they are a piece of meat with sexual organs.

For some women it is just the thing that they do. And the cheeky sparkling sequins on the hem of the dress underneath and the mascara that highlights the vibrant, beautiful, living eyes that shine from deep within show an individuality, a sense of style, an expression. They know that they must cover up, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be beautiful. They can still enjoy clothing and jewellery and make up. They can wear heels. They can still be exactly the same woman that they are when they are not covered.

Sometimes, we outsiders question the motives of those inside a system. We can be told that some women choose to cover up. But often we ask “Is it a real choice?” “Is there a real alternative?” “Are they brainwashed into believing that they are freely choosing?”.

(All of these questions could be asked about women who wear skimpy clothing. And I think they are valid questions – for any group.)
Here is my take on it.

I sometimes would like to be able to cover myself completely.

I’ve done what I can. I like to wear a black shirt and black trousers. It’s my way of covering myself as much as I can while still remaining within the bounds of my culture’s norms. It is practical in that I can walk, run, ride a bike, climb over walls, etc while still maintaining as much decency as possible (not that there is anything particularly decent about me climbing over walls but it would be much less decent if I were wearing a skirt or a sari or a bikini – perish the thought).

I want to cover up for several reasons.

I want to cover up because of the sun. I burn easily and sunburn isn’t fun. Suncream isn’t much fun either.

I want to cover up because of decency. I do not live in a society where public nudity is acceptable. So some form of coverage is important.

I want to cover up because I do not want to show off my body. It’s not that I dislike my body. I just don’t feel it is particularly aesthetically pleasing so I have no desire to show it off to the world. I don’t feel my body has to be aesthetically pleasing. I believe its primary function is to serve as an interface between me and the world. It does that very well thank you. It need not be stunningly beautiful at the same time. And, before I get a torrent of replies telling me that I am beautiful (thank you), I don’t think I’m ugly, I just don’t think I’m stunningly beautiful.

I want to cover up because I don’t value beauty very much.

I want to cover up because I don’t like being judged on what I look like.

I would like to cover myself to the point that people couldn’t tell whether I was male or female. I don’t hate being a woman. I don’t want to be a man. I just think that gender should be as important as eye colour. And in the current world this is certainly not the case.

I want to cover up because covering up does seem to make a difference to how much unwanted attention women get from men. Particularly Sri Lankan men on buses.

In Sri Lanka, more than anywhere else, I want to cover up because I am completely and utterly sick and tired of my hair and my clothing and my beauty being so important to everyone else.

The White Temple

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

There’s a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai in Thailand called the White Temple. I saw photos from another volunteer and decided that this was one place I had to see. I’ve been twice and I have no doubt that I will go again.

It is a modern construction, in fact, it isn’t finished yet. It is largely funded by the artist himself and he wanted to build a temple that would bring together modern art and symbolism with traditional worship of the Buddha.

The main structure is white with tiny mirrors embedded in the walls and statuary. To enter you have to cross over hell – a pond full of grasping hands reaching up. One hand showing its middle finger (complete with red nailpolish) in a rather cheeky act of defiance. The path takes you up over hell and towards heaven. The inside of the main temple is still being finished. But there is a beautiful Buddha painted on the back wall with a Buddha statue in front and a very lifelike wax (?) statue of a monk seated on the floor. So lifelike that I thought it was alive at first and would not be the least surprised if someone were to tell me that it actually is a person.

The inner walls seem to show (again) the rise from hell towards heaven. But the symbolism here is not traditional at all. Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Harry Potter, Keanu Reeves from the Matrix, amongst others. Perhaps the most striking of all is that of the Twin Towers burning with the hose of a petrol pump coiled around them.

There are ponds, trees and lawns. So peaceful and so beautiful despite some of the rather disturbing imagery inside.

There’s a wishing well and, for want of a better term, message trees. You can buy a flat metal ornament that you can write on. Each one is hung on rails creating beautiful silvery trees. A wonderful, collaborative piece of artwork.

The toilets also deserve special mention. The main toilet block is ornate and golden. It could hold its own among many temples I’ve seen for its architectural beauty.

But neither words nor pictures can do this place justice. It is three dimensional. It is intricate. You can take a photo of the whole temple and get it all in the photo. But in doing so you miss all of it. And it is a place not to be missed.


Buddhist Prayer Service

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

At the school in Thailand there were assemblies every morning.

I went to morning assembly on Tuesday expecting it to be much the same as Monday’s. Just in the canteen, out of the rain.

It started off much as was to be expected. Some standing, some singing, some praying, some sitting, some speeches. But the speeches seemed to go for a very long time and there were people beavering away at the front with candles and flowers and a little shrine.

It wasn’t until the first monk came in that I started to guess what might be going on. It was only then that I realised the ball of string that I’d seen the maintenance guys playing with earlier on was probably the string for the Pirith chanting.

(I’ve seen it in Sri Lanka when one monk holds one end of the string and the rest is passed to the other monks and then into the crowd. It seems the vibrations of the chanting pass through the string. At the end, the string is cut into strips and the monks tie a piece around the wrist of each person present as a blessing. In this case the people weren’t holding the string, it went from the monks out of the building.)

There were 9 monks. They were sitting on red mats on the stage. They chanted in Pali (I recognised some of it from Sri Lanka).

In Thailand it is not appropriate to compare Thailand unfavourably with other countries. So let me compare it favourably instead. I was struck by the religious freedom and tolerance that was shown during this ceremony in that while the monks were chanting I could hear a lot of people chatting, including some of the teachers. In other countries this would not be tolerated.

After the chanting one of the monks spoke. I don’t know what he said but some parts were apparently rather funny. Though none of the other monks so much as smiled never mind laughed. Perhaps they’d heard the jokes before, or perhaps the jokes weren’t very funny.

At the end we all paraded out (following some guys with drums and gongs) on to the playground where a temporary canopy was set up. People collected a wax disc and wrote a wish on it. The discs were then dropped into a vat of melted wax. Each person took a cup full of wax (the cup was on a bamboo pole) and poured the wax into several moulds. Casting a candle for the monks.

I tried to escape from this candle casting bit. I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t believe in ceremony generally. I didn’t feel comfortable being in the middle of it. So I beat a hasty and discreet (well, as discreet as it is possible to be when you are the only white foreigner in a school full of people) retreat. Very interesting.

The Meaning of Christmas

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

I find Christmas a very strange time of the year. I am somewhat removed from various aspects of the whole Christmas thing. I opt out of present buying. I don’t have duties that I have to fulfil on Christmas Day itself.

Let me explain these in turn.

The first is the present situation. I don’t do presents. I don’t like giving them or receiving them. This is because I’m not really that interested in stuff. I’m too much of an environmentalist to believe that the precious resources of my planet should be made into crappy tat for me to store in the back of a cupboard somewhere (or even nice tat to be proudly displayed front and centre on a shelf somewhere). I do love the Christmas messages I get from people who care about me. Their thoughts and messages of love and hugs (real or virtual) are far, far more effective for me than any Christmas present could ever be.

I’m not good at buying presents for people either. When I do buy Christmas presents they are usually goats, or school books, or food, or some other charity donation in lieu of presents. My friends are well off enough to be able to buy the things that they need. Many people on the planet are not. And I don’t think that buying crap for my friends as a symbol of how much I love them is in the best interests of me, them or our planet. I’d prefer to tell them how much I love them and spend my money on people who need it a lot more.

And just in case anyone reading this was thinking of buying me a present for Christmas (or my birthday, or for any other reason), please don’t. If you really feel the need to do something, then please make a donation to a charity that tackles education, poverty, human rights, world hunger or the environment. I can assure you, that a donation to charity will be appreciated by me far, far more than a vase, or candlestick, or photo frame, or anything else you make think of – regardless of how awesome said object is.

I’ve noticed something with presents that other people buy. For many of the people around me, present buying seems to be a chore. It’s not something they enjoy. They tick the names off the list in ever-increasing desperation and with ever-decreasing thought and attention as the 25th draws near. Does it mean that they don’t love the people they buy for? Not at all. It’s just that instead of being a symbol of how much they care, the present has taken on a life of its own. It is now a chore, a hassle and a burden. Not to mention the debt that many people get into in order to save face and give presents for the people they feel they have to give presents to.

The second issue that I avoid is the Christmas Day duties. I love my family dearly, but I am very glad not to have many conflicting Christmas Day duties to have to attend to. I’ve heard stories of people who have to try to fit in visiting 2, 3 or 4 different families (all on Christmas Day). Arguments over which set of in-laws have precedence. Discussions over whether it is even possible (never mind whether it is a good idea) to visit all of the relevant families on the one day. It becomes a day of ticking boxes and visiting people because it is the done thing. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who visits anyone else for Christmas resents it. I do mean to suggest that sometimes the way that the Christmas Day visitations are arranged does not maximise happiness. Children who visit parents because they have to. Parents who welcome their children to their home because they have to. When, if they’re both being completely honest, they may prefer to spend Christmas Day on their own and make the visit a few days later, or earlier. The imposition of the duty upon the visiting means that the day starts with an undercurrent of resentment. And I think that is very sad.

I think visiting people for Christmas is great. I have had some wonderful Christmases in the past, both with family and with friends. But I think the expectation that Christmas is the be all and end all, can only lead to disappointment. And that saddens me. It seems that somewhere in amongst the duty of complying with the spirit of Christmas, the actual spirit itself has been lost – or at least diluted.

Living in a Convent

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

So you all know that I’d been living in a convent in India. Some of you have even commented on the fact that I’ve been rather quiet about the whole thing so far.

So, here’s my report.

First, some background to help you understand where I’m coming from. I was brought up a Catholic. I was in fact forced to go to church every Sunday till I was 21. While I was a young teenager, this was not an imposition, in fact, I went through a phase of wanting to be a nun. But in later years I did skip as many Sundays as I could. Particularly towards the end when the only time I ever felt violent was when I was inside a church. I still cringe any time I go into a church. And other religious buildings are almost as bad. This is not the place for me to talk about my experience at the Vatican. Suffice it to say it was entirely unpleasant and it took several weeks for me to recover from it.

I am not a fan of the Catholic church. At all. By any means. I think many of the people associated with it are lovely, but very, very many use the religion to justify doing some very unchristian things to their fellow human beings. I hate the wealth of an organisation that teaches charity. I hate the prejudice and discrimination (homophobia, misogynism) of an organisation that teaches tolerance. I hate the dogma. I hate the inflexibility. I hate the bloodshed that the church has instigated and condoned. I hate its stance on contraception that is partially responsible for the dual problems of over-population and the spread of HIV/AIDS. I hate the repression of women. I hate the fact that it does not allow divorce/remarriage even in cases of domestic violence. I hate the fact that it teaches that sex is a dirty, evil thing. I hate that it teaches that the duty of every good christian is to get married and produce more christians. I hate the fact that it teaches people to blame/thank someone/something else and therefore avoid personal responsibility for their own situation.

Oh dear. This has turned into a full-on rant, hasn’t it. Sorry. Anyway, back to the point.

While I was in India working with Elaine, we stayed in a convent. We were teaching in the church-run school (funded by the government but managed by the church). I stayed for three weeks.

We lived with 6 nuns. The nuns themselves were lovely. Nice people. Chatty, friendly, caring, funny. Very pleasant. Slightly quirky. But what group of 6 different people doesn’t have some quirks? All in all, they were really lovely people. And they looked after us very well.

This is not to say that I found the experience to be wholly pleasant. I didn’t.

I didn’t appreciate the fact that they let the dogs out just after dinner so we had to be back and in our rooms by about 8. If we had told them we’d be a bit late that would be ok, but the general principle meant that we couldn’t stay out in the evening unless we were sleeping somewhere else. But those were the rules so that’s what we had to do. And this isn’t specific to the convent. I’ve stayed with other families who have tried to impose curfews on me.

I didn’t like the fact that before and after every meal we all stood while the most senior nun said a prayer (I especially didn’t like it since one of the prayers had a grammatical error in it – well, I think it did, they didn’t really pray as if they meant it, it was mumbled all as one single word (as most prayers tend to be) so it was a little difficult to decipher).

I didn’t like the fact that one night when we were going to dinner (dinner was 7:45, we went at about 7:50), three of the nuns were sitting on the porch in the middle of a rosary. They kindly (?) motioned for us to sit with them while they finished. It has been a very long time since I was last in a rosary. And for very good reason. I have such a strong visceral reaction to them that my stomach ties itself in knots, my fists clench, my teeth clench, I get very, very angry. I hate them. Fortunately (?), we only had to sit through 2 sorrowful mysteries and all the prayers at the end. The next night, we stuck our head out the door to listen for praying. They were in the middle of their rosary, so we went back to our room to wait there for a few minutes before going to dinner. That worked. We never stumbled into the middle of a rosary again.

I gritted my teeth through most of this. We were staying in a convent. We couldn’t expect them to put their religion on hold just because we were there. And if I really objected, I should have stayed somewhere else. And believe me, I will in future.

I learnt several lessons during these three weeks. There is no way anyone will ever convert me to Catholicism. Living in a convent will not help me to find god (which is something they suggested on the first day). I should never stay in a religious establishment ever again. I do not have enough patience and tolerance for religions. I have been too scarred by my own experiences to be able to distance myself from them enough to view them objectively.

So while I could pretend that I wasn’t in a convent (which, to be fair, was most of the time) I had a lovely time staying with Elaine. I enjoyed much of the company of the nuns (the bits that didn’t involve stories about angels, finding god, praying, etc). The food was good. The facilities were fine. And to their credit, they didn’t force their religion on us as much as they might have done.

But every time I became consciously aware of being in a convent things got more difficult. Ah well, it was a learning experience for all of us.


Monday, February 14th, 2011

I’ve got the bus from Ratnapura to Karawita several times. Near Dela there is a saw mill. There is a section of forest that has been slowly turning into a big pile of logs over the time that I’ve been doing the trip. Largely, this makes me somewhat sad.

What I find interesting (ironic, funny, ridiculous, reassuring, infuriating) is that in the middle of this destruction is a bo tree. The bo tree is venerated in Sri Lanka as the tree that Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment. This particular bo tree has a small wall around it and a shrine (like most bo trees in the country).

It’s just very, very strange seeing a single tree being venerated in the middle of ever-increasing clearing.


Friday, December 17th, 2010

While I was in India I spent a lot of time with Stan. And we had a lot of very interesting conversations about all sorts of things. 🙂

And during one of these interesting conversations, I think it was when I was explaining about why I don’t want children and how I believe that two adults aren’t enough to bring up a child, Stan turned to Guru and said “I think she needs to read Osho, don’t you?”.

It was at the Osho ashram in Poona that Stan and Guru had met initially a couple of years ago.

I hadn’t heard of Osho till I met Stan. But he had a book of Osho’s (From Unconsciousness to Consciousness) which he lent me to read.

And I loved it. Osho was a really interesting thinker. He had the courage to look at the world as it actually is rather than through the conditioning we force upon ourselves. He said some really fascinating things. I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, but then again, I don’t need to. But I do agree with most of what he says. Plus, he’s really funny. 🙂

So Stan and Guru got me another two Osho books to read – thanks guys!!! Which are equally wonderful! Makes me look at the world in a slightly different way than before. And makes me angry and hopeful and inspired. What more can you ask for from a book? 🙂