Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Day with Islam

We covered Islam on one of the last days of my World Religions class. We discussed the Hajj, or the trek to Mecca that every Muslim is encouraged to complete at least once in their lifetimes. He spoke of this trip with great enthuisiasm, saying that he himself would like to go one one. He said that the sheer numbers of Muslims completing the trip every year was breathtaking in itself, and seeing all of them completing their salaat together as one was awe-inspiring. I looked up the Hajj on YouTube, I saw videos of thousands of people praying all together, and yes, it was impressive, but I couldn't grasp the same enthusiasm that gripped my professor. It took a trip to the Islamic Center of Riverside to really understand how he felt.

The visit to the Mosque was a requirement for my final group project. I drove myself and two other partners through a horrible rain storm to get there, but it was worth every risk. We showed up to the Mosque about forty-five minutes before the Friday service began, so I had a chance to ask the director a few questions. He said that this week was a week where much of the congregation was on holiday. He said that they usually fit 1000 to 2000 people in the Mosque every Friday afternoon. I thought this was completely unrealistic. From the outside, the Mosque doesn't look very big at all, let alone big enough to hold thousands of people. When I got inside, I was surprised that it was bigger than I first thought, but still, two thousand people is the size that my high school was, and we had a hard enough time jamming all of those kids into our big gymnasium for pep rallies.

I was taken in by a gentlemen who volunteered to be my guide, and I sat on a chair in the main "sanctuary" or 'room" or whatever they call it, while my guide completed the first to rakats of his noon-time salaat. The second two, he said, would be led by the guest speaker after his lecture. This main area we were in was actually seperate from the entrance from where I came in, but this entrance was actually another large hall, and carpets had been laid down on the tile floor to accomodate more people. As we sat and spoke, I noticed more and more people gradually entering. There were almost no chairs in the entire building. There were some of course in the back, for old men, and that is where I sat through the lecture, but the far majority of the congregation sat on the carpeted floors. As the guest speaker entered and began his lecture, I looked around fully for the first time: there were literally hundreds of people just in that main room! It didn't look like that many, but they were all shoulder to shoulder sitting in even rows facing the speaker. I looked behind me out into the main entrance hall, and there were even more people out there. This was the moment I understood that the director was speaking the truth. When the lecture was over, everyone stood (except me) and waited for the speaker to lead the salaat. When these prayers are done privately, they are usually done silently, but when the guest speaker lead them, he chanted in Arabic, and the entire congregation chanted along with him. I never thought I could be taken in by such an event, but my professor had been right. Everyone was chanting in tune with each other in low voices that vibrated the room (take in mind that the hundreds of people around me were all men, the women were upstairs). Each part of each rakat was done by the congregation simultaneously, as one, all facing north. The only thing I can relate it to is "the wave" that the fans do at Major League Baseball games. It's difficult to depict the awesome site of all this to someone who has never experienced this. All I can say is that as I sat there, engulfed by the surround sound of hundreds of chanting voices, watching all around me as a wave of men prayed as they had done their whole lives, I felt a tingle and a shiver run through my entire body. It's something so intence that it makes you want to join them, even if you don't believe in their religion. I didn't of course, and I probably never will, but it's just a feeling that I'm trying to put into words. There are many things about Islam that I disagree with, but I can understand now why so many practice it. If nothing else, it allows the opportunity to be a part of in extremely intence experience, and it occurs in a time as simple as a Friday afternoon service.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I haven't gone to church once since I've left for college. I'm taking a religious studies class, I wrote a whole blog on how important church is, and yet I haven't gone once. My only defense is that I haven't had time, but I guess that's a lie. I haven't made time. I mean, there's a church three blocks from campus, for crying out loud. If I had REALLY wanted to go, I would have gone. The thing is, I put off most of my work until Sunday, so when it rolls around every week, I ask myself, "can I go to church today?", and I always end telling myself, "no, you need the time for school work." I do want to go, just not enough to actually go. What's even more sad is that I probably waste the same amount of time on Sunday, even with all the work I have, that I would be spending going to church. The point is, I feel absolutely horrible about it.

What is it with Sundays? It's the best day to go to church, God made it the day of rest, the day of sabbath. So why did God let me wake up on countless Sundays thinking that going to Church was work? It's funny looking back at what I told myself on those days: "I'll make up for it when I go to college". Wrong! I guess I can only hope that I grow out of this phase of "lazy college student". One of these days I'll be a regular church-goer, then it'll be my turn to send "Season's Greetings" cards and "we miss you" letters to all the kids going off to college.

It isn't God that "lets" me be lazy, as much as I want to believe otherwise. He gave me free will. Going or not going is up to me, and my feeling of guilt is all mental. I'll believe that. But I can still blame it on the Church.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Loud Silence

I read an article the other day in USA Today that inspired a little writing, and oddly enough it came from the business section. It was about a CEO of a large foreign energy group, Vijay Eswaran, and a unique practice of his that he claims is a factor in his success. Every morning he devotes one hour to complete silence, in which time he reflects the day before, makes short and long term goals, goes over notes of the previous session, and "prays" or in the words of his book, "communes with the Lord". Yes, he has written a book on it, called In The Sphere of Silence.

The inspiration for this practice, Mr Eswaran said, came from the Hindu practice called mauna, which was done with his grandfather. He said it was traditionally done during Brahma muhurta, "when the day is born again", the two hours before the sun rises. In my brief study of Hinduism, I had never heard of this practice. Of all the religions studied in my class, Hinduism was my least favorite because many of the ideologies and concepts didn't make sense. This simple practice oviously has it's benefits, so I may have to reconsider my opinion. Eswaran was reconnected with the practice, which he had stopped during college (go figure), when he took an oath of silence right after college graduation for 33 days as a lay monk.

Eswaran describes the hour of silence as "yoga of the mind", saying "silence is like exercise. A person who never does it would rather get shot than get started. Once started , he would rather die than stop". It really does seem beneficial. This hour stimulates memory by recalling the previous day. All the lessons learned that day come back and are put on paper so that they are not forgotten. Setting goals for the day, the week, even the months and years to come help to sharpen the mind and help us to make each daily action with a purpose in mind. All of us have goals, we all make resolutions, but often we forget these hopeful self changes in the fast paced world full of distractions. Eswaran comments on this. Though he says the silence is not a prayer, "It does have a spiritual side, a recognition that there is something beyond dashing around 9 to 5 that defines the purpose within us".

There are similar concepts that are practiced, though not quite the same. I play baseball, and I've been taught by my father to visualize myself getting hits, to visualize my swing, my at-bats, and the innings played defensively. The same went with wrestling. The idea was that if we could see ourselves doing what we wanted to do mentally, it would be easier to do physically when the time came. It does prove helpful, because how we see ourselves determines how we act and how others see us. If we see ourselves being successful, and getting each step to success clear in our mind, then we are more likely to succeed. It's not necessarily easier, because success never is, but we do become more prepared.

Eswaran has an interesting idea on the part of this "silent hour" spent communing with God. Not necessarily God, but as Eswaran puts it, communing with your maker, if you choose to believe in one". He doesn 't think of it as praying, but rather "a time of asking questions as you would to a buddy, looking upon your maker as a guide....The answers eventually materialize". This could be viewed as praying or not as praying, but the concept of asking "our maker" these questions is valuable. It's unlikely that God would make himself present to answer these questions, but just like the goals and dreams, it's important to keep the questions fresh in our minds so they may be answered in time through our own actions.

Obviously this man is highly successful, and the practice seems to make sense, therefore I believe it's worth a shot. The question is how many people can make time for a practice like it? Those who think one hour is too long to sit still will not likely take up the practice, but I think that an hour of completing the tasks that Eswaran describes could easily make the rest of the day more valuable and allow us to get more done in less time.

On a final note, the Company that Eswaran started is called Qi or Ch'i, taken from the Chinese character. I found it an interesting piece of information considering my class just finished a two week study of Chinese religion which focuses around the concept of Ch'i.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Daoism: the religion of good health?

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I have become increasingly interested in Daoism over the past few weeks. It's coming up on the end of the semester, and I was hoping on doing Daoism for my final group project. Unfortunately, the closest Daoist "temple" is in L.A., which is too far to drive. Hopefully I'll get another chance.

Anyway, the reason it has become so interesting to me is because of the emphasis that the religion puts on health and well being. I found it to be an amazing concept. I've never actually thought of religion and physical health, or religion and exercise, as similar entities. I am a believer in the mental and emotional health benefits of going to church and praying, and maybe through that a sence of better physical health is gained. What I've found are the actual practices that stimulate good health.

Everyone has heard of Acupuncture. I have personally never tried it, so I don't know how well it works, but I've heard good things about it. It is all based around the Daoist belief in energy "meridians" that run throughout the body, especially throughout the spine. The "point" of using the needles (haha, he made a funny!) is to stimulate the natural flow of energy at a certain point in the body, thus curing various bodily ailments.

Tai Chi, or T'ai chi ch'uan, is another one of these "health practices". According to Living Religions by Mary Fisher, it is a "continual circular movement through a series of dance-like postures", and it is intended to encourage the "unobstructed flow of chi through the body". Chi can vaguely be compared to the status of God in this Chinese religion, because chi is believed to be the "impersonal self-generating energy" from which the universe was made. To me this religion teaches that enlightenment on earth doesn't come from praying or reading ancient scriptures, but rather through accepting the "yin" and "yang" aspects of chi and allowing the both to flow throughout the mind and body freely. Amazingingly, the practices which help to allow this free movement of chi also improve balance, strength, agility and flexibility. So even if we don't believe that chi exists, we can still reap the physical benefits. If nothing else, we can walk away from these fantastic exercises with reduced stress and a better, more confident feeling with ourselves.

I just can't get over how great of a concept it is. These Daoist practices are gaining popularity all over the world; by now, though don't quote me on this, there must be just as many non-Daoists who practice the exercises as those who are Daoist. If Daoism was the religion of choice in the world, if it somehow took the place of Christianity in the number of people who practice it, it seems to me that the world would be a much healthier, if not much better, place.

And if that dream came true, who knows what could come next? Maybe a religion that focuses on world peace! Oh wait, we already do. Shoot.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Theories of Evil

I've covered some pretty deep topics in a few of my blogs, and this one is no exception. Where can one start when discussing something as complex and endless as "evil"? There are so many paths to take, so many ways to start. I find myself starting from the required readings in my World Religions class. This week's religion is Judaism. Interestingly enough, it's also Jewish Education week here at Redlands.

I read a passage out of one of my class's required texts, The Great Religions: Essential Questions. The passage discussed the question, "Why does Evil exist?", and was focused mainly one the answers that Judaism provides. Frankly, I disliked the passage. I felt that the writer never really came to a clear point. The writer, Marc-Alain Quaknin, began by discussing the Jewish belief that there was no "original sin" that was passed on over generations. Instead, "It is up to each individual to take up the daily struggle so that their good my triumph over their bad". I'm not sure how this is a valid alternative to original sin, maybe the writer simply phrased it badly or I simply can't see it. But the first belief, that there was no original sin, implies many different things. It means that the wrongs commited in the past have no effect on the present day. It means that humanity isn't in a fallen, depraved state, or if it can be considered such, than it is not due to the "first sin". Meanings aside, this Jewish belief would have been a good concept to explain in Quaknin's passage, but he doesn't. Instead he appears to argue against it. He talks about humanity as a whole choosing evil instead of good; that with free will granted to us "we" went against God's rules. After such a statement as expaining the responsibilities of each individual, speaking of humanity in general at all, let alone speaking of humanity as one unit who chose evil is going against that concept. What's more is that it's not true. Men often do choose evil, this is true, but just as many choose good.

I don't really want to argue against a professional's word, since I've already done that in a previous assignment. Rather, I thought I'd brainstorm out loud the possibility of the "Jewish belief". If it really is all up to the individual in each lifetime, what then does that mean? It's difficult, because some of the concept of "original sin" does serve as an easy explanation. For example it can be thought that many people who grow up evil are that way because of something or someone influencing their lives when they were young. Maybe a tragic event taught them to discredit God and believe that nothing good would happen to them. Maybe they were abused as a child. Maybe they were born into a family of organized crime. The idea of sin being passed on, in this sense, proves valid. But these situations could just as easily come another way. Even after experiencing horrible atrocities, it is still the individual, the victim, to choose what path they take. Many choose evil, but many choose good. Following the same strand, were the effects on the young person in question not brought on by individual choices of the parent or influential person? I take the belief in individual responsibility to mean that the choices and struggles of the individual determine all good and bad for that individual in that lifetime. If they raise a child to be evil because of their choices, that's not exactly good for them, is it?
What are the sources of evil in this day and age? Of course, this question is debatable because of each individuals definition of good and evil. Well, as blasphemous as it sounds, religion certainly is a source of evil. Whether they are devine words from this religion, or simply misinterpretations, evil deeds take place every day in the name of God or religion. Poverty is a source. Poverty can start one of two ways: it can be believed that every poor person is poor because of their choices; others would argue that accidents happen that no one could have any control over, and the "system" or "man" prevents them from regaining their right to success and prosperity. To take one step back from poverty, money itself is a major source of evil. The lack of it can cause evil, but the presence of it can cause just as much or even more evil. Poverty inspires petty crime, theft, and reckless murder. People with money may have recieved it throug evil deeds, but have more resources available for them to do more evil (professional killers, organized crime, bribery, etc).

Can all of these sources be explained by the belief that original sin doesn't exist? The fact that humanity is not in a state of peace and prosperity can itself mean that humanity is, as a whole, depraved. But too much of the world lives for good, dreams of good, and wants the end of all evil. Could the first sin, the "orignal sin" not be the source of evil, but the source of good? Why would the tale of Adam and Eve even be written if not to prove the moral of it to millions of people? Was not the story to show the rest of us what not to do?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Open Letter

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I read a great article a couple of weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times about the recent Open Letter sent to Christian leaders around the world by a group of Muslim leaders. This letter discussed the similarities between the two religions, and called for peace between the two cultures. There were interviews on both Muslim intellectuals and some of the Christian leaders who recieved the letter. Both sides spoke highly of the letter, saying that it was the first time that Muslims have gathered to discuss the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Both agreed that a better relationship was needed to end the ignorance and hostility on both sides.

I brought this letter up in my class and discussed it. Many of the students, and my professor, along with myself, were surprised by some by some of the issues brought up in the article. One of the Muslim intellectuals quoted agreed that the letter would help Americans to understand that Islam is a peace loving religion, and that the radicals and terrorists only make up a small minority. He also defended, in a way, the ideas of these radicals, saying that many Muslims do not know of the free America that we all know, but only remember hostilities by white people like the crusades. I found it interesting, as did my professor, that this subject even needed to be brought up. As much as I agree that most Muslim people are peaceful and need to be seperated from the radicals, these atrocities were done hundreds of years ago, and we have since redeemed ourselves, in my opinion. I would have been less surprised, just because it is the L.A. Times, if the article had more in it about the unfairness in Guantanamo. Anyway, it wasn't brought up, so it doesn't need to be here.

I think that the letter is long since do, and it is great to see a group of Muslims gathering to end the hatred that is tearing nations apart, causing war and destruction. I haven't read the full letter yet, but I plan to. The official site that has the letter available, in full, to read, is:

Monday, November 5, 2007

Young Love

Love is the blessing and the curse of this world. Without it, we could not call ourselves human, but with it, we are doomed to live with the concequences it brings. It's the most precious thing we have to give, but does that mean we should keep it for only a precious few? Loving all human beings is an answer for some, but is the risk of having it abused too high? The word itself gets abused. Those who feel the power that the emotion represents will only tell certain people "I love you". Others will pull it out of nowhere, sometimes to people they've hardly met. Often they don't mean it, it only serves as a way to describe a feeling towards them at that particular moment. Someone might tell another that they love them, when they are actually only feeling gratitude, joy, and sometimes only sorrow. Love could very well be that simple at times, but it is only a temporary lure.

When we are little, we are taught to love our parents and grandparents. But are we really taught? Do we need telling to love our parents? Maybe we do when we get a little older and into the rebellion stages of life, but usually not when we are little. Our parents are the ones always there, calming us when we are scared or angry, feeding us, playing with us, teaching us to wash our hands, brush our teeth, and not to cross the street without them. All the while, they are telling us that they love us. Even when we are small and our brains "aren't fully developed", we can still have a perspective on what love is. Love is what made our parents do all those things for us, it's what made them read us bed time stories and kiss us goodnight. Love is what made our tiny insignificant lives special. So is it safe to say that we know love better when we are young than when we get older? Children do have minds like a sponge, they can take up almost any concept faster than we can at an older age. True, there are more aspects about love that we cannot learn as children, but what we do learn seems pretty sufficient to me. When we in turn tell our parents that we love them, it's the truth. It's odd then, that we are told as children that we are too young to love, that we don't know what love is. We should encourage it. We don't want our children to be hurt by love, but love surrounds them from the start. Childhood love is one of the greatest parts of our youth, sometimes of our whole lives. I'm sure there are cases where two people who grew up together found it quite easy to spend the rest of their lives together. I was struck by love when I was little, and there is no denying it helped me learn what love was. Sometimes I would see a girl for the first time and immediately think I was in love, only to be dissapointed when we couldn't get along. I got it right once, maybe twice, but they ended up moving away, and so I moved on.

Childhood love comes in two parts, as does the love we experience in every other stage of life. The first is the parental love: the love we have for our parents and grandparents which lasts forever; and the introduction to love outside our immediate family: the pretty girls who beat us at basketball, the ones we throw rocks at, and maybe eventually pick "flowers" that are actually weeds for them. Sometimes it can last, but usually it's a small preview of what to expect later on. It serves as a guide that tells us to be cautious when we give others our hearts, but also not to fight love when it slaps us in the face.

There are many more phases of love which I think I could do better justice for in another post, be the question I have of childhood love is: Is what I just described as the reason behind young love really true? Why did God give us this wild emotion, at least at such a young age? We ask God why we suffer when love hurts us, and it's no different when we are little. Parents and other adults try to steer us away from it so we can't get hurt, but we feel it all the same, so we get hurt just as easily. Love can't be pushed away, because it's a trait that God gave us when he made us human. If children weren't meant to experience love, then we would think that God would have blocked that part of our learning process. He didn't, therefore loving beyond our parental love must have a reason. I can't answer it for certain, but I've given my ideas. It's a fun thing to ponder.