Still religion in the 21st century?
Most people will answer "yes". However, there are still other people who will answer "no", especially those in countries where technical progress has brought important new perceptions, a better more secure life, and many other kinds of changes as a result of secularization.
This negative opinion towards religion which
many people have gains further support because of media reports about
grievances in ecclesiastical circles, offenses by political
partisanship, controversies concerning scientific discoveries,
and engagements due to violent differences. Yet even more
importantly, many people feel that life can go on without religion as
easily as it goes on with it. "Life is self-regulating",
they will say.
These negative feelings we experience as a result of rejecting religion can be countered by differentiating more and more between "religion" and "religiosity". Religiosity is something people accept freely even though they take it as something necessary. What could be behind this apparent ambiguity? Is it a question of the specific religion being taken into consideration, or is this ambiguity founded on far more general questions that concern the essence of all religions?
Certainly it is of interest to ask where people who are not completely without culture will direct themselves to as they do, when religion does not satisfy them any more. There are two societal groupings into which we can classify such people. In the first group we find people who dedicate themselves to the basics of advances in technical progress, i.e. the sciences, and who try to critically understand what the deeper context is all about. In the second group we find people who believe this first group lacks sentimentality, and that an alternative to this complexity is to get involved in one of the many branches of arts.
Finally, we should address the question of what these people who seem to be without culture, and yet nevertheless are very active in life, will do with themselves. Are they just bad people in a moralistic sense, are they condemned to not having any enlightened perceptions during their lifetime, or how else can we understand them? How can we characterise this group of people who are seemingly without a critical faculty of judging what is meaningful for their lives? It seems they want to be master of their lives, thereby following a deeper natural impulse led by power and sex.
The intention of the following text is to bring more insight into the context outlined above. The old traditions might start by considering this context beginning with the advent of Adam and Eve; however, the world was likely created a long time before Adam and Eve. Therefore, and first of all, we need to ask ourselves, what can be said about this context from a modern point of view.
1. The Origin
Nothing can come out of nothing.
The universe exists. It cannot have originated from just nothing. Something must always have existed. There must have been some origin. From within the limits of our perception we can only know that there cannot be any creation out of nothing, there can only be change, transformation, metamorphosis - howsoever we prefer to name it.
The modern human being wants to demythologize the origin. The first step is to renounce the assumption that there is a creator, something which is not consistent with the natural sciences. But inevitably the following question appears almost mythological: has there been only one child of the origin or have there been several children?
All simple processes begin via division. This is a basic scientific experience in many disciplines, although it is most visible in biology. Yet what is most difficult to understand remains; that is, what basically incites these divisions. The explanation of cell division was arrived at only a short time ago. Yet the cosmological origin of all things still completely eludes us. Let us for now refer to this origin as ?an active principle?. One became Two, out of these Two came Four, and so forth. What might have been these first Two? Space and time? Certainly not! Because both of these are abstract virtual children, from which something as real as matter and energy could not possibly arise. Hence in the beginning, and probably in the first generation, there did not yet exist space and time.
The simplest idea that we can begin with is that matter and energy were the children of the first One, which we may refer to as "primordial matter. "Yin" and "Yang" are labels commonly used in Asia to describe these children.
Thanks to the cleverness of Albert Einstein, we nowadays know that mass and energy can interact and can be converted from one form into another. Perhaps space and time are the children of mass and energy, albeit completely abstract ones. Using more scientific terminology, let us refer to these children as "fields". If initially all creation proceeded by means of division, then from mass and energy four fields should have originated. According to Einstein space and time are actually a product of the curvatures of mass. The strong and weak forces including electrical charges and magnetism also manifest themselves as fields, and thus could be the children of the original energy.
But back to the starting point! Pensez deux fois! If there has always been something, then our world has to be infinite. Therefore the idea of a single Big Bang might be nonsense forcing us to say: ?Sorry Messieurs Georges Lemaître and Sir Fred Hoyle! You were both too enraptured with Christian conceptions and the biblical ideal of a single creation!?
This brings us to the simple and yet extraordinarily subtle question, upon what foundation should we base our world-view? Upon religion? Yet religion seems to have failed us miserably, providing us with organizations that keep propounding the idea of an initial single creation. What about upon the sciences and all the scientists who are chasing "the god particle" and "the Big Bang", whether at CERN in Geneva or at other facilities all of which require enormous amounts of money? Are they not looking in the wrong direction with their assumptions that there has been only one Big Bang and that at the beginning there already existed space and time? What about basing our foundation upon the arts, whatever we may understand by them? Yet didn?t the arts fall from searching for the beautiful to exploring bizarre and fantastic subjects?
If neither religion, science, nor the arts can provide us with a foundation upon which to build our world-view, then we need to inquire into what exactly is wrong with them. Yet can we really assume that none of them can provide us with what we want?
We said that at the beginning, presumably, all evolution proceeded via division. But when two !things" are present, they are never stable as a tendency for change resides within them. Whether this change is a transition into an energetically more favorable and thus more stable state, or whether it is through division into harmonic oscillations, this question remains open for the time being. Yet we should keep in mind that two things together are usually not stable and tend to change. This instability can be observed in many disciplines, although we don?t want to discuss that in detail here.
It can be said that a stool can never be in a stable position on only two legs. However, a stool stands rigidly on three legs. According to modern knowledge an electron being formed by three so-called quarks is completely stable, too. It is magnificently suited to transport our beloved electrical current. We can imagine that, at once, there must be three parts joined together for anything to exist in a stable position.
Why, therefore, shouldn't these three disciplines just considered, i.e. ars, the arts, the religio, the religion, and the scientiae, the sciences, together produce a solid base for a modern world-view? If one leg is taken off a stool, or is not sufficiently long enough, the stool can tumble or fall. Could the same result happen if we omit or insufficiently take into account only one or two of the three subjects ? the arts, religion, and science? If we base our world-view on only one of these three subjects, we literally are being unilateral. If we only take two of them into account, then, necessarily, an unstable situation will arise that promotes permanent alteration. It is only by integrating all three disciplines that we get a universal understanding of the word "ARS" as not only comprising, as up to now, arts in the conventional sense, but all three disciplines as a stable base of our perception.
By approaching the subject in this way, a universal world-view becomes available that all people ? whether scientists or not ? can allow as their perception of how the so-called world and universe can be understood. In this perception all that we can conceive is included, including the very significance of our life, and in which the limits of our possibilities for perception are situated.
Still important is the question of how we perceive nature. This issue has profound social implications. Here, as well, we search for a larger base such as ecology and/or economy. A vivacious debate is currently taking place regarding the relative importance of both these domains. Yet two "things" together are not stable and do not lend themselves to permanent interaction. The third leg includes the domains involving the interior areas of living organisms including human beings, animals, and perhaps plants too. We will also have to take into account psychology and meditation as meaningful ways to give a voice to all these domains.
Democracy is certainly a good starting point. But nothing is perfect, and democracy needs improvement too. All this indicates that alternative ways have to be found. Our decision-making all too often relies on a limited possibility to choose mostly between a more traditional state and a so-called progressive perspective. Again, the existence of only two "legs", for instance during political elections, leads to an unstable situation. Allowing as a third option alternative tendencies, we allow ourselves the possibility of forming factions that result in a more flexible, and in the long run more stable, form of decision-making.
To summarize: Our new world-view should make a universal comprehension possible. It should extensively integrate our understanding of nature. Alternative options must always be admitted for decision-making. For these reasons the first letters of these three notions, "UNA", give the second half of our formula: ARS UNA.
2. The Arts
If all three "legs" of a meaningful way to a modern world-view are important, then we should take a closer look at each of them. First, let us look at the arts. We need to ask ourselves what we actually want to accept as arts. For sure, this is not limited to the Fine Arts.
The word "arts" itself expresses that something artificial is meant. At the same time, this artificial creation should be a real "arte factum" in the original Latin sense, expressing that it is made with the capability of a trained person who knows his or her handicraft. Both meanings are interconnected. About the meaning, the frame, and the practical setting, nothing has been said for the moment. But the word ?frame? already plays an important role in the art of painting. It is an essential part of any art to limit itself by setting a frame.
Arts, essentially, are means of expression, to whatever capacity is available to a creative person. What does this mean? Well, the complete human being consists of a head, an upper body, a lower body, and extremities, the arms and legs. These four areas of the body will be taken as symbols for the intellect, the feelings, the sex- and power-areas, and the sphere of activities including work and any other enterprises in our life.
Each of these four parts can express itself by means of arts. The matter, therefore, is much more complex than it might appear at first glance. Nowadays, the impression that the arts are something very complex and profound is gaining weight. This impression becomes more "ARS UNA" accentuated once we contemplate that the head as uppermost part not only comprises the intellect, but also quite different forms of sensory perception: seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting. Each of these parts can, of course, contribute to the arts and even become an essential part of a limited domain of the arts, according to how we set the frame.
As well as having the eyes and ears as a base for the arts, the nose and mouth can be such a base too in the form of the arts of cooking, for instance. The brain can also use thought and speech to produce this base. What, however, hinders us from combining these different forms of arts? This would not only mean allowing a larger frame, but allow quite new dimensions. For example, could this be a way to higher valued spheres, and maybe even to spiritual domains? We will not respond to this question for the moment, although let us remember that only if there are at least three parts together will we have a stable base.
We should also consider the concept of "multimedia", which signifies not only putting together pictures (and moving pictures such as movies) and sound, but also the vital role the mental part (the brain) plays. The arts of the brain include literature with all its different forms, for instance poetry, and also the production of artistic screenplays.
And how do we introduce the concept of the frame? We said that the arts are something created artificially. This corresponds to our idea of fiction. Non-fiction books, in this sense, do not represent arts, but have to be accounted for in the scientific domain. But it is completely left up to us to decide to what extent a certain form of arts chosen by us uses the various forms of perception including thinking and the different ways of communication.
Poetry already entangles the realm of feelings, which we attribute in our symbolic subdivision to the upper body. We say something is a matter of heart, such as unconsciously breathing deeply, while every person with medical knowledge understands the heart is an ingenious blood pump. Yet we should not overestimate the attribution of feelings to organs like the heart, for this attribution shows us that the mental spheres are largely separated from the feelings. Therefore, we find that both of these will also be largely separated forms of expression in the arts.
We can get access to the first and second domains by means of contemplation, prayer, and especially through meditation. These methods have a long history of development, and include sympathy, sensibility, sacral songs, or saying mantras as the means of their expression.
Thus we immediately ask, whether sexuality and the power area of the next domain, both attributed to the lower body, also find their own expression in the arts. For a long period this insight was suppressed and tabooed, especially in the Occident, by the three big religions and by the ruling ranks. Nowadays, however, we can talk more openly, on one side, about depictions of virgins, baroque angels, and even more permissive modern depictions, and, on the other side, about art forms expressing political power, for instance, the architecture of castles, fortresses, and even modern government buildings. This tendency is equally inherent in all forms of arts, i.e., literature, cinema, and multimedia productions that are considered to be artistic.
The fourth domain, attributed to the arms and legs, means the artistry as well as the lifestyle of artists. All artistic branches have their base in artistry. But the most important part seems to be the lifestyle that had the potential to become its own art. Leading the life of an artist is certainly not simply the expression of a lack of discipline, but a much more continuous search for insights and new forms of expression. Such a life is possible only under a maximum condition of freedom.
Let us go back to our declared goal to get insights about how we see the world and our life! In which the four domains are we most likely to get some answers? Certainly, everybody will have some difficulties in answering this question. However, it is only a trick question just to show that the answer has to be sought somewhere else. Only all four domains together will help us to find really decisive insights. Only an artist committing himself or herself to the complete life will get really deep and meaningful insights that make our world-view larger and more articulate. This means they will have to let all possibilities enter their body, into their arts and their conceptions, including religious and scientific insights.
The mental separation of the four domains, as attributed to the different parts of the body, makes it clear that we have to find an inner equilibrium. We should not select parts arbitrarily, but in the first place try to develop all our abilities equally, even if we have to accept the danger of infringing upon established taboos or never becoming specialists. Didn?t we hear once already about the search for the way of the middle path?
Each artist who is busy exclusively with the reproduction of what they are perceiving - not pursuing only the depiction of something seen or the generation of sounds, which may be commercially interesting - will certainly get during their artistic discoveries into inner as well as outer areas something endlessly bigger, endlessly farer, endlessly higher, or in the same way endlessly smaller, endlessly further inside, endlessly deeper. They will feel the infinite vastness of our universe, and at a certain point can incline themselves in astonishment towards it. The same thing will happen if they further penetrate into the micro-world - if the artist becomes aware that everything in front of him or her is again residing in something still smaller. This is not only valid for a descriptive artist, but for everyone taking the arts seriously and looking, as we say, beyond the immediate perceivable horizon. A musician will come to the same insights, too. He will feel that each musical chord can be inserted into some kind of ?higher? music, and that each sound will always have still more ?inner life?.
Any artist who is not dogmatically fixed has observed these limits on such a search. The arts do not start from a single initial point either. During the search new initial points can always be established. Somewhere maybe his arts will dissolve and go on in another new form. He will change the existing version and look whether the new one better expresses what he is feeling or wants to communicate, or whether this becomes more difficult than before. Anybody who knows the lives of artists and their difficult paths towards new ways of perceiving will be aware of how much failing and frustration comes about before reaching a break-through at a certain point. And even once they have reached such a break-through, they will run into difficulties to find acknowledgements from their colleagues and the prevailing academic environment.
Does an artist who penetrates deeper into these areas not necessarily arrive at more religious ideas? Don't they almost automatically have the word infinity on their lips? Don't they almost certainly ask where everything comes from and where it will go at its end?
The occidental culture, in this way, has been dominated for a long time by the established religions such as the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions. The artists, in general, did not have much difficulty in accepting the ideas about infinity discussed by all three religions. But questions about the creation of this world and the apocalyptic end remained an almost unsolvable problem for them, to be circumvented only by relying on the fixed ideology of the respective holy books. The fact that they were always able to create new forms of arts, and equally the fact that sometimes other branches of arts disappeared, or were able to survive only after strong changes, seemed to be a completely different problem not related to the obligatory beliefs.
Indeed, ideas about a creation out of nothing and about an apocalyptic end of the world that left nothing behind were forbidden from the artists? thoughts, even though they were clearly in contradiction to this idea of infinity.
This was not all that was forbidden. Even expressing their own world of feelings had narrow proscribed limits. For instance, we hardly still remember how difficult the break-through of Romanticism came about in Central Europe. Often they saw a danger of the generally accepted values of society, and maybe not without reason. But what was wrong, the feelings or the values?
Still worse was the situation concerning anything of the sexual sphere. Yes, virgins and angels could be depicted as naked, but already this incited the anger of the upper echelon of the churches of the established Western religions who soon decreed covering the genitals with fig-leaves. These tendencies were not simply limited only to depicting arts. In the same way music was rejected if it left the area of the ?superior? domain such as happened with established folk-dances and sturdy dance-music. The fact that the Kamasutra and Tantra in India had developed to the level of superior arts became known in Europe only much later. But India too fell into bigotry nourished by the double-standards of the Victorian colonial empire.
For a long time artists have had enormous difficulties having their work accepted. In the Middle Ages many artists were put down as vagrant people, and this tradition continued, for instance in theatres, till the last century.
Despite all this, and maybe even because of this, in the Western cultural hemisphere a sense or feeling developed that only an equilibrated way that allowed space for all these domains - the mental, the feelings, the sexual, and free activities, could provide a way ahead. The word "ahead" may appear to have strong connotations of being extroverted, but in analogy, the introverted way towards ourselves and our interior being is meant.
What is the guiding line, the essential dimension of this artistic search? First of all we have to mention the search for the beautiful. This search does not seem to be the only one driving an artist ahead. But whether selecting the themes of his or her activities or selecting the means of expression, beauty seems to play the most important role. It seems to be the decisive dimension of the arts. And isn't it that artists themselves are often especially beautiful people?
As in the case of the arts, we first of all want to ask what is meant by "religions". In the European area and in the Near Orient, by "religion" is meant established communities of belief, i.e. organised groups with beliefs laid down in so-called holy books. This is equally true for Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and for all subgroups such as confessional or sectarian communities.
Initially all religions corresponded to the human desire to master the sufferings of their being, especially those domains of life which were not accessible to the mind. Leading personalities of the clergy laid down the dogma as pronounced by particular outstanding persons who had been designated as prophets or something similar.
These priests gained a special position of power, later consolidated in organizations which were often called churches. These organizations later came to be called religions, which has led to much confusion. This led to the differentiation between religion and religiosity, the latter word meaning the direct approach to domains of life not accessible to the mind and the devotion connected therewith.
In modern times all these religions have been exposed to sharper criticism. This criticism has come from several sides. First, the abuse of power especially by the Catholic church has been exposed, mainly during the crusades against Islam, but also tightly connected to ruling power institutions and during the inquisition. Still harsher criticism has come from the rising sciences. Well known are the cases of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and later of Darwin, where the prevailing world-view of the respective period of time, which in changing variations has always been centred on mankind, was challenged. Still more explosive in our days is the dispute about the history of creation, which should explain not only the central position of man in the world, but, in addition, how the world came about out of nothing. But not the slightest trace of any religious ideas give hints about how something like that could be possible.
This criticism was reinforced by the incontrovertible feeling that life is a self-regulating process that is not controllable by religions. This feeling is commonly dealt with by artists and scientists, showing this to be a strong argument against ideological fixation. Ideological attitudes of mind are normally characterized by the final suffix: -ism. Indeed, all three main Western religions have such fixations. For instance, in Germany people renounced this suffix because they did not want to be exposed as group that ideologically fixes attitudes. They nowadays especially want to get away from the ideological fixation of philosophical systems, mainly from Marxism. However, there is no doubt that both the established religions and Marxism show exactly such a fixation, one which cannot be denied by referring to alleged revelation. They again show up in designations like Catholicism and Protestantism.
The most serious point, however, is the notion of ?God? itself, a term with a meaning that generally involves a world-view concentrated on humankind. The principle difficulty is the definition of the notion God. Does this notion include something more or something less than the notion of "world", which already includes whatsoever exists? This latter concept is understood synonymously with the notion universe, independent from what we can grasp. If it means less than the entire world, then something is lacking to God. It also cannot comprise more than all that exists. In former times by "all that exists" only the material part of the world was understood. But since we know that mass and energy can be converted into one another, this differentiation has been rendered invalid. Therefore, the notion God is equivalent to the notion world, and is thus superfluous. These thoughts are, of course, a red cloth for the established churches.
Buddhism, being the fourth religion on Earth in order of size, is in this sense designated completely wrong by Western languages as an "-ism". It maintains far less ideological fixations, especially if we disregard some quite fundamentalist Theravada groups. It does not need holy books or the notion God. Basically it is understood as instructions for getting one?s own insight, at the same time emphasizing the huge extent of the world, which especially in the exterior parts cannot be explained, and it urges a person towards devotion and putting in their own effort.
Not only insights but also moral behavior are aimed at, as they are in the other religions. But there are great differences. Each religion has its own center-points. As such a center-point in Christianity is considered the invitation to "love thy neighbor", which does not find much criticism from other religions. More questionable are the Ten Commandments. Buddhism with its five principles of morality (in Pali: sila) appears more modest in comparison. De facto this should mean more tolerance as we see the daily life of people living in Buddhist countries.
This does not mean that Buddhism is free from criticism or of fixed ideological rules of belief. Here it should be sufficient to mention the relationship between reincarnation and astrology, both of which cannot be brought into agreement with modern scientific findings. We shall have to come back to these points. Other problems with Buddhism include the strong hierarchical structure of Buddhist society, and an insufficient engagement with the modern sciences. In addition, Buddhism is also coupled to power structures that show up in the strong insistence in maintaining religiously founded traditional power structures.
The main religions do not find resistance only among scientists, but also among artists. Such conflicts were known in all epochs, albeit far less in Buddhism. From the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and continuing today there are reports of discontent in great numbers, although this is not the place to elaborate this important point.
What are the essential requirements for a modern religion? It should not contradict other areas from which we can gain insight such as the arts and sciences. While in the arts beauty is the leading dimension, in religion the requirement of consistency is most important. The insights which religion can bring us - better said, which religiosity can bring us - must be consistent with those from other areas of perception, i.e. should not be in contradiction with them. If there are discrepancies then every theory has to be checked to discover where the weak points are. This checking must not only be within the religion, but considering the traditional tendency of religions to fix dogmas, the likelihood is especially high here for the sneaking in of wrong assumptions.
For people from other disciplines three points are very attractive in Buddhism: it does not need the notion of God, it does not insist on dogmas of belief, and it incites one?s own search for insight. In addition, its more open position regarding the search for insight in arts and sciences is well known, and is in agreement with a greater liberality that expresses itself in lesser moral laws.
Here conflicts between traditional Buddhism and modern convictions can arise, because in traditional Buddhism the belief in reincarnation and in astrology has dogmatic character. Both concepts are in clear contradiction at least in this simple form to the findings of modern science. Without wanting to get into particulars, it can be said that a modern mathematical theory for complex systems such as the theory of fractals correctly says that in the evolution of such a complex system over several generations after about three to seven generations a similar state like at the beginning is reached, a so-called self-similar state. This, however, is a property transferred by information, at best by heredity, but not a bodily rebirth in persons or of persons, even without family relationship. The only explanation could be inbreeding in small closed population groups.
In a similar way astrology in its widespread form as dependent on astronomical constellations cannot be maintained, because the influences coming in question are by far simply too small. Horoscopes, for instance, cannot do more than give statistically probable frequencies of nevertheless accidental events. A very different question is whether persons develop and behave differently according to the season and location where they are born. But this is another problem that is not dependent on exact times.
Similar to other religions, the Buddhist religion has lost to a large extent its role as shelter against human suffering. Whoever is suffering will look for medical or psychological consultation, or if the problem is societal then people tend to support political changes. But in the same way as people adhere to other groups, belonging to a religious community also results in identification with a community. Loneliness can also provoke suffering which cannot be easily cured by medical, psychological, or political changes.
Like with the arts, we can look at religion and how it relates to the different domains (characterized by the head, the upper body, the lower body, and the extremities). Here also Buddhism qualifies better than the other religions by being more open and liberal. It incites a person to do their own thinking. It emphasizes the feelings, for instance, by strong bodily devotion, such as when Buddhists kneel down in front of a Buddha figure as their symbol of insight, although not as symbol of a god. Buddhism sees in sexuality much lesser offenses, and only admonishes against exaggerated greed. It penetrates the daily active life stronger than other religions, for instance by such admonitions.
The human domain, of course, is the central one for the human being. But this does not mean that human beings have a central position in the world as a whole. We can learn to understand the human domains better, and so better help ourselves in them. But beyond the human domains we soon reach limits that appear insurmountable for the mind. For example, nobody knows what mass and energy really are or where they came from. Nobody knows where the laws of nature (those measurable in the form of constants in nature; for instance, the exact measurable speed of light) and the basic properties of the world came from. Even if we understand how Einstein found the formula, there is a mysterious unknown in the relation between mass and energy.
That we reach principal limits of our perception has been shown by the natural sciences with the so-called ?uncertainty relation?. It is not possible to put everything into exact relation with everything else. But this does not mean that we have to accept contradictions. Once again we should emphasize the importance of the leading dimension used to ?measure? religion, i.e. consistency. This notion is relatively weak anchored in our daily usage of language, possibly because the upper echelon in the occidental churches did not like it. More than one fatal contradiction sneaked into their world-view over time, and these contradictions have not yet been removed even in our days. In principle, religion must be free of ideological fixation, although as a consequence it loses all rights to claim political power.
4. The Sciences
The sciences are a human product, just as the arts and religion are.
While synthesis prevails in the arts, and while religion tries to build a bridge between synthesis and analysis, the sciences focus more on analytic thoughts. (In this sense often designated as fundamental sciences. But this expression is prone to be mixed up with fundamentalism,for instance in religion. The above statement is not necessarily true for applied sciences.)
The decisive point is the combination of theory and experiment. Thoughts come from observations, and in this manner very essential new discoveries have been made. At first glance the evaluation always seems to be subjective. But is that really true?
One of the most important discoveries of the modern sciences appears to be the ascertainment that mass can be converted into energy, and in inverse analogy, energy into mass. During this conversion nothing is lost and nothing is added. The sum of mass and energy always remains the same. This seems to be the most basic law of conservation of modern physics. It has never been observed that only a minuscule particle came out of the void, but energy has always been necessary. In analogy, energy never originated out of the void, but mass was always needed for its production.
In the same way that mass and energy are never generated out of the void, they do not disappear into the void either. They can only be converted into one another. The existence of a wide spectrum of different mass particles is admitted, and in the same way a wide spectrum of different forms of energy. But the sum of all masses and energies seems to be a constant in the world. But this also means that the world has neither a beginning nor an end. It does not make sense to speak either of a creation or of an apocalyptic end of the world.
Everything else that exists in the world besides mass and energy can either be deduced from or reduced to mass and energy. In the first place, the so-called ?fields? have to be mentioned here, for instance, the electrical charge and magnetism ? meaning in simple terms the electrical current and radiation - but also space and time.
But what is the world? Is it an entity or does it consist of parts enabled to generate and disappear? The latter is certainly the case, but only by conversion. We now know that there are many galaxies in the universe that are capable of arising and vanishing. Within the galaxies there are star systems that can arise and disappear. Within the star systems there are planets on which continents, countries, settlements, and living beings can all arise and disappear. Within the living beings there is an atomic world where atoms can arise and disappear. Within the atoms there are elementary particles obeying the same rules. Who can see an end to all this?
Nowadays the big bang, the primordial explosion, is much discussed. The coming about of the universe is seen in analogy to the coming up of a galaxy. The birth of the universe, however, also needs that energy is converted into mass in an enormous amount. But even in the miniscule world we can observe an analogous fact. High energy radiation leads to the generation of elementary particles, for instance the generation of an electron-positron pair. The positron, principally a positively charged electron, decays soon afterwards and again becomes energy. Here, in the same way, energy is converted into mass. Is this not a ?miniature big bang??
However, as to where mass and energy come from, and exactly what establishes the ?rules of the game? between them ? meaning the laws of the nature ? at this point we still stand like before an enormous puzzle. Here we can only bow down in awe of the vast being that is the whole world. We can only abide by devotion and kneel down as an expression of this feeling, as is done in Buddhism. But this bowing down, this submission, does not mean to stay quiet by doing nothing. The admonition of this religion is to go on following the way of perception, without necessarily having to talk about enlightenment, as is frequently done in Asia. With some pride, but with modesty too, it can be said that the human beings, therefore, have really learned something.
These newly learned findings should be integrated back into religion, and thus, as is to be hoped, have fruitful effects for how humankind lives together. The religion that appears to be most open seems to be Buddhism, which renounces the concept of a god, and, except in fundamentalist groups, essentially persists without using any ideological statements.
Religion, as a wide realm that is in between the arts and sciences, is the connecting link of both art and science to our life. It enables us to live between seriousness and joy, between freedom and responsibility, between coming about and vanishing which is understood by us as birth and death. The sciences help us to describe the world in our immediate environment analytically, and thereby to form it, especially by means of modern technology. The arts help us to express ourselves synthetically, and thereby to change our environment. To show us our tasks, our possibilities, and our limits is the function of religion. These tasks require engagement and dedication. The possibilities allow us to live our life as fully as possible. The perception of our limits requires both modesty and devotion.
People often believe that the sciences can only be understood by experts, and consequently avoid getting into such questions. As a matter of fact, large parts of sciences need only a high school level of understanding. But we must differentiate between basic questions and rather technical applications. The basic ideas - the opinions of people who have had some deeper insights - are principally simple and should be able to be presented in a simple form. Simplicity should consequently be the decisive criterion within the sciences, in the same way that we mentioned beauty for the arts and consistency for the religions. One of the tasks of science involves delivering such simple presentations, which to a large extent has not yet been fulfilled. Sometimes such a presentation already exists in one or another language, but the translation into many languages is still lacking. Here an enormous field of tasks lies ahead of us, which also involves the building of new educational establishments.
From this point of view, science should not be more difficult than artistic activity. Inversely, getting involved in religion is taken by many persons as a very simple process. However, this opinion needs to be substantially revised. How many people are members of a religious community without sharing its basic convictions! And behind the appearance something else may be hidden, such as adhering to outdated traditions or opportunistic convictions. It is only through engaging in equilibrated activities in other areas, thus leading us to deeper insights, that these pitfalls can be avoided.
5. The Universe
What is the meaning of the universe? As a stable base for our perceptions we should always have three pillars.
Concerning the universe which comprises all and everything, there seem to exist three very different possibilities from which to select three pillars as a base for our perceptions. The micro-cosmos of elementary particles, the human domain, and the macro-world of stars and galaxies. Or the inner world of every person, the daily life, and the exterior world? Or our past, our actual experiences, and our future? From all these three possibilities, taken separately, are there equally three pillars for our perceptions? Let us take this question as a kind of game!
All three subdivisions have in common an orientation in space and time. They also orient themselves ? expressing the same fact in a little bit more abstract scientific manner ? in fields not having their own life but being generated by something else. And as has already been said what generates them are mass and energy. These are the really universal ?stuff?. But what can be the third component to get in this picture to form a stable base? Here we are still searching in the dark. What makes mass and energy react with one another, to ?interact? as is said in the sciences?
Most scientists refer at this point to the various forces that exist, and which can be deduced from a number of natural constants. Inversely, the forces can also be given and used to reproduce the natural constants. This almost looks like a game, but requires the existence of space and time. However, this cannot be taken for granted, but has to be questioned seriously. The consequence of such questionable assumptions might be that according to common theories the very first phases of development, for instance, of a galaxy, should have occurred in minuscule parts of a second. For the common human mind, but also considering the amounts of mass and energy involved and the immense spatial dimensions, this seems to be very unlikely. Maybe the mistakes appear acceptable only because space and time developed at the same time as the galaxy under consideration.
It would be more acceptable to conceive of space and time as arising in just that moment. Then it becomes still more important to ask what third component involved with mass and energy might be, and which causes their conversion into one another such that during the conversion new ?things? with new properties come about. Are all the dogmatic people already sitting in their starting places and crying for a god? No. Thereby the problem cannot be solved. The solution has to be a specific one, while the notion of God is an all-comprising one, including for instance mass and energy.
In principle, it could be assumed that the universe consists only of two ?addings? and therefore is not stable, but continuously goes on developing. But even then the question about what makes mass and energy appear separate and yet interact with one another remains unresolved. Here we just stand in front of an incomprehensible puzzle, to which we can only bow down in astonishment. And as to how this devotion looks like in real life, this is strongly bound to culture.
At this point I, as author, can only speak very subjectively for myself when I say that the Buddhism practiced in Thailand has appealed to me the most out of everything I have become acquainted with in this world. Mentioning this, I do not mean its historical dimension as Theravada, but simply the form of Buddhism that is practised there. In a temple people bow down three times putting their hands together to form a wai. The higher they hold the hands, the deeper is the bow and the devotion expressed. This devotion, however, is not a devotion in front of a godlike entity ? as Buddha is not conceived of in this way ? but a devotion in front of an otherwise inaccessible insight that we should go on in search of. Still deeper devotion is expressed by the kraab, kneeing down while making a wai three times and bowing down so deeply that the forehead may touch the ground.
About Hinduism and Shintoism, both of which are almost unknown to me, I cannot speak here. However, Thai Buddhism seems to me to be connected in an especially strong way to people?s daily life. In every believing family there can be found decorated places with a figure of Buddha, and before all important events the wai and possibly even the kraab are practised. This may even involve the intimate area which a couple finds together when in love.
The form of Buddhism practiced in Thailand closely adheres to the direct traditions received from the Buddha, while the form of Buddhism prevailing in Sri Lanka, known as Mahayana, is by far more ready to adapt to new conditions. This latter property seems preferable, following the fast development especially of the sciences and the new insights reached here which also appear important for natural philosophy.
This leads us to the conviction that a modern Buddhism should integrate not only the new conceptions of the universe, but should also be universal, which means equal accessibility for everybody and not only for people with a certain cultural background, as for instance in certain countries of South-East Asia. This desire certainly cannot be fulfilled very easily, because it requires a subtle acceptance of the conditions of the countries concerned by such changes. There the Buddhism not only serves for getting deeper insights, but aims as well at the redemption from human suffering as an equally important goal. These sufferings, however, are largely those of a poor population lacking educational institutions, something which has to be changed urgently. Additionally, it has a strong integrative importance in giving an identification to people in a certain area. Thus, it is strongly bound to culture.
Of all countries in Southeaster Asia, Thailand has developed most independently. Thai means ?free?. But the most conservative form of Buddhism has also survived there. Currently, the country is shaken by a deep crisis that is likely to be related to these questions. A small elite in the capital of Bangkok has taken advantage of an enormous economic boom, while the rest of the country remains more or less in its former state. This elite is certainly not orthodox in the Buddhist sense of the word, nor do they not practice the Theravada tradition to the same extent as the poor rural population. The traditional Theravada practice means to orient itself closely to the original form of the teachings of Buddha. But the elite in Thailand act as Buddhists without clearly conceiving the consequences of their actions. The majority of the population, however, who outnumber the elite by far, continue to maintain and live according to the rules of the Theravada tradition.
This creates an almost insurmountable political problem for the further introduction of democratic rules of the game. It means fixing the status quo, because the poor and religiously conservative part of the population, understanding itself despite its backwardness as politically progressive, has the strong majority. The elite has evaded the problem by a putsch, but with the consequence that the word ?elite? (amataya) has become an invective. We shall come back to proposals for solving this situation in the chapter about alternative tendencies in a modern Buddhism.
With the actual situation now in mind, we can now reflect that the universe, as already said at the beginning of this chapter, can be conceived of quite differently. Does it not consist rather of our inner life, the daily life, and the outer world? Thus we also get three pillars upon which to construct our very own world-view. This will please all those to whom elementary particles and galaxies seem to exist very far away. Many people who are strongly interested in life seem to be convinced that the really important part of the universe lies within ourselves, and that our most important task lies in getting to know ourselves. The outer world, consequently, is mirrored in our daily life, and our inner life is essentially a mirror of the outer world.
Even if it is a projection, it is kept as the proper important part. Whether this again is bound to a culture is for now left undecided. Anyway, there are hardly logical arguments why one or another way could be more suitable to understand the meaning of the universe. We cannot avoid accepting both of them as equivalent. But this supports all those who emphasize the essential importance of meditation. Meditation is THE means to inquire insight into our inner life, or, using other words, to arrive at deeper insights to experiencing this universe.
Finally, there are many people who want to conceive our world as being dependent on time. It will be said that we can only understand ourselves if we know our past. In our actual lives we can refer to the past for working out problems of the future. Analogically, in relation to what was said with respect to our inner life, it can be assumed that by mirroring our past with our actual lives, a glimpse of the future can be arrived at. But this may be more difficult than in the preceding case. The mathematicians and physicists have a mysterious explanation for this. They will say that time can only be described as an imaginary quantity, thereby strongly limiting references to real life.
Can we learn about our future from our history? Should we be concerned with arriving at new and immensely significant understandings especially in these times of awful wars and unimaginable genocide? Or must we accept the perishing of people as well as countless individual deaths as caused by nature? These important questions very quickly touch upon religious areas that do not allow simple logical answers.
The youth of our planet are conspicuously going in exactly the opposite direction. They are turning towards an imaginary future, in which they mirror their actual experiences, and from which they try to draw conclusions about past events without directly getting interested in the historical past. Science fiction is the most important form of this tendency. It furthers the extraordinary aspect of fantasy, and thereby is certainly very valuable. But our remark about the imaginary character of time applies to this context, too.
One could conceive time as just being something real. Then space too would get an imaginary character. Concepts of the universe that are primarily based on either space or time presumably are equivalent. This is true for all three concepts of the universality. Anyway, the universality as well as the notion of the universe, no matter how they are understood, must be an essential element of a modern religiosity. Ought this be acceptable for the leading representatives of Buddhism, which even today is certainly not completely free of disputes about different opinions?
Let us for now take it easy and for the moment be content with having given, by the double interpretation of the notions ?universe? and ?universality?, a meaning to the first letter of the second word of our designation ARS UNA.
Buddhism distinguishes itself by searching in an almost ingenious manner for the Middle Way between a relaxed easy life and a life of responsibility.
Relaxed and easy in this sense does not mean dissolute, and responsible does not mean to impose rigorous control upon others. The way of the middle is very simply a natural normal way, being aware of the unclear meaning of the word ?normal?. The words naturalness and normality should thus provide the second letter of the word UNA with a good meaning.
What we get used to in actual situations must necessarily be normal. If, for instance, a dispute about two different options is taking place, the continuous and often-times not very friendly back and forth between two people certainly is not normal. However, in such a situation where we are momentarily in a dispute about economy and ecology, where both are needed for our life, then without a third option we cannot find an agreement.
What people really need is a natural and joyful fulfilling life in a community with others, without causing harm to one another, neither between individuals nor between groups of people. To make such a life possible, Buddhism seems more able than any other religion or organization.
At first glance this may look like a very daring statement. But it can easily be supported. A fulfilled happy life needs in the first place partnership. Partnership in large scale can only be achieved starting from partnership in private life. For private partnerships, however, not only the mental and spiritual relationship and good feelings play an important role, but in addition a decisive factor is the aspect of sexual love. But in this crucial changes have occurred, and due to medical developments this sector today needs other types of control than in former times.
This means the new possibilities of hindering pregnancies so that women can enter a relationship without becoming pregnant, and the many other new methods to avoid the spreading of infections (venereal diseases, hepatitis, AIDS, etc.). The only people who have to be strictly protected are the children. This opinion is also gaining ground in Asia.
These medical and hygienic possibilities are opening new spaces of freedom. In the private sector the pressure to marry at the beginning of a new relationship has been taken away. Life has become more complex such that more factors than ever before have to be taken into account. Certainly marriage is desirable if children are going to be brought into the world. For these children will need stability. But whether a marriage is also good for the partners themselves often still remains a cause of doubt, and, at the beginning of a relationship, is not always clear.
In the public sector the question of limiting the birth rate is of central importance. Medical progress, praised on one side, on the other side causes the problem of an ever increasing population, which is already too much to keep pace with the economy or ecology. This makes it extremely important to scale down the birth rate. It follows that, as in the private sector, it is of primary significance for the public sector, too, to use in full extent the new methods of birth control.
Here Buddhism, much more than the established Western religions, seems able and willing to play a role-making sense. Especially the Catholic church and Islam are persistently opposed to most of the intentions to bring about an effective means of birth control. Buddhism, at first glance so strongly rooted in traditions, is also here quite ready to favour a middle way basically corresponding to these traditions. The middle way runs through the area in between tolerance and responsibility, which are both old and esteemed Buddhist values.
The policies of many government leaders seem to be irresponsible in comparison, with their support for raising the birth rate for both national power and economic reasons. The Western religions keep silent on this issue, and the population consequently does not become aware of the explosive danger of this subject. However, in Thailand, condoms are offered at the cash-desk of most super-markets. No poster campaigns, which are seldom successful anyway, are needed by praiseworthy but not very effective non-government organizations (NGO's).
But what about the dispute regarding economy and ecology? It will become less sharp if people can fully live their lives. Here, too, a balance is needed between tolerance and responsibility. Here again Buddhism can play a rather more settling role than Western religions or NGO's. The economy and ecology both have, of course, a great significance, and neither of them can live without the other. They should not oppose one another, but promote each other. This means that one should not harm the other, but that both should feel responsible and tolerant of one another wheresoever possible. Again, we are simply asking for the way of the middle, which happens to be a very pronounced characteristic of Buddhism.
7. Alternative Choices
When two choices are put in opposition to one another, we need to look for a third way. The third way in politics is often designated as "alternative solutions". The representatives of two established positions, who are struggling with one another, often try in full harmony to discredit this third way, because they have only their own power in mind and fear losing it. Thus alternatives will be despised and hampered when they do come up. The conscience that such a third way could be the way of the middle, maybe delivering something entirely new, will be completely suppressed.
Ugly methods are quite frequent and hinder the access of alternatives by the mass media, so only threadbare arguments get produced. This is often facilitated by tendencies of alleged representatives of the middle way towards one or the other side, for instance either strongly maintaining traditions or following uncritical beliefs of progress, thus hampering the development of alternative solutions.
What is the best means against this hindrance, we might ask. The answer is a very old one, and always the same, as it is also a base of Buddhism: meditation. Meditation is a simple and ingenuous way to get rid of extraneous influences and to seek one?s own essence. The essential point ought to be that following one?s own essence during meditation is not just mental or spiritual but it is also a special feeling. It also does not be something simply connected to sexual or power needs, nor connected exclusively to one?s own activities during work or elsewhere. Our complex essence contains all these domains, and we find they will all show up a little during meditation.
According to modern ideas, meditation is not just a more or less vaguely felt inner process, but something by far more real, yet also containing within it imaginary parts. Thus the notion of the soul is getting clearer properties, which is also supported by modern psychology. In meditation the whole person will show up with all their domains and possibilities, which often lay dormant in the unconsciousness. In this sense meditation is a waking up, bringing at the same time clearness and new perspectives.
Meditation also supports the consciousness that we are only a part of something much bigger, which we can never understand completely. In the same way there are so many smaller areas within us, which equally remain inaccessible. We are only a minimal part of that which we call "universe". But this does not mean that we need to feel desperate, because inside of us also a whole universe is living, a universe which perhaps is a mirror image of that other larger universe, and which we can even form ourselves. And who gives us more freedom to do it than Buddhism? Certainly no -ism in our Western meaning of an ideology!
The specific kind of meditation used remains of lesser importance. Between the different cultural forms lie deep trenches. The differences of cultural worlds and, connected to this, of societies correspond to this fact. Independent from whether we use a Tibetan Kanyu meditation, an Indian Kundalini meditation, or a Pali meditation of the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Thailand, the aim and the possibility of arriving at deeper insights are equally available by every path. It is thus essential to understand that the cultural frame is of secondary importance. Most important, however, are the insight and the sense for a worldwide community thereby enabled.
Where are alternative choices to be sought? Everybody, of course, has to find this out on their own. Yet there always exist actual tendencies, and when such tendencies clearly show up then much more is needed of them, to which we can apply the rather vague concept ?culture?. At this point, of course, a new dispute could immediately arise regarding what exactly culture should be. We do not want to enter into this dispute, however, because much has already been said about it on every continent. There are thousands of ways to get involved with culture. But if we try to separate culture from a purely economic or ecological perspective, it will quickly get sharper contours.
Culture is to a certain degree always opposed to politics. Inversely, it also needs politics, without which culture can be pursued only in a quiet retreat which certainly does not make sense. Culture needs, among other things, buildings, and those buildings should correspond to the culture. For instance, these should be beautiful architecture that corresponds to and complements each respective culture. A temple, theatre, museum, concert-hall, or whatever else it may be, hardly any project can be realized without the participation of politics.
Let us say for the time being, albeit perhaps with a little too much simplification, that the alternative is culture. In this sense we shall understand the third letter of the second word of our designation ARS UNA, as ?cultural alternative?.
Modern religion and modern society reflect one another.
This makes it absolutely necessary to ask what kind of changes are going on in society, and to look whether the developments are running in a parallel manner.
All that we have said about modern tendencies in religion will show up in society too. The arts and sciences will play a much larger role than before, and also entirely change it. At the same time, it will become evident that the people in a society will feel much more as a totality, and correspondingly live their lives as fully as possible. The equal importance of the four aforementioned domains ? the mental and spiritual, the feelings, the sphere of sex and power, and the enormously enlarged area of our activities ? will now begin to take more and more effect.
However, in addition there are important new conditions directly influencing both society and our private life and personal relationship to religiosity. For instance, the multinational technical and medical industries need to be addressed. People can nowadays live in a far more healthy way than ever before, and they have the possibility to control what in former times remained outside their influence.
Yet most of all, this is extremely relevant for the sexual sphere. Everybody nowadays can decide by themselves when in his or her life to have children and just how many to have. This means that we need to take responsibility and prepare for the growing problem of overpopulation. A pregnancy should be planned by those, who are healthy and fit and can give care to their children in an appropriate form. Only those who can provide children with what they need to make their own way in life should reproduce.
The necessity of a good vocational training is necessary, but which also provides a comprehensive general education in all other respects too. This could take ten years of life more than our traditional education took, during which youth should have full scope to get involved with life in all its forms. This includes travelling and the learning of foreign languages. It would make sense to get fully integrated into the work environment and to create a family only after the age of about 30 years (not considered as a strict limit). If the economy is not artificially blown up, then much less working power is needed, making such proposals absolutely feasible.
For the same reason it should be feasible to let those people who want to retire at the age of 60 do so. But the consequence should not be that they then spend the rest of their lifetime in a chair in front of their TV set. The experience of these senior people, who on average are still quite fit, perhaps more than in former times, is urgently needed by young people. Therefore, contacts between younger and elder persons should be promoted.
The question of financing these proposals will not be discussed in detail here. Certainly it could be that from a purely economic point of view these do not seem acceptable. But first of all, a purely economic point of view has to be questioned. Furthermore accepting these proposals would be an innovative investment. Almost every innovation initially needs not negligible investments until all is running well. The realization of these ideas should be worth quite a lot of money, as these ideas will pay out in other ways.
© Hans J. Unsoeld, Berlin 2012 / 2017
Last updated on July 7, 2012 with a few corrections Sept.29, 2017