Stop reading profound mumbo-jumbo

A FRIEND told me one day she has started reading the Talmund, Kabbalah and other medieval Jewish works which are reputed to contain hidden revelations on life and the unseen. Her sudden interest reflects her search for some secret to explain why – after working for almost three decades – she still wasn’t as rich or successful as other career women.

I told her I too used to search for such secrets, long before my adult years. In my secondary school days, I was fascinated by religious and “spiritual” writings, instead of flesh-and-blood chicks.

Now I realise these writings are just a collection of profound nonsense. It would have been more enjoyable to watch Harry Potter movies that also depicted similar weirdo stuff.

The teachings of all religions can be summed up in one sentence: Man made gods in his own image, the weirder the better. The trouble starts when one man’s image of his god isn’t agreeable to another man, so people preach, fight and kill in order that their image is the one to be accepted by everyone else.

Divine communication

There’s not a single human being – including you, Mother Teresa and I – who could honestly say they have received communication from a non-human being, whether gods, angels or your neighbourhood graveyard denizens. The only divine vision they had received were fantasies created inside their mind. Examples of people with lots of fantasy communication include Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis, most likely a woman who plagiarised the creation myths of Babylon and elsewhere), Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Stephen King, Ms Rowling, RR Tolkien and Dan Brown.

Mother Teresa was quite blunt about it in her letters – this god thing is just one big sham foisted by the church on her when she was no more than a naive teenager growing up in Albania. In one letter, she wrote:

“Where is my faith? Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness... If there be God, please forgive me.” [Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, Doubleday, 2007]

Straws in the wind

Perhaps the chap with the most fertile imagination on spiritual stuff is not Stephen King or Steven Spielberg but Thomas Aquinas who lived 800 years ago. Aquinas wrote endless books on the trinity (on how three persons could reside in one head), the soul, coming back from the dead, and how to deal with people who don’t accept the teachings of the church (execute ’em, he advised the civilian authorities).

On December 6,1273, while celebrating Mass, Aquinas heard Jesus speaking to him. Since that revelation, Aquinas stopped his writing and preaching. When a friend begged him to resume his work, he replied: “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” A year later, he kicked the bucket.

Chim stuff

In Singapore, lorry drivers, loan sharks and TV talk show hosts have a word for scholarly, religious cant – they call it chim (also spelt as cheem) meaning deep, as in profoundly incomprehensible and fakey. When someone says you are chim, it means you’re as profound as a chimp.

Talk about chimp or chim knowledge, many Americans, according to a recent survey by an evangelical market research firm, believe that Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah, the man who built the Ark, a cruise ship for his family and some land animals during a massive flood that drowned all his friends and neighbours. (Arc looks like Ark, so folks assume Joan and Noah were related.)

To avoid being taken in by mumbo-jumbo, follow this guideline in your reading:

All that you are, all your reality, is the result of what you have thought and perceived. It is made up of your thoughts and perception. What matters is that your thoughts and perception are wholesome and honest, so that your conduct, speech and action too are wholesome and honest. These are the opening words of history’s most practical and critical counsellor in human conduct – the Buddha.

“Wholesome” includes skilful action that leads to good outcome (some people like to do good works but are not very smart in the execution), that is expedient (doing what is appropriate and timely in the situation, like a wise physician), and above all, that will not hurt or cause suffering to yourself and all creatures. These words sum up Buddha’s rules on living the good life. The rest of Buddhism is just an extension of this theme.

I recommend that you stop reading chimp authors like Carlos Castaneda (Don Juan), Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet), Herman Hesse (Siddartha) and others of their ilk.

Instead, read books by no-nonsense, hard-thinking, practical authors dealing mindfully and honestly with real-life issues, problems and solutions:

The Buddha – his discourses (the sutras) do not have a single mumbo-jumbo sentence. Lord Buddha always uses fortright plain words when discussing problems and challenges in daily life.

Ancient humanist thinkers, such as Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Confucius(The Analects) and Mencius.

European Enlightenment writers Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire and of course Dr Samuel Johnson, the man who really hated cant.

In modern times, an excellent guide to understanding life is Viktor Frankl’s 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Your intellectual pursuit

Adopt this motto from MacQuarie University for your own search for meaning:

Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede
And that was seyd in forme and reverence
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche
And gladly wolde he lerne
And gladly teche.

Of studies took he most care and most heed
No words speaks he more than was needed
And that was said in form and reverence
And short and quick and full of proper sentence
Seeped in moral virtue was his speech
And gladly would he learn
And gladly teach.

(Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer)

– September 2007

Picture above: Death of the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1877-1927), Symbolist artist. Nice painting but its meaning is too chim for me

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Death of the Grave Digger by Carlos Schwabe