GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books and the search for meaning.

Archive for October 2008

The Halloween you didn’t hear about

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As Halloween looms, you’ll no doubt hear the usual crossfire: conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews damning the “satanic” holiday, while pagans and secularists rant at “intolerant” fundies. But there are other viewpoints.

For religious opponents, surprising support comes from American Atheists. The article notes that Christmas nativity scenes are often banned from public property, but Halloween decorations are allowed. Yet Wiccans and pagans say Halloween is a holy day for them. “What does this say about the First Amendment aspects?” the article asks.

Last year, Halloween themes became all too real for theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite when she heard of lynching nooses appearing on American campuses, and news of torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. She saw no use for a day of make-believe evil when real horrors haunt us every day.

More general ethical issues pop up on the Santa Clara University site. University fellow Rob Elder asks: Should Americans spend $6.9 billion on a holiday that promotes greed, vandalism and stomach aches?

Then there are the ecological evils of the holiday, according to MSNBC’s Marisa Belger. You know, all those plastic costumes and pitchforks and candy wrappers. Belger suggests some ways to celebrate a green Halloween.

The day does have its defenders, such as psychologist Richard Beck. His blog says Halloween helps us “collectively process our eventual death and mortality” and “work through our fears of the uncanny.”

Meanwhile, blogger and mother Diane Laney Fitzpatrick figures “if you can’t beat ’em . . .” — so she offers a Catholic activity for Halloween. She suggests religious education teachers actually set up graveyards for their students to walk through, shining flashlights on the headstones. There, they would read epitaphs of departed saints like Francis of Assisi.

A little weird, maybe, but still in the “spirit” of the original All Hallows Day.


Written by Jim Davis

October 31, 2008 at 1:48 am

Turning the three wheels

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We wrap up our week of Buddhist sites with a fun vehicle:


Founded in 1990, Tricycle magazine sports a brisk style for western readers, with snappy writing and a sharp eye on social trends. Much of the content is for subscribers only, but there’s also plenty of free Web articles.

One article examines sports spirituality. Another analyzes the recent Religious Landscape Study — finding, among other things, that most American Buddhists are native born and college educated.

Another writer shudders at politics: “Traditional Buddhist images of hell seem all too familiar in a campaign year. Realms of ice and fire? Sounds like the New Hampshire and Arizona primaries. Demons, hungry ghosts, cursed spirits who hack at one another with iron claws? They’re all on Meet the Press.”

Nor does Tricycle gloss over Buddhist problems. One writer talks frankly about sexual misconduct even among sangha leaders. Another looks into a clash between Vietnamese Buddhists on how to deal with religious repression there.

Unfortunately, the articles have no print-friendly option. And many of the links to sound and video files don’t work.

Navigation can be tricky. There’s a mouseover menu, but when the menu options drop down, they often vanish before you can click them. Better to use the site map at the bottom of the homepage.

Tricycle has nice archives on Buddhist beliefs and practices. Especially readable is a short history of the faith. It even tells how Buddhism spread to places like Mongolia, and how it influenced western philosophers.

Written by Jim Davis

October 30, 2008 at 4:21 am

Woodsy Buddhists

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For tonight’s Buddhist Web site, we go old school with . . .

Forest Meditation

Tibetan Buddhists may get more media, with their dancing monks and their multicolored sand mandalas — and, of course, the humble yet flamboyant Dalai Lama. But forest monks, from the ancient Thai Theravada tradition, have their own deep spirituality and supple thought.

Forest Meditation follows a familiar track in telling the story of the Buddha, though it leans heavily on direct quotes from the Pali Canon. But the emphasis seems to be practical teaching rather than tradition. There’s lots of help on meditation: chants, breath control, historical background, suggested positions.

The articles can be long — “Buddhism in a Nutshell” alone is nearly 17,000 words — but internal hyperlinks mark the 11 chapters. That allows you to read a unit, take time to digest it, then return to where you left off.

Included are various chants and blessings in Pali, stored as mp3 sound files and sometimes text. But don’t hop around the site, as you can do with some others. If, for instance, you skip the “Basics” unit, you’ll miss definitions of oft-used terms like Dhamma and Vinaya.

Fortunately, footnotes in “Buddhism in a Nutshell” explain those and other concepts. A link to another Theravada site, Access to Insight, is another big help.

Oddly, though, an explanation of Forest Meditation itself — history, development, its very reason — is missing. That would have been easy to add, as shown on the Web site of the Abhayagiri Monastery, another Forest Meditation retreat.

Written by Jim Davis

October 29, 2008 at 3:16 am

Dead Buddhists Society?

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Still touring the karmic side of the Web, we sharpen our knives for . . .

Killing the Buddha

“If you meet the Buddha on the road,” the medieval master Lin Chi reportedly said, “kill him.” For him, enlightenment was farther down the road.

In that spirit, the creators of this challenging Webzine favor the quest over the quick answers. The site died early this year when its three creators dropped it. But three others brought it back in June.

Their work leads largely with stories interwoven with their thoughts and feelings. One contributor shares a disturbing, crystalline memory of a boyhood meeting with his friend, the friend’s dad, and dad’s one-night stand. Like the other pieces, it’s heartfelt and written so smoothly that you almost lose yourself in it.

Gone are the blogs and message boards where readers took casual swipes at Christianity; maybe that’s why the editors call it “99 percent fatwa-free.” The site does, however, retain its sneers about conventional religion.

Co-editor Ashley Makar disses “Holy-Ghost stories from sweaty preachers telling everyone how to live,” although she herself is Coptic Orthodox. And contributor Andrew Boyd mentions the “corruption and backwardness of present-day institutionalized Buddhism in Thailand.”

The new design is open and easy on the eyes, with large text on light gray background. But it still has rough edges. When I logged in for this review, the homepage had a big, blank box meant for a picture.

If you’re nostalgic for the old KtB, a generous archive goes back to 2000.

Written by Jim Davis

October 28, 2008 at 1:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sangha long with us

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A thousand pardons for pausing in my week of Buddhist site reviews; I was out of town for a half-week. Let’s look next at . . .

Buddhist Wisdom

Siddhartha surely would have been pleased. The homepage of this site uses line drawings on black, relieved only by outlines of varied colors. Links lead to four sections: the story of the Buddha, basic teachings and scriptures, and some pithy sayings. Small pictures of lotus blossoms and the “Om” monogram abound.

An Flash-animated presentation presents some of the Buddha’s teachings, including learning by observation and the impermanent nature of the self. The show starts with a Zen-like “bong” of a bell, then proceeds with cartoon-like panels.

The story of how a prince became a religious leader is told reverently and uncritically. The section explaining the Eightfold Path is especially good; most sites of the type simply list titles like “Right Thinking.” Here, right thinking is defined as “the development of loving kindness, empathy and compassion.”

The sayings are well chosen, drawing not only from the Buddha but others like the Dalai Lama and Lamya Surya Das — even the Taoism pioneer Lao Tzu. The site also has the lucid, 423-verse Dhammapada, a collection of sayings from the Theravada Pali Canon.

For dessert, may we suggest Pearls of Wisdom, the parent site. It has metaphysical ideas by women, pagans and native Americans. Also interesting are inspirational lyrics by the likes of Enigma, James Ingram, Lenny Kravitz and Alanis Morissette.

Written by Jim Davis

October 27, 2008 at 3:50 am

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Sights and sounds of Buddhism

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On our third night looking at Buddhist Web sites, we gaze upon . . .

Visions of Enlightenment

An impressive, Flash-powered site from the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, Calif., this is a near-perfect use of the Internet for religion. It blends beauty and sound — flute, chants, rippling water — in sharing knowledge.

Exploring is easy. Simply pick one of four big icons, on the Buddha, Compassionate Beings, Buddhist Sites and Ritual Objects. Each section crosslinks to the others, letting you skip around without returning to the homepage.

For a gimmick-heavy site, Visions of Enlightenment has surprisingly detailed text. Fact boxes pop up everywhere.

Click a keyword in the text, like Theravada, and a box defines it. Roll your mouse pointer over the pictures, and balloons pop up to point out, for instance, why images of the Buddha have long earlobes, or why some begging bowls are made from human skulls.

The four Flash photo essays are a treat in themselves. One, Hollywood Buddha, shows the many ways that city has co-opted the Buddha and his concepts: names of restaurants, clubs and coffeehouses; rock groups like Nirvana; even a bobblehead Buddha for a dashboard.

Once intrigued, you may be frustrated by the lack of a print-friendly mode. But there’s a way around that. Simply select the HTML option on the homepage instead of Flash. That brings up conventional text blocks with inline images.

Written by Jim Davis

October 23, 2008 at 3:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Monkish advice

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Welcome to the second night of our look at Buddhist Web sites. Fold yourself into your best lotus blossom position and prepare to . . .

Ask a Monk

What puzzles you about Buddhism? The Cloudwater Zendo community in Cleveland, Ohio, wants to answer it.

Practicing both the Ch’an (Zen) and Pure Land varieties, Cloudwater posts some breezy-sounding answers to common issues. The questions cover things like “Buddhism is just an offshoot of Hinduism, isn’t it?” and the chuckle-inducing “Buddhism is the tradition that worships the jolly-looking fellow with the big belly, right?”

Even better: You can write your own question in an online form — and specify how soon you need the answer. The site also has longer discussions based on reader feedback.

Those chains of questions bring out more nuanced teachings, like whether believers should worship Buddha, or whether human relationships help or hurt the road to enlightenment. Also explained are the differences between Pure Land Buddhism, and its Buddha Amitabha, from Jesus and heaven.

The Cloudwater folks explain concepts like Buddha-fields, transferring merit, and the relationship of a Buddha to a bodhisattva. A chart compares and contrasts Ch’an and Pure Land, but it has so many in-house terms, only a disciple would grasp it fully.

One glitch: Ask a Monk says Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and other religions basically teach the same things. Those who read my last column know my opinions on that. When a faith claims special insights, it necessarily creates differences. Choose any religion you want, but choose you must.

Written by Jim Davis

October 22, 2008 at 3:31 am

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