The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
May 2010 – Vol. 13 Issue 3
On April 24 Seattle officials affirmed the Charter for Compassion, the first city to do so, at a day-long celebration. They also signed a proclamation declaring that Seattle “for the next ten years will establish April and October as compassionate action months in which our citizens, government and institutions work together to embrace and apply compassionate solutions and encourage community service to meet the needs of our families, friends, communities and neighbors.” For information on how to encourage your own city to take part in this movement, see: http://my.compassionateactionnetwork.com/group/10yearcampaignforcompassionatecities.
This troubled globe continually presents us with new pictures, many so distressing that our imagination works overtime conjuring up conditions we feel ought to be or should be made to come about. Thomas Traherne, living 300 years ago, shows that many before us have passed into dark hours, finally emerging from them through trust in their own sure intimations of mankind’s real transcendence and true goal. He writes: “Rapine, covetousness, envy, oppression, luxury, ambition, pride . . . fill the world with briars and thorns, desolation, wars, complaints and contentions … but universal charity, did it breathe among men, would blow all these away as the wind doth chaff and stubble. . . . Do you not feel yourself drawn with the expectation of some great thing?” He was right, as was James when he said, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work,” adding, “And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.”
One major difficulty with obtaining a clearer evaluation is our failure to appreciate fully that current happenings have not sprung up spontaneously overnight. We are asking for peace in our time, for an immediate betterment of the world situation, but we fail to realize how inextricably today’s events are grounded in the joint human action of the past. The modern scene in its kind and quality represents the exact fruit of our past related actions. It is because our vision is limited that present conditions seem to have burst out from nowhere. Yet each occurrence must have had its initial start in former actions or causes that are now projecting themselves on our globe merely as effects. Scarlet fever spots appear only after the germs are rampant in the body, and in the same way the lapse of time between what we see in the world now and its past causes represents such an incubation period.
Or it may be like the growth of flowers. We know that before a plant can develop it must shatter the seed case, roots must thrust themselves into the earth, and then comes the effort to push up the shoots to the light and rain above. We are assured that the plant will rise up according to its kind. We cannot expect an acorn to produce anything but an oak, nor should we like it very much were it otherwise. We presume an orderly universe. While we regard as commonplace the fact that apple trees will bear apples and not cones, and that grain will not come up thistles, we are not so willing to admit that the same principle applies to human action! When we consider the long history of human planting of selfishness, how can we really expect to reap peace in our day, to witness a heaven-on-earth, instead of what we actually find?
Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Not by words or promises, nor by faiths or beliefs, but by action shall we know our fellows and they know us. We cannot sow evil and reap goodness nor sow nobility and gather a crop of baseness. If we could, the world would be chaotic indeed, and we would have cause to doubt whether seeds would yield plants of their kind or even be sure the sun would rise each day. We count heavily on the unalterable nature of universal law, so why should its application in human affairs fill us with dismay? Once we grasp how vast is its reach and how beneficial its effects for all things, we cannot help but gain strength to face whatever destiny we may have prepared for ourselves, and with clearer vision we can sort out the fruit of our own former actions. When compassion and understanding of all people becomes the root we send deep into the soil of human affairs, then the fruits of peace and happiness will come. Peace on earth, the harvest of the goodwill of each person towards his or her fellows, will then arise naturally and inevitably. – Elizabeth Duffie
NOTE: Interfaith Fair Cancelled. The Eastside Interfaith Fair will not take place on May 1.
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month we’ll be focusing on Universal Human Rights. Are all people equal as human beings? Do human rights exist? Is being born into a group, or having certain abilities or beliefs, a just way to allot privileges and protections? (Here are some quotes to get the discussion started.) We hope to see you there!
June 1: Self / No Self
August: Do No Harm
Today research is revealing evidence that challenges longstanding assumptions and settled explanations about brain function and structure. Two areas of explosive growth center on mirror neurons and glia cells. The first is a new class of brain cells discovered by an international team of researchers over the last 15 years. These neurons activate not only when we perform actions but also when we observe the behavior of others. They reproduce in our brains the same neuronal firing that is required to do what we are merely seeing. In this way we can understand the actions, intentions, words, and emotions of others by experiencing in our own brain the stimulus that is required to produce these acts.
In Mirroring People (2008) researcher Marco Iacoboni opens a window on the collegial way science is practiced. He details the rationale and methods of experiments, how results were interpreted, and how further steps were decided on. He discusses the impact of mirror neurons on such fields as language acquisition, learning, psychotherapy, addiction, autism, violence, choice making, advertising, and politics. One implication is that human beings learn not only by conscious imitation, but above all by unconscious imitation within the brain itself: “It seems as if our brain is built for mirroring, and that only through mirroring – through the simulation in our brain of the felt experience of other minds – do we deeply understand what other people are feeling” (p. 126). Iacoboni hypothesizes that “mirror neurons in the infant brain are formed by the interaction between self and other” (p. 134), and findings seem to bear out his hypothesis that our very sense of self is formed through these interactions.
We are not conscious of this mirroring process, and Iacoboni holds that unconscious pre-reflective brain activity has a much greater effect on us than we believe. Indeed, studies indicate that when conscious reflective awareness conflicts with pre-reflective brain activity, the pre-conscious generally prevails. Mirror neurons have added an exciting and entirely unanticipated element to the functioning of the brain.
The second research area is glia cells, the white matter that forms 90% of the brain’s mass, previously thought to merely provide superstructure and maintenance for neurons. In The Other Brain (2009) R. Douglas Fields describes his own and others’ cutting-edge research which is revealing glia’s vital importance. Because these cells don’t interact through electric impulses, their activity was invisible until sophisticated technology allowed scientists to witness chemical activities in individual living cells. Now chemical communication among glia themselves and with neurons is unmistakable.
Fields discusses how understanding the role of glia is crucial to human welfare. They are involved in learning and memory, sleep cycles, regulating blood flow in the brain, and such pathological conditions as brain cancer, dementia, neurodegenerative and prion diseases, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, drug tolerance, mood disorders, migraines, and chronic pain. In fact, almost every function of the central nervous system is involved. The implications are practical. For example, why does the central nervous system not repair itself when nerves elsewhere generally regrow? Intensive research is revealing that glia play a pivotal role both in pre-venting regeneration in the brain and spinal cord and in guiding peripheral nerves along their pathway of regrowth in the rest of the body. By understanding the biochemistry involved, scientists are making real progress toward helping people paralyzed by central nervous system injuries regain at least some feeling in their bodies again.
One of the beauties of science is its willingness to completely reform its ideas in line with unexpected but convincing data. Many other findings, such as brain plasticity, make neuroscience a revolutionary discipline. Of the situation in his field, Dr. Fields writes:
“Now is a unique moment in the history of brain science. Nature offers an endlessly vast terrain of complexity, but at certain points in the history of scientific progress, we find ourselves on the crest of a new summit that reveals a new frontier of discovery. From this perspective and at this point in time we can see it all in one fresh vista. Soon, as we descend into the morass and become engulfed in tangled complexity, we reach a point where no one person can grasp it all. But at this moment, we are on that summit of brain research looking out on the world of glia with new eyes. This makes the subject exciting and comprehendsible to everyone. . . . This is a journey that you are free to join. You will need to learn some new language, and at times think hard and differently, but right now is a moment of opportunity. It is all within your grasp.” (p. 51)
All history is one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders … [to] those of others. – William Graham Sumner
All human beings have a mind that commiserates with others. Now if anyone were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, his mind would always be filled with alarm, distress, pity, and compassion. That he would react accordingly is not because he would use the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the child’s parents, nor because he would seek commendations from neighbors and friends, nor because he would hate the adverse reputations. One who lacks a mind that feels pity and compassion would not be human. –
Serbian murderers and rapists do not think of themselves as violating human rights. For they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to Muslims. They are not being inhuman, but rather are discriminating between the true humans and the pseudohumans. They are making the same sort of distinction as the Crusaders made between the humans and the infidel dogs, and the Black Muslims make between humans and blue-eyed devils. [Thomas Jefferson] was able both to own slaves and to think it self-evident that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. He had convinced himself that the consciousness of Blacks, like that of animals, “participates more of sensation than reflection.” Like the Serbs, Mr. Jefferson did not think of himself as violating human rights. – Richard Rorty
Human persons have dignity. They are sacred and precious. In this sense, dignity is not granted to persons by the ethical activity of others. Dignity is not bestowed on persons by other persons, by the family or society or the state. Rather the reality of human dignity makes claims on others that it be recognized and respected. The moral imperatives set forth as human rights express the more specific content of these claims. Human dignity, however, is more fundamental than any specific human right. – David Hollenback
The Bible does not teach that human beings simply on the basis of existence have inherent or a priori rights, or that they have absolute rights accruing from sociological or political considerations. The Bible has a doctrine of divinely imposed duties; what moderns call human rights are the contingent flipside of those duties. … [The Bible] formulates human duties as an obligation to God, not as conferring tangible rights or benefits upon humanity per se. – Carl F. H. Henry
In the Judeo-Christian tradition the problem of human rights and human duty to other people must be considered in relation to the exclusive commandment of the supreme God, whereas in Buddhism the same problem should be grasped in relation to all living beings in the universe. – Masao Abe
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or status. . . .
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Alienation, corruption, tyranny, and oppression have continued wholesale in many societies all over the world. And in all societies governments have been reassured in their arrogance by the idea that, if they are not proved actually to be violating the substance of particularized human rights . . . within the wording of this or that formula with its lawyerly qualifications and exceptions, then they are doing well enough. The idea of human rights should intimidate governments or it is worth nothing. If the idea of human rights reassures governments it is worse than nothing. – Philip Allott
If we wish to determine whether we can come up with a useful notion of rights, we are immediately faced with the question “Why bother?” After all, the ancients and the medievals did not have the notion of a right – was their moral life stunted in some way as a result? Did they lack the tools for dealing with certain aspects of the moral enterprise? Among them moral questions were dealt with in terms of what is right and wrong, what is in accordance with or required by the natural law, what people ought to do or are obliged to do, but not in term s of what someone has a right to, or has a right to do. – Theodore M. Benditt
When the Enlightenment transformed these words of God [‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness’] into a human right, this was a great advance. But when other advances joined this one – scientific freedom, the autonomy of technology, women’s self-determination – this resulted in problems that are difficult to solve. – Marcello Pera, Introduction to Christianity and the Crisis of Culture by Pope Benedict XVI
[The problem] of the ideological content of Scripture . . . is being focused in the struggle of . . . both men and women, to destroy the patriarchal ideology which grounds not only sexism but racism, classism, clericalism, and all the other forms of dualistic hierarchy in which the powerful dominate the weak in the name of God. Here the problem is not that Scripture has been used to legitimate oppression (although this is a continuing problem) but that the Bible itself is both a product and a producer of oppression, that some of its content is oppressive. – Sandra M. Schneiders
Arguably, many practices which weakened women’s status were the result of local customs which were often antithetical to the spirit of emancipation envisaged in the Quran. . . . Conflict between differing cultural standards on such issues might best be explained, then, not by appealing to incommensurability of values or fundamental cultural incomparabilities, but by pointing to the fact that not only outsiders but also insiders often misunderstand the traditions. – Chandran Kukathas
Many of the Asian governments . . . that are most critical of U.S. human rights policy and seek to characterize it as Western-based and culturally biased are among the declining number of regimes that absolutely prevent any independent human rights groups from operating. Their claims of cultural relativism can only be sustained if they continue to prevent their own people from raising human rights issues. . . . Recent experience in countries as diverse as Chile, Kuwait, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sri Lanka leave no doubt that where people are allowed to organize and advocate their own human rights, they will do so. The common denominators in this area are much stronger than the cultural divisions. – Michael Posner
Although it is important to respect others’ natural rights, we all tend to lead our lives in the opposite way. This is because we lack love and compassion. Therefore, even in relation to the question of human rights violations and concern for human rights, the key point is the practice of compassion, love and forgiveness. Very often, when people hear about love and compassion, they have a sense that these are related to religious practice. It is not necessarily so. Instead, it is very important to recognize that compassion and love are fundamental to relations between sentient beings in general and human beings in particular. – The Dalai Lama