Tag Archives: religion

Book: Choose Life

Choose Life

A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★

This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.

The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.

Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.

Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.

I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★

Book: The God Delusion

The God Delusion
Thanks to thewrittenwordreviews for scanning the cover.

Pedantic, borderline sadism. Hatred and mockery of faith.
406 pages, 

Richard Dawkins is the world’s most outspoken atheist. He crusades against organised religion and anyone who holds faith in phenomena that haven’t yet been proven by a double-blind scientific trial. In his books and feisty speeches, Richard Dawkins persuades the religious public to renounce their beliefs and adopt a stubborn, intolerant, militant mixture of atheism and science—let’s call it Dawkinism—instead.

His first argument is that God doesn’t exist. On page 35, he describes Catholicism as “shamelessly invented… tasteless, kitsch… airy nonchalance”. The rest of the book is peppered with anti-religious mockery, and trivia, which he sometimes turns into evidence (e.g. Joseph’s family tree). One of his arguments backfires on page 173, and he makes arguments on pages 83 and 119 that blatantly contradict each other. His crusade is far from flawless.

His second argument is that a world without religion would be a better one, claiming that religion was the sole cause of atrocities such as “9/11, 7/7, the Crusades, witch hunts, the Gunpowder Plot… …Northern Ireland’s troubles and those swindling television evangelists”. This more worrying argument is flawed for two reasons.

First, he overlooks the swathes of good that religion has done for society in terms of creating cultural traditions and amalgamating civilisations. Instead, he only talks about when religion goes wrong. Second, he assumes that science is inherently ‘good’ (or is at least ‘better’ than religion), when this is probably not true. Science brought us the atomic bomb, climate change, and even some genocides were ‘justified’ by science. The 9/11 attacks were no more of a reason to give up on religion than the atomic bomb was a reason to give up on science. As Deng Xiaoping said:

“If you close the window, you get no fresh air, and also no flies. But if you open the window fresh air comes in and also some flies”. — Deng Xiaoping

Neither science nor religion are perfect, but both have their place in society. They explain different phenomena and we need both.

The God Delusion would be a noble goal if Dawkinism actually offered any reasonable alternatives to the moral, spiritual, and metaphysical and questions answered by religion. But it does not. The scientific method, by definition, is useless at answering spiritual questions because, by definition, nothing purely spiritual can ever be directly observed! By never being able to answer spiritual questions, Dawkinism aims to demolish more than it builds, and is thus doomed to fail as a philosophy. (See my review of On Revolution).

I think that science and religion answer different questions entirely, and are more complementary than contradictory. Here’s a snippet from my conversation with Anthony Hewish back in 2009, when he showed me his Nobel Prize for Physics:

Me: What do you think about the existence of God?

Hewish: I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that God exists. I’ve been a Christian all my life. Arguments from authors such as Richard Dawkins I find shallow and trivial. Tension arises from religion’s historical background that leads us to all sorts of assumptions and theories. I agree with John Polkinghorne that you need both science and religion if you’re going to make sense of life as a whole.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama agrees with both Anthony Hewish and John Polkinghorne on this matter.

But even if Dawkins were right, and there is no God, what benefit would that bring to the world? Disproving the beliefs of billions of people would do no good at all. If Dawkins had good intentions, then he would not want to be right, and would promptly give up his fight.

Above all, The God Delusion reminded me that no matter the magnitude of historical atrocities justified in the name of religion, atheistic extremism can be just as militant, stubborn and ugly as religious extremism. Just look at Dawkins. If atheists reject this book in disgust, and become more tolerant of religion as a result, then I’ll consider The God Delusion to be a success. There is no other way that this book could make any meaningful contribution to humanity.

Fortunately, Buddhism and Confucianism are spared from Dawkins’ wrath, for, according to Dawkins, they are “not religions at all but ethical systems or philosophies of life” (page 37-38). That phrase earned this book an extra star. You’re better off reading articles about Dawkins than the books that Dawkins wrote himself. Just try to avoid the firing line of his sadistic, atheistic crusade. ★

Book: Cultivating Compassion

Experiment 8: Mr. Einstein is on a railroad car moving to the left with velocity v, and on his car are two light bulbs that, from his perspective, come on simultaneously. To confirm this, he could also rig some sort of detector that would go off only if both beams of light arrive at his position simultaneously.

Question: What will Mrs. Einstein see?

Answer: She will agree that both beams of light reach Mr. Einstein at the same time. However, since from her point of view the light on the right has greater distance to travel, she will see the light on the right come on first!

Conclusion: From the above experiments we see that events which may be simultaneous for one observer can happen in a different sequence for another observer. This leads us to the startling conclusion that there is no such thing as a universal “now” for which everyone will agree on what happens “now”. That is, I can see two events as happening “now” while another observer will see one event happening “now” with the other event yet to occur!

Source: http://aether.lbl.gov/www/classes/p139/exp/experiment8.html


I enjoy these bewildering thought experiments in special relativity. They stretch the mind for its own sake, like riddles, quizzes or a work of art. The more I think about the implications of Mr and Mrs Einstein on moving trains, the more I realise the triviality of our human senses. Our senses and feelings, as beguiling as they are, hardly represent the real world at all.

Recently, the number of books I’ve been reading has inflated my ego. This January, I read 21 books—that’s more than I read between the ages of 0 and 23. I’m also way ahead in this year’s Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge.

Thought experiments brought my ego back to normal again. Not special relativity, this time, but something much more useful…

Cultivating Compassion
When lost in the library, “red” and “Buddhist” are usually safe book choices. They usually get 4 or 5 of my stars.

Guided meditation. Thought experiments that sharpen your worldview.
190 pages, ★★★★

Two thought experiments from this mid-level Buddhist book stood out for me.

First, everyone on earth is either your friend, neutral, or an enemy. Given that Buddhists believe in infinite reincarnation, everyone on earth has, at different points in the past, been your friend, neutral, and enemy. The author gives a political example:

“China was a close friend of the U.S. during the Second World War, then became an enemy during the Korean War, and now is supposedly a political friend again” — page 69

People also make up, make friends, and fall out within lifetimes. Given that all enemies can become friends, and that all friends can all become enemies, in this lifetime or the next, we can choose to mould the kinds of relationships we want in life.

The book phrases this much better (and longer) than I did, but the concluding ‘meditation’ is this:

“Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this friend wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this neutral person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this enemy wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” — page 81

Irrefutable logic here cultivates your compassion for enemies, friends and strangers alike. So why not all get along?

Next, the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy, as I’ll call it, reminds us that our perception is just a mirage, a vague approximation of reality. The world behaves like the reflection of the moon in a rippled ocean:

“In the blink of an eye, everything is changing. Or, even more subtly, in each three-hundred-and-sixtieth of a blinking of an eye or of a snapping of the fingers, everything is disintegrating. For a Buddha, the realisation of this is still more subtle, but at our level, this measurement affords a glimpse of subtle change. It is said that all impermanent phenomena possess a nature of such subtle disintegration” — page 171

We fixate on false ideals and try to solidify the future. This is an impossible goal, since the world is unpredictably complex; elusive and in constant flux. The future is never certain, nor should it be. When you encounter something you will never understand or see clearly, just think about the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy.

This interactive book is written for people already familiar with Buddhism. Author Jeffrey Hopkins uses his experience from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in the United States to formulate these exercises. There are dozens of meditations, and pages of prose provide the supporting logic behind each one. Everyone will find something they need in this book—I recommend Cultivating Compassion for all Buddhists. ★★★★

Book: The Case for God

I love Goodreads. It makes it so easy to discover new books and create reading lists.

Sometimes, it’s too easy to select books on Goodreads. Recently, I made a few selections based solely on the book’s title because my small, shattered iPod screen makes reading Goodreads reviews inconvenient. I say “never judge a book completely by its cover”, but on three occasions recently, I did just that—and I regret it.

If the title were an accurate representation of the book, however, then this wouldn’t happen… if only books were labelled as strictly as, say, medicines or wines. Never mind.

The Case for God
The Case for God

376 pages, ★

I found this book inaccessible partly due to my disappointment that it was not a “case for God” at all. The title was lying and I never really forgave it.

This book should be called, “A meticulous history of some major religions” instead.

What did I learn? That religion requires “perseverance, hard work and practical action”. We Buddhists agree.

I read half of this book then skimmed the rest when I realised that not only is it an academic book rather than a religious one, but also that it contains no “case for God” whatsoever. I recommend this book for Philosophy of Religion students only.

Book: An Open Heart

An Open Heart
Hello. Up-close and personal speeches from the Man Himself.

Classic Dalai Lama speeches. Buddhism on Earth.
191 pages, ★★★★★

The Dalai Lama has the following of a rock star. The book begins with a scene of the Dalai Lama giving addressing 3,000 followers in New York City. The book explains the fundamentals of Buddhism.

I love this book for its thick, soft, sepia-tinted pages, and its large, readable font. This book looks as close to an ancient Tibetan prayer-sheet as a mass-production publishing house can make it.

I also love this book for its secular, practical simplicity. This book is Buddhism on Earth, not Buddhism in Heaven.

Perfectly suited for a crowd of multicultural, metropolitan New Yorkers. ★★★★★

Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★

Book: 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)

I finished reading this book before finally learning how to pronounce the first three characters of the title. It's "Yǎotiǎo shūnǚ de biāozhǔn", for reference. 🙂

The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Language: Chinese

Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.

Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.

[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown

Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.

The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.

The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.

“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.

To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.

I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★