Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day?

Man, I loves me some Buddhism.

It’s all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I’m certain he would be a self-help guru. He’d make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don’t need to believe in a deity at all), it’s still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.

So here’s a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it’s being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother’s side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha’s mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king’s palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or “holy man” — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his “Enlightenment” and became known as the Buddha. [Read more...]

My Kid’s New (And Adorably Diplomatic) Theory of Evolution

FriendsMy daughter has this tendency to go all existentialist on me while riding in the car. I’m not sure what it is about this particular setting that motivates these sorts of talks. Is it sitting still with nothing else to do? Is it gazing up at the sky? Do all kids do this?

Anyway, the other day, while driving Maxine and one of her friends to the pool, I listened as the two struck up a conversation about God. I can’t remember how it started (I didn’t turn on the voice recorder until later), but at some point they exchanged belief systems: The friend — a girl from a vaguely Christian, though not outwardly religious, family — said she believed in God. Maxine said she went back and forth on the matter.

When I’m adult, she told her friend, I probably won’t believe in God.

Really?, her friend asked, with equal parts surprise and confusion.

Here’s where the conversation went from there.

FRIEND: Well then how did we get here?

MAXINE: Oh I know how we got here. Long story.

FRIEND: Then I want to hear it. Tell me.

MAXINE: Okay. Well, there was this really little animal and that became a bigger animal and that became a bigger animal, then it grew to be a person. And the first person in the universe was that. Probably a cave person.

FRIEND: No, I know who the first person on Earth was: Adam.

MAXINE: Yeah.

FRIEND: And I know who the second person in the universe was. It was a girl. Eve. Adam gave birth to Eve…

MAXINE: No, I don’t think Adam gave birth to Eve.

FRIEND: No. I know that’s not true.

MAXINE: Adam and Eve had children and then they had children and then there was a bunch of universe of children. Ta-dah! Like my explanation?

FRIEND: Yes.

[Long pause]

FRIEND: But did…? How…? Wait. Okay, I don’t get this… If our families are different, who started our family? Like because there’s a big, huge generation — but how did it start?

MAXINE: Well, I think it started with cavemen before Adam. Because he’s probably the first person—like human being— and it probably started with cavemen. And then there was a weird caveman who probably gave birth to a person. Adam.

FRIEND: Adam.

MAXINE: Adam.

[Brief pause]

MAXINE: Hey, do you want to play Adam and Eve?

FRIEND: No.

MAXINE: Yeah, me neither.

I’ve always found it curious, as I’m sure you have, as to how some devoutly religious people can find factual truth in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve within the context of evolution.

Leave to second-graders to reconcile the irreconcilable.

5 Reasons to ‘Design Your Own Deity’

FridgeWhen I first found this “Design Your Own Deity” magnetic play set, I was a little pissed at you.

Yes, you. All 15 of you.

Because if you guys would have just TOLD me that this existed, I would not have been forced to find it, completely randomly, behind a bunch of other cheese-ball stuff at a warehouse-sized gift emporium in Palm Springs this weekend.

“Seriously,” I thought, holding this priceless* item in my hands and trying to conjure each of your 15 faces. “Do you guys even know me anymore? There is literally nothing I want more in this world than to make a house of worship on my refrigerator.”

Then  it occurred to me that maybe you guys weren’t fuckwits at all.

Maybe — just maybe — YOU didn’t know this existed, either. It’s a theory that was reinforced once I got up to the counter and even the store clerk acted shocked about my purchase. “That’s great!” he said, turning it over to inspect the back. “Where did you find it?”

Anyway, I’m really sorry about the fuckwits thing. That was wrong. I love you guys more than you know.

Warning

Now, a little about the magnets: Made by the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild, the set includes the following deities (I’ve linked to their Wiki definitions): Ganesha, Jehovah, Paleolithic Goddess, Cocijo, Tlingit Eagle,  Jesus, Medusa, Yeshe Khandro, Xenu (Xenu!), Isis, Zeus, Buddha, Satan, Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Burning Bush, and a bunch of “divine paraphernalia.” Now, please, go buy one for yourself.

Here’s why:

1. Diversity. “God” is not the only god in town. Humanity in general is very fond of deities, and has been for a long time. All of us — particularly Americans, and even more particularly, Americans with children —would do well to be reminded of that once in a while.

DYI Deity2.  Tolerance. I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this, but we parents need to be looking everywhere for chances to inject religious literacy into our kids’ lives. Children are far more likely to show tolerance/ kindness/compassion for those who believe differently than they do, if  they’re exposed in a genuinely interesting way to what others believe.

3. Culture. Whether deities exist or not, the stories behind them are born of people who live in a specific time and place. The look and feel of each deity reflects the culture of those who created them. Showing interest in religion is a way to show interest in other people’s cultures — always a good thing.

DYI Deities

4. Independence. According to a survey I conducted for my book, 90 percent of secular parents truly do want their children to make up their own minds about what to believe. But how can kids be expected to do that unless they know what the options are? What core beliefs do each of these deities represent? And what’s stopping our kids from mashing these deities together — or inventing their own? It’s terrific food for thought.

5. Humor. Religion needs to lighten up a little; it always has. And there are few better ways to force that issue than to put a Jesus head onto a Flying Spaghetti Monster torso with Zeus legs. Period. 

I’d imagine that, in my home at least, some of these little magnets will soon fall and get lost behind the fridge — or get taken down because they’re ugly or creepy. (Medusa and Satan are not long for this world, I’m afraid.) But I am determined to keep most around long enough to explain to my daughter what they are and what they represent.

And at least one deity will stay for even longer… Paleolithic Buddha Goddess.

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

She’s all mine.

*$14.95

It’s a Gift from God, Y’all

God is Disappointed in YouWant to know what the Bible says but don’t want to read the damn thing? Yeah, you’re not alone.

But Good News!

In his newly published book, God is Disappointed in You, author Mark Russell has managed to rewrite the Bible—in all its crazy glory—the way you and I and, frankly, anyone under age 80 would rather read it. While completely accurate, Russell uses layman’s terms, contemporary metaphors, well-appointed slang and plenty of profanity to liven things up. And the best part? It’s short. Like short-short. Like, the entire 2,000-page Bible is condensed into 192 pages. And that includes a whole bunch of illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

My husband, WHO IS AWESOME (and reads BoingBoing religiously), had God is Disappointed in You delivered to my iPad yesterday. It was like a gift from God. Here’s the beginning of Genesis:

In the beginning, God was lonely. He made the same mistake as a lot of men who live alone, he decided to go out and meet people. Only there weren’t any people, so he had to make his own. God created Adam and Eve to be his friends.

God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in. Adam and Eve spent their days running around naked and playing frisbee. They ate a lot of fruit. It was a lot like living at a Grateful Dead concert. God’s one rule was that they couldn’t eat the fruit from this magical tree he’d planted in the center of the garden. I don’t know why he put it there. It just tied the whole garden together.

“God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in.” I mean, come on, people. That’s a fine piece of comedy.

Anyhow, you can wait unit Christmas to get this sucker for yourselves. But I can’t think of one single reason why you would. 

god_is_disappointed_05

 

That is Called Dying (More or Less)

I’ve written reams about how to talk with children about death without resorting to religious imagery. My daughter nails it in a single sentence.

More or Less

I’m beginning to think I’m no longer needed here.

Quick! What the Hell is Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food.

The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their  ya-ya’s out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here’s the low-down on Ash Wednesday.

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday.

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.

Associated Literary Passages: Mentions of ash can be found in 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1Job 2:8Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21, among others.

Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.

The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.

Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.

Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It’s Just God’Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.

From the Mind of an 8-year-old: ‘Who Made Up God?’

Rope SwingMy daughter is on her rope swing, looking out into the blue sky just beyond the fence line of our front yard. She is thinking quietly. And deeply, as it turns out.

“Who made up God?” she asks.

“What?” I say. Because I am inside and can barely hear her.

“Who made up God?” she asks again. I walk to the open door, pondering the question. It sounds as though she might expect me to name someone — an actual person responsible for the creation of this great character that she’s heard so much about.

“Quentin Tarantino,” I think about saying, but don’t.

I go back to my old reliable: Some people believe... It’s imprinted in my brain by now.

“Well, you know,” I say, “some people believe God is not made up at all—”

“—yeah yeah yeah, I know,” she says, totally interrupting me.

She is 8, see, and 8-year-olds do not need to be told things they’ve been told before. Because 8-year-olds have brains like steel traps. They remember everything. Except, you know, where they last left their backpack. And their lunch box. And their homework and shoes and every hand-held electronic they own. But, like, everything else.

“I mean,” she continues, “who was the first person to have the idea of God?”

“Okay, that’s a really great question,” I say, because it is, isn’t it? Incidentally, I do not know how to answer this particular question, but I do know precisely where she last left her backpack, lunch box, homework, shoes and Kindle.

This is 40.

Anyway, I say something about how the idea of God and gods has been around for many thousands of years. No one knows who the first believers were, but the idea might even go back to the first humans. Probably, I tell her, it wasn’t just one person but a bunch of people who started believing around the same time.

“Why?” she asks.

Another great question. “People believe in God or gods for all sorts of reasons,” I say. “It makes them feel good to not be alone. It makes them feel good to believe that something larger is out there, watching over them. And it makes some people feel good to believe that they’ll live on after they die.”

The answer satisfies her — she moves on to something else — but it doesn’t satisfy me. I start wondering: How far back does belief go? What exactly were those early believers lacking or longing for? What is it that led them to spirituality?

So I did some Googling.

unesco5Here’s what I found out:

1. There’s no telling for sure when belief in the supernatural first took root. What we do know is based on archeological finds that point to ritual behaviors. Rituals = supernatural beliefs, or at least that’s the idea.

2. Evidence of rituals dates back at least 130,000 years; that’s when we know homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead — suggesting that they may have believed in some sort of an afterlife. (Burials actually go back to the Neanderthal period, some 300,000 years ago, but we don’t know whether those burials were intentional.)

3. These early rituals didn’t involve gods, per se. (This was 125,000 years before Zeus even entered the picture.) According to scholars, the beliefs of these early humans probably resembled totemism or animism, both of which are practiced today and emphasize the spiritual essence of all living things. In totemism plants and animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and totems are thought to “interact” with individual peoples or tribes, thus serving as their emblem or symbol. (Not unlike school mascots.) You can read more about totemism here and here. I plan to. It’s fascinating stuff.

I still can’t answer Maxine’s questions about the when and the why of religious belief, but next time she asks, at least I’ll be a little more prepared about the what.

“Mommy, What’s Satan?”

Of all the religious concepts that I’ve discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that’s precisely what makes it a great addition to “Mommy, What’s That?” a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan:

The short answer:

Satan is the “bad guy” in the Bible.

The long answer:

images

In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the “bad” parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a “fallen” angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about “the devil” — they’re talking about Satan.

“Mommy, What’s an Angel?”

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend:

“What’s an angel?” she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

“According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes.”

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That’s why, beginning this week, I’ll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they’ll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I’ll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend’s three-year-old. Then I’ll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

“What’s An Angel?”

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only “good” things. That’s why people might use the word “angel” when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children “little angels.”) Some stories say God has special angels, called “guardian angels,” who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don’t really exist. 

 

Talking About Belief With Kids: When Logic Threatens to Overshadow Kindness

UnknownMy daughter, Maxine, is 8 years old and really getting the hang of logic these days. If A is true, then B must be true. If you believe A, you must believe B. If A doesn’t exist… You get the drift.

Anyway, Maxine’s little cousin Jack  (4) is very into the movie Frozen right now, particularly the character of Elsa, the snow queen. Recently, when chatting about beliefs, he told his mom, “I believe in Elsa” — which is so cute it makes my heart hurt. But when I told Maxine about Jack’s statement, she immediately went into critical mode.

“Jack can’t believe in Elsa,” she said.

If Jack believes in Elsa, she explained, he has to believe in Olaf (the snowman friend) and Sven (the talking reindeer). This was clearly illogical, and the whole thing bothered her. You could tell she wanted to call Jack up right that instant and tell him how wrong he was.

This is not to say that Maxine is free of her own irrational beliefs, of course; she has plenty of them, believe me. But she is, for the first time, beginning to make logical arguments of her own and experiencing a very strong desire to set people straight when they come to the “wrong” conclusions. (God help us all.)

Belief

The whole thing has made me realize that this is a great time and opportunity to talk with her a little about tolerance. After all, how kids respond or react when someone holds irrational or illogical beliefs is a huge indicator of their level of tolerance, is it not? How Maxine responds to her little cousin’s announcement could easily indicate her ability to exercise restraint, compassion and kindness in the face of absurd testimony. And, let’s face it, she will be hearing (and reading) a lot of that in her life.

We already know kids need to be encouraged to think critically about different beliefs, to weigh those beliefs against what they know to be true, and to figure out what makes sense to them. This is important stuff for kids.

But thinking critically about other’s beliefs is very different from criticizing others’ beliefs. We need to explain to our kids that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and sometimes those reasons won’t make any kind of sense. But everyone has a right to their own personal beliefs, and they don’t deserve to be made fun of, or criticized, or talked into changing those beliefs. Unless their beliefs are hurting someone, people deserve to be left alone.

We all do.

If Maxine chooses not to believe in God, that’s nobody’s business but hers. If her cousin believes in Elsa, that’s nobody’s business but his.


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