Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Most recently in the Religion Category

Minerva Priory library
The library at the Minerva Priory, Rome, Italy.

I recently participated in a meeting of technologists, economists and European philosophers and theologians. Other attendees included Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, Father Eric Salobir. One of the interesting things about this particular meeting for me was to have a theological (in this case Christian) perspective to our conversation. Among other things, we discussed artificial intelligence and the future of work.

The question about how machines will replace human beings and place many people out of work is well worn but persistently significant. Sam Altman and others have argued that the total increase in productivity will create an economic abundance that will enable us to pay out a universal "basic income" to those who are unemployed. Brynjolfsson and McAfee have suggested a "negative income tax"-a supplement instead of a tax for low-income workers that would help the financial redistribution without disrupting the other important outcomes generated by the practice of work.

Those supporting the negative income tax recognize that the importance of work is not just the income derived from it, but also the anchor that it affords us both socially and psychologically. Work provides a sense of purpose as well as a way to earn social status. The places we work give us both the opportunity for socializing as well as the structure that many of us need to feel productive and happy.

So while AI and other technologies may some day create a productivity abundance that allows us to eliminate the financial need to work, we will still need to find ways to obtain the social status-as well as a meaningful purpose-we get from work. There are many people who work in our society who aren't paid. One of the largest groups are stay-at-home men and women whose work it is to care for their homes and children. Their labor is not currently counted toward the GDP, and they often do not earn the social status and value they deserve. Could we somehow change the culture and create mechanisms and institutions that provided dignity and social status to people who don't earn money? In some ways academia, religious institutions and non-profit service organizations have some of this structure: social status and dignity that isn't driven primarily by money. Couldn't there be a way to extend this value structure more broadly?

And how about creative communities? Why couldn't we develop some organizing principle that would allow amateur writers, dancers or singers to define success by measures other than financial returns? Could this open up creative roles in society beyond the small sliver of professionals who can be supported by the distribution and consumption by the mass media? Could we make "starving artist" a quaint metaphor of the past? Can we disassociate the notion of work from productivity as it has been commonly understood and accepted? Can "inner work" be considered more fruitful when seen in light of thriving and eudaemonia?

Periclean Athens seems to be a good example of a moral society where people didn't need to work to be engaged and productive.* Could we image a new age where our self-esteem and shared societal value is not associated with financial success or work as we know it? Father Eric asks, "What does it mean to thrive?" What is our modern day eudaemonia? We don't know. But we do know that whatever it is, It will require a fundamental cultural change: change that is difficult, but not impossible. A good first step would be to begin work on our culture alongside our advances in technology and financial innovations so that the future looks more like Periclean Athens than a world of disengaged kids with nothing to do. If it was the moral values and virtues that allowed Periclean Athens to function, how might we develop them in time for a world without work as we currently know it?

* There were many slaves in Periclean Athens. For the future machine age, will be need to be concerned about the rights of machines? Will we be creating a new class of robot slaves?

  • Reid Hoffman - Ideas
  • Erik Brynjolfsson - Ideas
  • Andrew McAfee - Ideas
  • Tenzin Priyadarshi - Ideas
  • Father Eric Salobir - Ideas
  • Ellen Hoffman - Editing
  • Natalie Saltiel - Editing

Jet lag woke me up at 4AM today and I've been sitting in my cabin in the high altitude mountains of Utah reading blogs and chatting with people. I just finished chatting with reverend AKMA about my last post, trying to see if there was something similar to good theologians and open source leaders. We talked about the importance of humility and the risks of greed. (AKMA pointed out that he was by far the most humble person on the planet.) I noticed that my thoughts seem to be somewhat more spiritual than usual.

Then I remembered reading somewhere that there was a scientific study that showed that people were more likely to have spiritual experiences in high altitudes due to the lack of oxygen. They theorized that maybe a lot of enlightenment in the past occurred on mountains because of this. (A bit disconcerting to think that a lot of our theological thought comes from the asphyxiation of hermits.) But then I remembered another article I read somewhere that said that 20% of all scientific studies are wrong. Then AKMA reminded me that according to David Weinberger, 78% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

I know it's very un-bloggy of me not to have the links to the articles I cite, but I'm late for breakfast. I'll try to dig them up later, but if anyone has the links, I'd really appreciate it if you could put them in the comments.

UPDATE from Cameo: Why revelations have occurred on mountains? Linking mystical experiences and cognitive neuroscience.

In the May 30, 2005 issue of New York Magazine there is a story that included details about Lawrence Lessig being repeatedly molested by the choir director when he was a choirboy. The article covers the history and the current lawsuit where another former choirboy, John Hardwicke is suing the school with Lessig's help. As a friend of Larry's, it was painful to read the article and it was even more painful trying to figure out what to say to him.

Larry blogged about it initially a few days ago and there were a stream of supportive comments. Today, he posted about what we should do to prevent this kind of thing in the future, and I believe this is a critical message to get out. He writes about the law in New Jersey that immunizes charitable institutions from "negligence" in the hiring of a teacher. This is what the defense is using against the claims of responsibility for the abuse. There is a bill that has been introduced to remove that immunity, but leaders from the Catholic Church have opposed the change. I often get criticized for meddling in American politics, but I think this is an important issue. There are links on Larry's post to pages about what you can do. I think the Church should be ashamed.

I was IM'ing with Boris yesterday and he said an interesting thing. "He lives on in our media... Forever remembered as the first super mediatized Pope ever. There is more documented evidence of his existence than any Pope ever before. He will NEVER die... as long as we have storage memory..."

I worked with Tony Verna several times back in my MSM days. Tony is the inventor of the instant replay and one of the people behind Live Aid. I learned more about television from Tony than just about anyone else. I remembered Tony telling me an interesting account of his work with the Pope. I remember thinking about the impact of mediatizing the Pope when I heard the story. I decided to email Tony and ask him to share a story about his role in mediatizing the Pope.

Tony Verna
April 2,2005

Hi Joi,

Thank you for contacting me regarding my thoughts about the passing of the Holy Father, John Paul II.

As you may recall, in 1986, I created “Prayer For World Peace,” a one-hour live TV broadcast for Pope John Paul II that I also produced and directed. The program was viewed by a billion people worldwide.

I had directed Live Aid and Sport Aid for Bob Geldof and that made me cocky enough to present the Vatican with the largest satellite telecast of the time.

My idea was to have the Pope lead a worldwide congregation of worshippers on five continents in the rosary, a devotional prayer, where he could alternate the first part of the prayer in one of several languages… and then cut live to that part of the world for their response…

e.g. Paris or Dakar for French, Knock or Calcutta for English, Lisbon or Rio for Portuguese, Mexico City or Madrid for Spanish, and Frankfurt or Marizell for German.

I had worked with Mother Teresa and knew her well enough to ask (impose on) her to do an inspirational intro (from were she was visiting her nuns in Czestochowa, Poland) that would lead to the live presentation from Rome. Mother Teresa was a wonderful woman whom I can’t say enough about.

My reputation was good in Europe due to the Geldof projects plus I had already written 2 of my books that the American communications archbishops had read.

They were anxious to hear my idea even though they warned me that the Pope didn’t do programs other people have created.

Undeterred I moved on, and finally met with the Pope in his private chapel. My wife, Carol, was a devout Lutheran and she was ready to bolt out of the chapel at the sight of the Pope. I calmed her down and when the Pope came over to us, he was very attentive and cordial. He held our hands and gave me his blessing to proceed with my idea.

I was hoping for such, since I knew he was a communications Pope and that he knew the power of the medium.

Later, I addressed the College of Cardinals as a formality and then proceeded.

The live one-hour was done for Global Media Ltd and was possible in part by a grant from BIC. The budget was high at 2 million due to the satellite pickups in 16 locations on 5 continents, Luzan, Argentina; Marizell, Austria; Rio, Brazil; Quebec, Canada; Lourdes, France; Frankfurt, Germany; Bombay, India; Guadalupe, Mexico; Caacupe, Paraguay; Manila, Philippines; Fatima, Portugal; Dakar, Senegal; Zaragoza, Spain; Czestochowa, Poland; Knock, Ireland; and in the United States, Washington DC. All of which was cited and documented on the July 8, 1987 Congressional Record of the House of Representatives

In addition to the hundred plus cameras I had stationed around the globe, I arranged for the congregations (live on monitors) to greet the Holy Father, before and after reciting the rosary with him.

Then the problems began. The religious big shots told me I couldn’t place monitors by the Pope. I objected and told them that the Pope should decide. The next morning the Pope gave me his permission, overruling his big shots.

The insurance company (to cover the $2m) said that the Pope and I both had to take a physical. I took the physical and explained that the Pope wouldn’t. They backed down

Next, RAI television (a bunch of men in suits) said I couldn’t do the pickup from the Vatican. They claimed I was a one-timer and not welcomed. I left Rome determined not to give up.

So…I directed the show from London, England (thanks to the EBU) with the incoming feeds coming to me live from Rome. Strange but true.

The show went off without a hitch. The VCR and DVD are still available.

Another problem was that the church worked in centuries so back in ’86 I gave the Pope his first fax machine…as can be attested to by Archbishop John P. Foley.

Before leaving for Rome to do the show I stopped by Washington DC and had dinner with David Brinkley and others curious on how I could pull off such a complex live telecast.

I felt quite honored by the attention.

As I mentioned, a billion people saw the show, and afterwards the Pope invited my wife, and I back to the Vatican to thank us personally.

It was a delightful visit.

Then another strange thing happened.

After blessing us the Pope moved away but suddenly he backed up to give my wife a second blessing.

Joi, my wife converted to Catholicism but I think the Pope gave her a second blessing because she has to put up with someone like me.

That’s my recollection…… in a jumble.

Best Regards,


AKMA’s Random Thoughts
What Then Of Boasting?

Pippa continues making wonderful images with paint and pen and keyboard (Margaret and I cherish her email messages). At F2C, Dave isenberg brought out a t-shirt he'd been given by his print shop; it read in big letters, "God Bless America," with an American flag imprint. He reckoned that the clergy delegate was the right conferee to get the shirt, so he threw it out to me. (This story does get back to how proud I am of Pippa.) I sat with the shirt displayed beside me through Thursday's program, and brought it home, uncertain of what should become of it. When I explained the situation to the family, Pippa quickly pointed out some of the theo-political problems with the shirt; her first reaction was that it should be a prayer, but that instead it reads as a command. But she volunteered to take it, perhaps to wear inside-out or use for her painting shirt. Fifteen minutes later she came back. . . .

Pippa Fixes Her Shirt

I'm so proud of them, it makes my heart pound. What, as Dick Leonard says, did I do to deserve this? [Don't worry; you probably don't know Dick. But he always used to say that when he lived with us, so the family always quotes him.]

Great dad begets great family. Usually.

A few weeks ago, there was an article in Scientific American "debunking" the myth of self-esteem. I've never been to therapy in the US so I don't have first hand experience, but my good friend John Vasconcellos is one of the founders of the movement and my impressions about the movement from him were that it was important and useful. John told me that he thought the definition that they used in the article was different from the one he was using. He said he would get back to me on his thoughts on the article. I found a thread on MetaFilter about this article so I participated in a discussion there. I was still having trouble thinking through the issue, so I turned to one of my favorite moral guides, Reverend AKMA. I decided to record the call and post it here in case anyone is interested in our chat. (37 min 33 MB mp3)

I think the net-net is that overvaluing or undervaluing yourself is bad. Ways to help people swung too far in either direction are good. The US probably suffers differently, than say Japan, because I think more people in Japan get self-esteem from craft or professionalism compared to the US where I believe self-esteem is more highly linked to money. Creating enclaves of people or communities to help people feel happy about their success measured by different parameters is a good thing and something the Net might be good for.

UPDATE 2: Audio available in a variety of formats on

Susan Crawford quotes an essay by John W. Patterson called "Thermodynamics and Evolution", part of a volume of scientific responses to creationism. She ties it neatly to Internet governance at the end.

Susan Crawford
Here is Patterson's conclusion:

"In reality, ... the 'uphill' processes associated with life not only are compatible with entropy and the second law, but actually depend on them for the energy fluxes off of which they feed. Numerous other kinds of backward processes in simpler, nonliving systems also proceed in this way, and do so in complete accord with the second law."

This all ties to internet governance. A sufficiently open net will tend towards order, not chaos -- and will do so on its own, with no external pilot.

Just reading the conclusion, you might think she's making a techno-utopian quantum leap, but the idea of open systems allowing evolution and order and seeming to defy entropy is any interesting one. Order can emerge in a system with increasing chaos around it if the system is open. I don't think being merely open guarantees that it will tend towards order. On the other hand, closed systems will tend to become disordered and the best way to maintain order in such a system is to move very slowly...

One thing that Yossi, our tour guide in Jerusalem, showed us that was interesting was all of the Jewish graves at the foot of Mount Olive. According to the Jewish scripture, the Messiah was to come to earth and those in the graves at the foot of the mountain would be the first to come back to life. The legend says that they would then go to the Temple of the Rock to be the first to pray there. The problem is, the front gate of the Temple of the Rock has been sealed and along the wall facing the Jewish graves is a whole section of Muslim graves. According to legend, the Sons of David can not enter these graves and would not be able to go directly to the Temple to pray. I'm sorry if I'm mangled the story or names, but this is what I understood from the explanation.

I can see how the Muslims might want to make it difficult for the first reborn Jewish to reach their Temple, but isn't intentionally putting Muslim graves in the way a sort of recognition that the Jewish Messiah is real? It seemed a bit contradictory to me.

Does anyone know anything else about this legend and this topography? It's quite interesting how the various religions in Jerusalem seemed to acknowledge each other's legends and prophets, but just believe their own more strongly... or maybe I'm missing something completely. If someone could shed some light, I would greatly appreciate it.

Mark Frauenfelder @ Boing Boing
Story on Cobb County Creationism Case

Gary Peare sez: "I have a modest proposal regarding the following story:"

A federal trial began today in Atlanta over evolution disclaimers in Cobb County schools. A group of parents backed by the ACLU argue that the disclaimers in science biology textbooks are a government endorsement of religion.
"The county put stickers with the following text into the books:"
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
"So here's my proposal. Let's allow the religious right to paste their stickers in all the biology texts they want so long as they affix the following text to each and every one of their Bibles:"

"This book contains material on Judeo-Christian theology. Judeo-Christian theology offers insight into the origin and meaning of life and is the basis for several of the world's great religions. But it does not encompass the full range of religious beliefs held sacred by members of our diverse American society. Moreover, this material is based on ancient texts, and significant errors may have been introduced through subsequent translations and omissions. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."


It has always puzzled me that educated people can actually not believe in evolution. What percentage of the US does not believe in evolution? Are the belief in evolution and faith in God mutually exclusive?

I was just on a panel with Yossi Vardi, the founding investor in ICQ.

Yossi Vardi
There are three big brands that we have created which are well known enough to have approximately 20 million or so links on Google. They are The Bible, Jesus Christ and ICQ. The first one took 3500 years, the second one 2000 years and ICQ only 8 years as of next week. As you can see, they all spread virally.

Thanks to Yossi Vardi, we got one of the best tour guides around, Yossi Kalmanovich. I joined Lance Johnson who flew in that morning. Yossi is a professional tour guide and you could tell. His explanations were very thorough and balanced considering he was a very passionate and proud Jewish man. We first went to the roof of the University where we could see all of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Then we went to Mount Olive where he pointed out the primary places and described the Muslim, Jewish and Christian stories. There were a variety of towers by different Christians who believed that the ascension of Christ happened in different places. The rock where Abraham took Isaac is also the place where Mohammed ascends and a stones throw away from where some Christians believe Jesus was crucified. After the bird's eye view of all of the huge variety of churches and mosques including the Mormon University and the Russian Orthodox Church, we went down inside the old part of Jerusalem. We wandered through the bazaars. People were not eating because of Ramadan, but the bazaar was bustling with activity as people stocked up on food for after Ramadan. There was a Muslim quarter, Greek Orthodox quarter, a Armenian Orthodox quarter, a variety of Orthodox Jewish... A huge variety of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish sects were represented and it was an almost unbelievable display of highly religious people mingling and sharing their holy places in what appeared to be a friendly and mutually respectful way. We visited a Church built on where some people believe Christ was crucified. There was supposed to have been an earthquake and a crack in the rock when he was crucified. The church shows a rock which had been cracked. I had never heard this before, but at the bottom of the crack, there is a rock that some believe is the skull of Adam and that Adam and Eve were also buried here. Another thing that I heard that I had not heard before was that the reason the year starts January 1 and not on the birthday of Jesus, December 25 was because Jewish boys are only officially considered alive after they are circumcised 8 days after birth. It was quite an overload of information and Yossi's ability to describe all of the various versions of each of the stories of the major religious and the intertwined nature of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian stories gave me a new appreciation for the extreme similarity and yet the ultimately unreconcilable difference between the three major monotheistic religions.

Yossi also explained the history of the various rulers of Jerusalem and what they built and tore down and why. You can see the difference in the layers of stones of temples that had been built upon temples. The graves of the Jewish waiting for the Messiah as well as the Muslim graves along the front of entrance of the main Temple area almost look like strategic military positions waiting for the return of their respective prophets. So much history and importance compressed into one small place. I'm sure it's not puzzling to people of these faiths, but to someone like me, I kept asking myself... why here?

We also visited the WWII museum, the Western Wall (the holiest place for Jewish), and got to see the West Bank wall, which looked as ominous as I had imagined. It wasn't a continuous wall, but for people who had to now travel over 10 kilometers to go around it, it certainly must feel like quite an obstruction.

I noticed that the "liberal" (I don't know if that is the correct term) people here are banning products made in the West Bank and Gaza to protest the Israeli settlements there.

I am going to Jerusalem this morning. As someone who is mostly non-religious and Shinto if anything, the notion of so many religions can sharing the same holy place is very difficult for me to understand. Hopefully, I will understand it better after visiting.

Reverend AKMA has an interesting post on the front-page story claim that someone has discovered the cave of John the Baptist and why he isn't into archaeology anymore.

This story reflects several problematic tendencies in the popular (biblical) archaeological market. We get their textual siblings over in literary historiography, so I’m not casting stones only at the other interpreters. But there have been heaps of hermits (I just spent way too much time trying to devise a collective noun for anchorites) in the Judean wilderness about whom we know absolutely nothing. We happen to know a little about one of them: John. So when an archaeologist finds a hermit’s cave that fits what we might expect John’s cave to have looked like, someone draws the inference that it actually was John’s cave.
Go AKMA! The image of heaps of hermits reminds me a bit of Life of Brian. ;-)
photo from Hoder's photo blog
The New York Times
Those Sexy Iranians

...True, girls and women can still be imprisoned for going out without proper Islamic dress. But young people are completely redefining such dress so it heightens sex appeal instead of smothering it.

Women are required to cover their hair and to wear either a chador cloak or an overcoat, called a manteau, every time they go out, and these are meant to be black and shapeless. But the latest fashion here in Shiraz, in central Iran, is light, tight and sensual.

"There are some manteaus with slits on the sides up to the armpits," said Mahmoud Salehi, a 25-year-old manteau salesman. "And then there are the `commando manteaus,' with ties on the legs to show off the hips and an elastic under the breasts to accentuate the bust."

Worse, from the point of view of hard-line mullahs, young women in such clothing aren't getting 74 lashes any more — they're getting dates.

Iranian blogger Hoder has started a photo blog and some of the recent images show us what they're talking about.

This morning, we had a breakfast between the Global Leaders for Tomorrow, Social Entrepreneurs and Religious Leaders. I got a great table with a broad range of people from developing nations, religious leaders, economists, and entrepreneurs.

We started out the discussion talking about the nature of money. We talked about how greed and the idea that more money means more happiness is compulsive behavior and the notion that more money makes you more happy may hold true in developing nations, but is not necessarily true in developed nations. We talked about how this notion of more money means more happiness may be contributing to some of the problems in society. One representative of a global financial organization talked about how similar to the "poverty line", maybe there should be a "greed line". An economist pointed out that there was a book written about economy as a religion where the author asserted that pollution should be moved to developing nations because poor people were worth less in a purely economic model. Obviously, this is not right, and we asked the religious leaders to address some of the issues such as caring, giving and happiness.

Religions are memories of history, rich with ritual and values. They need to create a double language, one for internal dialog and another to share ideas with others. One point I made was that many religions were designed for environments where people were still struggling to survive and the focus was on rituals and believes for such an environment. Many religions focused keeping people alive rather than providing them with a primary religious experience. For environments where the struggle to survive is not as big of an issue, it might be that religions need to help support people more with things such as their obsessions and ethics.

It was noted that people who live in developing nations still needed money and that it was important. However, it was pointed out that many of the economic values have a detrimental effect on developing nations such as promoting crime. It was also noted that many churches in developing nations focus on promotion economic values. (Join the church, get rich.) The notion of sharing and sacrifice which are very important values that religions promote are often subverted to raise money for the churches.

David Green of Project Impact in India talked about how he performs cataract surgery in India. He provides 1/3 of the procedures for free, 1/3 for a low cost and 1/3 for a high price. The rich pay the high price for first class service, but the basic operation is the same. He is able to subsidize the operation for the poor and still make money. He is so successful that instead of paying $300 for the lenses, he was able to create a manufacturing operation and lower the cost to $4 a lens and has become the second largest manufacturer in the world. He provided this as an example of a good economic model can provide a great deal of good.

Mizuka and I are off to Munakata shrine, the local Shinto shrine for the New Year count-down. We'll be celebrating it with our new neighbors. See you all on the other side!

Went to the Dalai Lama dinner speech today. I'm on the supporters board for his visit to Tokyo. This is the second time. I think the first time was more important because he was having difficulty getting into Japan, but this year it was much easier. He's not yet as popular in Japan as he is in the US, but he is gaining greater and greater support in Japan. The dinner guests were quite an interesting cross-section of Japanese business, political, religious, academic and entertainment related society. Just like las time he was very playful and inspiring.

Today he told us that he will be visiting Ise Jingu, one of the oldest and most famous Shinto shrines. He will do the sanpai, a Shinto ceremonial visit there. He talked a lot about "Human Values" and "Religious Harmony" and "Emotional Religious Relationship." His visit to and honor of a Shinto shrine is part of this push for religious harmony. He talked about the importance of "Global Responsibility" and the necessity for everyone to realize that we are all physically and mentally the same. "Alright, maybe a BIT different physically," he conceded. But he stressed the importance of understanding the huge similarities rather than on focusing on the differences.

At the end, he took questions and answers. A young Japanese man talked about how he was trying to change the world one person at a time and how he hoped Japan would plan in important role in bringing religion and science, East and West together. He asked whether it was OK to make a movie about how the Dalai Lama was reborn in Japan to help lead this movement.

The Dalai Lama smiled and said that the Dalai Lama Institution existed only as long as the people of Tibet felt it was necessary. He has a prayer that as long as his soul was active, he would dedicate himself to helping human-kind everywhere. He said that if for some reason the people of Tibet decided that they didn't need a Dalai Lama any longer and he could find suitable parents in Japan, it was quite possible that he would be reborn in Japan to carry on his mission to help human-kind.

It was obvious that the security team and the hotel hated that he walked through the crowd instead of leaving from the back exit that they were trying to usher him to, but he worked the crowd. Better than any politician I've ever seen. His hand-shakes were obviously much more sincere than most politicians (I should compare, but the image was similar) and everyone who had shaken his hand was left kind of stunned.

One other interesting note was that he talked in Tibetan and there was a translator to Japanese... but when he got excited, he spoke in English. ;-)

Monk Matsunaga of Koyasan was at my table so it was fun to talk about how excited I from my visit to Koyasan. Matsunaga-san told me that the Dalai Lama had visited his temple in Koyasan.

I hereby name AKMA the executor of my site. When I die, my heirs will pay all reasonable expenses (up to $30/year) to keep my site publicly available as well as a small stipend to AKMA to prune the hedges and scrub the grafitti off every now and then.
I hereby declare the same.

AKMA, maybe you should start a business...

NOW THAT'S, ER, CHUTZPAH: Christopher Hitchens is Fisking the Ten Commandments.
Frank Boosman also comments on the problem with the "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me" commandment.

Like I keep saying, all of you "I only have one God, and my God is the best" people seem to be a bit insecure about your God. As Christopher Hitchens says, "The first four of the commandments have little to do with either law or morality, and the first three suggest a terrific insecurity on the part of the person supposedly issuing them."

As we Shintos like to say, you can put your god over there next to our other gods. While you're at it, why don't you get off your high horse and quit defining Good and Evil as Us and Them. ;-p

Today, I met with Kenji Yoshigo, the Vice President and Executive Director of Soka Gakkai Office of International Affairs. Soka Gakkai is a Buddhist sect which is one of the largest and most influential in Japan. One of the key things that sets it apart from other Buddhist sects is their active involvement in society including education, International relations and politics. They are the force behind the Komeito Party.

I had heard about Soka Gakkai from a variety of people, usually with negative connotations. Some people alluded to conspiracy, others refer to them like some sort of cult. The only real first hand negative interactions that I had heard of were interactions with overly enthusiastic members trying to recruit people. I had always been curious about the Soka Gakkai, but not curious enough to overcome the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and actually approach them.

Kana, a young woman who works for me is Soka Gakkai. I found out when I learned that she was marrying a staff member of the Komeito and I asked her whether she was Soka Gakkai. She is one of the hardest working people on our team and has a passion for justice that exceeds ones expectations. She invited me to give the toast at their wedding. At this wedding, they showed video messages from the young children she was mentoring, and I met many of the Soka Gakkai people she worked with. I was very impressed with how intelligent, aware of current issues, and friendly they were. The impression I got at the wedding changed my mental image of Soka Gakkai.

Early this year, Lou Marinoff, a well known philosopher who I had met several times in Davos visited Japan. He had been invited by Soka Gakkai. I had dinner with Lou and his Soka Gakkai host. Lou told me how impressed he was with their efforts and urged me to contact them and learn more about Soka Gokkai. I respect Lou's opinions greatly and he is quite knowledgeable and objective. His description of the variety of things Soka Gakkai was doing made me decide to try to contact Soka Gakkai to try to get a first hand impression.

After the dinner with Lou, I asked Kana if she would help me learn more about Soka Gakkai. It took a bit of scheduling, but she coordinated this meeting with Mr. Yoshigo.

I asked Yoshigo-san to explain Soka Gakkai to me. Soka Gakkai is Buddhist sect and their core principles are very much in tuned with the teachings of most Nichiren Buddhists. Soka Gakkai was originally set up as an educational institution and has worked very hard to try to make society a better place by actively participating in it, unlike many more "passive" sects. I think it is the active participation in politics that causes those in power to fear Soka Gakkai. Yoshigo-san said that they teach people to question authority, think for themselves and be very active. These are also my core principles. Although Soka Gakkai has a large organization with "management" he said that they do not control the thinking of their members and have quite a diverse group of people. They do not worship their founder, nor do they teach people to blindly follow.

Since I am quite curious about the definition of "evil", I asked Yoshigo-san what he thought was "evil". He said that in Soka Gakkai, they believed very strongly in life and believed that those who destroy life, either through murder or the destruction of humans rights were evil. In the same context, those who ruin their own lives were in a way, "evil". Killing human beings, especially in the name of religion, he believed was evil. This definition works for me.

He also said that Buddhist teachings say that 1/3 of the world will be "believers" or "followers of the path," 1/3 of the world will be people who will be supportive and part of the same community, and 1/3 of the world will be actively involved in trying to hurt or subvert "believers." According to these teachings, this was the proper "balance" and that trying to make the whole world peaceful or "converted" was not only impossible, but unnatural. So, although there are some overzealous young Soka Gakkai members who try to convert all of their friends, Yoshigo-san made no attempt to try to make me join and made it clear that Soka Gakkai is open to interaction and cooperation with everyone. In fact, the head of one of their schools is Muslim.

When I visited Koyasan, a monk told us that during the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government visited most of the European countries in power those days and realized that they were able to use religion as part of the State and used it in war. Japan took the decentralized animist religion, Shinto, and centralized it under the Emperor. When Japan lost WWII, they lost their religion. Similarly, the student uprisings in the 60's and 70's were squashed. Images of young soldiers dying for their divine Emperor as well as the images of youths wearing helmets and fighting with the riot police are considered silly and quite unfashionable to youths in Japan today. Young people in Japan today believe that fighting for a cause, either religious or political, is stupid and un-cool. This lack of spiritualism and activism makes Soka Gakkai's role quite clear.

We talked about Japan. We agreed on nearly every point about the lack of democracy, the apathy among the people, the risk of a right-wing popular uprising, and other issues. We agreed that the notion of unquestioning dependence on authority is still prevalent in Japan and was the cause of much of the problems. We talked about how those in power abuse power and those who follow do not have the will to rise up. Having recently had more and more experience with those in power in Japan, I began to realize how dangerous the Soka Gakkai was to those in power.

It makes sense that those in power would spread FUD about Soka Gakkai and try to discredit their efforts. The more I listened, the more I saw how the negative image Japanese have of Soka Gakkai was part of the standard operating procedure of those in power. If you can't co-opt them, marginalize them in any way possible. Call them, lefties, freaks, extremists, a cult... what ever it takes. Being quite sensitive to how powerful the mass media FUD machine is these days, it was a great feeling to discover yet another mental stigma, planted in my head by "the machine" that I was able to yank out and make my mind more clear.

I have still only had one meeting with Yoshigo-san, but we spent nearly two hours and he answered every question I had directly and without hesitation. He said I could blog anything we talked about. He also agreed to be available if I had any further questions. Now I ask YOU -- Especially all of you who told me that I shouldn't even meet with them. What do you actually KNOW about Soka Gakkai and why do you think they are so weird/bad. Could it be that you are also just a subject of Japanese mass media FUD? If you have any questions for Soka Gakkai, please let me know. Obviously, this can not consume ALL of my time, but my intention is to try dispel some of the FUD and understand more clearly.

I got a few very thoughtful emails from Megan about the anti-gay bandwagon and American politics today. First of all, I think it's sad seeing the Pope and American politicians taking positions against gay rights and I strongly believe in gay marriages.

One interesting point is that some of the discussion here in the US right now is about polling. Lots of people get so caught up in the polling --- yet, 35 years ago when it was still illegal for inter-racial couples to marry, the polls were 70%+ against allowing it. If we stuck with polling only, we would have no civil rights legislation, we'd still have racially segregated bathrooms, women wouldn't be able to vote, etc.

The 14th Amendment is clear --- equal protection under the law. No exceptions. Churches are not required to marry people they don't want to marry -- that's a religious event/ceremony, but a marriage license issued by the state is a contract. We have seen that churches sometimes take a while to get it right --- it took a rather long time to finally pardon Galileo. : ) If some of the churches need to take their time on this one, so be it... but the 14th Amendment requires equal protection under the law.

Most of the basis for anti-gay rhetoric is religious. In terms of Christian arguments, I think it's always interesting to look at what Christ actually said in the New Testament about Homosexuality. The interesting part is that, he really said nothing directly. Although he did say things like love your neighbor as yourself, get along with each other... : ) Some information on these topics:

Thomas Jefferson
Letter to George Washington, January 4, 1786: "This...plan"

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

The quote above is from one of the four inscriptions chiseled into the inside walls of the Jefferson Memorial.
Victor Hugo
An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
The world is watching you America. Get it right. You've gotten it right in the past.

Thanks to Megan for the thoughts and the quotes.

Some quotes...

In America, we have the constitution. If something is socially unjust, Americans say 'It's unconstitutional'. In Islam, the equivalent is, 'this is un-Islamic'.

I regard Osama Bin Laden as the Robin Hood character. If we had a democracy in Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden would run for office.

There was a study that came out in June. The question was how the rest of the world views the US. Bin Laden was one of the top 4 on the list of who could help change US behavior. The approval rating, even in Europe has gone down over the last year.

The American Muslim community can help interface with the Muslims in the rest of the world. The American Muslim leaders and the American Jewish to work on issues such as the Palestinian issue.

Q: What about the role of women in Islam

A: Ideals and realities often have a gap. Even the framers did not really give people equal rights at the beginning. The ideal equality, but it didn't end up that way. The prophet was very much a feminist. The problem was when the Koran was implemented, local culture became law. Over 95% of law in the middle east is not from the Koran. The industrial revolution and the spreading of wealth increased the role of women. You can see this in the Middle East as the countries become wealthier, there are more lobbies to allow more equality for women.

If the Islamic world were more democratic and were more economically healthy, you wouldn't have many of the problems you have now. The rage in the Muslim world is focused on local issues. The war on terror should be focused on creating a light at the end of the tunnel and helping people raise themselves up.

I've just upgraded my Technobot. It is run every 10 minutes on my server and goes to technorati, gets my cosomos, and does the following:

  • Makes my technorati sidebar for my blog
  • If there are new inbound links, it sends the link info to to the following places:
This is yet another step in the rather blasphemous experiment to connect all of the social software I can find together into one big blob. It's rather interesting watching people discover or rediscover new communication modes and the new meta-modes that the connections enable. For instance, I think that wikis and IRC seem to work well together since wikis are an easy way to log some of the interesting things in the rather transient conversations on IRC. Blogs are cool in IRC because it's a nice way to find out more about each other or to link to things one has said without quoting it in IRC.

Now I'm beginning to have the too-many-windows-to-focus-on-syndrome. Maybe I need another screen. ;-)

Thanks to rvr for helping me with the irc stuff...

Found this on BoingBoing.
In an interview on Slashdot, Larry Wall, the legendary inventor of Perl is interviewed and asked about God.

Larry Wall

You can't please God the way Enoch did without some faith, because those who come to God must (minimally) believe that:

A) God exists, and
B) God is good to people who really look for him.

That's it. The "good news" is so simple that a child can understand it, and so deep that a philosopher can't.

Now, it appears that you're willing to admit the possibility of bit A being a 1, so you're almost halfway there. Or maybe you're a quarter way there on average, if it's a qubit that's still flopping around like Shoedinger's Cat. You're the observer there, not me--unless of course you're dead. :-)

A lot of folks get hung up at point B for various reasons, some logical and some moral, but mostly because of Shroedinger again. People are almost afraid to observe the B qubit because they don't want the wave function to collapse either to a 0 or a 1, since both choices are deemed unpalatable. A lot of people who claim to be agnostics don't take the position so much because they don't know, but because they don't want to know, sometimes desperately so.

Because if it turns out to be a 0, then we really are the slaves of our selfish genes, and there's no basis for morality other than various forms of tribalism.

And because if it turns out to be a 1, then you have swallow a whole bunch of flim-flam that goes with it. Or do you?

See that's the problem with the "one God" and the "me and God" religions. They are way too complicated.

Buddhists... If Mind -> 0 Then You -> 1
Much easier.
Think of your spirit as the wave and your body as the particle. Then Spirit = Body*C^2 (I guess that would mean that fat people have more spirit... hmm...)

It all gets a bit more complicated when you start dancing around doing energy conversion like Tai Chi. See the Dancing Wu Li Masters which talks about Tai Chi and quantum physics.

I just got back from Koyasan. It was an amazing experience.

The day we arrived the head monk gave us a speech about the mandalas in the Kongobuji temple of Koyasan. There was a very impressive ceremony and dancing by women from the temple at the end. We all sat around inside the main temple room and listened. (I snuck around a bit and took pictures.) A magazine, AERA, is doing a story about me and the cameraman was also snooping around taking pictures of me taking pictures of stuff.

Koyasan only has temples and no hotels, but many of the temples are a lot like nice Japanese ryokan. The one we stayed at was beautiful.

The next morning, there was a panel lead by Nakazawa-san, a famous expert on religion, Miyazaki-san, a monk from Koyasan and Pema Gyalpo Gyari, the liaison for the Dali Lama and a Tibetan. Here are some notes from the panel. It is all a bunch of significant trivia. I wonder if I should call it signifia... It's probably not a good idea for me to try to come up with words in the middle of the night... anyway.

Buddha was the son of a destroyed state so like the Jews and the Christians, he taught not to worship idols and things since that's a good way to get caught in a hostile state.

When the Taliban bombed the statues in Afghanistan, many Japanese monks were indifferent, saying only, "well it doesn't really matter if we have statues."

Miyazaki-san went as far as to say, blowing up the big Buddha in Nara may be a good thing for Buddhism in Japan.

The mandala is also just a representation of the impression of where Buddha meditated. It is a tool for meditation and NOT something to worship. Therefore, like idols, it doesn't really matter if we have them or not. What is important is knowing one's self.

The Tibetans teach from the Book of the Dead about life. Death is one of the most important things to teach. Japanese Buddhist universities do not teach enough about death. Monks are live half way between the world of the dead and the world of the living and that should be their primary job.

Japanese temples were all originally set up to keep graves and the most important task of a monk is to help the living pass to the world of the dead.

Koyasan which is basically graves, trees and a training ground for the soul is being considered for a position as a world treasure. The monk thought it would be bad. Koyasan really don’t have anything and the attention would probably be detrimental. The main asset physically is the graves of most of the emperors and famous people, letting everyone know that EVERYONE dies.

Koyasan was originally a Shinto shrine that was ovetaken by Buddhists. This is a little known/publicized fact. On the other hand, without the entry of Buddhism, Shinto would probably not have taken the more organized form it has taken today.

They talked about the fact that Hirofumi Ito studied religion of the West and decided that one God and a unified religion were necessary for a strong nation. He split Shinto and Buddhism and made the Emperor the God of the Shinto religion, even until the then the Emperor was a great believer of Buddhism and most of them were buried at Koyasan. Then, Japan lost the war, the Emperor lost his power and Japan became atheist.

Another point was that the world "religion" was imported during the Meiji Restoration and is a new word in Japan. Japan referred to the Way of Buddha or the Way of Shinto and believed in things, but organized religion was not defined until Japan started to copy the west.

Another interested point was that Japan was the only country where Buddhists had graves. The monk said that he thought it was to keep the dead people from coming back. The more important the person, the bigger the grave. ;-) Pema said that he thought Japanese funerals where everyone talked about the person while the monk was trying to send them on their way was rude since it probably made it difficult to go to the other side.

One other interesting piece of information was that Tibetan Buddhists don’t kill mosquitos. They blow them off their bodies. Also, Pema told us that he was less concerned at eating whale than small fish since each life is precious and one life to feed many is better than many lives to feed one...

Pictures from Koyasan.

March 2002

Jerusalem ( Update — Jews, whose troubled, 10,000-year term as God's "chosen people" finally expired last night, woke up this morning to find that they had once again been hand-picked by the Almighty. Synagogues across the globe declared a day of mourning.
Due to the absence of voluntary candidates, God's Law stipulated that the Almighty had to choose a people at random to serve out the next 10-millenia term. Elias Contreau, director of the International Interfaith Working Group, said he wasn't surprised it came to a blind drawing.

"According to the Bible, God promised to bless Abraham and those who came after him," said Contreau. "Who knows, maybe that sounded good at the time, or maybe 'blessed' meant something different back then, like 'Short periods of prosperity interrupted by insufferable friggin' chaos.' Whatever, I think it's safe to say that people didn't know what they were agreeing to."

Now they do, Contreau added, which he said explains why so many religions had lately been exalting God's existence, but downplaying their own.
In Jerusalem, Jewish leaders said they will propose an amendment to God's Law prohibiting a people from having to serve more than two consecutive terms. "Hopefully, G-d will hear our prayer," said Meyerson. "No, wait, that's what got us into this."

Americans, meanwhile, expressed outrage at the decision, saying they had assumed they were God's chosen people. However, explained Archbishop Carey, "It only seems that way because so many people don't like you."

This is from March, but I just found it...
For full story click on Satirewire link above.

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