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"The great Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published a book in 2007 called "Creation", subtitled An Appeal to Save Life on Earth," Sacks told leaders of all the major faiths meeting at Lambeth Palace in London on Thursday. (Photo: A partially dried reservoir in Yingtan, Jiangxi province, China, 29 Oct 2009/stringer)
"I thought that was a very good book. E.O. Wilson is known not to be religious, but what this book was was a call to religious people and scientists to call off the war between religion and science and work together for the sake of the future of life on earth.
"And I felt that was a very generous and appropriate call by a non-religious scientist."
The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. What are the odds that a religious leader will win? I checked with our bureau in Oslo for the latest buzz.
"The Peace Nobel is basically a guessing game," chief correspondent Wojciech Moskwa warned. A total of 205 individuals and organisations were nominated this year and a record number remained on the secret short list late last month, he learned in an interview with Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, French-Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do and various U.N. organisations have gained traction as possible nominees, but Lundestad firmly declined to comment on the speculation.
A government-backed mob in Vietnam about a week ago booted nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns out of a monastery in the centre of the country, bringing an apparent end to an ugly standoff with complicated origins. The incident has raised questions about the ruling Communist Party's commitment to progress on religious freedom, but the Bat Nha Monastery narrative is much more complex than simply an "authoritarian government cracks down on the faithful" story. (Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Non Nuoc pagoda north of Hanoi, 20 April 2007/Nguyen Huy Kham)
Some of the basic facts seem pretty straightforward. For nearly three years, the monks and nuns had lived at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, largely with the blessing of the local authorities via cooperation with local Buddhists, after their leader, the Vietnamese-born, French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, visited Vietnam in 2005 for the first time in 39 years. Last year, the local authorities started to put pressure on the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village school of Buddhism. In late June of this year, electricity, water and phone services to the monastery were cut and a mob attacked the group to try to evict them, but they refused to leave. In July, a smaller mob attempted another attack. The government set Sept. 2 as a deadline for them to leave, but that date came and went. Then, on Sunday, Sept 27, the group's overseas adherents reported that "an unidentified mob" of about 150 people, believed to include plain clothes policemen, violently evicted the 379 resident monastic followers of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Bhutan has warned its citizens over cutting down thousands of young trees every year to make prayer flags, a threat to the tiny kingdom's lush scenery and the government's duty to bring "Gross National Happiness".
Himalayan Buddhists put up prayer flags for good luck or to help the dead find the right path to their next life. The more flag poles put up for the departed the better, and Buddhist monks say fresh poles must be used each time.
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
By Matthew Weiner
Everyone has a September 11th story, especially those living in New York, and just about every religious community has a way of commemorating it. Most religious leaders include the topic in their weekly sermons. Others hold prayer services on the day itself. Do different religions do so differently?
Some book titles are too good to pass up. "How God Changes Your Brain" is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg's fourth book on "neurotheology," the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like "Born to Believe" or "Why God Won't Go Away." Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn't be "How God Meditation Changes Your Brain." As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.
That's not to say Newberg doesn't have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe -- the area that directs the mind's focus -- is especially active while the amygdala -- the area linked to fear reactions -- is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.
Neurotheology - the study of the link between belief and the brain - is a topic I've hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.
If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don't have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I'm attending a "Neuroscience Boot Camp" at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.
Given the popularity of glitzy television gameshows of all sorts, it was probably inevitable that some secular channel somewhere one would come up with one about religion. Turkey's Kanal T television station now has.
Its show, entitled "Penitents Compete," will bring together spiritual guides from Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism who try to convert a group of non-believers. Those who get religion win a pilgrimage to a holy site of the faith they've chosen -- Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.
More than five years after a Muslim insurgency erupted in southern Thailand, the conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.
On June 8, gunmen burst into a mosque and killed 10 people as they prayed. Thailand blamed separatist insurgents for the bloodiest attack this year in the mainly Muslim region bordering Malaysia where nearly 3,500 people have died in violence since 2004. But the head of the world's biggest Islamic body urged Thailand to protest its Muslim minority after local residents put the blame on military-backed elements.
They came, they prayed, they appealed.
Religious leaders from around the world held their own not-so-mini "G8 summit" in Italy on June 16-17. The "Fourth Summit of Religious Leaders on the occasion of the G8," as the meeting was officially called, started with a visit to L'Aquila, the central Italian city severely damaged by an earthquake on April 6. That will be the venue in July of the actual summit of the G8 club of industrial nations.