FaithWorld

Buddhist Bhutan warns felling trees a threat to happiness

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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.

Having failed to convince its citizens to switch from wood to steel for prayer flags, the government of the Himalayas’ last Buddhist kingdom is growing bamboo, which it hopes will be an attractive alternative.

Read the whole story here. (Photo: Prayer flags in Thimphu, 23 Aug 2003/Kamal Kishore)

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How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome 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.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – 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.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

Matchmaking gets divine touch at Japanese shrine

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Rie Suzuki has exhausted most earthly means to find Mr. Right, so now she, and dozens of singles in Japan where marriage has recently gone out of fashion, are turning to the gods for help.

Forty-year-old Suzuki was one of 14 women and 14 men gathered on a recent Saturday at Imado shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s indigenous Shinto gods of marriage. Participants had varied backgrounds, but one common goal — to find a partner.

“We said it’s up to the gods now. If we go on as we have, we probably won’t ever meet anyone,” said Suzuki, who was attending the event that combines prayer with speed-dating.

Funeral may show if Michael Jackson converted to Islam

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One of the many rumours that swirled around Michael Jackson in the final years of his life was that he had secretly converted to Islam and taken the name Mikaeel. The “King of Pop” does not seem to have spoken about this publicly himself, and that scene in Bahrain when he went shopping badly disguised in an Arab woman’s abaya could be put down to his well-known penchant for dressing up. So unless there is some statement in his will or documentary evidence in his estate, his funeral expected this week may be the last time to test whether this rumour has any basis in fact. (Photo: Veiled Jackson greets security guard as he enters shopping mall in Manama, Bahrain with veiled child, 25 Jan 2006/Hamad Mohammed)

The Jacksons are Jehovah’s Witnesses and could be expected to bury Michael in the tradition of that faith. When he announced the death, his brother Jermaine — a Muslim — ended with the words: “May Allah be with you, Michael, always.” Jermaine said in 2007 he was trying to convince Michael to convert.

The post-mortem period hasn’t looked very Muslim so far. Traditions vary, but in Islamic funeral practices in general, autopsies and cremation are out and the body should be buried quickly, usually in a day or two. Jackson is reported to have asked for cremation in his will and his family has asked for a second autopsy after the first one failed to pinpoint the cause of death without long toxicology tests.

Americans mark National Day of Prayer

Americans who are so inclined are marking their National Day of Prayer on Thursday — and, as with any event that evokes church and state in this country, it is not without controvesy.

President Barack Obama, who is a practicing Christian, signed a proclamation to declare the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, but unlike his predecessor George W. Bush did not hold an official service at the White House.

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This has predicatably angered and disappointed some of the country’s leading conservative Christians.

No prayer against swine flu?

swine-flu-mass-1Jim Forsyth, our stringer in San Antonio, Texas, reports:

San Antonio has been hard hit by the swine flu, but if local Roman Catholics go to Mass to pray for deliverance from the disease, they may not get the relief they had hoped for. Archbishop Jose Gomez has issued a letter to priests in the archdiocese recommending they make changes in the Mass because of the swine flu outbreak.

“I am requesting that you offer Holy Communion under only one species, bread only,” Gomez told his priests. “Also, during the Lord’s Prayer, please suspend the holding of hands and the shaking of hands or embracing during the sign of peace.”

“Common sense would dictate that washing of hands by ministers and others who come in contact with people can be effective in preventing the spread of swine flu,” Gomez wrote.

Even statue masked at Mexican prayers against swine flu

Even the statue of Saint Jude, the patron said of desperate cases and lost causes, wore a mask at a service in Mexico City on Tuesday by Roman Catholics praying for help against the swine flu outbreak. Thanks to photographers Jorge Dan and Daniel Aguilar for these images:

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A parishioner wears a surgical mask as he carries a statue of Saint Jude, who he protected with a mask as well, during a pilgrimage outside the San Hipolito church in Mexico City on April 28, 2009/Jorge Dan

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Followers of Saint Jude pray outside church in Mexico City on April 28, 2009/Daniel Aguilar

GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

By Burton L. Visotzky

On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event). (Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)

Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

from Tales from the Trail:

Rhyming reverend gets last word at Obama inaugural

WASHINGTON - Rev. Joseph Lowery was back on stage with a president, but on Tuesday the civil-rights pioneer used his wry rhymes to welcome the U.S. leader, not skewer him as he did three years ago.  OBAMA

Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the benediction at Barack Obama's inauguration as first black U.S. president.

Lowery prayed for healing from a era of "greed and corruption," and asked, in verse, for divine help toward a new beginning of racial harmony: