Monday, September 15, 2014

What is the Afterlife?

Saturday students: Frances, Shawn, Anthony, Yoyo.

My small Saturday class has impressed me again. I talked with them a bit about different cultures’ ideas of the afterlife--I mentioned Christian and Muslim ideas, Buddhist ideas, including reincarnation, and different ancient pagan ideas--then wrote their assignment on the board:
Do you believe you have a soul that will continue after death, or do you think you only have a physical body? Many people in the world, following different religions, believe there is some kind of afterlife; others believe that when we die we cease to exist. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, for this assignment I want you to imagine that you have died and discovered that in fact there is an afterlife.

It is now three hours after your death. What has been your experience during these three hours? Where are you now? Are you alone? Do you know anything about where you will be in the future?

You have twenty minutes to write.

These are the four versions of the afterlife they gave me.


Detail from Anthony's afterlife.

The Afterlife

I’ve been dead for three hours, my soul left my body and now I’m trying to figure out what to do next.

The last three hours might be the most painful time of my life. I didn’t want to stay beside my body and watch people crying for my death, so I decided to leave the hospital and take a last tour of the city.

Being bodiless is kind of convenient. I didn’t have to walk at all, I don’t have to pay attention to traffic lights, and I could get everywhere I wanted to go by only thinking about it.

I went to places where I had created lots of beautiful memories with friends and family. I thought about things I’d done in my life: what I did right and what I did wrong.

Later I was sitting in a park and an angel appeared. He said I would only have 24 hours to stay in the world, and also I could get into the dreams of people who still wanted to see me again. I could talk to them again and say goodbye for the last time. And then I will be in the heaven, living an afterlife.

So now I’m thinking, with 21 hours left, what is the thing that I should do? (And god damn it, why the hell did the angel only show up 3 hours after my death? He should show up immediately!)

by Shawn (莊崴翔)

The Afterlife

It is now three hours after my death. I can’t see anything that isn’t in darkness. I don’t know where I am. I think I am floating in the sky, higher and higher.

Abruptly, I feel a strong light. I am on the ground. I don’t know where it is. Then I see a house, not so far, so I go into it. When I walk in, I see many pictures of animals and insects, and there are some points under them. A man is using a computer near me.

“Where are we?” I say.

“Here you can choose what you want to be in your next life, but not everything. You did many good things in your life, so you have 1000 points, but you can’t choose the animals which are more than 1000 points like pandas.”

I chose human and thought: “I have to do more good things this time and I can be an animal which is better in my next life.”

by Yoyo (王佑淳)

The Afterlife

It is now three hours after my death. My soul is getting away from my body, and I can see that there’s a long tunnel leading toward me, with a shining light. I can’t see the end of the tunnel, and there’s no reason why I’m going straight down.

After a while, I take a train with no color, keep going in the tunnel. The train has many windows, but they seem like DVD players, playing my life, telling all the good or bad things to me. My tears keep bubbling up.

After my life has finished playing, the tunnel has ended too. I can’t control my body, and I can’t move, it feels like a large hand pressing me tightly onto the seat.

Suddenly a “god” appears in front of me. He speaks with a deep, deep voice, and shoots me with his dark, cold eyes, but I don’t have any fear. He tells me that because of my behavior during life I deserve to go to heaven, and he raises up his hands, just like magic, makes a big wave and leads me to heaven. I’m not happy, also not sad. I have no feelings now.

When I get to heaven, a lot of people who have died are welcoming me with their hands. Maybe this is my new home now. We can’t speak to each other, can’t smile, but our feelings strangely go right to each other. We enjoy the sunlight every day, and enjoy our afterlife.

by Frances (蔡詠淇)

The Afterlife

Now I’m in the “empty space”. There is nothing about “afterlife” exactly. After we die, we will come to the empty space and pass through it. Once we pass through, we appear in the “Eyeth”. Also, we forget everything from the “Earth”.

The Eyeth is a planet just like the Earth. People on both planets think there is a universe, but actually there isn’t. Nothing is outside the planets. The Eyeth is a world of magic as the Earth is a world of science. Every other thing is the same on both planets. However, depending on whether the planet is based on magic or science, some things will be opposite. For instance, novels and movies on both planets will be people’s imagination of the other planet.

Every time we come to the Eyeth or the Earth, we will be the same person as last time we came, but the environment will change. Sometimes it will be better, sometimes not. Maybe next time when I go to the Earth, the world will be at 2000 B.C. or 5000 A.D. Nobody knows.

While in the “empty spaces”, we see nothing, just emptiness, there is no other world to describe it. Getting through the empty space, you’ll remember something about yourself on the next world. After that, you’ll be on that planet.

Nobody, wrong, no soul knows why this is happening. Maybe some other more powerful race is controlling it, but no soul can understand.

by Anthony (黃聖翔)

Unfortunately, the very talented smart-ass Ryan (蔡睿敏) was absent this time, which was really too bad, because he often writes fascinating things. Next time, Ryan!

Ryan--getting ready to say something smart-assed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS' British Faithful

Listen to this London Muslim preacher. I think ISIS is on the verge of overplaying its hand.

And he's got it all wrong ideologically. The battle is not between those who believe in God and those who believe in man, but rather between those who believe their own narrow idea of God should control everyone (the jihadists) and those who believe a society is best when it allows different religions and different secular visions the freedom to co-exist (as long as they don’t harm each other).

Against the jihadists and fundamentalists, we need to stand with pluralism. And we may be having to stand tougher pretty soon. If these folks really want to attack the West directly, I think they will find the West capable of fighting back.

Although I'm usually critical of US bombing campaigns (and was critical of the Iraq war to begin with, which only managed to destabilize Iraq) I'm fully behind any military action of ours that may weaken ISIS. I suspect we're going to be dealing with the loyalists of this new "caliphate" for some time.

And how is London managing to deal with these people? I really do strongly suspect that if ISIS starts launching anything like sustained attacks in Europe, it's going to end badly for the millions of moderate European Muslims caught in the middle.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leonard Cohen: Staying Power

Cohen back in the day.

I’ve just begun a reread of my tattered copy of Beautiful Losers and notice here online that Leonard Cohen is bringing out a new album for his 80th birthday.

Cohen's tenacity is a wonder and gift to us. He has given so much: the ground he’s covered, the class and grace with which he’s covered it, there’s no one who compares.

In early celebration of the singer’s birthday, I’m posting some lines and videos. Not to be missed.


I. Cohen in a 1966 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Brilliant:

II. Performing “Hallelujah” in 2009:

III. Cohen’s poem “French and English” from the 1978 book Death of a Ladies Man:

I think you are fools to speak French
It is a language which invites the mind
to rebel against itself causing inflamed ideas
grotesque postures and a theoretical approach
to common body functions. It ordains the soul
in a tacky priesthood devoted to the salvation
of a failed erection. It is the language
of cancer as it annexes the spirit and
installs a tumor in every honeycomb
Between the rotten teeth of French are incubated
the pettiest notions of destiny and the shabbiest
versions of glory and the dreariest dogma of change
ever to pollute the simplicity of human action
French is a carnival mirror in which the
brachycephalic idiot is affirmed and encouraged
to compose a manifesto on the destruction of the sideshow

I think you are fools to speak English
I know what you are thinking when you speak English
You are thinking piggy English thoughts
you sterilized swine of a language that has no genitals
You are peepee and kaka and nothing else
and therefore the lovers die in all your songs
You can’t fool me you cradle of urine
where Jesus Christ was finally put to sleep
and even the bowels of Satan cannot find
a decent place to stink in your flat rhythms of ambition and disease
English, I know you, you are frightened by saliva
your adventure is the glass bricks of sociology
you are German with a license to kill

I hate you but it is not in English
I love you but it is not in French
I speak to the devil but it is not about your punishment
I speak to the table but it is not about your plan
I kneel between the legs of the moon
in a vehicle of perfect stuttering
and you dare to interview me on the matter
of your loathsome destinies
you poor boobies of the north
who have set out for heaven with your mouths on fire
Surrender now surrender to each other
your loveliest useless aspects
and live with me in this and other voices
like the wind harps you were meant to be
Come and sleep in the mother tongue
and be awakened by a virgin
(O dead-hearted turns of particular speech)
be awakened by a virgin
into a sovereign state of common grace

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Who are the Yazidi?

Iconic image of Yazidi angel Melek Taus.

Sadly we can now add genocide to the crimes committed by the radical Sunni movement ISIS. The news out of northern Iraq over recent weeks is heartbreaking in almost every respect, but for those who value religious pluralism the evidence that ISIS is doing its best to exterminate Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities is especially depressing.

According to most reports, Christian Iraqis are given the choice to convert on the spot to Sunni Islam or die. Either that, or they are killed outright without being given the choice of apostasy. For Yazidis, at least in most reports I have read, no choice is offered. The men are killed and the women and children (those deemed worth using at least) are taken as slaves. Some witnesses who’ve managed to escape speak of groups of Yazidis buried alive; at least one report speaks of a pregnant Yazidi woman having being cut open, her womb and unborn child yanked out of her.

As one Yazidi man put it: “These ISIS fighters cry out ‘God is great’, and then do such things. What kind of human beings are they?”

Indeed. It it were me writing the battle cry for ISIS, it would go: “God is great, but our version of Islam is greater!”

The concept of God, and of how God relates to humanity, has clearly gone haywire in this branch of Sunni Islam. ISIS brings not a return to the Islam of the Prophet Mohammed, but yet another modern utopianism run amok. We can add it to the list: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, Sunni Jihadism.

The crime of genocide against the Yazidi represents a special threat to our human religious inheritance because the Yazidi community is so small. Worldwide there are around 700,000 Yazidis, 93% of which live in the Iraqi province now under ISIS control.

The Yazidi religion is, according to most authorities, a syncretism of elements from Sufism and the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia. The creation story they subscribe to includes a first human named Adam, as with the other western monotheisms, but the importance they give angels, particularly the angel they call Melek Taus, puts them more in line with Zoroastrianism and even with ancient Gnosticism.

According to the Yazidi, God created the world and then put it under the command of seven angels, emanations from the Godhead, chief of which is Melek Taus, literally “the Peacock Angel”. That the Yazidi symbolize their chief angel with a peacock has led some to assert flippantly that the Yazidi “worship peacocks”--an explanation about as subtle as would be the assertion that Christians worship doves because the Holy Spirit is symbolized by that bird. The story of Melek Taus is a fascinating one; and, one would think, may have led the Yazidi to a uniquely nuanced understanding of authority.

When God created the first human, Adam, he asked the seven angels to bow down before the new creation. One of the seven, Melek Taus, refused.

“How can I bow to another being!” the angel said to God. “I am from your illumination [i.e., a direct emanation from the Godhead] while Adam is made of dust.”

God accepted this argument,and made Melek Taus leader of the other six angels.

The Yazidi, then, conceive of this highest angel as the power that rules directly over the world, their God being more removed, somewhat as in western Deism. What’s more, human good and ill fortune are meted out by Melek Taus according to his wisdom and will, and it is not proper for humans to question their lot. Good and evil are seen as inherent in every human heart, and individuals may choose one or the other. The Yazidi teach that we are to do as Melek Taus did, and choose the true and good.

Of course this is only a very rough sketch, but it gives some idea of the Yazidi belief system, how it is similar to yet different from what is found in the three Abrahamic religions.

Another striking difference is found in the Yazidi belief regarding their ancestral heritage. According to a tale in one of the two collections of Yazidi scripture, they are descended not from Adam and Eve, but from Adam alone. The story is told that a child was born of Adam from his seed stored in a jar, and when this child grew to adulthood he married an houri. The Yazidi are descendants of this “son of Jar” and the houri. It is presumably for this reason that the Yazidi forbid exogamy, i.e., marriage to someone who is not him- or herself a Yazidi. Likewise one cannot convert to Yazidism, as the religion is that of the people born in this lineage from Adam and the houri.

It is the Yazidi’s worship of Melek Taus, and the story of this angel’s refusal to bow to Adam, that has led their Muslim neighbors to characterize them as “worshippers of Satan”. In both the Christian story and in Islam, the angel Lucifer (or, in Islam, Iblis) refused to submit to God through pride, and was cast down from God’s presence--thus our image of Satan as fallen angel. The Yazidi story however is different, as Melek Taus does not refuse through pride, but through respect for the element of God in himself: in other words, through wisdom. In fact the Yazidi consider that the command to bow down to Adam was God’s way of testing the angels, and that Melek Taus is the only one to have passed the test.

Yazidi beliefs are known to outsiders largely through two texts compiled in the early 20th century: the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. These texts, which most scholars agree were not actually written by Yazidis, contain internal contradictions but have been judged to be generally accurate regarding main beliefs and customs.

Since the first appearance of the sect sometime in the Middle Ages, the Yazidi have been persecuted by their Muslim overlords. The current genocide being practiced by ISIS fanatics however poses a special threat to this faith community. Small Yazidi communities exist in Germany, Russia, Georgia, and Armenia, there is a community of several hundred in Lincoln, Nebraska in the US, but the vast majority of Yazidis are now being massacred and enslaved by the barbarians now overrunning northern Iraq.

President Obama’s decision to call for bombing raids in support of the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis against ISIS was overdue. Like many others, I believe our 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave miscalculation, and that much of the mayhem that has ensued there is a direct result of this initial major blunder. We should not have troops on the ground in Iraq forever, but we should do what we can to beat back the Sunni extremists who are now and always have been our real enemy. The Obama administration shouldn’t have let ISIS get as far as Mosul, much less to within striking reach of the Kurdish capital Erbil.

Eric Mader

FIVE LINKS (and how to help)

1. Check this article at CNN. In the upper left (at least at present) is a link to the full video report from CNN’s Ivan Watson, who accompanied a helicopter supply and rescue operation to Yazidis trapped atop Mt. Sinjar. One of the most striking pieces of video journalism I’ve seen in years.

2. Yazidis in America, thankful for the support they’ve gotten, nonetheless fear their Iraqi community has been left to fall through the cracks of US insistence on a “unified Iraq”. Voice of America reports.

3. Faced with news of what's happening to their family members in Iraq, Yazidis in Nebraska are paralyzed by guilt, reports the LA Times.

4. Son of Yazidi leader calls for British aid.

5. The Catholic organization Caritas: one of the legitimate and reliable ways to help Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities. I would offer more possibilities, but this is the only one I've been able to find that is already up and running in Kurdish territory.

Yazidi man with child in flight from ISIS genocide.

Saturday, August 16, 2014



A man on the sidewalk yelling at the designer sunglasses in the optical shop display window. And I find myself agreeing with him. “Yeah! Fuck those sunglasses! Who do they fucking think they are!” And the sunglasses just sitting there in rows, looking at us like they don’t even hear.

Things are getting out of hand.