Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hypocrite criticism, is it a valid reason to avoid religion?

a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs,principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess,especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.
a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approve attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.
Let me explain where am I coming from with this issue, I'm a practising Buddhist. Not a perfected Buddhist, not a very good Buddhist too, just someone who had read a lot about the teachings of the Buddha and decided to practise it to attain to enlightenment in this lifetime. In other words, I'm a Buddhist in training.
I proudly show the world that I'm a Buddhist too, which is rare, because most Buddhist I encounter in Singapore have no idea what the Buddha taught, some still believed in an omnipotent God, most have the misconception that Buddhists go to the temple just to pray to a statue and burn papers every year during the month of the "Hungry Ghost" festival. In other words, in Singapore most people who are ignorant about Buddhism thinks it's an outdated, ancient religion that is against Science and progress and everything that is cool.
The problem statement
So, it is to my frustration sometimes that after I explained Buddhism to my nominal Buddhist friends, thus they know about the benefits of learning the teachings of the Buddha, they pick and choose the behaviour of other Buddhists in training, thinking that, "You call yourself a Buddhist, why are you still acting like a ....(insert bad habits here)?"
It is true that those who preach should walk the talk, and that if Buddhism is so good, then everyone who's a Buddhist (or insert your own religion here) should be "better behaved" than those who are not exposed to Buddhism, or else why should I bother with it?
I am not denying the statements above, they are true in choosing which religion to believe and practise. Yet, I believe the kind of fault finding thinking gives rise to the phenomena of using hypocrisy as an excuse to avoid religion.
Another viewpoint
I tried to google it if someone else had the same feeling, and indeed someone has: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat/2012/06/using-hypocrisy-as-an-excuse-to-avoid-church.html.
The point of the article above is that everyone is a hypocrite and a sinner, but to use that as an excuse to avoid church is to miss out on the opportunity to "surround themselves with people who feel no guilt or remorse".
My point is a bit different, but along the same direction.
Buddhist morality code
In Buddhism, there's no such concept as sin, there is only skillful actions and unskillful actions. Skillful actions are those which brings benefits and happiness to you and others. Unskillful ones are those which brings suffering to oneself or others. There can be a mixture of both skillful and unskillful actions too. The Buddha pointed out certain actions as skillful and certain actions which are unskillful and asked his followers to investigate for themselves instead of just believing. For example, the five precepts for lay followers of Buddhism are a list of five unskillful actions to avoid.
They are self-training rules which is undertaken by oneself only after one understands the benefits of observing the precepts and decide to live up to it for the rest of their lives. The precepts are:
  1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life. (Includes animals, but not plants)
  2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking that is not given.
  3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
  5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking intoxicants. (Alcohol and drugs)
The bad effects of breaking the first four training rules are obvious (generally, people/animals will not like you) and the fifth one is for one to not lose mindfulness. It is because in the state of heedlessness, one may break the first four precepts easily. If you observe the five precepts, generally the big misfortunes of life will not fall unto you (at least you will not become a criminal and face criminal punishment).
A Buddhist who observes the five precepts successfully is considered a good Buddhist. A Buddhist who undertakes the precepts and try to live up to it, is a Buddhist in training. I say "Buddhist" here because the precepts can be observed by anyone of any faith or non-faith, it is a personal training rule, not an agreement with the Buddha or me. Despite knowing the benefits, a lot of Buddhists hesitate to take up the precepts because they think they cannot live up to all of them. Some (wrongly) think that the first precept means being a vegan! See more here. So good news people, you don't need to be a vegan to practise the teachings of the Buddha (the Dhamma). Ok, the point is that people mistake that they must be a good Buddhist before they can be a Buddhist in training. Or in secular terms,

People think that they must be good first before having a religion. 

Back to the title
This thinking exist because people are afraid to be labelled as a hypocrite once they publicly announced themselves as someone with religious belief. Don't laugh at this, it is real. Let's recall if you can think of someone in your life who behave like they can be as "bad" as they want to be because they do not admit to be a holier-than-thou religious person. To religious people, they seem to want to attack friends who wants to guide them to a happier way of life, especially at religious people. 
So, to avoid being a hypocrite, some people are missing a chance to learn many good guidelines on how to be a happier person. Now I'm not saying that religion is the only way to be good or happy, but merely that certain teachings inside religions are worth learning from and practising. It is sad to see non-religious (at least non-Buddhist) people missing out on learning these self-help techniques that would otherwise have vast improvement on their lives just because they are being afraid to be called a hypocrite.
The valid reason?
Let's examine this notion further shall we? If we must be good before having a religion, then what's the point of a religion? Is it not to guide people to be good? Of course we do not expect everyone to be perfect, to people who practises their own religion, we see non-religious persons are missing out on "how to be a better or even perfect person" according to each of our religious ideals. Almost everyone who starts off at the beginning of their own practise have some faults or weaknesses, then gradual transformation occurs where they undertake trainings to be a happier person who benefits oneself and the society more and more. Finally, when a person is so touched and feels such wonderful benefits from practising their own religion, they come to the state where they want to share with the world what wonderful teachings there are that is hidden under the increasingly ugly title of "religion". 
At that point, the person sharing may not yet be perfect. They may proudly present themselves as of a certain religion, but they may not yet finish the training before sharing. It is this part that the criticism of you should walk the talk before preaching becomes valid. Yet, in Buddhist terms, this means only an enlightened person can share the teachings of the Buddha, because he/she had practised it to the end and verified for him/herself that the teachings does lead to the ultimate end of all suffering. This is of course an ideal, yet if we do not have our parents, teachers and other friends who help remind us, to guide us in the Dhamma, the number of Buddhist would be vastly smaller and the enlightened ones would be overtaxed in teaching.
A compromise
So there is an inherent understanding of compromise here. There are many religious teachers, sharers out in the world who had not yet perfected themselves in everything that they preach or share. Yet, it is tolerated because of the messages that they bring is wholesome, their intentions are good, regardless of whether the people they are sharing to adhere to the same opinion. In this sense, I do not find that the argument that "to avoid being a hypocrite, I shall not join in this religion, I shall not even give it a chance to share with me what is good" to be valid.  
Of course, for those who agree with me, this is not a ticket for preachers of their own religion to do stuffs againsts their own teachings. As a friend of mine said, be contented with the results, but not with the effort. Whatever state of moral progression you are on, it is ok, there is no need to feel guilt or remorse (which often worsen the situation). If you do feel guilt, it is ok to feel it too, don't feel guilty of feeling guilty. What really prevents us from committing unskillful actions are moral shame and moral dread.  Moral shame (or  conscience) arises out of self respect, and moral dread arises out of respect for others, both has the function of avoiding unskillful actions that causes harm to oneself or others. So the effort to keep on striving to avoid evil and do good is always present. Thus, as long as you are not contented with the effort, you need not fear of the criticism of being a hypocrite. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


This is the post from my blog introducing the Special Programme in Science (SPS) in National University of Singapore (NUS). This post is mainly intended for those who are potentially interested in applying to NUS to do a science major under the Science faculty. Also this can serve as an informal advertisement and encouragement to apply for the programme (not that it needs this ad), and guidance to newbies in SPS and also for existing and past SPS members to appreciate should they want to, but they don't need to.

SPS as you can gather from the website, http://sps.nus.edu.sg/ is a multidisciplinary science and research programme, intended to cultivate undergraduates so that they would eventually have an leaning towards becoming a scientist. SPS has a room, and accepts about 40 students per batch, from the first year Science students, Pharmacy and Food Science people excluded due to their busy schedule. The views from below are based on my personal perspective, and ultimate accuracy has to be from the (other) people in SPS itself and the official website.

So here's what I heard: SPS was back from 1996 or so, where there was the talent development programme (TDP) for almost every faculty. Those TDP eventually merge to become USP, while the science one remained independent and changed its name to SPS. The current SPS room, a very spacious place where its students hang out used to be much more spacious but undergone a renovation in 2009 where it was partitioned into the library and seminar room area and has 4 long tables complete with sockets for the students to sit and study. The Library has mostly science books so that SPS people doesn't have to compete for the books with others at the Science Library (I use the Science Library more often). There's also a printer which is specially for SPS students to print for free (toner limited, once per month) but mainly for SPS related stuffs. The students has to provide their own paper and are asked to be considerate in using it. Personally I think it's a waste of paper to print lecture notes, and a waste of ink if it is printed with the SPS printer.

SPS syllabus also underwent changes in 2010, where an integrated science programme with multidisciplinary themes are introduced for the students to take. They are: Atoms to Molecules, The Cell, The Earth, and The Universe. Adding in 2 other modules that focuses on research, SPS now has 6 modules for the first 2 years of the students. Previously, we only had 5 modules, one per semester, and it is almost completely student run. Now, there are dedicated lecturers for each of the 4 modules they learn. From Atoms to molecules, they learn about Quantum Physics to a bit of Chemistry and nanoscience, The Cell has the most Life Science content but information theory and Physics are present too, The Earth produced this: https://sites.google.com/a/sps.nus.edu.sg/the_earth/, The Universe has Astronomy to Cosmology in it.

The structure of SPS is that it is headed by SPS Director Dr. Adrian Lee, assisted by Assistant Director, Andreas Dewanto, and 4 staff mentors for each of the integrated Science modules, then the head mentors (usually 3) headed by the year 4 students. There are graduate mentors, consisting of graduate students, student mentors, the year 4 students, and the junior mentors (usually the year 3 students). By looking at the alumni page, almost half of the people http://sps.nus.edu.sg/wiki/SPS_Alumni_in_Academia/Industry are in research after graduation.

Literature review
The research modules are intended as an introduction to the world of research at an earlier opportunity with guidance. For the first semester, the students figure out what area of research they are interested in and write a proposal for literature review for the next semester. The second semester is where the students read up on the papers available on the particular research topic that they are interested in. This can include pure physics projects like time travel, to multidisciplinary projects like the nanomachines to deliver drugs in biological systems. The papers reading are meant to familiarize the future researchers on what's out there and what's known before venturing into the unknown. As such, there is no need for hypothesis in the literature review proposal, as the students wouldn't have enough knowledge on what is there to research on before doing the literature review. (SPS first year students, please take note.) At the end of the literature review, the students are to present their review in a report no longer than 30 pages, a congress presentation where they train their presentation skills and a viva where the mentors question them about their work in detail (some viva can last upto 3 hours). Working in a group of 3 (or 2, I recommend working in 3) the students are also guided by their mentors who are the 3-4 year students and the graduate students who had previously experienced the same structure before. Thus, SPS students have their first opportunity to do research in SPS in a friendly, caring, guided environment. The other students in Science may experience their first research in University in UROPS or Honours project, both of which SPS students are encouraged to take up too after they finish their SPS research project.

The third semester is their SPS research project, they are to seek out a staff mentor (a professor, lecturer etc) and asked for some guidance in doing reasonable work within a semester. They still have the student mentors with them and while most choose to continue on the literature review topic, it is possible to completely change the research project into another topic. Also the grouping of three people would reevaluate their ability to teamwork and then decide if they are to continue for one more semester or split up and choose another group (if there are other groups who are willing to split up too.) It was at this juncture that my group decided to stick together, and now I have two very special people in Physics that I kinda always feel like a good close friend to even after so many years. The research component is doing something, for the life scientists, chemists and experimental physicists, most of them are out in the Lab, for the computational and theoretical physicists, we have our computer, pencil, paper, and brain. They deliver their research in a report no longer than 30 pages, a congress presentation where they train their presentation skills, posters in which they summarize their work for a semester in a page and a viva where the mentors question them about their work in detail. If the research is good enough, it may even get published in a scientific journal. It's rare that this happens, so don't worry about it and just have fun doing your first research.

Next I want to talk about the people in SPS, by majors. Most of the batches after mine has been Life Science dominated, with over 50% of them, followed by Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. The rest of the major are as rare as Mathematics, or more common. The female to male gender ratio is quite balanced, at least initially, with a tendency to have more boys than girls. It's not that there's a quota for the majors, it's more of the ratio of the people who applied, and the people we think are suitable for SPS makes it like this. So if (a lot of) you're reading this and want to go into Physics in NUS and especially if you are a female (you're a rare type now), do apply for SPS. The same goes for the rarer majors. This is not a discouragement for Life Science people, if you really think you're made for SPS, by all means apply regardless of your major (precludes Pharmacy and Food Science and Technology majors as mentioned above) and gender. Also when you go for your interview, do make sure you be yourself and do not pretend. What we want are people with the right attitude towards science and research. So if you are very averse to Physics or Life Science, SPS might not be the right programme for you.

SPS has a lot of unique personalities. I shall focus on the more weird ones as I was one of them. There's people who say hi to every newbie (guess who), there's people who... ok it's really hard to describe personalities of people without making it into a novel or offending some people. Oh well, there are people who talk to themselves, out loud, who study non-stop as if life is for study (I call them the human study machines), who play a lot (now I'm one of them, but people would say I'm always one of them), who have all sorts of weird behaviour, not understanding cultural norms... Ok wait, I should just say, there are Seldon-like people in SPS, but the % of population is not so big, mainly just me (last time I was much weirder). As long as you got the right attitude, the personality is secondary. However, we do learn our social norms and
mature along in SPS. Or else....

More personal stuffs...
Well, I was stopped from becoming a junior mentor in my whole of year 3 because of some perceived irresponsibility and my reputation to be weird (wherein I was just pretending to be weird). It was the single most hurtful event in SPS that I had experienced. Eventually, I managed to convince the people in power to give me the mentorship thing in my year 4 (it's a position of quite heavy respectable power I learned) as I behaved more normally and showed responsibility and passion by mentoring groups for free as an unofficial mentor for a year. So mentors, appreciate your positions. As far as I am aware of, I was the only one they tried to prevent to become a mentor, although I can see some other people who does not have the right attitude to become mentors as well, I dunno things that happen behind the scenes. Now I still come back to help out for things like junior mentors training and even helped to become one of the unofficial mentors (I'm not a grad student) of a lit review group in Physics.

So mentors, what do they do? In all of the integrated science modules, the mentors are there to help the lecturers out and to explain stuffs to the students. If the mentors doesn't know the stuffs, they can at least refer the students to someone who knows. For the literature review modules, the roles of the mentors are the most crucial in helping the students read and select the suitable paper and direction for the literature review process. The mentors also help out in teaching the students how to do a nice proper scientific presentation, poster, do the viva, read and mark the reports, interview the incoming batch of students, train the next batch of junior mentors, all sorts of stuffs! The head mentors especially are tasked with the coordination and detailed managing of the SPS academic stuffs.

Annual events
Knowing and seeing just how much the mentors work (they are paid) and pay the learning forward to the juniors, there is this annual event called the Mentors Appreciation Night at the end of the second semesters in Uni. There, awards like the most.... mentors are given out and each group can prepare something as a token of appreciation to their mentors. This is one of the few events that is organised by the SPS committee. The other two more prominent annual activity are: The Newbie Orientation Camp, NOC at the weekend of week 1, and the Dean's Tea around week 10 of the first semester. The NOC is filled with fun games and is meant to let the newbies to get to know each other and their seniors in SPS before all the hard work really starts. And the Dean's Tea is where SPS students who had finished the curriculum are given their certificates. Both of these events feature performances by the newbies and good free food!

SPS committee and seats
The people behind these events are the SPS committee, typically elected in their year 1 second semester and last for one term, the committee is responsible for most of the other non-academic stuffs around SPS. For example, the logistic team is responsible for making sure the SPS room is clean. The system in place now is that there is a spring cleaning every semester during the holidays and people who participate in it get to choose a permanent seat for one semester at three of the four tables in SPS. The remaining table is free seating. Those who has a permanent seat typically comes to SPS more often and leave books and stuffs on their desks, but also has to help in the regular duty roster in cleaning.

Finally, I shall come to the very unofficial part of this article. Or the officially unofficial part. The subcultures in SPS. Disclaimer: I'm just saying what happens here, please don't apply to SPS because of these subculture, which are liable to change depending if there are people in each generation to live them. Apply to SPS because of the academic reasons.

Board and Card Games
Bridge was one of the most enduring culture in SPS. 4 person, late night or after dinner, or just during lunch time, people gather around and have a pack of cards to start on the Singaporean culture of bridge game. This is only part of the larger culture (with less people playing) of board and card games. Bang used to be a favourite, as well as various non-traditional board games like Settlers of Catan, Small world, 7 wonders, Citadels, The new science, etc.... to many to be listed. Also card games like Dominion, Magic the Gathering and others... There are of course traditional games as well, like monopoly, chess, risk, etc... lately traditional pen and paper RPG is getting some people in SPS to engage in them.

Video Games
The next category is the video game culture, specifically the people who owns a Nintendo 3DS. The Streetpass functionality plus SPS room means the more people in this subculture, the more fun it is! And quite a number of people are planning to play Pokemon X or Y soon!

Of course there's the study culture too, the Human Study Machines. Especially amongst the people who take the France Double Degree Programme (FDDP), the most prestigious programme you can take in NUS academically that will send you to the best school in France to learn cool Mathematics and Physics in French. It is very hard to be in SPS and the FDDP at the same time, but there are a few of these brave people in SPS, not every year but those who do take it do really think that life=study. Well, for the most part, they also participate in the bridge culture.

Staying over
SPS is kind to its members, so that if they study late at night until there's no more transportation back home (even for those who stay in campus), they can stay over in SPS until the next dawn and so on.... So, yes SPS is open 24/7 and only its members can access the room and the number of people staying over usually peaks the night before the final report is due or congress presentation. While it is all cool to fall asleep at your desk and in front of your laptop, it is better to sleep on the sofas, the ledge inside the library or just three chairs clumped together. Usually the number of people who stay over often then and again are just those familiar few, and those who do stay over (especially the FDDP people) stay so often that I call them the SPS PR (permanent resident), which I am one of them.

Free Food
Every so often at night when we stay over, we feel the pangs of hunger, and we are always grateful to the extra free food that is available. Having a Fridge in SPS helps too as well as the strategic location of SPS being just beside LT31 where lunch time events with buffets are frequently held. Other than that, there are many events of SPS that provides free food for its own members, including the annual events stated above and the congress where the students present from morning until late afternoon. There is an important ethics in going for free food events that are not SPS's own one, that is to wait until the people to whom the food is for has finished taking their share and the food that's left is going to the trash if not taken. Thus the important job of scavenging for food and finishing them falls upon the people in SPS. Free Food!

And last but not least, there is a tendency for couples to form in SPS. Of course, in a close knit community with a room to hang out in in between lectures, close friendships can often progress further on. One important thing to note is that it is not possible for mentors to have a boy-girl relationship with the first or second year students. If such cases do happen, they will have to not be a mentor until the student finishes SPS, or the relationship fizzles. This they made clear to the mentors, and I put it here to tell the first and second year students not to begin your relationship with a mentor, should you happen to fall in love with one, until you can (at least third year), unless the mentor is willing to give up the role...

Ok I had covered almost every important aspect of SPS and why it is worth to come to NUS to study Science just to get into the programme. Maybe a final point to make is that the students in SPS are not elitist society in the sense that we don't feel that we are more entitled to stuffs (only the SPS room, and scavenging the free food) more than the rest of the science faculty... We are still humble students, and the few (and not many) of the SPS members who scored and maintain a perfect CAP would had done so anyway even if they are not in the programme. Or vice-versa. Well, I hope this lets you guys from outside of SPS to get to know what's really behind that mysterious wooden door beside LT 31 that spawns scavengers.