Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Empty of what?

One of the more difficult concepts in Buddhism - one of the most fundamental as well as perhaps the most widely misunderstood - is rendered in English as emptiness. In Zen it is taught with the Japanese word Ku. Many people misunderstand emptiness as complete non-existence. When I first came across this idea as an undergraduate, I imagined it was teaching that the phenomenal world was a sort of hologram hiding a sort of vast, cosmic nothingness. The term is sometimes translated as void, or worse The Void, which doesn't help. The word in English also has negative connotations implying a destitution of meaning or value or feeling. Is it any wonder that people think Buddhism is nihilistic? Is this misunderstanding of emptiness just a problem of its translation into English?

The concept that is rendered as Ku in Japanese derives from the Chinese Wu , which comes from Sunyata (Sanskrit), which in turn comes from Sunnata (Pali). The adjective in Pali is Sunna (empty). Have we lost the meaning in this game of Chinese whispers? Sunnata has the same connotation of ordinary physical emptiness in Pali as emptiness has in English - and it was sometimes misunderstood in similar ways. Confusion about the meaning was common even in the time of Buddha it appears and Buddhism has at times been accused of nihilism through much of its history. But in 'Dhamma language' emptiness doesn't mean total nonexistence, or nihilism. It means something quite specific, which can be expressed in positive as well as negative terms, but which is an experience that is beyond words and even concepts. It is the transcendence of the narrow identification of self to an egoless experience of reality without borders, the experience of samadhi - the non-dualistic state of consciousness seen as a pre-cursor to Nirvana.

Originally Sunna referred directly to the anatta (no self-nature) doctrine.

According to orthodox religious and philosophical thought at the time Buddha lived, each and every living being had its own unchanging 'soul' or essence - the atman - which was or became unified with the cosmic Atman (according to some the same as Brahman) on enlightenment. Buddha was contradicting this doctrine - anatta/anatman was a denial of atta/ atman - and sunna was an expression of this. It wasn't a denial of mind or consciousness or the sense of self, it was a denial of a real, enduring, independent, self-existent essence or soul.

In the Suñña Sutta, Ananda asks the Buddha, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."

So, emptiness is not total nonexistence, but refers specifically to the absence of an atman - an ultimately real self, essence or identity. And describes reality in terms of interdependence rather than self-standing existences. But what relevance does this have to non-Brahmanists and non-metaphysicians?

Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities. The identities of things in the world are conventions of the human mind and society. We project these perceived identities outwards onto the universe itself, as if the universe really was divided up into discreet and abiding objects. At best, we see these 'things' as having changing relationships and properties, but nevertheless, an enduring identity. Buddhism teaches that the notion of entities is nominal or conventional. It is a necessary feature of thought and language that we treat identifiable aspects of reality as if they have a continuous existence - even if we acknowledge that this existence is characterised by change. Many computer programming languages are said to be 'object orientated' in the sense that they handle data in terms of identities or objects which have certain properties at any given time. The way that human beings think is remarkably similar to this in some ways. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, we confuse conventional reality with ultimate reality - that is, we confuse the nominal with the actual. No doubt it is a functional, pragmatic way to deal with information, but not a true reflection of reality, which as modern physics tells us, is a seamless and deeply interdependent flux - an evolving matrix of processes within processes. According to Buddhism it is this disparity between out attachment to the notion of enduring entities and the transience of reality, which causes the suffering that we experience from day to day.

Why do the original teachings emphasise this negative description, in terms of absence? It was framed in this way, to respond to the eternalist atman doctrine while perhaps minimising the chance of being interpreted as a new set of statements about the essence of reality. The power of this tendency to reify reality - to project our concepts of identity as if they existed externally - means that we may see even a teaching of inter-dependence in terms of a network of relationships between entities, when really it is only the mind that creates the existence of any entities or even relationships - reality is a seamless - and ultimately indescribable - whole. This is why, to avid nihilistic misunderstandings, some modern teachers describe emptiness in terms of openness or fullness - because phenomena are empty of that which would separate or confine them - a self-existent identity or essence.

Buddha taught that all phenomena are characterised by three qualities - the Three Marks of Existence:
Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.

Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)

Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) impersonality, or non-Self. The human personality, "soul", or Self, is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.
These characteristics are inter-dependent: it is because things lack an independent essence, that they are in a constant state of change; it is because we hold onto the changing aspects of reality as if they had a continuous existence that they are unsatisfactory for us. Emptiness is really just the same as interdependence or dependent origination, and some of the clearest accounts I've come across explain it in these terms. Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Heart Sutra (which I recommend) describes it using his own terminology of 'inter-being'.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper...So we can say that the cloud and the paper 'inter-are.' We cannot just be by ourselves alone; we have to inter-be with every other thing.
A class of Mahayana sutras called the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras developed this concept of emptiness. The earliest is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which is chanted in a shortened form in Zen dojos as the Heart sutra. It includes a number of quite enigmatic lines on emptiness:
"Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty."

"Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase."
Emptiness is that which is beyond dualities - it is raw reality, prior to conceptualisation and language. It is not to be seen as another concept, set in opposition to phenomena such as form (matter), sensation, perception, mentality, or consciousness. Reality is not separate from appearance. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this beautifully as follows:
Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.
Probably the second most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself was Nagarjuna who, at the time that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging, developed the concept of Sunyata with a thorough and extensive philosophy of negation - the best known exposition of his thought is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Key features of this teaching are:
  • The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness of all things (i.e., all things, including the Buddha, have no inherent existence)
  • The identity of pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) with śunyatā
  • The indifferentiability of nirvāṇa from saṃsāra
  • The tentative or merely conventional nature of all truth
The former is expressed in terms of the 'emptiness of emptiness':
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
One of the problems with philosophies based (for teaching purposes) on negation, such as anatta, sunna and to an even greater extent the work of Middle Path philosophers such as Nagarjuna, is that it is easily interpreted as nihilism. Many people misinterpret these ideas as a denial of reality. But Nagarjuna's philosophy is not nihilistic, it is negative to avoid all attachment to concepts, all reification. But really it is indicating through denial and silence, that which is beyond language and concepts. It is intended to negate attachment to concepts in order to see through them to reality. He has prompted comparison with the (equally misunderstood) 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A group of Mahayana sutras referred to as the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Womb) Sutras teach that there is a permanent, unchanging essence within each being. The term Tathagatagarbha can be variously translated as 'Buddha Womb', 'Buddha Embryo' etc, and is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with Buddha Nature. It may have arisen as a result of Hindu/Brahmanist influences since it arose during a Hindu revival in India. These sutras are in agreement that the Tathagatagarbha is an undefiled, eternal essence within all beings. It is presented as an antidote to a false, nihilistic understanding of emptiness. But, as I have already argued, to see these doctrines as nihilism is to totally (yet understandably) misunderstand them. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists adhere to this view literally. However such an interpretation seems essentially indistinguishable from the Vedic/Brahminist teachings of Atman that Buddhism rose out of and broke away from. Others see such interpretation as being in contradiction to the principles of anatman and sunyata. To me, this raises the question of why, if Buddha was essentially in agreement with the Brahminists, he felt any need to debate with them and to give radical, innovative teachings which directly contradicted them. Buddha rejected eternalism as well as annihilationism. How does this interpretation differ from eternalism? Is this not just another attempt to cling to atman, to imagined permanence? Another reification of concepts? How do we reconcile this with the rest of Buddhist philosophy?

Could it be that the authors of these sutras (which were of course attributed to Buddha, but which did not appear until several centuries after his death) had misunderstood such doctrines as Anatta, Sunyata and Madhyamaka philosophy as nihilism? Or perhaps they were creating an antidote to the popular misunderstanding of such teachings as nihilism - redressing the balance by teaching emptiness in positive terms.

In one of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, it is explained that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is a teaching method:
Then Mahamati said to the Blessed One: In the Scriptures mention is made of the Womb of Tathágata-hood and it is taught that that which is born of it is by nature bright and pure, originally unspotted and endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence. As it is described it is a precious gem but wrapped in a dirty garment soiled by greed, anger, folly and false-imagination. We are taught that this Buddha-nature immanent in everyone is eternal, unchanging, and auspicious. It is not this, which is born of the Womb of Tathágata-hood the same as the soul-substance that is taught by the philosophers? The Divine Atman as taught by them is also claimed to be eternal, inscrutable, unchanging, and imperishable. Is there, or is there not a difference?

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the Divine Atman as taught by the philosophers. What I teach is Tathágata-hood in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unborn-ness, unqualified ness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathágata-hood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of ego-less-ness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imageless-ness. The religious teaching of the Tathágatas are just like a potter making various vessels by his own skill of hand with the aid of rod, water and thread, out of the one mass of clay, so the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness in order to remove the last trace of discrimination that is preventing disciples from attaining a self-realization of Noble Wisdom. The doctrine of the Tathágata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of "soul" as being something self-existent may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment. All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind. No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.
Note the phrase 'the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness'. In what sense is the ego-less-ness twofold? I propose that it is twofold through both negative expression (anatta, sunyata) and positive expression (Tathagatagarbha, dependent origination).

In his article The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata' Heng-Ching Shih expresses the same argument in detail.
In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? ...It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'.
There is a passage in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra' in which Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It reads:
Good son, Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness ,which is 'prajna' itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and non-self. What is empty is 'samsara' and what is not empty is great 'nirvana' ... Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.
Heng-Ching Shih explains this as follows:
The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony [between] being and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both encompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.
Interpreting the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as soteriological - as a teaching device - rather than as theoretical and literal in this way, we can resolve an apparent conflict into a teaching which is harmonious with the rest of Buddhist philosophy.

As with Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching of emptiness, we have another, relatively easy to understand, positive expression of the core teaching of Buddhism. And again we have the danger of literalism and reification - an even greater danger in this case due to the ambiguity of the texts and the ease with which they can be seen as metaphysics. The key, I believe, is to see all of these teachings as just that - to walk a Middle Path, avoiding literalism, clinging to no particular articulation, positive or negative, but instead letting go of all attachment to concepts and language and instead being open to reality itself without such 'mediation'. All good Buddhist teachings are knowingly pragmatic and soteriological, in my opinion.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2007. Image copyright Rein Nomm.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Itch As Glitch: Deconstructing Externality and Sensation

Any meditator will undoubtedly be very familiar with our old friend, the itch. While I think the connections between scientific discoveries and Buddhist beliefs can be over-emphasised, in this article, taking uncontrollable itching as a starting point, Atul Gawande looks at the new light being thrown on the relationship between external objects, sensation, and consciousness.

Scientific developments are challenging what Gawande calls the ‘naïve view’ – that we perceive the world directly, that sensations transmitted by objects are ‘picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.’ Rather, he argues on the basis of this research, the mind is not so much decoding sensations, as constructing objects from signals, signals which are ‘radically impoverished’ compared with our experience of embodiment. On this view, perception, rather than being a response to external stimuli, is in fact the brain’s ‘best guess,’ or inference, about what’s ‘happening out there.’ Phenomena like phantom limb pain, or itching in places with no nerve endings, are what happens when the best guess happens to be wrong; and thus a solution might be possible if that guess can be adjusted – in the case of phantom limbs, by ‘mirror therapy’ through which patients appear to themselves to possess the missing limb.

What’s interesting about this from a Buddhist perspective, it seems to me, is that it dovetails with the teaching that our impression of our own embodied objectivity, and hence our whole concept of the ‘reality’ we inhabit, is illusory, and that in normal everyday life we do not have access to unmediated experience (indeed, this would suggest that there can be no such thing as unmediated experience, only the experience of experience as mediated – though the nature of meditative insights is not a subject on which I’d claim any authority from experience whatsoever). It seems to me (from my limited knowledge) that there’s a particular affinity here with Yogacara perspectives on cognition as constitutive of a (supposed) reality external to consciousness. The mind not only imposes particular constructions on objectively-experienced sensation as a result of contact with objectively-existing, separate external objects; all those sensations and separate objects exist as they are experienced only as a result of being constructed mind-objects, or dharmas.

As well as giving a new approach to problems like those mentioned above, this perspective on consciousness might also relate to new practices in dealing with pain. Rather than distraction - an older technique - Gawande notes that people with chronic pain are now often advised to ‘work through’ the pain, giving the body a chance to ‘reset’ pain sensors. Though it’s not mentioned in the article, there’s some fascinating work out there on mindfulness as a method of long-term pain management, which would seem to bear definite similarities.

I wouldn’t want in any way to diminish through comparison the agony people experience when dealing with these kinds of medical problems. But there is something fundamental here about the fact that our suffering can be our own creation, and that we may not be conscious of this, or, if we are, this intellectual understanding in itself does not serve to mitigate that suffering. Sakyamuni is often understood as a physician, and in identifying ‘everyday life’ itself as dukkha, we might ask what treatment we could use to help readjust our fundamentally faulty understanding – which brings us full circle, away from these abstracted intellectual meanderings and back to the cushion…

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


I was wondering the other day on The Buddha Diaries about healing. The proximate cause was a sit, last Sunday, during which my attention had wandered continually to a friend who is currently fighting a battle with cancer, and the practice of metta, sending goodwill and wishes for her happiness, seemed somehow... inadequate, let's say, to her predicament. My thoughts turned to my father, an Anglican priest, who in his lifetime believed in the laying-on of hands and who practiced it himself with some success. Also to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen which, as I understand it, is a use of the breath to draw out toxins and replace them with healthy energies. I asked our sangha's teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, about Buddhist healing practices, and--much as I expected--heard that in his (Thai Forest) tradition, it's largely a matter of metta. I would be interested to hear from others what their experience or practice is when it comes to healing. Is there such a thing as a Buddhist "miracle"?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Society Without God: a review

(note: this is quite a bit more lengthy than a typical blog post)

In today’s rapidly evolving religious climate, few studies have been made of secularity in the modern world. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist from California, brings us Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment to help fill that void. It is an ambitious project, blending personal stories and sociological data gathering, as well as historical, political and theological insights. For those of us in America who can feel that our country is a bit (religiously) strange, but can’t quite put our finger on how and why, this is the perfect book. It is, indeed, an apology for secularism, showing how it is woven into the wonderful societies of Denmark and Sweden. For readers of Progressive Buddhism, we find questions of “Cultural Religion,” discussions of issues such as belonging vs. believing, and perhaps some hints at where we as individuals as well as Buddhism as a whole will fit in to the above-mentioned rapidly changing religious climate.
There have been two noteworthy trends in our society of late. The first is the rise in somewhat hokey movies (Signs, Henry Pool is Here) and some not-so-hokey ones (The Passion of the Christ) trying to convince us of the existence of God or miracles. And the second is the recent boom in psychology, popular writing, and even philosophy, trying to describe and teach us the so-called science of happiness, the art of happiness, or (one of my favorites) the accident of Stumbling on Happiness.

It has become commonplace in America to equate religiosity with happiness, with some even pointing to social and sociological studies suggesting the greater contentment of believers. Atheists (and often Buddhists by implication), now as much as ever, have quite a challenge in modern American society. In one scene in Henry Pool is Here, a movie I only watched because it was shown on a plane, two of Henry’s nosy neighbors are talking about him and one says (I paraphrase), “he seems so unhappy,” to which the other replies, “well, no wonder, he is an atheist.”

It is perfectly acceptable or perhaps even common sense, it seems, to connect atheism and unhappiness. As a Buddhist (and atheistic), this is not only ignorant, but offensive. It is an assumption based only on prejudice. What if they had observed instead that he seems angry: “well, no wonder, he is a Muslim” or wealthy: “well, no wonder, he is a Jew.”? Attacks on atheists seem to slip through the cracks in our society, perhaps simply because they are so widespread. Indeed, Zuckerman recounts the vitriol spewed by a half-dozen media pundits and religious leaders from Bill O’Reilly to Pat Robertson (pp. 19-20). All make similar and patently false statements regarding the demise of any society lacking a robust faith in God.

Religion, and by that I mean mostly the Religious Right, has exerted itself mightily in the last twenty years in America despite, scandals and abuses. And whether it is a science, an art, or an accident, happiness is a hot topic these days. It is into this melting pot that Phil Zuckerman throws his latest work: Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. In this book Zuckerman takes us to Denmark and Sweden, two countries that seem today to be less religious than ever (p.2).

It’s a difficult book to classify. It is the work of a trained sociologist and thus carries the mark of that discipline: interviews, data, statistics, and the analytical tools needed to make sense of it all. But it is also something of a travel-log by an intelligent atheistic American in an amazing society that, as he points out, so many Americans would not – could not – believe exists. As he says in the end of chapter 2, after describing an idyllic bus ride through a major city in Denmark, “So many Americans assume that without strict obedience to biblical laws, society would be chaotic and horrific. If only they could take this ride with me, I thought to myself” (p.31).

The third genre is something of a socio-religious biography of the people, 149 formal interviews with adult Scandinavians of all ages, education levels, and jobs. The sample, while large and in some ways random, did have a ‘convenience’ factor (meaning Zuckerman interviewed people who were readily available and even sought some out based on interesting conversations or their occupation) so it shouldn’t be misconstrued as representing the entire Scandinavian population. (see note 1 at bottom) It is in these interviews that one gets the best feel for Scandinavian life and thought, as you hear the views of so many ‘average’ people. These interviews reveal a richness of life in family, friendships, and social responsibilities all without a faith in God.

The very existence of the people in these interviews and their stories would not be remarkable, Zuckerman points out, if they were the exception to the rule in Scandinavia. In fact, atheists are the norm. Their existence and the flourishing of these “Godless” societies should put an end not only about the vitriol of the Pat Robertsons of the world, but also those who attempt to show by science that we are ‘hard wired’ for faith in God (cf. pp.55-56). If only it were so simple.

Interestingly, in interview after interview the Scandinavians speak of their society as being based on the ethics of the Bible, following ideals of kindness to others, honesty, and so forth. To them it seems that it is these teachings that are important, not the belief in God, heaven, or hell – not to mention biblically motivated anti-Semitism, discrimination of homosexuals, or denial of women’s reproductive rights. And Scandinavian society reflects just this: higher openness, a welfare state (based on the belief that free education and healthcare benefits everyone), strong community relations, the virtual eradication of poverty, and so on. Many of these same interviewees hypothesize that in past generations, when belief in God was far more prominent, the reason was precisely the lack of equity and stability in society. As life became better, as the society became more socialist (to use an overly and unduly harangued term), the need for religious belief simply fell away.

Further into his analysis, Zuckerman covers this very idea in his discussion of Why? (chapter 6). Several theories are presented, including the idea that “Secure Societies” are more likely to be irreligious. Other theories suggest that “Lazy Monopolies” – in this case the Lutheran church – lead to decline or that “Working Women” no longer keep their husbands and children in the churches. What we find is that while some theories match up remarkably well in Sweden and Denmark (all three of these, in fact), it is impossible to pin the cause of secularism on any one of them. Each also faces counterexamples elsewhere in the world.

Society Without God includes a history of religion in these countries, attempting, albeit very cautiously, to discern the religiosity of these people over the last 1000 or so years. We also find a discussion of what it means to be a Christian (chapter 8). Reflecting on his own (very secular) Jewish upbringing, Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are similarly “culturally” religious while personally atheistic or agnostic. As Christmas draws near I wonder how many of us (Buddhists and otherwise) might consider ourselves "culturally Christian." Most of us will do something on Christmas, even if it is simply spending a little extra time with family. And if we put up a tree, exchange gifts, put up lights, and God (ahem, I mean Buddha) help us, sing Christmas songs together, then we are “participating in something ostensibly religious, without actually believing its supernatural elements” (p.155). Ergo we are being culturally Christian.

Zuckerman concludes his study with thoughts from back in the US. Within hours of his return, he finds himself in the house of a born-again Christian showing off his “new toy” (a handgun). Ahh, how things change. Then, at a bank, he overhears an employee advising a debt-ridden patron to see a pastor to pray over the indebted person’s bills, give $50 a month to his ministry, and trust that “within a year, God will see to it that your debt is all gone” (p.167). Traveling from a land where God is practically obsolete to trusting Him with your personal debt must have been quite a shock. It was also traveling from a land of general contentment, good health, and security to a country with only moderate life-satisfaction, a perilous (despite being technologically spectacular) health-care system and depressingly high rates of violence.

If one could criticize the book, it would be on the grounds that it is too ambitious. In trying to tell so many stories in under two hundred pages, Zuckerman stretches the bounds of his own expertise and potentially the patience of his readers. Despite its core of sociological data-collecting, it is clear that the book is in fact an extended musing on the fairly personal topic of religion by a young and talented scholar. Yet it is difficult to imagine the book being anything other than what it is. Cut out the interviews and history and it loses its punch, remove the personal stories and ties to politics and contentment and it loses its emotive appeal. This reader was both very satisfied in this book, seeing much more clearly that (in the US) it needn’t be this way - we can be happy and safe without faith in God, and at the same time I left yearning for more.

1) Zuckerman goes over his methodology in a brief appendix.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Boiling Down Buddhism

As a philosopher and teacher of Buddhism I find myself often trying to "boil down" Buddhism in response to the question of "what is Buddhism?"

And it has occurred to me that how we answer that simple question can set the direction for a person's whole understanding of Buddhism. In the case of Buddhist Ethics (where I work) this can be easily shown with some examples:

What is Buddhism?
Damien Keown: "... Buddhism is a response to what is fundamentally an ethical problem - the perennial problem of the best kind of life for man to live." (The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p.1)
While this seems to leave the terrain of the conversation rather open, when we look closely we see that he has not mentioned awakening, delusion, suffering, craving, or any other centrally Buddhist term. While these do come later, there also is a focus on the "best kind of life" throughout the book that lead him to see Buddhism as akin to virtue ethics.
Mark Siderits: "The Buddhist Enlightenment project is aimed at helping us overcome existential suffering, by dissolving the false assumption that there is an "I" whose life can have meaning and significance.": in this video, (5:22)
Here Buddhism is a bit different. It is a "project" focusing on 1) existential suffering and 2) the "conceit I-am" (Pali: asmi-mana) that the Buddha posited as the central cause of suffering. Siderits takes the focusing on non-self and suffering toward a very utilitarian reading of Buddhist Ethics.
Alan Sponberg: "Just let go." (from a talk given at the local - Missoula, MT - FWBO seven or eight years ago)
It's not difficult to see the appeal, nor the historical accuracy, of such a boiling-down of Buddhism. Dr. Sponberg's Dharma name happens to be Saramati, meaning roughly "he who gets to the pith of things." Interestingly, Sponberg is the only of the three that has managed to retire from teaching to live a life dedicated to his practice.

Through this meandering post comes a question: how would you boil down Buddhism? What aspect(s) of the Dharma are most pressing in your life and practice? What do you think your boiled down version of Buddhism says about you and the Buddhism you practice?

Thursday, 4 December 2008


The questions in the previous entry are too big for me to attempt an adequate response. This one is for "Progressive Buddhists" who may, like myself, have trouble with the concept of re-birth. This, indeed, is why I have never managed to cross that bridge to actually calling myself a Buddhist. I love the teachings, I have a daily meditation practice, I embrace the wisdom, but I'm not ready for religion, and I think that this is the point at which philosophy or life's journey must necessarily become faith. I have often tried to discuss this matter on my own daily blog, but never so clearly and succinctly as in this beautiful essay that I found at the ThinkBuddha blog.

If anyone knows of an answer to this argument without resorting to faith, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Jedi not an option?

On my personal blog I recently conducted a poll asking the question 'Why did you get into Zen?'. The results of my highly-scientific poll are in!

Don't know (33%)
A full third of the sample simply don't know why they started to practise Zen. Is this something to do with mokusho (non-thought)? Or are people really unaware of their own motivations?

Jedi not an option (26%)
Now this is a response I can relate to. My teacher may be be disappointed to discover that if Obi Wan Kinobi to appear to me in the desert offering me a lightsabre and paranormal powers, I would be very tempted to follow him. But it hasn't happened so I'll have to settle for the next best thing. Any Jedi masters looking for a new disciple can contact me at the email address above.

Mu (19%)
This response means 'I don't know, but I am a smartarse'.

Receeding hairline (11%)
Another valid response in my opinion. Would you rather be a disciple of The Way, a monk of the special transmission beyond words and letters, or would you prefer just to be a bald git? A no-brainer for me that one.

Like the outfits (7%)
Seems a bit superficial. I suspect that many people like the outfits because it allows them to imagine they are Jedi. If you want to be a Jedi, you should have the courage to admit it. The key question: have you ever swung around a toy lightsabre/cardboard tube/kyosaku while wearing kimono, kesa etc ?

'Nam (2%)
We had one respondant who gave this answer. I now have an image in my mind of a veteran tormented by PTSD going AWOL and trekking through jungles of Vietnam in search of a way to find peace; perhaps finding a Zen master there. How intriguing. Actually I once met someone who did almost exactly that except it was a master of kung-fu he followed. Please contact me if you'd be interesting in making a movie.

To annoy parents (0%)
So no one is prepared to admit that they practice Zen to annoy their strict Catholic/Evangelical parents? Come on - do you expect us to believe that?

Friday, 28 November 2008


I think that a great many people have trouble seeing how they are responsible for their own feelings. We are responsible for whether we are happy or sad. We are responsible for whether you are grateful or take offense. I feel that thoughts might be like words in that sometimes we are just listening to someone else. I think that Thoughts, Words, and Actions all have an effect on the our realities, and the magnitude is based on the feelings we push.

I feel that we take offense to, anything, because we see some shadow of what we see within our selves, and our own self image. Simply ask yourself why you are letting something offend you. Our initial response is typically the correct one. Sometimes it takes meditation and further examination to face the dark side within us. We are responsible for our realities, and it seems a great many unconsciously give others control over us. We are still responsible even in ignorance.

Sometimes thoughts come from someone who is close to us or is thinking about us.  The easiest way to realize this is if you are thinking about something and then suddenly a stray thought comes out of no where.  Sometimes it is even the base feelings that we recieve.  An example could be of someone we just recently met, and then someone who knows us comes into the situation and suddenly you have an intense feeling towards the new person.  I think that this causes us a lot of trouble as we sometimes feel guilty over thoughts that are from someone else but somehow we think we are the source.  Guilt is a path to our dark side whether we are responsible or not.  A great gift we can give ourselves is to forgive ourselves, and others with love in our heart.

You may be driving along in the city and suddenly someone cuts you off.  I think many would instantly get angry at the person in question.  Yet that person could have a good reason for what they did.  Even if your desire to be unimpeded was greater, anger only lowers yourself.  Love, joy, and happiness are the highest of frequencies and help you the most.  Our dark sides only decieve us and lead to our own downfall.  Force yourself to smile for half a minute, listen to a joyful song, watch a movie with and happy ending, and you will notice your mood change.  We may live in a world of Taijitsu, and we still may be a source of joy for others.


A moment to practice equanimity: having started on a remodel job at our little Laguna Beach cottage some five months ago, we had been hoping to finally get finished by Thanksgiving Day. It seemed entirely possible. After many of the usual delays—and our share of unusual ones, our punch list was getting shorter. Our contractor, who has been through a period of personal tragedy unconnected with our job, seemed determined to see things through.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving, our architect comes knocking at our front door and asks about the “disaster” in the basement, where we have been enlarging a tiny garage to include some useful storage space. He makes a habit of checking up on his job sites after the first rains. The previous night, it rained. Sheets of the stuff. In normal circumstances, here in rain-starved Southern California, we are overjoyed on those rare occasions when it arrives. Last night… not so much. The painter, we knew, would not show up so soon after the rain; and the contractor might be loath to work in this circumstance. But when the architect added that there was a flood of water in the basement, our hearts sank.

We have been used to a small amount of water seeping down from the back yard, through the garage, and out onto the street. But this, we soon discovered, was different. This covered the entire new concrete floor, inches deep in places. This was a real flood.

Okay, I tell myself. Beware attachment to outcomes. Beware the sudden flush of disappointed anger. It’s an opportunity, I tell myself, to practice equanimity. What else have you been practicing for, these past ten years and more, with your daily sits? And yet… and yet… I watch the anguish rise, I watch the anger and the disappointment. So hard, to practice what I… I was about to say, what I preach. But no: to practice what I practice. Breathe…

Monday, 24 November 2008

Calling all bloggers

We've worked up a nice bit of momentum once more, fuelled primarily by regular postings from Kyle and added to with some of my own old material. Unfortunately, he's busy with other things now and due to other commitments I simply don't have the spare time these days to write regular new posts.

So I'd like to invite anyone who thinks thay could contribute to get in touch with me about getting on the contributors list. And if you're already on the list - get cracking!

Without regular new material, the readership we've built up will dwindle, which will be a bit of a shame.

In the meantime, I think Justin W's working on something and I can probably dust off a couple more posts from the vaults.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Universal Religion: Part 1

To bring an understanding of Zen to Europe, Master Deshimaru talked as much in terms of 'God' as he talked about 'Buddha'. Yet, this wasn't a belief in a literal creator being or personal God - he was using the concept as a metaphor for 'the universal' or the fundamental principle of reality, not unlike the way that scientists like Einstein and Stephen Hawking use the concept.

Zazen is the same thing as God or Buddha. Dogen, the master of transmission, said, "Zazen itself is God." By that he meant that during zazen you are in harmony with the cosmos. In hishiryo consciousness there is no more anything. It is satori consciousness. The self has dropped away and dissolved. It is the consciousness of God. It is God. People have a personal God. We are not separate. There is no duality between God, Buddha, and ourselves.
- Master Deshimaru

According to many sources (for example the scholar Richard Gombrich) the Buddha adapted his teaching to whatever beliefs his audience had, whether they were Tantrics, Vedic fire-worshippers, Naga-worshippers, Yogins, rationalists or skeptics. And in the same way, Deshimaru was adapting his message to the language and concepts of Europe.

During a mondo, I asked Godo Mokuho Guy Mercier what the difference was between practicing Zen and practicing Zen as a Buddhist. Godo Guy responded by saying that we are all Buddhists, that is, all religions are essentially about the same thing, that Buddhism is about the universal, rather than some sectarian dogma. He also argued that the teachings of Jesus really had the same meaning as the teachings of Buddha. He's not the first to say something like this and of course I wonder how far it can be stretched - are the violent, judgemental teachings of the Old Testament the same as Buddhism and what about non-religions?


In many ways each religion is quite different - they have mythologies, divine laws and metaphysical schemas that contradict one another. Yet at another level, they seem to intersect at a point that might be called 'mystical experience'. At this point all the major religions seem to be talking about one thing - the transcendence of the individual sense of self. This common ground is so well documented by students of comparative religion that it is almost a cliche. This is known as Universalism and Perennial Philosophy are about . But it's easy to make glib comments about all religions being the same, glossing over the differences - we need to understand the similarities and the differences. And we also need to consider whether its right to give religion a special status and exclude the secular activities in life.

Not all religions include the concept of God of course or even any kind of transcendent absolute. The common ground of religious experience, I would say, is the opening up of the ego to the whole of reality.

The following quotations should give a hint of this.


As a lump of salt, cast in water would dissolve right into the
water...Arising out of these elements (bhuta), into them also one vanishes

When his soul is in peace he is in peace, and then his soul is in
God...The Yogi who, lord of his mind, ever prays in this harmony of soul,
attains the peace of Nirvana, the peace supreme that is in me...Thus joy supreme
comes to the Yogi whose heart is still, whose passions are peace, who is pure
from sin, who is one with Brahman, with God.

- Bhagavad Gita


The individual shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at
the moment of satori...my individuality...melts away into something
indescribable, something which is of quite a different order from what I am
accustomed to.

- Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience


It was granted to me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevetheless, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul... This view was so subtle and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it.
- Terisa of Avil

Teresa's most famous book The Interior Castle describes a person's soul as a multi-chambered castle. Going deeper and deeper into your soul and facing your own fears, self-interests, ego and temptations gradually leads you into a deeper relationship with God. At the very central chamber the soul is at complete peace and complete union with God. This reminds me of the lyrics to Terrible Canyons of Static by God Speed You! Black Emperor.

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
- Jesus, John 17: 21 -23


Adorn me with Thy Unity
Clothe me with thy selfhood
And raise me up to thy Oneness,
So that when Thy creatures see me
They will say we have seen Thee
And thou art That

- Abu Yazid
Fools laud and magnify the mosque, While they strive to oppress holy men of
heart. But the former is mere form, the latter spirit and truth. The only true
mosque is that in the heart of saints. The mosque that is built in the hearts of
the saints Is the place of worship for all, for God dwells there.
- Masnavi, Book 2 Story 13
I pray God the Omnipotent to place us in the ranks of His chosen, among the
number of those He directs to the path of safety; in whom He inspires
fervour lest they forget Him; whom He cleanses from all defilement, that
nothing remain in them except Himself; yea, of those whom He indwells
completely, that they may adore none beside Him.
- Al Ghazzali

Mystical Experiences

According authors such as William Stace, all mystical experiences share the same characteristics:

  • unity
  • time- spacelessness
  • sense of reality = knowledge not subjective
  • peace/happiness
  • sacredness paradox/logic defied
  • ineffability
  • loss of sense of self

Only the packaging varies - the framework of ideas, culture, language and mythology in which they are conceived and described. As I see it, to the mystic, God or Brahma or Buddha is everywhere - it's only when a strong attachment is made to the philosophical, theological or mythological framework - the means of communication - that this self-transcendence descends into dogmatism, self-righteousness, bigotry, intolerance and potentially violence. The experience of satori and samadhi are the equivalent of union with God, Brahma etc. Only the metaphysics or dogma varies.

Every major religion has it's mystics and it's universalists, but every religion has its dogmatists and fundamentalists too - just as every polical party has a left wing and a right wing. Perhaps more than any other faith, Bahá'í puts a great deal of emphasis of religious universality. Bahai is a branch of Islam which teaches that all religion is an expression or appreciation of God.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2007.

Monday, 10 November 2008

A reply to: 'Buddhist Retreat, Why I gave up on finding my religion', By John Horgan

Original article

This article was first published in 2003. Seemingly it is John Horgan's previous dabbling with Buddhism which qualifies him to criticise what he claims it represents, but Buddhism is very difficult to understand and many spend their lives following or reacting against misunderstandings of it. While I don't claim to fully understand it myself I certainly understand it better than John Horgan, so I'm going to respond to his criticisms.

Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word.

Something appearing (naively) to be 'functionally theistic' is not the same as it being theistic. Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings. Anyway, there do appear to be some functional benefits to theism. Why else would it have evolved and become so dominant as a biological tendency and a cultural phenomenon? Those who are engaged in organised religion are happier and healthier than those who are not. Perhaps organised religion is also good for the moral welfare of nations. Buddhism, it would seem, gives the same benefits as theism without having to rely on faith to believe in the literal existence of beings which are really (at best) unknowable.

Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation and the difference is not just in name. In Hinduist reincarnation, a permanent self ('Atman') is incarnated in body after body like someone changing their clothes. Buddha denied that such a permanent self exists. With Buddhist rebirth there is no entity to be reborn, just effects following on from causes just as in ordinary existence. Some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. There is no need for judgement. Admittedly traditional Buddhism does not necessarily have the same notions of what actions lead to bad conseqences as modern westerners, but that is really just a difference of detail. If someone kills an insect I don't believe that that will lead to bad consequences - except in so far as cruelty may be cause of unhappiness or unless the insect is a killer bee. Nevertheless it is true that some actions are in the interests of my future happiness and some are against the interests of my future happiness.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point. However, the aim of meditation is the elimination of suffering and there is good evidence that meditators are happier. And what worthwhile activity is free from challenges and difficulties?

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

Anatta is not the principle that there is no self at all. Anatta is the principle that there is no unchanging, permanent self. And this is indeed borne out by neuroscience which reveals a mind that is a series of massively parallel and constantly changing processes. There is not even a single central 'place' where all our perceptions and experiences meet.

Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.

It seems presumptious to suggest that not absolutely accepting the relatively new (by the standards of Buddhism) ethical philosophy of Humanism is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I agree with Horgan in so much as that being a senior member of the Buddhist clergy is no guarantee of compassionate behaviour. As for whether Buddhism leads to compassion on the whole, I simply don't know. But again, the final aim of Buddhism is not compassion but elimination of suffering.

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.

I agree that some such abuses have happened. People who act like this I would suggest have an incomplete understanding of Buddhism as amoral. It is foolish to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that being 'beyond good and evil' makes you immune to moral culpability. Many sociopaths could be described as internally 'beyond good and evil' in a similar way.

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

Lots of Zen Buddhists are agnostic. It doesn't matter what you believe in Zen with regards to metaphysical notions. I would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described. The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths. All of these explanations require that in some sense conscious beings are a necessary part of the universe.

The Buddhist view in my mind is quite close to the Anthropic Principle not in the sense that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind or with the purpose of creating mankind, but that what we think of a 'the universe' cannot really be separated from what we think of as 'ourselves'. Any belief in a fundamental separation would be very difficult to defend scientifically and would be correctly understood to be a metaphysical belief.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2006.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


I apologize in advance for the political and American nature of this post, but I think that what is about to happen here in the United States is important for everyone, from every country.

One of my favorite Latin sayings is E PLURIBUS UNUM which means "Out of Many, One" It is a motto adopted here in the United States and is displayed on all the paper currency. It is a reminder that the 50 separate states that make up our country, come together as one national unit. The Buddhist philosophy in me loves this saying, because it is symbolic of our mind's leaning to split one into many. I guess, it’s really the reverse of the motto, but I digress.

I don't wish to make this a US centric post, however I believe tonight and tomorrow, what happens in this US election, if all the polls and pundits are corrects and Barack Obama wins the Presidency of the United States, will be something special for all Western Countries and really all nations. Weather we agree or disagree about his politics, this achievement, of electing a man of color, after 400 years of slavery and 150 years of Jim Crow laws will be nothing less than some kind of epic rebirth.

We pride ourselves on diversity and tending to our difficulties by using our large pool of different backgrounds from all around the world to achieve one goal. You ask most Americans their heritage, and you will get a huge diverse response. "I am of Dutch, Romanian, English, and Spanish etc. etc decent." Yet we have been marred by prejudice, intolerance and injustice from ever shrinking portion of our citizens. We sometimes fear what we don't know.

With a warm heart and prideful feeling(yes I know), I feel we have begun to truly wash away the sins of our past and become a nation of what we have always told the rest of the world we were, a nation of diverse people that come together in a common cause. Perhaps, Barack Obama is becoming the icon of this change, a new nation, forged together, with old scars of hatred and bigotry that has toughen our skin and a new generation that has softened our hearts.

Maybe our whole world could learn the phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM ? Who knows’, but I know we all have a long way to go.

**Update:Barack Obama wins Presidential Election!

Now let us heal those stinging wounds between us Americans and the countries of rest of the world. We hope we can begin to see we do not live in a bubble, alone and on top of the world, but as dependent on others as they are on us. Dr.King, here is your promised land you spoke of that cool April night in Memphis, 1968. You did not die in vain. From many, one.....

Two speeches I wanted to post here from two iconic Americans that I think truly capture this moment, in all its splendid glory. Relatively of course!

Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

~Abraham Lincoln
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

I Have a Dream:
Full text can be found here:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."²

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

~Martin Luther King Jr.
August 28, 1963
Washington, DC - USA

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Your destiny is to realize the truth of your existence. Weather you like it or not, one day your mortality will draw down on you like an iron avalanche of fear and disbelief, destroying everything you spent your entire lives building. While we choose to ignore these road signs that say the bridge is out and doesn't exist, that something is terribly off, yet we speed ever faster towards that bottomless gorge. We may say we know we will go to heaven if we do good or say a prayer. We may tell ourselves God will carry our souls off to eternity, name, rank, and serial number included. However, blind faith is that mirage of an oasis in the desert and belief coaxes us onwards, regardless of knowing how our thirst never gets quenched.

We are extraordinary builders and creators, no question. There isn't one doubt that the human mind is capable of marvelous feats beyond our own poor recognition. It is as wondrous as the most beautiful vista nature can display. We have created in our minds this shadow of me, owned and operated year round, who's sole purpose is self preservation. We name it, put labels on it, dip it into the sweet river of attachment and place it upon a shelf of memories to admire. With your mind, you have created human life, built its foundation on ignorance and fed it with lies and embraced denial.

What is real and what is true, is right here, right now. We know it already. This isn't some exalted secret handed down by ancient scribes and sages. If we just took a moment, just one true moment of life, in perfect honest understanding, we may see this actuality. This inescapable truth of the emptiness of who you are is not the greatest fear imaginable, it is infinite liberation. This liberation is total and complete freedom from the bondage of mind. Worry, doubt, fear and confusion will begin to burn off like the dense fog in the mid-morning sun on a hot summer day.

Tomorrow, I will rise and watch this beautiful painting of life I've created fade a little more into the canvas of my mind. Disciplined determination to do so? Well, thats the bitch, isn't it?


Who shall conquer this world
And the world of death with all its gods?
Who shall discover
The shining way of dharma?
You shall, even as the man
Who seeks flowers
Finds the most beautiful,
The rarest.
Understand that the body
Is merely the foam of a wave,
The shadow of a shadow.
Snap the flower arrows of desire
And then, unseen,
Escape the king of death.

And travel on.

~Buddha Guatama

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Is Buddhism a religion?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.

An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder

But let's not forget that any desire we may have to adjust Buddhism to our tastes itself arises from our own modern cultural trappings.

This post is an updated version of one I published in my personal blog in 2006.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Death of a Friend

Yesterday, I was told a friend of mine Sean, who I had worked with for over a year was struck and killed by an automobile on Saturday. I didn't know Sean as a close personal friend, but I saw him almost every workday over the past year. Normally I wouldn't post something like this, that doesn't have much to do with Buddhism, however something about the way Sean lived his life has touched everyone he met.

Sean was one of those people you meet that simply just grabbed your attention and you became instantly comfortable around. He always smiled, big bright smile, to everyone weather he was feeling poorly or not. He had a kindness and compassion about him that just drew friends to him like leaves sprouting from a tree in spring. It is not possible to over exaggerate what a kind sociable, warm person he was, willing to help anyone, treated everyone in the same gentle peace loving manner.

The most wonderful thing about it was he didn't see himself as this kind of great human being. Being only 19 years old, he exuded life and happiness, beyond his own desire to see himself in this light. I think if we all found the peace and happiness he had, our world would be a much kinder place. It is such a horrible, cruel turn of life. How can one comfort all those that were touched by him, affected by his dedication of goodwill?

A friend of mine, who was also a friend of Sean's who knew I was a Buddhist, asked me how Buddhists can explain why life is so cruel to people who are so good. I was stumped. I thought for a few moments and then I talked about the reason things in life are so precious to us is that they are fleeting and impermanent. I mumbled something about everything changes and nothing lasts forever. I realized, that though these things may be true, it doesn't help those grieving find some measure of peace.

Only an old Dr.Seuss quote popped into my mind:
"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

Rest in peace my brother, your life on earth made a difference to everyone around you.

Edit: Here is a picture of Sean and a link to his obit.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

What do you do here?

There was a young database administrator that won a good job at a mid size shoe manufacturing company. On his first day, excited, the young tech sat at his desk and immediately began working. Towards the middle of the day, an older gentleman, the owner of the shoe manufacturing company, walked up the new database technician, introduced himself and asked the young man "What do you do here?" The young tech smiled and said "I am a database administrator" and then continued typing away. The owner asked again, this time with a little harshness in his voice, "What do you do here?" Puzzled, the young tech once again repeated "I am the database administrator. I build and maintain the company's database." The owner, now with a forceful, almost angered pitch asked "What do you do here?" The young tech, now flustered, answered, "I am a database administrator! I....I'm sorry....I don't know what you are looking for me to say!"

The owner curtly said "If you don't say you make shoes then the door is over there!"

What do you do here?

Perhaps we can meditate on this question for a bit.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

One of the things that interested me about Buddhism is that it might give me some insights into such philosophical problems as the 'Hard problem of consciousness', which is also related to the mind-body problem.

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

David Chalmers

Of course, although Buddhism makes use of philosophical discourse, it is ultimately existential in nature and so we should expect any answers to be existential rather than purely intellectual in nature.

The Buddhist resolution of such problems is less of a process of intellectual progress as a matter of the 'ironing out' and collapsing of the roots of the issue which are ways of thinking about reality which ultimately are deluded.

And perhaps I am being premature or naive but the more I investigate, the more it really does seem that many contemporary problems were solved by Buddhist sages and thinkers in the distant past (although I see some Buddhist sages and thinkers mired in the same sort of thinking or even greater confusion). Given that philosophers in the west rarely learn anything other than the history of western philosophy, and that Buddhism is regarded (and practiced) generally as a religion, it isn't surprising that there isn't much cross-pollenation.

With regards to the above problem, it seems to me that it arises from the assumed reality of objective existence:

1 Ultimately reality is objectively real and independent of our experience of it
2 From experiential evidence I cannot deny my subjective experiences
3 Therefore they must be part of reality
4 If my subjectivity exists then other people's subjectivity probably exists
5 Therefore they must all be part of objective reality
6 So how can a subjective something really exist within (and arise from) an objective reality?

So we end up with a picture of all these creatures walking around an entirely physical universe, but with little subjective bubble-worlds in their heads (or above them or somewhere else or nowhere at all). How do these two worlds interact? If one arises from the other, how? How could subjectivity arise from objectivity ever, even in principle? And if subjectivity is an ineffectual epiphenomenon, why does it make a difference when I stop making an effort?

Rather than try to solve this set of problems with its assumed premises, we can observe reality carefully with as few assumptions as possible. In Zen abstract thought is seen not as truth but as a bodily function, which at best has a practical use. Thoughts exist as representations of reality, but are only ever representations with a greater or lesser usefulness. In fact many of the more bizarre responses from Zen masters to philosophical questions can be seen as expressions of 'unasking' questions which are based on deluded premises, for example 'Mu', 'Katz!', 'the oak tree in the garden' or the act of placing a sandal on the head.

I remember a story that my philosophy tutor told us about G.E.M. Anscombe, the student of the famous linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who wrote extensively on the limits of language). During a conference of some sort, Anscombe was asked a question (how I wish I knew what that question was!) and she responded by removing her shoe in front of an international audience of philosophers and placed it on her head. Of course, without any grounding in eastern philosophy, most of the spectators (including my tutor) naturally assumed that she was batty. (Although Anscombe must have been elderly at this point, I have no reason to suppose that her mental faculties were failing. She was well-known for her intelligence and debating skills and famously won a debate against C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, forcing him to re-write a chapter of his book.) Anyone familiar with Zen stories will of course recognise this gesture as being identical to that performed by Joshu in response to a question from his master Nansen:

Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said, "You monks! If one of you can say a word [about ultimate truth], I will spare the cat. If you can't say anything, I will put it to the sword." No one could answer, so Nansen finally slew it. In the evening, when Joshu returned, Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu, thereupon, took off his sandals, put them on his head and walked off. Nansen said, "If you had been there, I could have spared the cat."


The response might be seen as indicating that which is beyond language. Interestingly Wittgenstein himself famously declared that all philosophical problems had their roots in our use of language. He later retracted this having apparently found exceptions and tacked those in his Philosophical Investigations, which I really must read sometime.

If we think of our deluded belief-systems as a tree, which needs to be killed, then growing new branches to kill off other branches is no good - it just leads to proliferation of branches. Instead we can grow an axe to chop down the entire tree and then destroy itself - this is the project of Nagarjuna as I understand him. Alternatively we can stop watering the tree - in other words, release the attachments or delusions that feed it.

Many Buddhists (especially the ones I come across online) seem to see Buddhism as being 'against' rationality - often replacing it with some sort of intuitionism. I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddhism isn't against thinking - we need abstract thought in our lives to help achieve practical goals; there are many influential Buddhist philosophers who used rationality as part of their practice (eg. Nagarjuna). The goal is not the cessation of thinking, rather the goal is freedom from attachments to thoughts, feelings, and so on. Thoughts exist and they are sometimes useful, but they are only ever thoughts - and the conceptual reality they tempt us to enter is a virtual reality.

In Buddhism, experiencing reality without inherent dualities and seeing those dualities as inputted is the important thing. But explaining things in such a way that they might shed light on complex rational problems still takes a whole lot of conceptualisation and a whole lot of words. Hopefully I'm up to the task and hopefully I'm not just throwing more wood on the fire.

Coming back to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, what I see is that the premise of the existence of absolute objective reality is unsound. If I pay attention, I can see that I never actually come across this supposed objective reality, only ever the idea of it. Yet I'm not proposing that we replace this with some sort of philosophical Idealism. If I hide an object, forget about it and then come back to it, it's still there. Things I know nothing of still have causal effects in the universe and (in the case of sense perceptions and psychoactive drugs) can influence the nature of mental phenomena in my mind. I can't change reality just by thinking about it.

While there are entities which outside of my awareness, that does not mean that they are independent of me or that I am independent of them. And if there is an independent objective universe, it is independent and thus not part of all this.

Materialism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'non-self' and is entirely independent of me and Idealism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'self' and is partly or fully dependent on me. But by claiming the universality of one domain or the other 'self' or 'non-self' neither damages self/non-self dualism, it just tries to squeeze the border off the map. This is doomed because 'self' and 'non-self' are interdependent concepts. How can a subject exist without an object to perceive? How can objective reality be real with no subject to ever know of or be influenced by its existence? What meaning does non-self have without the existence of a self? How much do we have to distort non-self to include the phenomena we now label as 'self'? And vice-versa.

Both Materialism and Idealism are only partial, distorted truths - attempts to unify reality without dispatching or deconstructing subject-object duality.

So what is the relationship between subject and object? The Buddhist view and a view which can be experienced in meditation, is that the distinction is inputted by thought. All phenomena are interdependent. The 'objective world' is just reality existing from the 'point of view' of another aspect of the same reality - the 'objects' of perception are just causative effects 'acting through' the other causative effects that are my sensory apparatus and my brain in an immense interdependent web without ultimate objects. Causality does not just flow 'upwards' from object to subject, but in every direction without end. My mind is just this moment of reality.

Reality is dependent upon observation. It has no 'Gods eye view' from which it exists. Nothing real is standing outside of reality to see it. It can only be viewed from inside and it only 'exists' in relation to other parts of itself. Even the description of reality as a set of relationships is not something that exists objectively, that image is just an abstraction, it exists always from a point of view - in relation to my reality at the time of writing and to your reality right now. But what is a point of view? A point of view is an abstraction - a model built from interpretation of effects of one part of reality upon another. A point of view of a landscape is just the sum of all the effects of each aspect of that situation upon a smaller part of that situation e.g.. all the light from a landscape as it affects a camera and an eye and a brain/mind.

What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

What does 'something it is like to be in them' mean? The word 'like' in this context is a term of comparison. In what way (if any) is being in a subjective state similar to something? It isn't so much that it is similar to something, but that it is something - it's real. This statement also presupposes the existence of a continuous identity which is 'in' various states. What if (as most current research on consciousness suggests) there is no 'Cartesian Theatre', no container for such states to exist in? nor a homunculus, an inner witness for these states? If only the states themselves and their effects exist then is there any philosophical problem?

All states - even the state of an unwatched beaker of water in an empty building - are part of the causal matrix of reality (see The Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory). Whether there are faculties to interpret these effects as information or not, no black box exists from which effects cannot spill so effects ripple out across the universe at the speed of light and we are all affected - it is 'like something to be in' every state. A problem arises only if we conceptualise reality in terms of categories which are independent of one another. For it to be 'like something to be in' a state is just to be contiguous with that state, to be affected by that state and (given that there can be no independent objects) ultimately to be that state.

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.


Originally published in my personal blog in 2006.
Photo by Gregory Colbert