27 December 2005

The Unity of Buddhism

Shakyamuni Buddha Sangharakshita wrote his magnum opus, A Survey of Buddhism, in 1954. In the second chapter he explained how the Bodhisattva Ideal represents a unifying ideal for Buddhism. However as time went on Sangharakshita's thinking on this subject developed. In the History of My Going for Refuge he describes how he came to see the act of Going for Refuge as constituting the fundament Buddhist act. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels - the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - is common to every school and sect of Buddhism. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, then, is not only fundament it is also universal and hence is more clearly the unifying factor in Buddhism. Sangharakshita sees the Bodhisattva Ideal as the altruistic dimension of Going for Refuge.

The language of Going for Refuge is not Buddhist in origin. Like many things in Indian religion it has a Vedic origin. The Chāndogya is one of the oldest upaniṣads and almost certainly pre-Buddhist. In Chapter four it instructs the one carrying out a sacrifice to go for refuge to the verses (i.e. mantra) and the way they are chanted, to the direction one is chanting in, and in Atman. [verses 8-12]. However it was adopted by the Buddhists very early. Right from the first the people who met the Buddha told him that they would go for refuge to him and his Dharma.

It's important to note that we do not take refuge, we go to it. That is to say that Going for Refuge is an active seeking, not a passive hiding. Neither can an unenlightened being 'give' us refuge. When we go for refuge to the Sangha, it is not simply to other Buddhists, or to monks, that we Go for Refuge, but to the Awakened Sangha, to the ones who have directly seen the Truth for themselves.

Over the centuries Buddhism has become very diverse. Schools of Buddhism struggle to recognise each other as Buddhist. Buddhism, like other India religions, is inherently syncretistic - rather than suppress heterodoxy, it embraces it. Buddhists have never hesitated to borrow from other traditions. As Buddhism was exported from India it interacted vigorously with the other cultures and languages it met. Most of Asia was transformed by Buddhism, but from place to place that transformation took radically different forms.

As a result we now have a bewildering variety of Buddhisms (plural) each with their own set of practices, their own jargon, mother tongue, scriptures, and cultural expressions. There have been many misunderstandings, and some reactions against fellow Buddhists, sometimes from unexpected quarters.

Sangharakshita treats Going for Refuge as a hermeneutic which we can apply to any person in order to relate to them as fellow Buddhists. Because Going for Refuge is fundamental and universal we have a key to understanding what other Buddhists are doing. One of the examples that Sangharakshita uses is the case of Pure Land Buddhists who do not believe that any self power will avail them in Awakening, and that they must rely on other power in the form of the vows of Amitabha. To attitude stands in something of a contrast to most forms of Buddhism which exhort us to generosity, ethical behaviour and meditation - i.e. to a vigorous application of self-power. At first sight we might not see how simply chanting the name of Amitabha can really be considered a Buddhist practice. Surely it is just a form of theism? If we apply Sangharakshita's key then we first look to see whether the Pure Land Buddhist is going for refuge and to what. In this case they are clearly going for refuge to the Buddha in his Amitabha form. Their practice is to develop faith in the vows of Amitabha to save beings from suffering. This makes sense in the light of their Going for Refuge to Amitabha.

Over the years many different texts and interpretations piled up. Earlier versions of the Dharma were not discarded, but placed on a lower level. The typical response to this was to create a hierarchy of teachings - this tendency was present even in early Buddhism. By the second millennium CE the hierarchies had become very elaborate and unwieldy. But how else were Buddhists to make sense of texts which contradicted themselves and were polemical against earlier forms of Buddhism? Again Sangharakshita's hermeneutic can help us, especially if we combine it with an historical over-view of the development of Buddhism. If we view all practices as motivated by Going for Refuge, and aimed at Awakening, and then we take account of the historical development of texts and exegesis, then we need not stack forms of Buddhism vertically, preferring one over another.

Sangharakshita recently said to a group of new Dharmacaris, that he sees nothing in the Vajrayana which goes beyond the Theravada or Mahayana at their own pinnacles. What I think he means by this is that later practices are not more effective than earlier ones. Some practices may be better suited to some people than others, but all practices will only be effective to the extent that they are whole heartedly practised. To put it another way, the practice will be as effective as the Going for Refuge of the practitioner. There is a strong tendency amongst Buddhists to see their own school, or sect, or group, as being the best, the highest form of Buddhism. This kind of thinking obscures the unity of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a highly diverse and heterogeneous religion. The unity of Buddhism is in the act of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. By seeing all Buddhists and their practices in terms of Going for Refuge that we can see how they relate to us and our practice. This also enables us to avoid the false conceit that we are on a better path, or that we are doing more powerful practices.

image: Śakyamuni Buddha, by Jayarava.

25 December 2005

There are no rules

Buddhist Stupa - symbol of ultimate reality and the Buddha - photo by JayaravaI'm a Buddhist. When they find this out people often become curious about what I'm 'allowed' to do. Am I 'allowed' to drink, for instance, or 'allowed' to eat dairy products? What I inevitably say to these kinds of questions is that I'm allowed to anything I like, but that I have to live with the consequences of my actions. I thought I might take a little time and expand on this.

Firstly why do people expect there to be restrictions on me as a Buddhist? One etymology of the word religion is "that which binds". When we think of religions we tend to think in terms of commandments, God's binding rules, with the explicit threat of punishment for sinners. This idea seems to cause more harm than good, and I reject it. Buddhism tends to be associated with Buddhist monasticism and Buddhist monks are pretty obsessed with rules. But I am not monk, so those rules don't apply to me. So am I a libertine? Far from it!

Actions have consequences. We all know this at some level. As a Buddhist I try to develop awareness of the consequences of my actions. I try to be more self-aware, to be more aware of other people, and more aware of how the universe actually works. The combined result is that I see how my actions affect other people, I identify with the desire of those people to be happy, and I tend to be more generous and kind. This is a natural process. In reality we're not all separate and isolated, on the contrary we are infinitely interrelated and interdependent. Morality or ethics is about working on the social level of this principle. (I've elaborated on this theme in my essay on the Six Perfections)

Rules are funny things. Every rule is broken by someone at some time, and some of the lesser rules are broken routinely by everyone without thinking. Sometimes we may not agree with a rule, or we might not know about it. Many times we think that we are a special case, or that the circumstances allow or require that we break the rule this time. And so it goes. No sooner is a rule made than it is broken. And yet without rules our societies would probably fall apart.

Rules have either and implicit or explicit element of coercion in them. Do this, or else! In the Buddhist approach to morality there can be no coercion because that will simply inflict more suffering. The consequences of our actions are far more powerful than any police force, judiciary or penal system. They will always catch us up, always match the deed. Which is not to say that everything that happens to us is a direct result of something done in this life or a previous one. I think it can be useful to think of every action having consequences that we will have to live with, but I do not think it at all helpful to believe that everything that happens to us is a result of our previous actions. There is good doctrinal support for my view which I may go into at another time.

My own observation of cause and effect has led me to abstain from alcohol. Not because it clouds the mind, which it does; not because "Buddhists don't drink", some do. I don't drink because it causes me to behave in ways that I later regret. The consequences are painful for me and others. I also abstain from eating meat. Again this is not because Buddhists are vegetarians, some aren't; it's not for health reasons, because there are good health reasons for eating meat. I don't eat meat because I'm rather fond of animals, and I don't want them to be killed.

What do I do about those acts which I commit which end up causing harm, whether I intended it or not? I confess them, which is to say I express remorse for having caused harm. It's important to distinguish healthy remorse from Guilt which is the fear of punishment. Guilt itself is harmful. Confession doesn't absolve us, and it won't stop us living with the consequences of our deeds, but it helps to develop awareness.

So when I say "there are no rules, just consequences" in a way I mean just that. I don't think rules will help me be a better person. Only awareness can do that. As a member of the Western Buddhist Order I have made an explicit commitment to develop that kind of awareness. This apparent abrogation of rules is not a shrugging off of responsibility. On the contrary I am taking seriously the responsibility to weigh my every action of body, speech and mind, to see whether it is likely to cause harm to any living being.

When we develop awareness of the consequences of our actions, then we are bound far more tightly than any set of rules could ever bind us.

22 December 2005

Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part II

In the first half of this essay I started to present the Six Perfections as a pragmatic approach to Buddhism, and indeed to living. This second half will take up where I left off, cover the last three perfections and sum up.

I described the first three steps of the Buddhist path: generosity, kindness, and forbearance, as the quintessential Buddhist virtues. By approaching life from the point of view of generosity, kindness and forbearance we immediately benefit both ourselves and others in quite straightforward and obvious ways. There is another level of benefit which is a bit more long term however, and a bit less self-interested. What happens when we start to give up negative states like greed, stinginess, resentment, and anger is that we free up energy to be used for better purposes. Resentment, for instance, takes up an enormous amount of energy. Sustaining a juicy resentment can wear us out, and leave us feeling exhausted even if we do feel our indignation is justified. So by being more generous, kind and patient, we get an energy boost. And we're going to need this energy for the next stage on the path.

Up till now we have been working with the relatively gross energies of the body or speech. But behind these are our mind. We may have stopped behaving quite so selfishly, but we still believe that we are a separate self, and still feel greed, still get angry. The Buddhist approach is to take this new found energy and channel it through meditation. In meditation we work directly on the mind, transforming the mental states that have arisen, but also beginning to 'rewire' our brain so that we have a much greater choice in how we respond to the world. We begin with integrating practices that channel the energy, and bring our conscious and unconscious wills into alignment. It is relatively easy in meditation to begin to experience, at least temporarily, what it feels like to have this kind of integration. As we become more integrated we find we are more able to be generous, kind, and patient, and this in turn liberates more energy. Often during intensive meditation practice we might go through a period when we feel this energy coursing through our bodies - we may twitch or shudder for instance. As we become more used to having this energy available our bodies settle down, and we find we can become very still indeed. Our minds can become one-pointedly concentrated on the object of our mediation - one-pointed is the literal translation of samadhi.

This one-pointed state is blissful and completely easy and natural. It is the perfect state in which to begin to contemplate the true nature of reality. In Buddhist meditation systems therefore there are a second set of practices to help us do just that. We may, for example contemplate the impermanence of things: how everything we can think of arises and passes away. We notice thoughts and feelings for instance arising in our body and mind, lasting for a little while, and then passing away. We may start to really understand that this is happening to all things, all the time, and that we are not exempt. Or we may contemplate the way that all things are inter-related, how everything arises and falls because it depends on other things which also arise and fall away, in an infinite web of cause and effect. However we do it, it starts to become clear that the very idea of a separate self is completely misguided. Since everything shares the same nature, then in a very real sense "all is one". When this realisation goes beyond a rational acknowledgement and starts to radically alter the way 'we' relate to the world, this is known as Wisdom or prajña. Jña means knowledge or knowing, and pra is a suffix which something like "to the nth degree". And what is so great about this state? Well it has been described by many sages down the centuries. With Wisdom we are infinitely generous for instance because we have perfected generosity and no longer hold onto anything. We are infinitely kind because we make no distinction between self and other. And we have infinite positive energy because we have no investment in negativity. The calm, bliss, and focus which we experienced in meditation become a permanent state. And in this state anything and everything we do contributes to experiencing more of the same.

You'll have noticed, of course, that I didn't call this exposition Six Easy Steps. These steps are not easy. The Buddhist path can be really hard. What happens is that we constantly run up against our limitations. Our generosity knows bounds, our kindness is dependent on a million conditions being right, and our patience is strictly limited. Trying to practice "perfections" under these circumstances is setting ourselves up to fail. We are not perfect. However as I hope I have shown the path is actually quite practical, and quite straight-forward for anyone to understand. We can aim at perfection and take some practical steps in the right direction. Another wonderful thing about this approach to practice is that if something is not working at one level, then we just pay attention to the levels below. So if our meditation is not going well, we've tried everything but aren't getting anywhere with it, then we can look to our practice of forbearance – is there an opportunity to go deeper with this, to improve our sense of contentment and thereby give us a breakthrough in meditation? And if all else fails there is always giving. Even if we have completely lost it on every front, we can still do something generous: if we have nothing left to give materially, then we might give our time and energy. The greatest gift of all, according to the Buddhist tradition, is the gift of the Dharma.

18 December 2005

Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part I

Cone. Sculpture by Jayarava The six perfections are a very well known Buddhist doctrinal list. They the six practices, or tasks even, that the aspiring Buddha must undertake in order to Awaken to the true nature of things, to become a Buddha. A Buddha is a being who has perfected all of the six tasks. As a guide to practice for ordinary human beings they can seem a bit daunting. The Mahayana makes constant use of hyperbole in its presentation of the Dharma, and this can make it seem, well, impractical. However I think the six steps of the list are much more pragmatic than they may appear at first. I want to present the Six Perfections in a much more down to earth way as something more like Six Pragmatisms, but this sounds a bit cumbersome, hence my slightly tongue-in-cheek title.

The six perfections are dana or generosity; sila or ethics; kshanti or forbearance; virya or energy; samadhi or meditation; and prajña or wisdom. They form, as we shall see, a progressive sequence which leads to the goal of the Buddhist path: Awakening to things as they really are.

So let's begin with dana. But, hang on, why dana? Why does the Buddhist path start with generosity? The basic human condition is that we are pretty self-centred, even selfish. We're like that because we are spiritual ignorant, we don't see things as they really are. In particular we believe that we are separate from other beings. We also tend to believe that "I", what is sometimes called the ego, is a permanent entity that has been "us" unchanged from day one.

The practice of generosity encourages us to start to relate to others in a particular way. We start to become more aware of them as people, who in many ways are just like us. By giving to others we start to wear away at this idea of ourselves as separate beings, and at our self-centredness. It works best if you can really get into the spirit and give everything you have with joy and enthusiasm. But of course it can be a bit hard at times to muster this kind of motivation. We still want to know what's in it for us, and I'll come to that in a minute. But even if you don't give very willingly, or very much, generosity can still begin to have an effect on you. I have found it a very good thing to give something to anyone that I am feeling resentment towards for instance. It changes the quality of my attention, moves it away from the bone of contention and onto our shared humanity.

An immediate consequence of this noticing of others is that we start to become more aware of the impact of our behaviour on them. When you give a gift, there is a clear response from that person, usually positive. Compare this with the reaction, for example, if you shout a angry word at someone. They will mostly do one of two things: They will move towards you meeting your anger with anger, your threat with threat; or they will move away to nurse the hurt you have caused. If you are aware of the other person, as a person, then you will begin to get an idea of the sort of impact that your behaviour and speech have on others. We start to see that our actions have consequences for us and other people. We will in this case begin to naturally moderate out behaviour to the extent that we have identified with others. Buddhism has lists of ethical guidelines, but if we are aware of other people then we will naturally start to be more kind. Lists of precepts are much less important than simply being kind to others.

The other side of this coin is that as we become more aware of other people and the consequences of our actions, then we will also become aware that the actions of others have an impact on us. In the past we might have tried to manipulate people to get our own way, or we might have retaliated against any slight injustice. However once we start to become aware of ethics, it becomes less and less comfortable to act that way. We might initially find that rather than retaliating we simply don't respond even though internally we are fuming. This is progress because even though another person has hurt us, we have not allowed that to motivate us to create more hurt. The hurt in the world is lessened by our inactivity. In time a more real equanimity can develop in the face of difficult people.

These first three qualities: generosity, kindness, and forbearance are the three quintessential Buddhist virtues. It can't be easy though can it? What motivates a Buddhist to go to all this trouble? Not the threat of punishment by God or our peers. Not slavish obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Mostly we do it because it feels better than the alternative. There are two main types of pay off. Firstly if I am kind, then I raise the odds that I will receive kindness in return; if I am generous then I will receive gifts in return; if I forbear to retaliate then I will be less likely to be attacked. These things don't come to fruition fully and immediately on the spot. They take time to mature, and we have a lot of momentum in the other direction. But they do work. Try it and you will see.

read Pragmatic Buddhism in Six Simple Steps : part II

10 December 2005

Cellphones, communications and communities.

Some years ago I started a masters degree in computing. One of the first essays I had to write was on the impact of a technology on a society. Having recently read a Wired Magazine article that talked about the Amish and their relationship with the telephone I choose that as my subject.

The Amish are a fundamentalist Christian community which fled persecution in 17th century Europe, ending up mostly in the Eastern US. They have more or less preserved their old lifestyle that involves keeping themselves apart from non-believers. The Amish live a life of strict rules and a rather sombre simplicity. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, even family members risk being shunned. Children have more freedom until they are baptised and join the community of adults.

The Amish are often seen as technophobic farmers who still ride around in horse drawn buggies. Far from being reactionary Luddites however, the Amish are frequently early adopters of technology. In the early 20th century they were amongst the first communities to get the telephone. The Amish do not simply adopt technology, they go through a well defined procedure with a trial period and evaluation of the impact of the technology on their society. They ask, for instance: “will this bring us into unwanted contact with unbelievers?” Mains electricity fails this test and so the Amish do not use it, although this does not preclude the use of electricity per se. The Amish value manual work and any technology that might put a person out of work is rejected out of hand. Another important criterion is the integrity of their community, and so they ask: “will this help bring us together, or will it take people away from the community”.

This last criterion was important in the Amish response to the telephone. It was recognised that the telephone could provide links between communities, and between distant family members. There was a clear danger, however, that the telephone would cause people to look beyond the family and local community. So they came to a compromise position: telephones were OK, but not inside a family home where it might interrupt family life; and it would be preferable if several households shared a telephone. Jump forward 100 years and not much has changed. More Amish now work in carpentry creating simple but solid furniture which they mostly sell to outsiders. These shops tend to have telephones, which are strictly for business. One or two actually have a computer, but an outsider must be employed to operate it. Howard Reingold, the Wired reporter, writes that he observed a young Amish woman talking on a cellphone.

In Western society we have been thoroughly infected with the telephone, and the cellphone is now almost endemic. Some people have two. Now we can be contacted, or interrupted, anytime and anywhere. Provided there is coverage of course. The mobile started out as a Yuppie accessory that was derided by right-thinking people. Nowadays many people still deride cellphones, lament the intrusiveness of them, and resist owning or using them.

I’m interested in the success of the cellphone. These things don’t happen by accident. My understanding of the phenomena combines two sources: Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man which contains her observations of the Gombe stream chimpanzees; and Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium Is the Massage.

We are social animals, who function best in a social group. Really large groups of us naturally fragment in to cliques. We like groups of nine plus or minus two. Negotiating the dynamics of social groups takes time and energy but the evolutionary pay-off has been enormous: language for instance!

A feature of Western societies is fragmentation. Not so many decades ago most of us would have been a member of a local community. Here in England you would have been additionally marked by a distinctive accent by which people could pinpoint your birthplace, in some cases to the actual town or village! With mobile populations and urban drift we increasingly find ourselves surrounded by strangers. This can be very stressful for us social primates. So we compensate by forming cliques based on such things as religion or a common interest such as sport. Community is not an optional extra for us, and loss of community or isolation can be devastating. Solitary confinement is considered a harsh, even cruel, punishment. The impact of loss of community on various indigenous peoples, in the wake of European colonisation, has been devastating. When you compare rates of crime, substance abuse, and mental illness with the Amish they start to look as though they might be onto something! (Which is not to suggest, by the way, that they don't have any problems at all).

Marshall McLuhan was not really a semiologist, but his most famous aphorism is “The medium is the message”. This is a semiotic statement in that he is telling us what media ‘means’. McLuhan, in trying to understand the role of technology in society, wanted to draw attention away from the content of media, towards the form of it. He considered the forms of communication media to be more significant that the content of them. He includes such things as alphabets, writing, and printing in this analysis. McLuhan saw technology as an extension of the human body or senses, but I think we need to add a dimension to this. It seems clear that the message of cellphones is “connecting to people, and creating a sense of belonging to a community”. So technology in this case is an extension, not just of an individual, but of the social aspect of human primates. It can be seen as a direct response to the collapse of local communities and our dispersal across the globe – my own family lives on three continents. These days I belong to the group defined by the numbers stored on my phone.

I see problems with this technological solution to fragmentation however. For instance there is no substitute for intimate personal contact, mutual grooming and eating each other’s ticks. We might forego the latter, but otherwise we are just like our primate cousins. Touch is an essential element in a healthy community. Without it we feel lonely and unhappy. The Amish know this and use telephones mainly to arrange face to face meetings.

The adoption of technology is relatively passive. We don’t ask the kind of penetrating questions that the Amish do about the impact of technology so we have whether it’s good or not. Perhaps we could argue that if it didn’t work then it wouldn’t be adopted. But if we have adopted the cell phone because we lack a sense of belonging, then we are just plastering over the cracks. A phone call might help us keep our community in line, but it is a simulacrum; it won’t satisfy. We aren’t addressing the real issue of alienation.

I’m a member of the community known as the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), and of its auxiliary: The Friends of the WBO (FWBO). Our community relies heavily on email and phone calls to organise and administer ourselves. Online forums are just starting to be used, and are frequently the medium of choice for dissent. Our founder, Sangharakshita, has said, “the group is always wrong”. By which he means that we must learn to think and act for ourselves, and not simply react in accord with the wishes of the majority, or from social conditioning. As Buddhists we are trying to free ourselves from stereotypical responses, to be free to make appropriate responses to the world. To do this we must bring our experience of the world into full consciousness – we must understand where our ideas and habits come from. This is not easy in a society, because groups of people are frequently intolerant of novel behaviour. The Amish practice of shunning is only a more explicit version how groups control the individuals that make them up. Isolation is painful, and we therefore will go out of our way to avoid it.

If we use technological solutions to plaster over the cracks of our feelings of alienation, then we are asking for trouble. Alienation is not the same as individuation. Spiritual growth, the revolutionary awareness that can ultimately set us free, depends on us taking responsibility for the contents of our minds. We can’t avoid taking on board social conditioning as we grow up, but we can, as self-aware adults, start to examine that conditioning. But it requires awareness. We must be prepared to sit with the pain of alienation to some extent, to see what it really is and where it comes from.

The FWBO has tended to take Sangharakshita’s aphorism a bit literally at times, and so I don’t think we cater well for the social needs of our people. We have seen groups as a literal enemy and a desire for belonging as an almost fatal weakness. It is said that one of the reasons that Buddhism died out in India, and Hinduism did not, is that the former lost touch with the common people, while the latter did not. The Amish with their strong social integrity can effectively limit the impact that technology has on them. It may be too late for the rest of us, but I think we can learn from the Amish approach to society and technology.

So I’ll finish with my own aphorism:

The best possible use of a cellphone is to arrange to meet with your friends.

01 December 2005

What's in a blog?

What is a blog? People often ask me this question. Today I was wondering - do I write in my blog or on it? Funny kind of question you might think, and you'd be right. I'm interested in how we/I use language, and what the way we use language tells us about how we think. For instance we write on paper, which seems obvious since paper is an archetypal surface. But when we collect a few sheets of paper together then we start to talk about them as a container. So the writing is on the wall, but I write in my diary; information is in an encyclopedia; and a manual contains instructions.

In English paper is a surface and books are containers. We also consider language to be a container, I'm writing in English. However in Sweden they speak på svenska: on Swedish. In Swedish language is a surface. This seems pretty weird to an English speaker, which is partly why it’s difficult to learn another language. It's not a matter of a one to one relationship between our words and theirs. Sometimes, most often even, the concepts in different languages donit quite match. They overlap, but not exactly. Writing is also a container, because we put things into writing.

TV and radio are not containers. Programs are on the radio; we ask "what's on?" TV; news is in a newspaper, but on the TV. So radio and TV are surfaces. This seems odd because up until very recently TV and radio has come in a box. I think in the case of TV that we relate primarily to the screen and it has become a metonym for the whole contraption. The screen being two-dimensional is a surface. With radio a similar thing may have happened with the tuning dial which was a lot more prominent in the olden days.

Now a blog is written and we write on a surface; but it's also a collection of writing so by analogy it should function as a container and things should be written in it. But we read a blog on a computer screen, which is basically just a TV, so it's on the screen. Note also that stuff is considered to be on the web, not in it. Webs and Nets are two-dimensional so despite the multidimensionality of the Web we have ended up adopting the terminology of a surface. Again Neo was trapped in the matrix, not on it, even though the whole thing was a computer simulation, and things are stored on a computer.

So do I write in or on my blog?

When I was at library school a book called Neuromancer by William Gibson was in the reading list (or is that on the list?). Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" and Neuromancer has some vivid imagery for how we might perceive a three dimensional information space. In the book one enters cyberspace via a virtual reality interface that connects directly to your brain – the result is total immersion in the virtual reality of cyberspace. Ironically Gibson is a complete Luddite and wrote the book an its two sequels on a manual typewriter!

As a Buddhist I am interested in how I/we represent reality. Everything I know about the world is mediated by my senses and interpreted by my brain. No matter that the lens of my eye creates an inverted image on my retina, I am quite able to see and to manoeuvre through my environment. I take in sense data, process it, respond emotionally to it, and evaluate it rationally according to established categories. Then I either act on it or not. This modern sounding interpretation of cognition is pretty much how the Buddha described the process 2500 years ago.

The assessment of information uses, as I said, a number of pre-existing categories. These categories are so fundamental to our thinking that we seldom notice that we are using them. It's not until we start to analyse language that we start to notice that we consider TV to be a surface rather than a container. This seemingly trivial example stands for the sort of thing that we do all the time with all information. You can read more about this in Metaphors We Live by by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. One of the most fundamental categories is a duality between subject and object: between "in here" and "out there".

Now way back near the beginning of the 20th century Emile Durkheim was pondering similar issues, and in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, concluded that the categories that we think in are not individual else every time we tried to communicate we'd have to define all the words we used. No, the categories are a property of a society, not an individual. So I can choose to say in my blog if I want, but if I say in the radio then people will look at me strange. The plus side of society is that it gives us safety, security and the leisure to think about stuff like metaphors. On the minus side it will feel, quite unconsciously, that anyone that says "in the radio" is a danger to society and will have to be dealt with. In the West we tend to go for punishment or killing as a solution to idiosyncrasy, especially when it comes to religion. The Indians by contrast tend to try to assimilate. But these are the two basic reactions of society to heterodoxy – eliminate or assimilate.

Buddhists have always been aware of these kinds of issues. Early on the Buddha made it clear that his teachings were no to be chanted in the manner of the sacred Vedic mantras, nor sung in the style of popular songs of the day. He insisted that everyone should learn the Dharma in their own language. He also attempted to change the way certain words were defined. He, for instance, suggested that a Brahmin could not be born, but could only result from wholehearted spiritual practice. In this case he failed, and a Brahmin to this day is born, not made. In the case of the word Dharma he scored a partial success in that Buddhists and Hindus use the word in quite different ways.

As "going for refuge" is the fundamental Buddhist act, uniting all Buddhists everywhere, so awareness is the basis of Buddhist practice. All practices have at their core the object of making us more aware of our mind, what it contains, and what we do with it. This awareness initially gives us more choice about the way we respond to the world, but ultimately it transforms the categories that we use to think. Awareness eventually reveals that the categories of subject and object are only provisional and not ultimate.

Given that the categories we use are most clearly revealed in the language that we use, then perhaps this question of mine is not so trivial after all?

This essay written to the strains of Frank Zappa's Apostrophe!