Showing posts with label Community. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Community. Show all posts

06 July 2012

Why I am (Still) A Buddhist.

Cairn and flag to celebrate my private ordination,
June 10, 2005. (Cairn ~ 1.5m). In the hills above
the Guhyaloka Retreat Centre, Spain.
(38.620356,-0.186663 looking almost due west.)
GIVEN THE TONE of my blog over the last two years especially, and some of the responses to what I've written, I've been meaning to pause for thought and write something about why I'm still a Buddhist. Glenn Wallis of Speculative Non-Buddhism expressed his enthusiasm for such a project when I mentioned it to him. So here goes, but it might not be what you expect, because the subject is by nature personal rather than impersonal. I've tended to avoid being personal here because it's bitten me in the arse before now, but I can't avoid it today.

In the last couple of years I've been quite busy becoming disenchanted (nibbindata) with traditional Buddhism. I've been analysing and critiquing some of the central doctrines of Buddhism. I did not set out to attack Buddhism, I set out to discover Buddhism in more detail. However on closer examination I found the presentations of Buddhism wanting at every turn, and have been endeavouring to articulate the various problems as I see them.

In the process I have discovered that there are Buddhist fundamentalists who seem to see me as a kind of anti-Buddhist agent provacateur bent on destroying the True Faith. There are also a number of people who feel disappointed with Buddhism for various reasons who have sought to make common cause with me, though I don't find their self-indulgent little revolutions very attractive, and such contacts frequently turn sour when it becomes apparent that I have no intention of sacrificing Buddhism on their bonfire. Then there are the people who have either reinvented Buddhism in their own image, or developed their own special philosophy which peripherally touches on Buddhism, and who want to share it with me, mistaking my critical stance for an openness to every crackpot idea that comes along. After seven years of this I'm a bit jaded, and more likely to give up blogging than I am to give up Buddhism.

I became a Buddhist in 1994, after a bit of shopping around. I've had a more or less life-long interest in psychology and human potential thanks to my mother, Durelle Dean, a true seeker, and until recently a born-again member of a pentecostal church and a missionary working in rural Africa. (She's looking at becoming a Catholic at present!) We get on famously, btw, and I'm about to publish her memoir of her childhood. By the time I went to the Auckland Triratna Centre I was quite clear about what I was looking for. I was looking for a community to belong in. I had toyed with 12-step groups for a couple of years (I'm 20 years sober now), and I'm grateful to my old school friend Gareth Masefield for introducing me to the Steps. It was also Gareth who suggested I try meditation to help with recurrent depression, which I still experience. But why community?

Taupo, looking south.
I grew up in Taupo, New Zealand. A small town in a small country. Technically I'm a hick, as one of my English friends amusingly pointed out to me. I lived in a rough neighbourhood in that hick town, it wasn't East LA, but it was often frightening and sometimes violent. A guy in Taupo, called Geoff Henshaw, had a chemistry set (probably the only one in town) and I became fascinated by science, at which I turned out to be a prodigy, and ended up doing a degree in chemistry. But there's not much scope for being an egghead in hick town, and being good at maths and science had a negative impact on my social circle. Geoff moved on and out of my life after less than a year (and he promptly forgot me as I discovered years later). When I was twelve my family also moved to NZ's largest city, Auckland. Being a pubescent hick in the large and (from my point of view) sophisticated city was no fun, and even the city kids weren't impressed by my knowledge of science. I became more dislocated. Though I met Gareth around that time (also good at science) and had other friends, I did not feel I belonged anywhere. After about four years I found a new friend in Mary Holmes, whose family welcomed all kinds of waifs and strays. Mary's friends were my friends for a while which was both a treat and an education. I even lost my virginity to one of Mary's friends, who is now a senior civil-servant in the NZ government. Going to university to study chemistry meant a new town, and new friends. I loved the classes and labs, but I didn't identify with the science crowd and was still dislocated. I made a few friends, but started to come apart, and depression set in once again. And so it goes. I never quite fit in anywhere.

Allan, Mitch, Lee, Jaimi
Then one year my brother Allan and his wife Lee, living in Australia, decided to go on a road trip, beginning from Melbourne, north through Sydney and Brisbane, up to Darwin and Cairns, down the middle via Uluru and Alice, to Adelaide, and then back to Melbourne. There to start a family (they now have two grown-up kids Jaimi and Mitch). They set off with a caravan and six months of unscheduled time. They'd drive for a bit, find a place to park the caravan, set up their temporary home. But then, since Allan played rugby, they'd head down to the local rugby club and have a few beers with the locals. Sometimes if they were around for the weekend and the local club needed an extra player, Allan would play for them. And they did this for six months the whole way around Australia. Everywhere they went had a place to go to meet like-minded people, with whom they shared a set of values (of a sort) or at least a common interest. If you play sport in the Australia or New Zealand you need never be lonely. Needless to say I didn't play sport.

Hearing about my brother's experience I realised that there was something missing in my life. This was the late eighties and in Auckland there were lots of choices. Durelle was involved in all sorts of things, but latterly Sahaja Yoga. I was reading Robert Bly, Sam Keen, James Hillman, Jung, and chanting oṃ namaḥ śivāya with the yogis occasionally (I always did like a sing-along). I 12-stepped for a while, but didn't find the community vibe I was looking for. If the Alexander Technique people had had a community in NZ at that time I might have gotten involved in that. But they didn't and the nearest training centre was in Australia and it was very expensive! But through my Alexander Technique teacher, Peter Grunwald, I heard about a big men's gathering over a long weekend on the theme of male archetypes, so I headed off to that. We did drumming in the woods, trust games, and a sweat lodge and all that stuff. It was fantastic! And afterwards I got an invite to join a regular men's group which I attended for a while. In the end I felt it was too small scale, and did not constitute a community. It was what I did on Thursdays evenings. I'm grateful to Trevor Johnston (founder of Bean Supreme) for his inspired leadership of that group, and for making meditation sound attractive, but I moved on.

And so to the Buddhist centre to see if meditation might help with depression. It was almost immediately obvious that the Auckland Buddhist Centre was what I had been looking for. I was greeted by Guhyaprabhā, the class leader. We don't really have publicity seeking famous teachers in our movement, so in all likelihood you've never heard of Guhyaprabhā. A really beautiful woman in many ways, with a good mind, and an adept meditator. She taught me the basics of meditation, but even more she and her team showed me that I had been looking for a spiritual community, and that I had found it. Guhyaprabhā now also lives in Cambridge and remains a dear friend. After 10 weeks I was already eager for more, and immediately signed up for the next class. The leader of that course, Guhyasiddhi, also became a lifelong friend. I felt at home at the ABC. As well as finding a bunch of people to hang with, I was discovering that a lot of the New Age 'wisdom' I'd been hearing for years had been recycled from Buddhism. I felt I was getting information from source. Given that I was unhappy a lot of the time I was interested in what Buddhism had to say about this, and it did, and does make sense to me.

Those were some of the happiest times of my life. Difficulties followed as they always do with people: more depression; a broken marriage; bad advice from amateur Buddhist psychologists; and friends who betrayed me for stupid reasons. My first retreat was a mix. In the deep end I loved the long meditations and weird rituals, but it was also a time of anxiety and it was a few years before I could let go and enjoy retreating. I usually had some kind of crisis for the first dozen or so (and thereby became notorious). But almost two decades later, looking back, some of the peak moments of my life have been lived on retreat. Various pics from retreats are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other stand out connections: Nityajyoti in Wellington, and his seat of the pants classes with me flying alongside and making tea. Sona who came from the UK to lead two week ordination training retreats, and is so very kind and helpful, Very direct at times as well, which is rare in an Englishman. I found other mentors who offered friendship and kindness. All of them are down to earth and do not require special treatment or artificial reverence. I met my dear friend Peter Willis through Gareth initially, but then he started coming to the centre and we started playing music together, and through music found a deep friendship. I miss Peter very much. I also met Victoria Chammanee who I immediately fell in love with, which might have complicated things, but we managed to sustain a friendship with that is one of the most important relationships in both of our lives.

Jayagupta & me with our
private preceptor, Nāgabodhi (centre)
freshly ordained 13 June 2005.
And then there's Nāgabodhi. We made friends comparing insomnia experiences at a place called Ngati Awa, on the Kapiti Coast about 16 or 17 years ago. He's amazing. Always laughing, but capable of great seriousness as well. Always caring and concerned. Always encouraging, but testing to see if there's options I need to consider (I could have saved myself considerable misery by more carefully considering his questions in 1998!). When he and I did my private ordination ceremony together, and he gave me my initiation and my Buddhist name, I felt so loved and so loving. It was a time of intense joy, and a highlight of my life. The ordination courses was four months on retreat, a shitload of meditation, and making more friends. I understood things up in those mountains in Spain, late at night, pacing around in the dark under the brilliant stars, that made my whole life makes sense. For the first time I saw the 'logic' of my life. These are not the traditional insights of Buddhism, but they were the insights I needed to have. And I came back as Jayarava (Cry of Victory). I love my name. I associate it with the joy and happiness of my ordination, and a sense of spiritual rebirth I had on the ordination course. I use my birth name for legal purposes still, but it's not me any longer. I left that guy in the mountains.

I moved to Cambridge in 2002, and was ordained in 2005. I've been living with Buddhists, working with Buddhists; all my friends are Buddhists. I've been going on retreats, courses, weekends, gatherings, seminars (all paid for by my Buddhist employer as part of an innovative remuneration package).  I found friends in Satyapriya, Vidyavajra, Gambhiraḍāka, Śākyakumara, Emma, Sanghaketu, Dhīvan, Amanda (and many others). I live with Nāgavīra and Jayasiddhi, one of a dozen Buddhist communities in Cambridge. Dozens of people have passed through our semi-monastic home, from Holland, Venezuela, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Mexico, England and New Zealand. It's had its ups and downs but has been very rich, and I have few regrets. This is my life now, though I hope one day to go back to New Zealand as, like the Māori people, I feel that the landmarks of my birthplace--Tauhara, Waikato, Taupō-nui-a-tia, Aratiatia, Kaingaroa, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe, Tongariro, Kaimanawa, Uruwera--are part of my genealogy.

Not long after ordination I went on a retreat focussed on White Tārā. I didn't know anyone there, but as we sat together, sang mantras and praises together, cooked and ate meals together, all in spirit of kindness and friendship based on shared values, a connection emerged that epitomises for me why I'm a Buddhist. Being a member of this community opens up the possibility of deep communication and friendship that I have never experienced in any other context.

I've been chronically ill for the last few years and often get a bit out of touch with my local community. When times are tough I hunker down writing, or go to the Cambridge University library, or I get sucked into the internet. But I recently went to a farewell do for a colleague, who for 15 years had dedicated himself to helping at the Cambridge Triratna Centre, doing everything from designing the website, to cleaning, and leading classes. Vajrapriya is doing some shorter retreats--a week here, a month there--before setting off to Spain for a year on retreat in 2013. The thing is that there was so much warmth and love in the room. About 70 people all wishing him well, and celebrating his positive qualities, telling anecdotes. And I felt good being part of that. Was it intellectually rigorous? Not hardly. But it was all very warmly human, and I felt at home amongst these people, and I'm happy to sort out the metaphysics later. Indeed the combination of human relationships like this, and intellectually sorting our the metaphysics is just about perfect for me.

I'm grateful for our community. I feel sorry for people who don't have what I have. Though I'm so critical, I actually find a ready audience amongst my peers. Many of us have similar concerns. Our community has its share of ideologues, but because we constitute a practice community rather than a faith community we can carry quite a lot of intellectual dissent. And we do. I see saṅgha as essential to the process of growth and change. No doubt groups have their downsides, but humans are social monkeys, and we're actually worse off alone. Parasocial relationships: soap operas, celebrities, teachers, blogs, forums, all the modern ersatz communities, are no substitute for getting into relationship with people. Ethics is really only empathetic relationships, nothing more, but nothing less. You can't practice outside of human relationships.

Of course I see that I fell in love, and my critique of falling in love applies to me as much as anyone. "Naivety demands betrayal" according to Robert Bly, though he may have been quoting James Hillman. And I have been betrayed at times. But losing naivety is not a bad thing. In being betrayed I've grown. Better to be betrayed by friends than enemies I suppose, as the long term consequences are usually less severe. I suppose my friends and enemies would be quick to point out I've done my share of betraying (I claim to be a Buddhist, not a saint). I didn't fall in love with Buddhist ideas until later. I was first and foremost a saddhānusarin. I fell in love with the reality of people living and working together with a set of shared values and common goals, and very obviously benefiting from it. Today I might grumble that we are too idealistic, but better that than too cynical. For all the iconoclasm in my blog it's actually a small part of my life.

Of course now I find myself deep in a critical inquiry into Buddhist ideas, the work of a dhammānusarin. The ground work was laid by studying Saṅgharakṣita who remains something of an enigma to me. I'm really very grateful to him, and love him; I'm inspired by his life; and find him frustrating at the same time. He's very kind and friendly in person. Unfailingly so, I believe, whatever is said about him on the internet. I am a Saṅgharakṣitarite Buddhist at heart. He encouraged me to really think about Buddhism in the first place, not to have blind faith, and our correspondence (such as it is) on my recent ideas to date has been encouraging. I don't think just any kind of Buddhism would suit me, and I've no intention of leaving the Triratna Order. I doubt many movements would put up with me slaughtering their sacred cows for long. I have no real interest in Secular Buddhism, though some secular Buddhists were interested in me for a while.

More recently I'm very grateful to Richard Gombrich who has been quite generous over the years, without ever being under any obligation to be so. His Numata Lectures in 2006-7 (that subsequently became What the Buddha Thought) caused a revolution in how I thought about and approached the practice of Buddhism. You can see the change in my blog from around that time. And that lead me to his student Sue Hamilton. I think it's fair to day that Sue is not a great writer, but the ideas she wrote about now saturate my thinking. It was Sue that woke me up to Buddhism being about experience rather than reality. She's not working in the field any more, but graciously responded when I wrote to her. I feel I've developed her ideas in my own way. Many of the scholars I've bugged with my questions have responded, usually positively. I'm grateful to Satyanandi (Fellow of Trinity College) for writing a letter of introduction for me to get a Cambridge University Library reader's card, my most precious possession.

Anyone expecting an intellectual defence of Buddhism from me might be puzzled by what I've written so far. If you only know me through my writing you might be forgiven for thinking that I am someone who has a fiercely intellectual approach to Buddhism. But really I don't. The intellectual side of things is only my pastime. Here's my definition of 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist':
  • Buddhism is the stuff that Buddhists do, and the experiences that Buddhists have doing that stuff.
  • One is a Buddhist if one does stuff that other Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists.
Yes, they are circular, and there is a chicken & egg problem for those who like that kind of thing. I'm someone who does stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and therefore I consider myself a Buddhist. I'm still a Buddhist because the experience of doing that stuff is something I value more than solving intellectual problems. Belief seems to have little to do with why I'm a Buddhist, so even my own intellectual critique seems to have little effect on my feeling that I am a Buddhist. Indeed attacking views makes me feel more of a Buddhist, and my intellectual understanding of the dynamics of experience have resulted in quite strong faith in our methods.

I'm bored by intellectuals who carp from the sidelines, who are not involved in a Buddhist community and have never engaged in any Buddhist practice, but feel confident to comment on Buddhism. Like armchair sports fans, or vicarious travellers it's possible to become very knowledgeable but still to have no sense of what it feels like to kick a ball into a goal, or arrive in a new country. Intellectuals, especially the armchair variety, seem to get caught up in definitions; in what we are supposed to believe or think. They mistake the map for the territory. They are convinced that thinking is the most important thing because it's what they like doing and what they are good at. However most of the important phenomena of Buddhism are felt rather than thought. Buddhism is all about experience. Thinking about Buddhism in the absence of any experience of Buddhism is just having a wank. We all enjoy a wank, but let's not pretend it's anything more than it is. Or perhaps, if that offends, we could paraphrase Frank Zappa, and say "thinking about Buddhism is like dancing about architecture".

What people say they believe is far less important to me than what they do and how they behave, which is a far better indication of what they really value. It's also how I know I have anything important in common with them. Some of the kindest, most empathetic people I know are not great intellects (no disrespect intended). Bad philosophers can still be good human beings (and good Buddhists). They often make far better friends. It's all very well being able to have a good argument with someone, but when the chips are down I want a friend who is loyal, empathetic, kind, and practical; I want a community who'll support me. I don't give a fig for the professed beliefs of the Amish, but if my barn burned down I'd surely love it if the community showed up and made an event out of building a new one together. The fact that we generally don't behave like this seems like a malaise to me. I happen to like the vibe in my Buddhist community, and I like the experience of practising Buddhism. I've watched many people be transformed by our practices and it still gives me a buzz watching friends striving to be better people, and succeeding in whatever degree. I've also watched the internet chatter about Buddhism over many years, and come to the conclusion that it has little to offer. Text is not really suited to mediating human interactions, or communicating values. Realising this I stopped doing forums and started writing longer more considered essays instead. Comments on my blog have only reinforced my perceptions about internet interactions generally. On the whole they've not worth much. Better one hour spent talking to a real person than a 1000 hours spent online.

It is no doubt fun to exercise one's intellect. I love writing the stuff I do and spend hours doing it. But I also like solving killer sudoku puzzles. The most important thing is human relationships, which have to be lived rather than solved by logic. I suspect that it's more important to be able to have a laugh at yourself than to understand the metaphysics of Kant, or the phenomenology of Heidegger (perhaps because I can only do the first). Such things are for the intellectual elite. Certainly I admire people who can cope with that level of intellectual activity, but if I had to choose I'd rather share a good joke with someone than share a philosophical insight. Not that thinking is totally unimportant, just less important. I don't think I can be fairly accused of not thinking. Sharing ideas can be stimulating and interesting, but sharing a laugh is to experience a wordless and deeply satisfying sense of connection and empathetic resonance. And explaining the joke kills it. I discovered today that this opinion is not original.
The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent. 
Henry Menken. "Critical Note" in "Clinical Notes" in The American Mercury (January 1924), also in Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924) [My emphasis] Via Wikiquotes.

So, I still do the stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and I enjoy the experience. Which is what makes me a Buddhist. Yes, their are flaws in Buddhism and in Buddhists, but perfection is a myth. There are no perfect human communities, but at least our community is striving individually and collectively to improve itself. It's all very well being a critic, but I'll finish with the words of Jean Sibelius:
"Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.

08 April 2011

Positive Criteria for Moral Decision Making in The Kālāma Sutta

LAST WEEK I DWELT in some detail on the negative criteria in the Kālāma Sutta - trying to tease out the intended meaning of the terms individually and collectively. My conclusion was that the intention of the text was not to provide general decision making criteria, or to encourage 'free thinking' - as the popular account would have it - but to link thinking about morality to experience. This week I'll be continuing my exploration of the Kālāma Sutta taking up where I left off by looking at the positive criteria that follow and showing that the 'experiences' in which decisions about what we should do, or how we should live are rooted in our relationships to other people.

The positive section of the text begins like this:
Yadā tumhe, kālāmā, attanāva jāneyyātha – ‘ime dhammā akusalā, ime dhammā sāvajjā, ime dhammā viññugarahitā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā ahitāya dukkhāya saṃvattantī’ti, atha tumhe, kālāmā, pajaheyyātha.

When you know for yourselves -- 'these things are unskilful, these things are offensive, these things are criticised by the intelligent, these things undertaken and accomplished result in harm and misery' -- then you should abandon them.
The word kusala (Sanskrit kuśala) means 'clever, skilful, expert'; and therefore in the moral sphere 'good, meritorious', where it is synonymous with puñña 'merit'. None of my dictionaries offers an etymology for kusala, and I cannot propose one. This leads me to suspect that, like other words beginning with 'ku' (e.g., kumāra), it might be a loan word from the Munda family of languages.[1]

It's not unusual to read this injunction to abandon the unskilful separately from what comes after, but this can lead to doubtful conclusions. Immediately following this paragraph is a series of questions and answers which we can easily condense. The Buddha asks the Kālāmas about the effects when craving, aversion, or confusion arise inwardly in a person. The Kālāmas agree that when these arise it is harmful because the result is that, overwhelmed and overcome by these mental/emotional states, the person causes physical harm, takes what is not given, goes with others' sexual partners, and speaks falsely. They encourage others to behave like this as well. The message here is that behaviour rooted in unskilful states is harmful. The whole passage is about how we should live; i.e., morality, not what we should think or believe. It is not about assessing spiritual teachings or philosophical positions generally. This is further emphasised when the Kālāmas agree that such behaviour is offensive (sāvajja) [2], criticised by intelligent people, and results in harm and misery. The whole passage is repeated accentuating the positive, i.e., that acting from non-craving, non-aversion, non-confusion is beneficial. We note that the Kālāmas are apparently in full agreement with the Buddha about morality and virtue.

The next section of the sutta describes the ideal Buddhist (ariya-savaka) dwelling in the four brahmavihāras: mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā. This description is not linked to what comes before in the Kālāma Sutta. However, if we compare the version at SN 42.13, then we see that what is intended is that the person who cultivates virtue ends up dwelling in these four sublime states. This is a point I have not seen made before. Here the cultivation of these qualities (mettā, etc.) is achieved through practising virtue, not through seated meditation! The brahmavihāra states are seen as active, and characterise the quality of our relationships and interactions with other people. The precepts can be seen to epitomise the kind of behaviour that conduces to brahmavihāra. So it becomes clear that "these things" (ime dhammā) are not 'things' in general, but our willed acts of body, speech and mind in relation to other people.

Many readers and commentators seem to have taken this sutta as suggesting that it's up to each of us to decide for ourselves how to think or behave. They take it as a confirmation that the Buddha preached something like the Romantic view of natural virtue spontaneously emerging in the individual free of social constraints. [3] In fact the Buddha's view was not like this at all. For the Buddha, the way of virtue was one of restraint (saṃvara) and vigilance (appamāda); where remorse (hiri) and shame (ottappa) were uppermost in the mind; and one restricted sensory input by guarding the senses (indriyesu guttadvāra) and carefully avoiding contact with disturbing influences (yoniso manasikāra). Buddhist morality, as we find it in these early sources, is in fact about carefully and strictly conforming to a set of norms which provides the mental clarity and calm that enable effective meditation. The Buddha apparently had more in common with Puritans than with Romantics!

The reader influenced by this Romantic view finds a contradiction between the negative criteria "don't use 'we respect the toiler'" ( samaṇo no garu) and the positive criteria "these things criticised by intelligent people... should be abandoned" (ime dhammā viññugarahitā... pajaheyyātha). The conflict here arises because of reading the former as saying we shouldn't listen to anyone else's opinion, and the latter as the opposite - and such readers usually have clear preference for the former! A little historical info might be useful at this point. The samaṇas were a mixed bunch. At the extreme end were people who believed that any action caused harm, and that the future effects of karma could be mitigated through suffering in the present. As a result they tortured themselves, and the apotheosis of their practice was to sit down rigidly unmoving, and starve to death. The story goes that the Buddha himself once followed this path, but abandoned it at the last minute, before finding his own path. At the other end were samaṇas who were utter nihilists, believing that no action could possibly have consequences. If I am correct about how to read this text then the Kālāmas were asking who they should follow; i.e., whose morals should they should emulate. And emulating a person torturing themselves or starving themselves to death, or emulating someone who did not believe in moral consequences, would not be sensible (at least from the Buddhist point of view). One might feed a samaṇa out of generosity, or to gain merit. One might politely listen to their dhamma. But to emulate their morality would be folly.

On the other hand, consider who is meant by viññū (Sanskrit vijña). The word is often translated as 'the wise' but really just means 'knowledgeable'. The viññū are simply intelligent people, wiser in the sense of 'older and wiser' perhaps, not necessarily in the sense of awakened. The Cūḷaniddesa provides a representative list of synonyms for viññū: learned (paṇḍito), sensible (paññavā), intelligent (buddhimā), knowledgeable (ñāṇī), clear-headed (vibhāvī), and clever (medhāvī) [Nd ii 125]. I suggest that in fact they were probably the older members of the community - elders who were skilled at inter-personal relationships and had learned how to get on with everyone. We still rely on these people in groups to help navigate personal differences between members. So in fact there is no contradiction in these two criteria when they are seen in the proper context. Together they tell us not to pay attention to extremists, but emulate those who have the practical skill of getting along with people.

Against the Romantic view we must also balance another fact. If you read through the Vinaya you will find an enormous number of rules are made because the monks upset the villagers and towns-people with their impiety. I've noted passages, for instance, where people complained about monks singing like villagers (Vin ii.108), I've written about the episode of the sneeze. Similarly the Buddha tells the monks not to insist on a particular language, but to use the local dialect (Vin ii.139 & M iii 234-5). The rules of etiquette in the Vinaya were very much concerned with social harmony, and to some extent were a negotiation between the lay people and the bhikkhus. Most of the rules can be seen as curbing the natural impulses - especially the sexual impulses - of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

To quote Jamie Lee Curtis's character in A Fish Called Wanda: "The central message of Buddhism is not 'every man for himself!'" [4] Indeed, the morality outlined in the Kālāma Sutta is quite the opposite of this. Nor is it about 'cause and effect' in a mechanical sense. The feedback that we need for understanding morality comes from interacting with other people. I would go so far as to suggest that the idea of the individual in the sense that we mean it in the modern West - the individual with rights and autonomy - is completely absent from the Buddhist canon. It is true that the Buddha recommended solitary meditation for the purposes of attaining liberation. But this was a solitary retreat in many cases lasting only days or weeks. In fact, everyone in the canon can be seen as embedded in the fabric of society. Even the renouncers who gave up the home life remained in relationship with householders - depending on them for food, clothing and (at times) shelter.

Reading this sutta in Pāli, studying it in detail, pondering the meaning of it, and looking into the parallel texts has changed my thinking about Buddhist morality. I had not seen how morality is rooted in social interactions. It has made me see that Western Buddhist discussions on morality are, on the whole, far too abstract and too often divorced from the context of human relationships. Ironically, I imagine my main Buddhist teacher would be surprised to see that I had not understood this earlier. It is one of the central points that he makes in his 1984 book on morality: The Ten Pillars of Buddhism (which examines the ten precepts collectively and individually). He says for instance:
The Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings. (p.57)
What's more, thinking about this text has helped to make clear the value of Sangha, of living amongst a community that shares our values, and appreciates the virtues we cultivate; and which can reflect back both our successes and our failings in a helpful way. We need to participate in a particular kind of moral ecology; to interact with people on this shared basis. Without this positive social environ-ment we are seriously hampered in trying to lead a good life as understood by the Buddha in the Kālāma Sutta.


  1. The only related form I can identify is kusalatā 'skilfulness' which tells us nothing. Kusa is the name of a grass (Poa cynosuroides aka Desmostachya bipinnata) but I can see no connection. Loan words from Munda are discussed in: Witzel, Michael. (1999) 'Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).' Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 5 (1).
  2. Sāvajja is often translated as 'blameable', but this strikes me as an awkward expression. Sāvajja parses as sa- 'with' + avajja. There is some dispute over the etymology of avajja, though the obvious a-vajja (= Sanskrit a-vadya) is thought unlikely by PED. Childers considered this to be related to hypothetical Sanskrit *ava-varjya < *ava-vraj 'not forbidden' though this doesn't fit the usage since we are discussing bad behaviour. PED notes that the Pāli commentarial tradition prefers ava-vad (Skt *ava-vadya) 'to blame'; however cf BHSD which lists avavāda = Pāli ovāda. PED defines avajja as 'low, inferior, bad'. C.f. BHSD avadya-bhīru 'dreading reproach'. MW also lists avadya as 'low, blameable'; c.f. MW ava-dyat 'breaking off'. I think PED is probably wrong here and the simplest explanation is that avajja = Sanskrit avadya. Avajja then literally means 'not spoken of, unmentionable'. In plain language doing something conventionally unmentionable is 'offensive'.
  3. David L McMahan traces this line of thought to Buddhist modernisers, e.g. Dwight Goddard and especially D. T. Suzuki. (The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press, 2008.) See especially chapter 5 - where my main Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, is also mentioned. Another view on Romanticism and Buddhism is articulated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro in a recorded lecture: Buddhist Romanticism [the main part of the lecture is about 25 mins.]
  4. The full quote is "Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not 'Every man for himself.' And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up." IMDB.

image: The Three Graces. Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822)

23 July 2010

The Buddha's Refuge

DharmacakraA lot of the Buddha's biography seems to be in the form of psycho-drama. His internal processes get acted out, and the 'players' are a variety of archetypal characters including Māra ['the killer'] and Brahma-sahampati [God] and the Earth Goddess [Pṛthvī]. Often the Buddha is shown as considering a dead end before coming up with a brilliant but previously unforeseen solution. In a brief episode found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Gārava Sutta, [1] the Buddha is faced with a dilemma in the aftermath of his breakthrough to awakening:

dukkhaṃ kho agāravo viharati appatisso, kaṃ nu khvāhaṃ samaṇaṃ vā brāhmaṇaṃ vā sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti?

Miserable indeed the disrespectful and rebellious dwell. Which ascetic or priest should I reverence, respect, and dwell in subordination to?
The Buddha then considers whether there is anyone more developed than himself to which he could subordinate himself to. But he sees no-one more accomplished than himself in virtue, meditation, wisdom (i.e. the three-fold path); nor in liberation or the knowledge and vision of liberation. In short he sees no one in any realm to whom he could be a subordinate - not even amongst the gods. Then he decides:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti.

I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very thing to which I have fully-awakened.
At this point Brahma-sahampati turns up to praise the Buddha for his decision. He reveals that this is what all the Buddhas of the past have done, and all the Buddhas of the future will do.

This is a pretty literal account and partial translation of the text. I wanted to convey the raw experience of reading the text in Pāli. But in taking this approach I must then retrace my steps and say more about the context. Indian society, like most societies, was and is hierarchical. We are probably familiar with the ideas of class (varṇa) and caste (jāti). Each person was embedded in a web of social links and obligations. The Chinese called awareness of, and obedience to, this aspect of life: filial piety (; xiào). One had obligations to one's parents for instance, to one's spouse and children, and to the king. Another hierarchy existed in religious circles which may have been modelled on social norms. A student lived, as they say, at the feet of their teacher. In taking a teacher one became their disciple, their servant, and one obeyed without question every instruction. Compare this passage from the Visuddhimagga:
Ācariyassa niyyātentenāpi ‘‘imāhaṃ, bhante, attabhāvaṃ tumhākaṃ pariccajāmī’’ti vattabbaṃ.

Dedicating himself to a teacher he should say: "I give up this personality [attabhāva] to you, Sir." (Vism iii.126)
Regarding the word attabhāva PED says it can mean "one's own nature; person, personality, individuality... life, rebirth". So the interpretation could be "I give up my life to you". The point is that without a total commitment from the student, the teacher will not teach them. In the Gārava Sutta three words are used to express this teacher/pupil relationship: gārava, paṭissa, and upanissāya. These more or less correspond to the body, speech and mind aspects of the person.

The word gārava (Sanskrit gaurava) is related to 'guru'. The verbal root is not very clear in either Pāli or Sanskrit, but the Indo-European root appears to be *gu̯er-. The basic meaning is 'heavy', and cognate words in English are: from Latin 'gravis', gravity, grave; from Greek 'barus' baritone, barium. So the 'guru' is someone who is weighty, who has gravitas. The form of Sanskrit gaurava is a taddhita compound which lengthens the root vowel to au, and has the sense of 'related to or connected with what is weighty', which is to say that the student experiences the gravitas of the teacher, how they live their lives, and responds appropriately (gau devolves to in Pāli). The attitude of the disciple is 'gārava' respectful. [2]

The word paṭissa (also patissa) evokes another aspect of India spiritual life. The root here is √śru 'to listen, to hear'. It is one of the oldest spiritual traditions that the way to learn from a teacher is to pay attention to what they say. Older still is the belief that the sages who composed the Vedic hymns first 'heard' them in ecstatic trances brought on by the drug soma. [3] Truth/reality (both sat) and speech (vac) have always been very closely linked in India, even after the introduction of writing. Unlike contemporary Western society where, except in specialised situations, the word of any person counts for less than a published source, Indian spiritual tradition required personal communication, often under conditions of strict secrecy. The prefix paṭi- (Sk prati-) suggests 'towards'. So paṭissa means 'listening to', 'paying attention'. PED highlights the nature of the guru/disciple relationship when it defines this word as: "deference, obedience."

In the first passage of Pāli I quoted, the Buddha associated the lack of these qualities - appatisso and agārava - with dukkha 'misery, disappointment'. I think he must mean having no one to respect, no one to pay heed to, in other words having no teacher, is a miserable state to be because one cannot make further progress without a guide. So then he ponders under whom he might subordinate himself. Which brings us to the third word: upanissāya. This is a gerund from upanissayati 'to depend or rely on' (from the root śri 'resort'), and means 'in dependence on, protected by; near to'. In the ancient Indian religions, the religious student dwelt with their teacher, in their house, and learned everything at their feet. Of course once teachers started to become itinerant this lifestyle was modified, but the description stuck. It was rather like the old apprentice system in England. One of my Great-great-grandfathers was apprenticed for seven years. For the first 4 years he got no pay, but only board and lodgings (ie. food and a bed). Years 5 and 6 saw him receive a small allowance, and then in his 7th year he started to be paid for his work. He learnt his trade from his master, living and working under his roof and under his authority. In Sanskrit this relationship of subordination to the authority and will of the master is sometimes referred to as upaniṣad 'sitting down near' or 'sitting at the feet of the guru', though the word also came to mean 'a secret or esoteric teaching', or 'the mystery upon which something rests'; and it is the collective title of late Vedic esoteric books 'The Upaniṣads'. The Buddha is clearly concerned to find a teacher. He means to subordinate himself to a teacher, to sit at someone else's feet, as is the custom of his time and place.

So the proper attitude of the disciple, in this traditional view, is total commitment of body, speech and mind; characterised by respect for the teacher's gravitas, paying attention and obedience to the teacher's words, and subordination to the will of the teacher.

The Buddha is portrayed as being quite humble even in the face of his amazing breakthrough. However this humility is replaced by some other emotion (we're not quite sure what) when he realises that he is in no way inferior to any being in the universe (human or divine), and that it would not be right for him to subordinate himself to anyone under those conditions. This speaks to the ancient Indian feeling for order. The universe is an ordered and lawful (dhammatā, niyamatā, or even dhamma-niyamatā) place. The Buddha could not take a teacher of lesser virtue, or lesser wisdom. This would be unnatural. Lacking a being to pay his respects to, he realises that he can direct those emotions towards the dhamma itself. I think dhamma here is slightly ambiguous. I suspect it is deliberately so - the Buddha will respect the thing (dhamma) which he awakened to - whatever that might be! It could mean any or all of: 'thing, teaching, truth, nature, order'. There is an emphasis in the Pāli: tam'eva dhamma 'that very thing' or 'only that thing'. That thing, that very thing, is what we call "The Dhamma", i.e. the Dhamma as a refuge, or as one of the three precious gifts (aka the three jewels) which though singular has many aspects and facets.

  1. Gārava Sutta. SN 6.2 PTS S i.139. My translations. Also translated in Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.233-4; online translation by Thanissaro @ Access to Insight.
  2. Various theories have been put forward regarding the identity of the original soma - since the contemporary soma is not a drug. Since the sages had visions it has often been assumed to be an hallucinogen. However a good case has been made for it be ephedra - If you watch Michael Wood's excellent documentary on Indian history you can see him procuring and taking ephedra in episode one. For more scholarly (less empirical) approaches see The Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies: especially Vol. 9 (2003), Issue 1 (May).
  3. Those with some Sanskrit may enjoy this little exercise from Deshpande's Saṃkṛtasubohini textbook (chp 14, exercise १.५).
    गुरुः कथं गुरुर्भवति? यतो गुरोः ज्ञानं गुरु भवति । ततस्स गुरुर्भवतीति गुरवो वदन्ति । केषाञ्चित् तु लघु भवति । ततस्ते गुरवो एव न वर्तन्त इति सर्वे कुशलाश्सिष्या मन्यन्ते ॥

28 May 2010

Hierarchies of Values

I wrote last week about Philology and the idea that a text has one true reading over and above the multitude readings that individuals with varying hermeneutics find. [see: Truth and Philology] A few days later I listened to a BBC radio documentary about science and god, and in one segment evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson commented that religious beliefs can have "truth value" and "survival value". The latter determine how we will behave and are therefore of much greater importance to evolution than the former. In fact he suggested that the truth value of beliefs counted "for zip" in evolutionary terms. I started to think about the various kinds of values that affect what we believe, for instance: survival, utility, power, aesthetic, truth. I was aiming for a broad overview and I don't claim this is a complete list.

What occurred to me was that the list had some similarities with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you don't know about Maslow it would be a good idea to glance at a summary. Maslow was a psychologist who was interested in what contributed to a happy healthy human being. He saw that in order for someone to fulfil their potential certain things had to be in place. His hierarchy then placed broad categories of needs in the order that they need to be fulfilled - often visually represented as a pyramid. The needs are
  1. physiological: food, water, shelter
  2. safety: dealing with immediate threats to life
  3. social: belonging, love, affection
  4. esteem: status within a social group and self-esteem
  5. self-actualization: fulfilling our individual potential.
The point is that if needs lower down the pyramid are not met, then it is difficult to try to meet those above, for example we're not so worried about self-esteem if we are starving. I think the idea works best at the lower levels. Exceptions become apparent such as the lonely and alienated artist creating their best work, or the hermit who does not need or want company. Perhaps it is best to think of Maslow's hierarchy as a very broad generalisation that is true most of the time despite obvious exceptions.

If Sloan Wilson is right and the survival value of religious belief is more significant than the truth value, then this opens up an interesting discussion. Survival is all to do with the lower two levels of the pyramid. Factual truth, while sometimes also having a survival value, is a more abstract value and belongs higher up the hierarchy and so will only become important when lower values have fulfilled their function. I want to look at belief in karma as an example and see how this scheme might apply.

Karma is not simple homogeneous belief structure. There are wide variations in how it is understood and applied. But let us say for argument's sake that karma concerns the way behaviour in this life determines the circumstances in which 'we' will be reborn. This is not too far from what most Buddhist traditions say is true about karma.

In terms of factual truth we are not in a position to say one way or the other whether karma is true - and this is true of any and every variation of karma belief. To demonstrate any theory of karma we would need to have reliable access to memories of former lives, or we would need to have the ability of the Buddha to predict the destination of the deceased, and confirm our predictions. What we have are a series of oft-repeated generic anecdotes, and references to exceptional individuals who display precocious talent. They are pretty poor evidence, though sufficient for some. We do have a further dilemma here because doctrinally the individual reborn is not the same as the one who acts, nor different, but arises in dependence on causes. So in fact the link between one being and another is quite difficult to understand. Personality clearly does not survive death, so how can memories? Are memories somehow distinct from personality? Are memories stored in some way external to the being, and in this case why are they specific to the individual? The problem of continuity is profound - in order to literally recall past lives there must be continuity, which is tantamount to proposing an ātman. If we are not simply credulous, we quickly end up in a metaphysical tangle.

However, the belief in karma has other values. One of Sloan Wilson's suggestions is that beliefs are important because they help communities establish what is acceptable conduct and how the community should be organised. Clearly religious beliefs are powerful in this sphere. Karma is part of a moral system which emphasises personal responsibility. In small societies every one knows what everyone else is doing. In a group of up to 150 (the higher Dunbar number) it is difficult to keep breaches of moral codes secret - everyone knows everyone else's business. But in larger groups it becomes progressively more difficult to know the business of others, and secrecy is more possible, and perhaps more likely. One of the functions of the belief in karma is to 'police' unobserved actions. The fact that we are not caught, not observed acting, does not exempt us from the consequences. This kind of proxy observation, then, is a useful tool for social cohesion because it encourages everyone to follow societal norms even when unobserved or when there is no chance of being caught doing something wrong. Values of fairness and safety will be served if everyone 'knows' that the consequences of actions follow even when done in secret.

On the individual level karma offers a general principle, alongside the ethical guidelines that inevitably accompany it, for helping an individual determine how to behave. As I have often repeated, the Buddha equated karma and intention. So not only are one's secret actions covered by karma, but even one's private thoughts! Karma represents a pan-opticon more pervasive than anything dreamed up by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who coined the term. This potentially sinister view of karma need not result in a Catholic Church style set-up with 'priests' overseeing the process and moderating 'forgiveness'. In early Buddhism, indeed, there is no forgiveness just consequences, though interestingly later Buddhists changed this and allowed for even the unforgivable actions to be ameliorated, and for god-like beings to intercede and save the sinner from themselves. Karma is a system that needs no human intervention and this is part of the beauty of it. There is no role for a persecuting authority figure disguised as a forgiving intercessor, who gains an advantage over us by knowing our dirty secrets. The individual is empowered.

Despite the doubtful truth value of the belief, it seems clear that individuals and societies would be better off if they believed in some form of karma. The karma doctrine has clear survival, safety, social, and self-esteem value by helping people to behave in ways that naturally maximise these. Because the goals of the belief system are expressed in broad general principles they are not specific to one time, place, or culture. Ultimately having these more basic needs met supports the search for liberation. The belief in karma has advantages over beliefs in overseeing gods, or a surveillance society, because it is impersonal. Yes, it dictates that suffering is caused by unwholesome actions, but karma is not subject to the foibles of gods or people: karma is not vindictive, it is not vengeful, it does not demand worship or sacrifice.

There is a minor problem in deciding which form of the karma doctrine to believe in. Do we accept that everything is due to our previous actions, or are there other less personal causes operating in the world? I've explored the early Buddhist view on this in my essay Is Karma Responsible for Everything? To quote from my conclusion in that essay:
The idea that everything that happens is a result of kamma is a common enough wrong view to have a name: Pubbekata-hetu-ditthi (literally 'the with-past-actions-as-cause view'). For a canonical discussion of this you could try the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 101). Bhikkhu Thanissaro's version on Access to Insight comes with a useful introduction.
However people in different traditions will probably find it more conducive to follow the karma belief of their own tradition. We do need to be clear that we cannot assert the karma belief as factually true, but we can point to it's pragmatic usefulness. In this I think I may differ from Stephen Bachelor who acknowledges that such beliefs can only be provisional (hence the phrase 'agnostic Buddhism'), but does not assert the value of them.

image: Jacob's Ladder by William Blake.

02 April 2010

A Lecture on the theme of Illness

Antiochus and Stratonice
I first came across this story from the vinaya (Vin i.301) and Sangharakshita's book A Guide to the Buddhist Path, and then later a fuller version in his talk: "A Case of Dysentery". I've always found it extremely moving. This is no allegory, and it is not ambiguous. Quite simply the Buddha requires that members of his community care for each other, most especially when they are ill. To not do so is a wrongdoing (dukkaṭa) - wrongdoing here is quite a literal translation. The text speaks for itself, so rather than saying much more, I'll simply give you my translation and add one or two comments at the end. 

The Pāli title of this passage is Gilāna-vatthu-kathā 'A lecture on the theme of illness', hence my title.

Lecture on the Theme of Illness

Once there was a monk who was afflicted with dysentery. He lay on the ground covered in his own shit and piss. The Lord was out on walkabout with Ānanda as his sidekick, when he approached the dwelling of that monk. He saw the monk lying in his own filth and went up to him.

"Monk", he asked, "what is wrong with you".

"I have dysentery Lord".

"Is there no one to care for you?"

"There is not Lord."

"But why not?"

"I don't do anything for the other monks, so they do not care for me," he told the Lord.

Then the Lord asked Ānanda to go and fetch some water so they could bathe the monk. Ānanda agreed and soon returned with water. The Lord sprinkled water over the monk, and Ānanda washed him. Then, with the Lord at his head and Ananda at his feet, they lifted him up and put him to bed.

Then the Lord called the monks together and questioned them.

"Monks", he asked, "is there a sick monk in that dwelling there?"

"There is Lord" they replied.

"And what illness does he suffer from?" asked the Lord.

"He has dysentery, Sir."

"Is there no want to care for him?"

"No, Sir."

"Why is that?"

"Well, he is useless, Sir. He does nothing for us, so we don't care for him", the monks explained.

"Monks," said the Lord, "you have no mother and no father to care for you. If you don't care for each other, then who will care for you? If you would care for me, then tend to the sick."

He went on to say: "If a preceptor is present then they should care for you until you are well, and remain with you until you are on your feet again. Or if an instructor is present; or a fellow practitioner; or a pupil; or someone with the same preceptor, or the same instructor, they should care for you until you are well and remain with you until you are on your feet again. If none of these are present then you should be cared for by the community. If you are not cared for it is an offence of wrongdoing."

My translation is a mix this time - at times I go for modern idiom, at times I'm more conservative. The Pāli is not very fancy, and only gives the bare bones. I've tried not to elaborate on it too much, though I think it could stand a dramatic retelling.

The passage continues on to describe the ideal kind of patient and the ideal kind of nurse. There is a full translation on the Access to Insight website. Bhikkhu Thanissaro his chosen to entitle the passage in Pāli Kucchivikara-vatthu (lit 'on the theme of dysentery') and in English 'The Monk with Dysentery'. In his reference to this text Ven. Thanissaro has "Mv [i.e. Mahāvagga] 8.26.1-8; PTS: Horner vol. 4, pp. 431-34" - normally the abbreviation PTS points to the Pali Text Society's Pāli version, but in this case it refers to the Miss Horner's English translation (which mixed up the order of the texts making Mv vol 4.). The correct citation should be: PTS Vin i.301.

One small point to make here is that though there is a clear ecclesiastical hierarchy in the milieu of the Vinaya, no one is exempted from caring by their status within that hierarchy. You may be a preceptor or an instructor, but you are no less responsible for caring for the members of the spiritual community than the juniors. Perhaps we may say that the preceptor or instructor has a greater responsibility, because not only must they participate in caring, they must set an example for the others. The great danger of more senior members of the spiritual community being seen not upholding the values and virtues of the community, is that it can be used as a rationalisation for laziness, or otherwise ignoble behaviour on the part of others. Of course there is no excuse for ignoble behaviour, but we are apt to find rationalisations.

Sangharakshita gave a talk on this passage in 1982 as part of a series on incidents from the Pāli Canon. It's available from A Case of Dysentry [sic]. There is also an edited transcript of the talk (with correctly spelt title). An extract from this talk forms the section entitled 'Unfailing Mutual Kindness' in Sangharakshita's excellent introduction to Buddhism: A Guide to the Buddhist Path, p.121f. Note that Sangharakshita relied on the translations from 'Some Sayings of the Buddha', translated by F.L. Woodward (Buddhist Society, London, 1973), which now seem very dated.

22 January 2010

Sobornost & and the meaning of Sangha

Triratna Dharmacarins at the 2009 ConventionSome years ago Sangharakshita remarked that he could not find a word in any European language to describe the kind of sangha or spiritual community he envisioned "unless the Russian sobornost comes near it to some extent". [1] The term sobornost (cоборность) was used by the Russian linguist and poet Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov [2] to describe the togetherness brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox church. Its etymological root is the verb sbrat, 'to gather together'. The suffix -ost is similar in meaning to the English suffix -ness. In fact sobornost is used in the Slavonic version of the Nicene Creed for 'catholic' in the sense of 'universal'. However Khomiakov took it to mean much more than this: "[it] denotes a perfect organic fellowship of redeemed people united by faith and love". [3] He contrasted sobornost with the authoritarian unity of the Roman Church which denied the individual, and the fragmented individualism of the Protestant Church.

Sangharakshita also referred to spiritual community in terms of a 'third order of consciousness'. The defining characteristic of the group is the submergence of the individual will in the group. When an individual threatens to disrupt the continuity of the group it will act to neutralise them: usually either by elimination or assimilation - sometimes it will both eat them up, and shit them out. The spiritual practitioner must leave behind the group and become a true individual - they must know their own mind, understand their values and attitudes and be prepared to personally live with the consequences of their actions. On the other hand individualism can be a dead end if it is self-referential. Individualists cannot agree on what is of value and so fail to offer each other support. The third order of consciousness begins to emerge when the individual realises that others share their values and ideals and they begin to live in virtuous harmony on the basis of those shared values. This may include working together to achieve goals, or like Anuruddha and his companions they may just live together in harmony blending like milk and water. [4] Individual will is not lost or submerged, but there is a coincidence of wills because of an engagement with the highest ideals and values of each. Like Khomiakov we seek not an enforced unity, nor complete independence - but a mutually responsive interdependence.

Our abstract values find concrete expression in the various sets of precepts which Buddhists attempt to follow. In the Triratna Buddhist Order we take a set of ten precepts traditionally known as the 'ten helpful actions' (dasakusalakammā), these recur throughout the Pāli Canon. [5] As you may know we use both the Pāli version in which we undertake to avoid unhelpful (akusala) actions, and an English version of Sangharakshita's devising in which we undertake to cultivate the helpful (kusala) counterparts. Of these precepts, both negative and positive, three are directed at the body, four are for speech, and three concern the mind. One way of looking at the precepts is to think of them as ideal behaviour - they represent a set of behaviours that could be expected of a Buddha. And in undertaking to follow the precepts we are seeking to align ourselves with the virtuous behaviour of a Buddha. This has two effects. On one hand it helps to prepare the mind for meditation, and indeed some suttas tell us that freedom from remorse (the benefit and reward of acting virtuously) is the beginning of the path to liberation from greed, hatred and delusion.[6] On the other hand the practice of precepts is not just preparatory but can be seen to be the path itself. If we continually try to behave like the Buddha, we are transformed by this practice. This is the idea behind the pāramitās or perfections. If we could perfect our behaviour - in body, speech, and mind - then we would in effect be a Buddha. So the precepts are not just normative, they are transformative (more than meets the eye).

Coming back to sobornost and the sangha we can say that, in Buddhist terms, sobornost is experienced when a collective of true individuals are aligned with their values by operating through the ethical precepts. Through harmonising in this way the community itself becomes greater than a simple sum of it's members alone. Yes, we must all become individuals, but if we are individualists then we we only sing our own tune and cannot harmonise. Equally we must be free to associate or not else the harmony is forced and therefore brittle and unstable.

An analogy that occurs to me is the laser. Laser, as you may know. is an acronym for 'light amplification by the stimulated emission of light'. Some substrate is stimulated - it might be a rod of ruby, or a container of gas, or a lump of semiconductor; and it might be stimulated by an electrical discharge, or an intense flash of light, or even by physical stress. Then rather than emitting photons across a spectrum of frequencies (roughly a range of colours) and in every direction of space - the substrate emits photons (particles or 'packets' of light) all of the same frequency or colour, all in the same direction. What's more the oscillations of each photon, the electro-magnetic fields, line up and reinforce each other. When they all move together in this way the photons, all the same frequency, all in the same direction, and all in step, then the energy they carry is concentrated into a much smaller area. The intensity of laser light can be so much as to melt steel, but at lower intensities laser 'beams' can be focussed to microscopic spots for use in CD and DVD players. Think also of the resonance effects we see in bridges. Many people walking instep can cause what seem like very strong structures made of steel to resonate and vibrate to the point of causing damage and even destruction. Soldiers always break step when crossing bridges for this reason.

Being together on the basis of our highest ideals and cherished virtues we are lifted above what we might achieve on our own - virtue is also subject to resonance effects! In Sobornost the individual does not assert themselves but does what they can to manifest the ideals of the Sangha. We are all lifted up together. It is the most beautiful and fulfilling form of human relationship.

  1. 'The Bodhisattva Principle' in Sangharakshita The Priceless Jewel. Windhorse Publications, 1993. p.155. Originally an address to the Wrekin Trust's 6th Annual Mystics and Scientists Conference, 'Reality, Consciousness and Order', 1983.
  2. The print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (remember print?) has a useful summary of the life and work of Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-1860).
  3. Britannica vol.6 p.840
  4. This story is in the Upakkilesa Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 128 (PTS M iii.152).
  5. See for instance: DN 5, MN 114, AN 10.178-197. These ten precepts are also found in Mahāyāna texts and are used in the Shingon School.
  6. See especially: Kimatthiyasuttaṃ, Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.1 'The Benefits of Virtue'

image: members of the Triratna Buddhist Order gathered in front of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, 2009.