Showing posts with label Interfaith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interfaith. Show all posts

30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

Indian HistoryIn discussing the time of the Buddha it is axiomatic, especially in Buddhist accounts, that Brahminism was the main religion of the Āryan peoples who dominated the Ganges valley at that time. Buddhism is sometimes seen as a reaction against Brahmin orthodoxy, or even as a reform movement within it. While the latter view is clearly ridiculous, the former is backed up by many satirical and polemical texts which have Brahmins, and and their religion, in their sights. I have written about some of these before. The Brahmins are credited with the ideas of karma and rebirth, and with the idea of ātman as an immutable essence of the person. Also at this time, often viewed as an offshoot of Brahmanism were the Śramaṇa movements which denied the Vedic authorities and held a wild variety of views about the world and pursued a variety of religious practices, the most characteristic being severe austerity. Recently scholars have proposed a different model of India in the 5th century BCE in which the Brahmins were not dominant in the Magadha region and, in fact, did not become so until around the beginning of the common era.

Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst, building on a lifetime of Indological research, proposes that although speaking Indo-Āryan languages the Magadhans - centred around the area of modern day Bihar - were culturally distinct from the Brahmins of the western Kuru-pañcala region - the area around modern day Delhi. Bronkhorst suggests that, in fact, Brahmins saw the eastern Ganges valley region as wild and highly undesirable. Brahmins were moving Eastwards, none the less, and creating the conditions to extend their hegemony.

The idea of two cultures eventually merging is supported by archaeological evidence in the form of styles of pottery. One of the features which differentiated the Magadhans was the making of round funeral mounds (precursors of the stūpa). The Brahmins, who preferred square mounds, left negative comments about them in their texts. The two cultures preferred, at least for some time, different styles of government. A feature of Māgadha, for instance, was the small oligarchical state. It was in this kind of state, where a small number of senior men governed, that the Gotama the Buddha was said to have been born. Other Māgadhan states were more like city states ruled over by a king. Geoffrey Samuel, who has independently proposed a two culture model, suggests that the two regions developed contrasting images of kingship: the warrior king (cakravartin) and the wisdom king (dharmarājā) were associated with the western and eastern ends of the Ganges Valley.

Meanwhile, in Māgadha the śramaṇa tradition was developing a series of new religious ideas which were to revolutionise the Brahmin world view. It was in Māgadha that the three notions which came to define Indian religion were developed: karma, rebirth, and ātman (the immutable Self). Contrary to the received tradition, Bronkhorst argues that the early Upaniṣads show the Brahmins in the process of assimilating these ideas. They show at times, for instance in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BU), a form of rebirth (actually redeath, punarmṛtyu) not linked to karma; and then in the same text, in a section believed to be later in time, a version of rebirth linked to actions in life. In the first chapter of BU ātman often means simply "body".

The Jains believed that all actions - both voluntary and involuntary - accumulated 'dust' on the jīva or soul. This weighs the soul down to earth. Austerity can burn up old karma, allowing the soul to be lightened and eventually liberated. They therefore pursued self-mortification to extremes. It was this kind of practice which the Buddha is said to have engaged in during his time as an ascetic. The Ājivakas, although believing in the notion of karma, did not believe that it could be mitigated, and so were more or less fatalistic - one could be liberated but it would take 8,400,000 aeons whatever you did. However, both believed that, actions having consequences, the best thing to do was not to act, and this taken to the extreme resulted in lying down and dying from starvation or thirst. A less extreme version of this was to refrain from moving for long periods of time, and to reduce food to an absolute minimum - the basis of their austerity practices. It was the Ājivakas who first developed the idea of a 'self' which did not participate in the actions of the person, and was not sullied by the consequences of such actions - although it was still bound to continual rebirth.

Karma, Rebirth, and an independent eternal self were to become the pre-occupations of the Brahmins as we see in the Bhagavadgītā, a text which seems to define modern Hinduism if any text can. Brahmins gave rebirth their own spin. Karma changed from being the special ritual actions associated with the sacrifice, to being actions performed in accordance with one's caste duty (dharma). The self is shown by Kṛṣṇa to be untouched by actions and thus it is Arjuna's caste duty to slaughter his relatives in battle, and he is not to worry since the ātman (either his or his relatives') cannot be killed or stained by the apparently 'sinful' action of murder. What emerges in the earliest Upaniṣads is a kind of hybrid of the old Vedic sacrificial religions - with the gods Indra, Soma, Agni at the centre - and the new ideas which featured Brahman as a kind of universal principle, and as time went on as Brahmā a creator god.

Signe Cohen has shown that the Upaniṣads, as well as recording the ideas of the new hybrid Brahminism, highlight internal issues of authority. The Bṛhadāranyaka, for instance, asserts the value of the Yajurveda over the much older Ṛgveda. This can be seen in the pre-eminent position of Yajñavalkya (the legendary composer of the Yajurveda) and the relatively lowly Ṛgvedic priests whom he defeats in debates, and one of whom is shown being taught by a Kṣatriya which is a reversal of the Brahminical social order. So there were tensions within parts of the Brahmin community, with innovators vying for influence. Significantly, the Bṛhadāranyaka is associated with the eastern extreme of the Brahminical heartland - where it would have had a greater exposure to the new ideas. Although it is common to speak of "Upaniṣadic" ideas, practices, or texts, in fact, the Upaniṣads are very heterogeneous - both compared to each other and even, at times (in the BU, for instance), when comparing sections within a text.

Buddhism developed on the margins of Māgadha where it overlapped with the Brahminical territory. The Buddha rejected the mainstream Māgadhan religious views of the Jains and Ājivakas; rejected the new hybrid Brahmanism being developed by eastern Brahmins, often associated with the Yajurveda traditions; and rejected the traditional Vedic sacrificial religion. However, he appears to have been quite knowledgeable about each of them - at least enough to compose satires and polemics.

In my own research I have been exploring parallels in idiom between the Pali texts and the early Upaniṣads, especially the BU. The fact that the Pāli texts are aware of the themes and idioms of the BU may previously have suggested that the Buddha might have known about this text - taking into account that it was an oral tradition with several versions. However, we now have to be more cautious. The early Upaniṣads are dated earlier than the Buddha on the basis that the earliest Buddhist texts seem to be aware of Upaniṣadic themes. But now we may say that the Buddhists were as likely to be responding to these ideas in Jain or Ājivaka circles. Both BU and the Pāli texts might have been drawing on a common pool of Māgadhan ideas and language. And actually this makes better sense, because the Brahmins were jealous of their teachings and tended to keep them secret! Not being a Brahmin (by most accounts anyway, and despite having a good Brahmin surname - Gautama!) the Buddha wasn't in a position to know the contents of the secret teachings (which is one way of translating the word 'upaniṣad'). If the secret teachings were in fact a Brahminical adaptation of Māgadhan teachings, which the we can be fairly sure the Buddha was exposed to, then this would better explain their presence in the Pāli texts. We also know that some Pāli texts, particularly the Dhammapada, seem to have drawn on a common pool of wisdom verses which were not specifically Buddhist or Brahminical.

This is a very different picture of history. Admittedly it is somewhat speculative and will need to be tested with further research - the book is only a year old and likely only to be available in university libraries, although it draws on Bronkhorst's many previous publications. However, I think it is plausible, and that is already corroborated by Samuel and to some extent by Cohen. It is certainly a more nuanced view of India circa 500 BCE. Some work remains to be done to reassess earlier research to see if what we already know makes more sense in this framework than it did previously. My initial feeling is that it does make more sense.

One thing that it highlights is the folly of trying to understand the socio-historical aspects of Buddhism without reference to the context which the Buddha operated in. Certain ideas and practices make better sense in a broader perspective than Buddhists are usually operating in. Sadly, Bronkhorst's book is a very expensive item at more than £130, and not likely to be available outside major university libraries. But you should be able to get your local public library to get it on "Inter-Library Loan". Cohen is similarly very expensive, but happily Samuel's is more reasonably priced and a good read.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.
  • Cohen, Signe. 2008. Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. Leiden : Brill
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra : Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wynn has just published a thoughtful review of Greater Magadha on H-net reviews.

13 June 2008

It's up to us!

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
(unsourced and possibly apocryphal)

I recently accompanied my mother to a church service at King's College. Durelle is a Christian and wanted to go to church on Sunday anyway. I am interested in the King's College Chapel as a beautiful sacred space, and in the wonderful choral music that accompanies services there. It happened to be Whit-Sunday (or Pentecost) , an important Christian festival, and as such a guest speaker gave the lesson. Professor John Harper focused on creativity as a manifestation of the descent of the Holy Spirit. I did not find this particularly convincing, but I was quite taken by the quote that he gave from St. Teresa. I immediately saw that replacing "Christ" with "the Tathāgata" would make for an interesting exercise:
The Tathāgata has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
The Tathāgata has no body now on earth but yours.
This resonates for me. Although the Buddha's have vowed to save us (from ourselves) it seems to me that we cannot afford to be complacent. In order to keep the Dharma alive we must be the hands and feet of the Buddha. Some time ago I wrote a post on the idea of Grace in Buddhism - based on a translation of the Japanese kaji (Sanskrit: adhiṣṭhāna) as "grace". This rather beautiful teaching says that spiritual practice is a two way process: the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do what they can for us, and our part is to be receptive to what they are offering.

Sangharakshita has said that an image for the spiritual community is the 1000 armed Avalokiteśvara - each of us being a hand of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, reaching out to help, provided with an eye in order to see where help is most needed. Avalokiteśvara's 1000 arms reach out to embrace all beings.

The call to action can be quite daunting. After all how can we mere mortals take up the burden of a Buddha? My approach to is to try to make a clear distinction between the ideal and what I'm capable of in practice. The ideal is universal loving kindness. The practice may be not acting out an angry impulse, or conversely doing something gratuitously generous. Such things may not "save" anyone, but they contribute to a better world. If everyone was making this kind effort then it really would be a better world. And in the long run generosity, kindness, selflessness etc are liberating.

In terms of our local Buddhist community I think this means helping others as best we can. Not everyone is skilled enough, or temperamentally suited to teaching, but those who are need to be supported. Reaching out to people who want the Dharma is demanding, and doing it without a supportive Sangha behind you is much more so - as those pioneers taking the Dharma to new towns or countries will know. Often just an enthusiastic presence at a centre can make a difference. It did for me when I first went looking for meditation instruction. Members of our community will need assistance from time to time, in all sorts of ways, and it is up to us to help them.

Compassion also means forgiving people. Forgiving them for letting us down, or even for harming us. And justice which involves harming or humiliating the other is no justice at all - the Karaṇiya Mettā Sutta makes this clear. We need to be rational about this also. If someone has harmed us, then it may not be sensible to be around them unless they have undergone a big change and sincerely renounced harm. It may be best to avoid someone who is violent. However it is important to try to see the suffering that the violent person is creating, and reflect on the consequences for them. If we wish harm or suffering on them then we too will reap the same fruit.

The quote above may be apocryphal, but this does not reduce it's applicability. As Buddhists we aim to follow the Buddha; we aim to be like him; to emulate his fine qualities and graceful bearing; we aim to in the long run become a Buddha ourselves.

image: St Teresa of Avila

26 January 2008

Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?

Many Indian ideas about ritual purity, especially with respect to the body, have made their way into contemporary Buddhism. I want to look at a few examples of this. An examination of the origins of these ideas in Brahminical thought may be cause to re-assess the relevance in contemporary Buddhism.

A couple of years ago I was showing a friend of a friend (a follower of Tibetan Buddhism) some of my thangka paintings. One of these hung at the foot of my bed so I could see it first/last thing. "You don't sleep with your feet pointed at that do you?" - there was a note of shock in the question. "It's very bad karma" she said. I pondered this for some time before coming to any understanding of it. I knew already that Buddhists were not supposed to point their feet at shrines. But why? Because in India the feet are considered ritual impure. But again why? The feet are ritually impure partly because they are in contact with the earth, and the dirt and shit that cover it. But again why the ritual impurity? I think it goes back to the famous Purisa hymn in the Rig Veda. In this cosmogonic myth the four social groups - Brahmins, Ksatreyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras - are born from the various parts of Brahma's body. It later versions it is Prajapati's body. The Shudras, serfs, are born from Brahma's feet. The Shudras are not the lowest rung on the Hindu scale, but they are the lowest rung of the people who are not considered outcasts or untouchable. Shudras are not permitted to enter temples, nor to hear the sacred mantras. This is so much a part of Indian culture - one touches the feat of a respected elder in greeting for instance - that even the new Buddhists honour it though they are frequently from backgrounds which high caste Hindus consider beyond the pale, so ritually polluting that their touch requires elaborate purification rituals involving ironically cow shit and piss. When in 1923 Dr Ambedkar drank from a tank in a Brahmin village, they tipped a load of cow shit into it to "purify" it!

But feet are not ritually polluting in Western cultures. Although foot odour is universally considered uncool at best, it is the odour not the foot itself that offends. The foot is by contrast sometimes even an object of desire in the west! Where I come from it is de-rigour, and completely natural, to go about in bare feet in summer. So why am I adopting this Brahminical value into my practice of Buddhism, which if anything denies the validity of notions of ritual purity?

Right shoulder to stupa
In the centre of the warehouse I worked in two years ago is a 7m high stupa which is both beautiful and impressive. Buddhists traditionally keep a stupa, or any revered object or person, to their right-hand side. Some people who work in the warehouse go to elaborate lengths to go around the stupa clockwise, to keep right shoulder to the stupa. Some go about it quietly, while others are (at times) vocally critical of people who dare to go anti-clockwise, showing their left-side to the stupa. But why I asked? What is the point? Because, I was told, it is traditional. I am not superstition person and I found this puzzling. Again I think this goes back to Brahminical ideas of ritual purity. Even today in India the left hand is impure because it is used for cleaning the anus after taking a dump. The Indians use water and not toilet paper for this. So the left hand is unclean, often quite literally, and one eats with the right. Hence if you revere someone you keep your left hand away from them. Additionally the outcastes were required to dress with their left shoulder uncovered, while the higher castes uncovered their right shoulder - this uncovering the right shoulder is a constant, if entirely incidental, theme of the Pali Canon.

Now I'm right handed and I wipe my arse with my right hand. So by the logic of ancient India my right side is impure and I should either go clockwise around the stupa, but walk backwards; or go the other way. But after I wipe my bum I wash my hands and consider them clean at that point. No literal or ritual pollution! My own belief that it is the quality of awareness of the significance of the stupa which is important - and I can go any way around the thing if I have the right attitude.

Tantra and ritual impurity.
My other example emerges out of the antinomian practices of the Tantra. Antinomian means "released from moral obligations". It originates in a Christian context, but with reference to Indian religion it relates to actions which are ritually impure. So the tantric yogin chooses a consort from the untouchable castes, frequents a cremations ground and messes about with bones and skulls, and consumes meat, alcohol and sexual fluids. These are some of the most polluting things a caste Hindu could do. The point is that the Buddha does not make distinctions like pure/impure . So the yogin experiences these intensely polluting activities with a view to maintaining their equanimity in the face of very strong provocation, to overcome their cultural conditioning around the notion of pollution. For the first time there is a sense of cross-over with western culture. We too have taboos around death that mean human remains are disposed of very purposefully, and according to laws and special customs. However contact with death is not ritually polluting as it is for the Brahmin - it does not require lengthy ritual cleansing for instance. Meat eating, drinking liquour, and even the odd mouthful of sexual fluid, are not particularly taboo in western society. Having sex with a low class person might be seen as tacky in some circles, but again not ritually polluting in a way that requires ritual cleansing.

So it would seem that adopting Indian antinomian practices which are entirely "nomian" (if there is such a word) in the west is a bit pointless. And yet the shrines of Westerners, and Westerners themselves, are adorned with skulls, and bones, and other reminders of death - although I think the significance is lost on most people who simply see them as reminders of impermanence. We make a big deal about the "left handed" tantra, which once again invokes the Indian left-hand-bum-wiping thing and involves acting out polluting actions, and contrast it with right-handed tantra in which one only imagines doing the dirty thing. But to us those things aren't dirty, we aren't ritually polluted by them. Some things we may find unethical, and in that case we may feel remorse if we eat meat or drink liquor, it is not the same thing as ritual pollution.

I doubt that traditional Buddhists reading this are going to want to change the tradition. Some of these things go very deep - are embedded in our canons of scripture for instance. But the Buddha was quite critical of superstition (mangalikā) and we can read for instance the Mangala Sutta as a critique of superstition and a call to just practice the Dharma - i.e. to make yourself pure by good behaviour, not through rituals; have good fortune (also mangala) through reaping the benefits of good behaviour, not through omens, divination, or other superstitions and/or rituals. Let us not turn back the clock on the age of reason in adopting this ancient religion, let us investigate the origins of superstitions and decide whether they are still relevant, and move on if they are not.


04 January 2008

Religion in India and the West

In studying Buddhism and its interactions with other religions I have been repeated struck by how different the Indian situation was and is from the West. I'm going at attempt to characterise the two situations by looking at two businesses. The Indian religious milieu is to my mind like the micro-computer market in the 1970's and 80's. Whereas Western Religion is like the telecommunications market. Both of these are dominated by an large monopolistic corporation, but the models are quite different.

Christianity has towered over the religious landscape of Europe and it's colonies for centuries now. For many years it was not only the local state sanctioned monopoly, but a Europe wide monopoly so powerful that it could dictate to kings. Heterodoxy was not tolerated. It strikes me that a similar situation existed in the US for most of the 20th century. The Bell System (aka AT&T) company's domination of the telecommunications market was near total. They owned the infrastructure for the entire telephone network, and entry into the market was virtually impossible except for a few very small niches. Bell used it's monopoly position, even used illegal practices, to stifle competition - resulting in a lawsuit by the Department of Justice. The Catholic Church too was concerned to stifle competition. We know that they used terror, torture, and murder to maintain their dominant position. The crusades were as much about making a profit as liberating the Holy Land.

If we follow this image then he break up of the Bell Company in the mid 1980's due to it's misuse of monopoly powers is matched in European Christianity by the reformation and the advent of competition in the form of Protestantism. Luther was protesting in particular about the selling of indulgences - the church offering to do the job of God (i.e. forgiveness of sins) and for a pay-off. Bell was attempting to use its enormous power to get a grip related technologies such as the fledgling computer industry. In both cases the upshot was a limitation on the power of the monopoly and the making of room for dissent/competition. Like Bell, the Church continued to be powerful. Like the Church, Bell continued to seek ways to expand their power by moving offshore and finding new markets in developing countries.

Taking this one step further I see the cellphone as equivalent to the rising popularity of both fundamentalism and non-aligned Christianity. The new technology was slow to start because it was expensive, but with the major infrastructure investment paid off, it is now cheap to offer cellphone services, and because these are closely linked to the aspirations and desires of the people, the uptake is massive. One can choose to subscribe, or to "pay as you go". Not only has the technology changed, but the market is open to competition, so that there are many cell-phone companies (which shops everywhere!). Fundamentalism was initially less popular for different reasons, but the popularity is similar to the cell-phone market now. They focus on a simple message (c.f. text messages) and focus on personal connections (with god and each other) and community. (I've previously argued that cell-phones are all about community.) Land-lines are still popular but will continue to decline in the face of increasingly personalised services, and evolving technology. Religion in the West is increasingly individualistic.

In India the story is very different. The Brahmins are still the arbiters of orthodoxy in India and this is because of an accident of history. The original inspired utterances of the sages came to be codified in a language which only Brahmins understood which helped to create and sustain their hegemony. Compare this with the beginnings of Microsoft. Bill Gates was already in business when he bought the operating system that would become known as MS-DOS, and then in a coup forged an agreement with IBM to have it installed on all of IBM's computers. The phenomenal success of IBM micro-computers made Gates a fortune. Microsoft has never been considered the best operating system by anyone involved in computers, but it is the most widely used, and dominates the market. Non-industrial software that does not work on Microsoft is destined for a small niche market.

This original success showed the way. Microsoft frequently expands by buying products from a successful start-up, re-branding it, and putting a lot of effort into marketing. The biggest example of this is Internet Explorer - now the most widely used Web-browser software. IE started life as a modified and re-branded version of the early web-browser Mosaic (now defunct). This is also the strategy of the Brahmins. The assimilation of Shiva is an example of this, but the cult of Vishnu is even more striking. Each of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu is a god from a smaller cult, incorporated into the Brahminical pantheon - including the 9th, Gautama Buddha, whose message is summed up by Vaishnavites as "be kind to animals". Microsoft also prospered by hiring successful programmers from other companies. So Charles Simonyi the designer of the early Xerox word processor "Bravo" joined MS in 1983 to create MS-Word which offered many of the same features. The Brahmins used this strategy as well. When they assimilated another cult they made the priests honorary Brahmins.

For many years Microsoft maintained it's dominance because it's software could run on any computer which used the MS operating system, and this was, because of licensing deals, any computer made by IBM, or later any computer which worked in the same way (what we used to call IBM clones). Equally the Brahmins made sure that every ritual, ceremony, and rite of passage in India required the chanting of Vedic mantras, and only they knew them.

While both religious hegemonies have maintained their dominance in the face of competition the fundamental strategies have differed. We humans, I observe, have two basic strategies when confronted with "the other" - that is with strangers, with people who are different. We of course prefer not to be confronted, but when we are we have these two basic responses which are exemplified by Christianity and Brahmanism. The Christian church on the whole has reacted by stamping out heresy. This has softened somewhat but the attitude is still entrenched. A high profile example of recent times is the Anglican/Episcopal Church's response to homosexual Bishops. The homosexual is defined as other, and while there have been many accommodations this seems to be the line beyond which some Christians are not willing to go. In the Catholic church woman are the other. We can attribute this to biblical fundamentalism, but this is to miss the essentially human response I think. After all many of the Bibles strictures are regularly overlooked - the prohibitions against usury for instance, or the setting up of market places in churches for instance (every cathedral in the UK has a shop in it!).

In India the response is quite different. The other is not destroyed if some kind of arrangement can be reached. More often than not the other is assimilated. Various cults that were distinctly non-Vedic, have quietly been welcomed to the fold - "all is one, god is good". Perhaps it is the advantage of having a pantheon rather than a monotheon, but again this is a basic human response to otherness - try to make the other one of us by conversion. If they are willing to become "us" then that's OK. Witness the concerns about immigration in the UK today - the word assimilation is heard on a daily basis in the news - the concern is "will they become English, or will they make us change?" It is worth noting that neither Islam nor Christianity have yet been assimilated in India. Is this because they do not follow the same response to otherness?

Buddhism follows the general Indian pattern. Many of the forms and conventions of Vedic India were co-opted by Buddhists in the early days. There is also a perceptible Jain influence. Later puranic Hinduism was a source. Sometimes this influence was a reaction against something by Buddhists and an attempt to create a distinction, but other times some chunk of Indian culture is lifted bodily out of it's context and "converted". Many of the Vedic/Hindu gods appear in Buddhist scripture for instance as converts to Buddhism. Indra continues to have an important role in Buddhist texts long after he has waned in the Hindu world! On the other hand this assimilation has lead to problems for Buddhists down to the present. Buddhists have had to waste a lot of energy in India arguing that Gautama is not an avatar of Vishnu. Buddhism has at times succumbed to the take over attempts - the two are equally mixed in Nepal for instance; and in front of the main temple in Wat Po, Bangkok is a Shiva lingam covered in fresh gold leaf offerings. Present day Indian Buddhists also face hostility to their conversion from Hindu Nationalists on top of assimilation attempts - paradoxical as that sounds. Buddhists marriages were recognised in Maharashtra only in 2007.

Of course both of these comparisons are over simplifications but I think they give the flavour of the differences in the religious cultures of Europe and India.

13 March 2007

Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue

Since the beginning Buddhism been in a constant dialogue with other religious traditions, which has been tolerant to some extent, but also critical and polemical. Buddhists have used parody, satire, re-contextulisation, as well as outright condemnation when the need arose. There is some really very biting parody of Brahmins in the Pali Canon, some very funny jokes at their expense! Sangharakshita is sometimes criticised, in a kind of weird reversal, for being critical of other Buddhists and expecially of Christians. It's as though we Buddhists have forgotten our own history and are buying into a modern myth which is telling us that all religion is ok, and not to rock the boat. However our own scriptures give the lie to that naive notion. Buddhism is and always has been quite a militant critic of unbelievers, and even of lax believers.

However Buddhism also has the interesting tactic of syncretising with indigenous beliefs. In China it bred with Taoism especially. Confucianists remained quite hostile because Buddhism appeared to deny filial piety - no family values for us! In Japan Buddhism formed an interesting syncretism with Shinto resulting in the identification of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, with the Great Sun Buddha, Vairocana. In Tibet there was Bon and the synthesis of Buddhism and Bon has been a very dynamic hybrid indeed. However in India there were a number of major faiths with which Buddhism interacted and syncretised. Firstly there was the Vedic religion which gave us such concepts as Brahma Vihara, and Going for Refuge. More crucially there was the later interaction with Puranic Hinduism - and especially with the worship of Siva. Siva had gone through a long process of being absorbed into mainstream Indian faith through being identified with the Vedic Rudra. This was a bit of a stretch to be honest, but the Brahmins were very good at this sort of thing, offering to make the preists of competing cults into honorary Brahmins for instance. In the Mahayana Karandavyuha Sutra we see Siva being gently converted into a Buddhist, just as Brahma and Indra were in the Pali Texts. But in the Sarvatathagata-tattvasamgraha Tantra the action has been stepped up a notch. This time Siva refuses to submit, and Vajrapani kills him and tramples on his body (which is what we see in the depictions of Vajrapani). He brings him back to life however and converts him to Buddhism - both the killing and ressurection are accomplished with mantras.

But here's something interesting: I was searching around for a pic of Vajrapani doing a two-step on old Siva and his wife, and it took some time. In a lot of images they are left out and Vajrapani is just dancing around on his own - which doesn't make a lot of sense and ignores the context for him being wrathful and stomping in the first place. An important function of Vajrapani was (right back in the Pali texts) and is (in the Tantras) the thumping of people who fail to pay homage to the Buddha. Has Vajrapani been sanitised for public consumption I wonder?

We will probably never see a depiction Jesus being trampled by Vajrapani the way that Siva is because, at the time and place the Vajrayana was emerging, Siva worship was the prevailing religion, and it was a vigorous living force and a threat to Buddhism. Christianity has been in a slow decline for centuries now, and although western culture is nominally Christian, the evidence is that it is dying. The Pope (take your pick) will occasionally say something along the lines that although Buddhism has some good points it really is a failure because it is humanist, but it's like being savaged by rabbit. And the Dalai Lama is also titled His Holiness these days. In any case Christianity is fighting on many fronts. With militant Islam constantly in the news, basic Christian values being undermined, not to mention in-fighting and schism over the status of women and homosexuals; the Christian clergy really don't see Buddhism as a problem - we smile a lot and so they think we're harmless. Tee hee.

I don't see much on offer from theology generally which which to syncretise in the West. Philosophy does seem to have some promise, but I'm not well versed enough to know how things might mix and match. I think the '-ology' which provides the richest pickings for a syncretism in the west is not theology, but psychology - especially depth psychology which had its beginnings with Carl Jung, and which sees psychology as a manifestation of archetypes of a deeper layer of reality. It is said that Jung was strongly influenced by Eastern religion, and by Tibetan Buddhism in particular. So perhaps the syncretism has already begun. Perhaps we will see Freud and Jung being trampled by Vajrapani sometime soon in a Tantra near you. Now that might be interesting.

29 November 2005

Intelligent Design? I doubt it.

Intelligent design has been in the news quite a bit lately. While it is less stupid than the idea that God created the world @ 6am, 4004BC all in six days. But I don't find the counter arguments by so-called scientists very convincing either. They don't take on the fundamental issue it seems to me. There are two parts to this: intelligent and design.

Design implies that God actually sat down and decided how things would be put together - in which case I want to know why the fuck he made hair grow out of my ears! The basic idea is that things are so complex and interlocking that it could never have evolved by chance. But anyone who has been at all alert in the last few years should have heard of how complex things can evolve from simple ones. I mucked around with the Mandlebrot Set a few years back and made some images. Incredible really just how complex things can get with very basic starting conditions and some simple rules. Of course the "intelligent design" bods go "Ah ha!" at this point because it must have been God who set up the starting conditions! The arguments start to get messy at this point because the conjectures on either side are not provable - a point to which I will return shortly. Stephen Hawking gets to this point in A Brief History of Time, and concludes (I recall) that God would not have had complete freedom to chose. In order to make a Universe like this one he would have been constrained, would have had to more or less choose exactly the parameters such as the mass and charge of the electron that we have else the universe wouldn't be able to exist. This is the anthropic principle: the universe is the way it is because otherwise we wouldn't be here. But if God had limits then his existence isn't that significant. By definition God cannot be omnipotent, he can only be semi-potent. And it becomes apparent that God could not have done much more than set up the starting conditions and then wouldn't have been able to do much. Why? Because the whole mess is so unbelievably complex that you could never accurately predict the consequences of any action - it's the old butterfly effect. God himself may be exempt, but nothing actually in creation is. If God mucked about with things they would almost certainly break down. So much for design.

It's when we get onto the 'intelligent' part that things really start to unravel however. Design I could just about imagine, but intelligent? This suggests that things were done for a purpose. Such a purpose is, and always has been, apparently impossible to discern. God moves in mysterious ways, yeah, and no one can understand what's going on! The intelligence is so alien to our own that we cannot comprehend it. Now I did a quantum physics course in my misspent youth and so I can see how this might be possible - Eigen functions are incomprehensible to the average person. But what about something like SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. What is intelligent about that? Is that the kind of thing that you or I would 'design' into life? Something so heartbreaking and miserable. Well I can tell you that I would not. It's cruel. If God designed the world then he designed it with cruelty built in. It's "The Problem of Evil", and I'm afraid that intelligent design completely fails to account for it. Mind you so does every other system of thought that I've ever come across. If there is any design it is patently pretty stupid really - we live lives of pain and suffering, we grow old, are subject to hideous diseases of mind and body, and then die. It only gets worse if you believe in rebirth because it happens repeatedly! Christians believe it's a one shot deal - get it right the first time or you're fucked for eternity. Is that intelligent? It sounds really incredibly stupid to me!

So what would a Buddhist position on this question be? Well the Buddha didn't bother with such questions. He said "you can't know the answer, and there are more important things to get on with, so don't worry about it". Or words to that effect. Now that's not an answer that would go down with Christians or scientists. But it's true isn't it. Neither of them can know the answer to question of the origin of the universe, they both take a faith approach, one based on a book, the others by a series of conjectures based on second hand observations of events which they conjecture are similar to the beginning of the universe. The basic approach is set out in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta. The Buddha reminds Malukya that he doesn't teach anything the origins or fate of the cosmos, he only teaches about suffering, and the way to end it. He's seriously offering a way to stop suffering. Even if we knew the answer would that help make the world a better place? If I knew how the cosmos started would that make me kinder? More Generous? Doubt it. So the argument is completely irrelevant. What we need to teach our kids is that actions have consequences.

Importantly, the Buddha said that his teaching was ehipassiko: literally come see. Sangharakshita describes it as "of the nature of a personal invitation". We can try it out and see if it works as advertised. I have. It does. But you have to try it yourself. Anyone who asks you to believe simply because they do (especially a Christian or a scientist) is asking you to have blind faith in them. I suggest that this is not very intelligent.