Showing posts with label Sangha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sangha. Show all posts

13 April 2012

Formalism in the Saṅgha

In the text I will discuss in this essay, it seems as though formalism had already begun to set in to the early bhikkhu saṅgha--indeed what it appears to show is that a monastic saṅgha, as opposed to a wandering ascetic saṅhga, is itself a form of degeneration recognised before the closing of the Canon. Whether this really happened during the lifetime of the Buddha or not we don't really know, but clearly it happened fairly quickly for this story to be canonical. What follows is an abbreviated translation of the Third Instruction Story (Tatityaovāda Sutta. S 16.8; PTS S ii.208) which as the title suggests is the third of three similar stories in which the Buddha asks Kassapa to admonish or instruct (ovāda) the bhikkhus.


In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place. The indeed Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him, and sat to one side. As he sat the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma.

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus speak ill, and are unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions."

"Formerly Kassapa, amongst the elder bhikkhus, there were those who lived in the wilderness (āraññikā ) and spoke in praise (vaṇṇavādina) of living in the wilderness; and they ate only from an alms bowl (piṇḍapātika) and praised living on alms food; and wore robes from rubbish heaps (paṃsukūlika ) and praised wearing such robes; and owned just three robes and praised living with only three robes; and were easily satisfied (appiccha) and praised being easily satisfied; and were contented and praised contentment; and were solitary (pavivittā) and praised solitude; and were individuals (asaṃsaṭṭha ) and spoke in praise of individuality; and exerted themselves (āraddhavīriya) and praised exertion (vīriya-ārambha) ."

"Bhikkhus who possessed such qualities where invited to sit by the elder bhikkhus. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the training'."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their welfare (hitāya) and happiness (sukkha) for a long time."

"But now, Kassapa, the elder bhikkhus are not like that."

"Now he is [thought to be] a bhikkhu who is known, famous, a recipient of the requisites of robes, alms bowl, lodging, medicine and support when ill. Him the elder bhikkhus invite to sit. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood '."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their harm (ahitāya) and unhappiness (dukkha) for a long time."

"Of [the famous recipient of requisites] one speaking rightly might say: 'the celibate practitioner is oppressed by the misfortunes of a celibate practitioner, is overcome by what overcomes a celibate practitioner.'"

Comments on the text and translation

The first thing to note is where this dialogue takes place, i.e. in the kalandakanivāpa near Rājagaha. DOPN says of the kalandakanivāpa: "Here food (nivāpa) was regularly placed for the squirrels [kalandaka]… UdA.60; SnA.ii.419"; the identification of kalandaka as 'squirrel' is difficult to substantiate – c.f. PED s.v. kalanda ‘heap, stack’; BHSD notes variant spellings karandaka-, kalaṇḍaka- and karaṇḍaka-. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Connected Discourses, p.760) has “Bamboo Grove” which may reflect the fact that the kalandakanivāpa was said to be in the Veluvaṇa or Bamboo Grove. CST notes that the Sri Lankan printed canon has instead "sāvatthi, ārāme" in a park near Sāvatthī – which brings to mind Schopen’s article 'If You Can't Remember, How to Make It Up' on the Mūlasarvātivāda-Vinaya rules for assigning a text to a city if one is not specified in the text one has. Schopen (1997).

The phrase "slow to take on" renders the compound: appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina ‘not right handed’ (c.f. padakkhina ‘to the right’). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture where the Latin derived word for left-handed is sinister. In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect. (See Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition).

The new bhikkhus (nava bhikkhu) observing the elder bhikkhus (thera bhikkhu), emulate them and thus they would be on the path to "being like that": tathā hi, or 'thus' with hi linking back to the previous sentence. The commentary glosses tathā as tesu theresu 'amongst these elders', which reinforces the sense of the newer monks becoming like the older monks.

The word ārañña is often erroneously translated as "forest" but in fact it means a place outside of the safety of the village and away from cultivated land, i.e. something more like ‘wilderness’. It is true that ārañña includes the jungle that still existed in the Ganges Plain at the time, but the word has a broader reference.

In the past, says the text, bhikkhus "wore robes from rubbish heaps" The word here is paṃsukūlika:paṃsu means 'dirt, rubbish'; kūla however means 'slope, bank' usually with reference to a river' (PED), and in this context suggests a 'heap'. So the brief meaning would be 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps' however The Dīgha Nikāya commentary glosses paṃsukūlāni as pathaviyaṃ chaḍḍita-nantakāni 'rags discarded on the ground' (DA 2.356) which suggests we should understand the word paṃsukūlika as 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps [for clothing]'.

There are two terms used to describe the bhikkhu leading a solitary life: pavivitta and asaṃsaṭṭhā. The word pavivittā suggests that they lived alone, and apart. The other word asaṃsaṭṭhā could be a simple synonym but I take the opportunity to draw out something else. It is a pp. from saṃ√sṛj 'living in groups, mixed with' (Pāli saṃsaṭṭheti? c.f. noun saṃsagga ‘contact, association’. Here I’m assuming that the negative prefix gives the word a positive force rather than being a simple negation: that the bhikkhus were once individuals rather than simply members of a group; as opposed to saying that the bhikkhus did not socialise or live in groups which is implied by pavivitta. I any case the two together emphasise aloneness.

The last quality discussed is put in two related ways: āraddha-vīriya with 'energy engaged' and vīriya-ārambha 'making a effort'. Both āraddha and ārambha are from ā√rabh 'to begin, understand', PED lists viriyaṃ ārabhati 'to make a effort'. The form of the past participle āraddha is affected by Bartholomae’s Law affecting the adding of the past participle suffix –ta to a voiced aspirated consonant so that bha + ta goes though several hypothetical stages to produce the form in use: bhta > btha > bdha > ddha.

Having observed the elder bhikkhus the new bhikkhues tend to become like them (tathattāya) This is the dative case of tathatta, an abstract noun from tatha 'thus', meaning 'the state of being thus'; The commentary explains: tathattāyāti tathābhāvāya, āraññikādibhāvāyāti attho - 'to being like that' means 'to become thus' i.e. to 'primarily becoming a wilderness dweller'. Compare the word tathāgata which is literally 'one who is thus' or 'one who is like that'.

My phrase "this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood" translates sabrahmacāri-kāma. Sa- is a prefix meaning 'with, together' and is connected with Latin simul as in English words like similar and simultaneous; cārin (cari- in compounds) is a possessive from cāra 'action, behaviour, faring' and a brahmacārin is literally 'one who behaves like Brahmā' (i.e. like God) and originally the word referred to an unmarried (and therefore celibate) student of the Vedas who by convention stayed aloof from the world. Buddhists took over this characteristically Brahmanical term to mean a celibate Buddhist practitioner, i.e. a bhikkhu. The word bhikkhu means 'a beggar', and perhaps this other term brahmacārin had a more positive connotation. Often in a Buddhist words with brahma- have the connotation of ‘holy, divine’ so a brahmacārin is sometimes referred to in English as someone who practices the holy life, though I think the loading with Theistic symbolism makes this unhelpful. So sabrahmacāri- means 'with those who live as celibate monks'. Finally kāma means love or desire. Compare also the related to the word dhammacārin ‘a dhamma-farer’, ‘one who lives by the dhamma’. Members of the Triratna Order are referred to (if only by each other) using the Sanskrit equivalent dharmacārin (masculine dharmacārī; feminine dharmacāriṇī).

Note the subtle change in emphasis here: the āraññikā is said to ‘love the training’ (sikkhā-kāma), where as the famous monk (yasassin) the recipient of donations (lābhin) is said to be ‘one who loves the brotherhood’ (sabrahmacāri-kāma). The implication is that he does not love the training, and he is not one who is pavivattā or asaṃsaṭṭḥā, solitary and individual, but is a gregarious group member (na pavivttā; na saṃsaṭṭhā).


That bhikkhus changed from being freelance solitary wanderers to collective and settled monks should come as no surprise. That early Buddhists saw this as problematic may do. This is because the winners write history and Buddhist history has been, until recently, written by settled collectivists of the kind described above: concerned primarily with getting their requisites. This text must give us pause in considering the idea that cenobitical renunciants are the ideal Buddhists or that they are the preservers of the original tradition of the Buddha. Their own texts, mostly conserved with great care, show us that this is simply not true.

The problems facing the brahmacārin can be overwhelming and defeat the brahmacārin so that they up trying to make the best of saṃsāra. They try to get as comfortable as possible, and they exploit the lay community to achieve this. At worst it is an outright scam.

Following the publication of Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, we became aware that Buddhist society was not originally two-tiered, but threefold with what Ray calls forest-renunciants, settled monastics and lay people all playing important roles in maintaining Buddhism as a way of living. The renunciants (often called bodhisattvas in early Mahāyāna texts like the Ugraparipṛccha - see Nattier) were the full time practitioners, and as the Tatityaovāda Sutta shows they were considered to be the true bhikkhus. Those less committed, or less able bhikkhus, provided the support for the bodhisattvas, and interfaced with the public, especially wealthy patrons. This function was clearly looked down upon at some time, or in some quarters before the closing of the Canon. The positive contribution they made was in setting up systems to preserve texts, and distribute the enormous wealth that soon began to accumulate in monasteries. They also acted as a kind of police force for the saṅgha, since as the Vinaya itself shows the monks were a wayward lot. But without the cutting edge of intensive meditation practice the settled monastics became worldly bald men in elaborate robes (they edged women out of the picture as much as possible). The acts of the saṅgha became mere formalism.

The Triratna Buddhist Order response to this comes on many levels. A Buddhist is not defined by membership of some group or allegiance to certain doctrines, but by the act of going for refuge. We set aside the monk/lay divide and say that commitment to practice takes precedence over lifestyle or haircut. We are all committed to practising the Dharma. To some extent each member of the Order takes on each of the three roles at different times: each of us aims to spend most of our time on Dharma practice of some kind, including right-livelihood work. For some this involves living with a family, for others living in a single-sex community or alone. All of us aim to spend some time on retreat each year, and preferably some time on solitary retreat. Obviously people have different temperaments and aptitudes, but we all contribute to a community that supports practice rather than the accumulation of assets.

The old way of concentrating resources on supporting a load of free loaders is not going to work in the West. Monasticism is and will probably remain a minority sport. Monastics, who are genuinely full-time practitioners and supported to be so, add depth to a practice community, as do those who can sustain intense solitary practice. But becoming a monk will never be a career option as it is in Asia. If we reach 1% of the Buddhist population living in full-time retreat for longish periods of time that would seem plenty. (Tibet got to 25% of the adult male population which was outrageous).

Our Western culture is in dire need of Buddhist techniques for paying attention, calming down, developing positivity and emotional robustness, and the bulk of our resources should be focussed on trying to meet that need. With some basic calm and good will we might be able to start making progress on deeper transformation - but chances are our neighbours on planet earth will need help with the basics before that. Human beings are one species. We have only one planet to live on, which we share with other forms of life. There's no realistic way to talk about being free when one's neighbours are enslaved. We must all be free, or no one is.



  • Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom.
  • Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Ray, Reginald A. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values & Orientations. Oxford University Press.
  • Schopen, Gregory. (1997) 'If you can’t Remember, How to Make it up, Some Monastic Rules for Redacting Canonical Texts.' in Kieffer-Pülz, P & Hartman, J. (Eds.) Baudhavidyāsudhākaḥ. Studies in Honour of Heinz Bechert. Swisttal-Oldendorf: Indica-et-Tibetica-Verl.

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.

19 September 2008

Virtual Community?

Over the past year or so I have been reflecting quite a bit on the Internet as a medium of communication and more recently have been pondering the phrase "virtual reality" and it's derivatives. I'm not sure when I first heard this term, but I recall reading William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1991. It was on the reading list for my post graduate librarianship course at Victoria University, NZ. I think it was recommended by Alastair Smith who I see is still on the staff there. Gibson played a big part in helping us to visualise what a virtual reality might look like, kind of like Arthur C. Clarke and satellites.

Virtual is an interesting word. It has been traced back to an Indo-European root *viltro meaning "freeman" (reconstructed roots are prefixed with an asterisk in linguistic circles). This manifests in Sanskrit and Avestan as the word vīra: "manly, mighty, heroic". And in the Buddhist technical term virya: "vigour, energy, effort, exertion". It comes into English via the Latin word vir: "man, hero". Along one branch it gives us the word "virtue" via the Old French vertu. And by another route we get "virtual" via Latin virtus, Medieveal Latin virtuosus, Middle English virtualis.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary "virtual" means:
adj. 1 that is such for practical purposes though not in name or according to strict definition. 2 Optics. relating to the points at which rays would meet if produced backwards. 3. Mech. relating to an infinitesimal displacement of a point in a system. 4. Computing. not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.
Reality is of course a very difficult thing to define especially if we are using a Buddhist frame of reference. I'll leave it a bit vague for now. It seems to me that two meanings of the term "virtual reality" are intended. The first is that it is a computing term and suggests a reality which is not physical but is made to appear so. The second is more implied which is that virtual reality is a reality that is like reality for practical purposes.

Virtual reality is technically limited to total immersion environments that are designed to stimulate more than one sense simultaneously - usually sight, sound, and touch as a minimum - and give the sense of being in another reality, or something that is like a reality for practical purposes. These attempts to create a sense of being in a different reality are successful to some extent. However with the growth of the world wide web the idea of virtual reality is being applied to more and more situations. In particular I am interested in the notions of virtual community, and more specifically virtual sangha.

A virtual community is ostensibly a community which does not exist physically, but which is like a community for practical purposes. The connections between people are electronic often with an emphasis on plain text forms of communication. "Community" previously refer to a group of people who lived in close proximity and were connected through a variety of personal relationships. In the modern west this idea of community began to break down during the industrial revolution when communities were broken up by people moving away to cities for work. In the present a minority of people still live where they grew up and have maintained the relationships of their early life. We frequently live amongst strangers, don't know or speak to our neighbours, and live a days travel or more from our family. Families themselves used to encompass many layers of relatives, but increasingly have become nuclear - parents and children living in relative isolation. And of course nowadays many parents find living together intolerable and split up. Increasingly people are becoming isolated and cut off from each other - the basic unit of society is the individual. This is still not entirely true in more traditional societies. It's clear from talking to Indian friends for instance that the family is still the basic unit of society there. Community is also used in the sense of people with, for example, a common demographic (the Black community in the UK), or interest (the sporting community). The idea here being that relationships based on something other than geographical proximity constitute a community.

The idea of a virtual community can be seen as a response to the breakdown of actual community. Marshall McLuhan's famous statement that "the medium is the message" is meant to suggest that what humans value is a sense of connection and that electronic media represent a manifestation of this desire. By providing a series of electronic communication channels linking people they are provided with a sense of being a member of a community. I argued this in 2005 with respect to cell phones for instance: one's cellphone contacts are one's community. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook tap into the same desire to feel connected (incidentally I've abandoned using MySpace due to inappropriate ads appearing on my page).

Online forums and bulletin-boards and such like are another manifestation of this. These allow disparate people to exchange public text based messages. There is a peculiar feature of online forums, even or perhaps especially Buddhist forums: they frequently descend into acrimony and bickering. Why they do this is still a moot point, but after 12 years or more of participating I've found the pattern repeats itself. Despite the obvious potential of these media they appear to bring out the worst in many people. My thinking on this is that computer mediated communication is inherently unsatisfying, especially in comparison to face to face communication. And in computing terms I think the problem is partly to do with bandwidth, and partly to the relationship we have with writing.

Bandwidth is a term which is used to refer to the capacity of a channel to carry information - it originated in radio I believe. Plain text is a very narrow medium. For instance let's say that my Facebook friend changes there main image and I write "I like your new haircut". If I am talking to a person face to face I can make these same words for instance a compliment or an insult with a flick of my eyebrows, or an inflection in my voice. I can imply many things through tone of voice, timing, facial expression, and body language while using an identical phrase. This suggests that words are less important than we usually think in communication.

The second point is that spoken language is a natural thing for most of us. Most humans learn to speak their mother toungue with almost no effort. We learn language naturally. A man of my acquaintance has deaf parents and his first language is sign-language! Writing however does not come naturally. Learning to write is difficult and laborious. Expressing ourselves in writing is not natural, and so there is a much wider range of ability than with spoken language. In fact I'd say that most people are not that good at written communication, even when they are good at oral communication. It's not that there is no skill in oratory, but that it is more natural and therefore we all acquire some skill in it.

So here we have a medium with limited expressive possibilities and which most people actually find unnatural to some extent. This is not a good starting point. And in fact I think what happens when we try to rely on internet as a substitute for face to face communication we start to feel a sense of alienation. I suspect that this is why forums are often fractious. I'm extremely doubtful as to whether the current generation of internet can provide any real sense of community. Such a community is ersatz at best. It cannot satisfy the longing for a sense of connection and belonging. This is because relationships can't be built on words.

There are some benefits to the medium. The ubiquity of internet access amongst my existing friends has meant that it is easier to keep in touch with them. It makes it easier to publish my thoughts - although this is a two edged sword as the bandwidth is now flooded with trivia and pornography making information more difficult to find. I have one or two relationships which are purely online which approximate something like friendship, but on the whole without the personal contact the relationships don't provide much in the way of satisfaction.

So I'm not very enthusiastic about the possibilities of virtual communities or even virtual sanghas as a substitute for the real thing. There is no substitute for personal contact. I would argue that virtual community is not like community for practical purposes: "virtual community" is an oxymoron. There's nothing like the real thing...

29 Sept 2010

See also this article by Malcom Gladwell: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

image: cover of Cybersociology Magazine : issue 2, 1997.

15 July 2006

The Sangha Refuge

I've been meaning to write something about the Sangha refuge for some time. The topic arose in the comments of a post on politics by Will Buckingham of I was arguing that one could not Go for Refuge to the Sangha of ordinary people, but only to the Arya or Noble Sangha. In response Will said:
"the problem is that, here and now, I have no idea who is arya in this doctrinal sense and who is not. Try as I might, I can only see more or less ordinary people. So where do I go for refuge? To go to refuge to an idea of the aryasangha seems to be rather limiting."
There are many possible rejoiners to this and I want to offer a couple of them. I think it is worth re-emphasising at this point that I believe, following my root teacher Sangharakshita, that Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels is the definitive Buddhist act, it is central to what Buddhism is, and it the unifying factor in all Buddhist practices. Going for Refuge is a hermeneutic device through which all of Buddhism may be understood. So this is not a trivial subject.

So, firstly if one is concerned not to Go For Refuge to an idea of something, then one must perforce Go for Refuge to something which is more than an idea, something which exists beyond the confines of our minds. This is much trickier than it seems at first. Of course one doesn't want to Go for Refuge to an idea, but when one starts to analyse one's experience, then what else is there? We interface with the world via our senses, and we perform mental gymnastics to make some sort of sense of the overwhelming jumble of impressions that flood in on us. In fact we do not ever simply relate to things as they are unless we see things as they are, and I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm quite there yet. So in Going for Refuge to something, we are constrained somewhat by the fact that we only have our mental pictures of things, coloured by our biases and conditioning. We only have ideas about things, we don't have things in themselves. This is a paraphrase of Yogacara idealism, which I would temper with a dose of Madhyamika logic: just because things are not real, doesn't mean that they are unreal. So we are left with a dilemma here. The solution, for me, is to Go for Refuge to my highest idea, my Ideal: the best and most wonderful idea that I can conceive of. I suppose that Will might say that this is hardly a satisfactory solution, and the practical help that a group of people offer is invaluable. But I think this is to mix two different arguments: ie the necessity of Going for Refuge, and the necessity of having Spiritual friends. I would say that both are important.

Personally I have already discovered the fallibility of the people in my Sangha - it never takes long does it? We might believe that our local Buddhist group can provide a refuge from Samsara, but I know of no one for whom this is a reality. We inevitably find our group wanting, and perhaps we go to another group seeking a refuge. And not finding it there, we move on again. For a refuge to be a true refuge, it must actually offer refuge. And what is a refuge? The Oxford Dictionary definition is quite simple: shelter from pursuit or danger or trouble. In the Buddhist sense we need shelter from craving, hatred, and delusion. So for a person, or group of people, to offer shelter from craving, hatred and delusion, they must have substantially overcome these evil influences in themselves. And this is as good a definition of the Arya Sangha as any I can think of. The Arya Sangha are those beings who have substantially overcome craving, hatred and delusion.

However this still leaves Will with a dilemma which he states thus: try as I might, I can only see more or less ordinary people. I sympathise with this to some extent. When I look at people I see... people. So where does one look in order to find beings who are a little more than ordinary? I look in two places. Firstly I look in the Buddhist scriptures, and especially in the Pali Canon. The Majjhima Nikaya is a good place to start since the people in them are quite recognisable in human terms, and against this backdrop the Buddha and the Arahants stand out, and shine. For some people the Mahayana Sutras are a great source of inspiration, but personally I find them a bit over the top, and less than respectful to some of my Pali Canon heros like Sariputta.

The other place I look is to my own imagination. I see the imagination as a threshold. Sometimes it's just 'fancy' and I'm just making stuff up. But other times my imaginings can begin to take on a life of there own, and I find myself in another realm. I thought the movie of C. S. Lewis's Narnia story a lot of sentimental bullshit with no great moral or logic, but I am struck just now by the metaphor of the wardrobe as a doorway into another realm where different rules apply and mythical creatures live. Funnily enough Will has just had a novel accepted for publication (Sadhu!) and is not a good novel a doorway into another realm, which through the application of imagination, we may inhabit for a little while? I find this quality of being transported will draw me back again and again to certain books: The Lord of the Rings, the Dune Trilogies, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Glass Bead Game, The Name of the Rose &c. The imagination, one might say, is the threshold of the Sambhoghakaya, and with some work one can begin to visit that realm and meet the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas "face to face" - many of the great Buddhist seers, such as Nagarjuna and Asangha, received teachings in this way, and the contents of these visions virtually define the Mahayana!

And of course the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are reaching out to us all the time, waiting for us to to make contact with them. They are there in the tiniest mote of dust, and in the great oceans; in the sun and moon and stars; they are there in the rising and passing away of all things; the Buddha's voice is present in all sounds, and it is constantly singing the song of impermanence. If only we can open our hearts to them they are there. One doesn't see them with the eyes, one 'sees' them with the heart.

So why settle for less?

18 March 2006

No More Heros?

In a comment on my article about ego Will of opined that celebrity Buddhist, Tina Turner, had it right when she sang "we don't need another hero". I've been thinking about this.

What is meant by this statement: we don't need another hero? Perhaps we could start by asking what is a hero? A hero, according to the OED is someone admired for their great deeds and noble qualities. Is Tina Turner saying that we no longer need to have people who we admire for their great deeds or noble qualities? Or is she saying that even if people do great deeds or have noble qualities, that we should not admire them?

And what, from a Buddhist point of view, are great deeds, and what are noble qualities? The basic noble qualities are generosity, love and wisdom. Any deed which is a manifestation of these qualities if termed skilful. We could say that any deed which exemplifies these qualities to a high degree is greatly skilful, and might therefore be considered a great deed, especially if it inspired others to emulation. What would it mean to not admire a skilful deed, either great or small; or to not admire the person who possessed these qualities? To not admire what is plainly admirable would be something of a paradox wouldn't it? Why would we not admire great acts of kindness for instance?

The OED adds that hero-worship is an excessive devotion to an admired person. This gives us a clue as to what might be Ms Turner might actually be saying. The key phrase is excessive devotion. If we admire someone for their skilful qualities, then what might constitute excessive devotion to them? Well, a hero might have faults as well as virtues. If we only see virtues, and don't see faults then we might become excessively devoted to our hero. Sometimes we can become so carried away by meeting someone who is apparently incredibly virtuous that we don't even look for their faults.

The opposite of this is to only see someone's faults, and is perhaps even a worse state of affairs. To begin to manifest virtues we need to develop an appreciation, almost an aesthetic appreciation for virtue - we need to see the beauty of virtue. If we are not attuned to virtue, to the positive qualities in ourselves and others, then we must surely fail to develop virtue ourselves.

To come at the statement from another angle, it's clear that people who are virtuous, who act from generosity, love and wisdom, who embody those basic virtues, are admirable: but do we need them? I've said that we need to acknowledge virtue when we see it, but do we need heroes? What about admiring the virtues of ordinary people? Why would we need someone who exemplifies a virtue when we can look around our circle of friends and see their ordinary virtue? It's not an either or proposition. We do need to acknowledge virtue whenever we see it - rejoicing in the merits of other is described by Shantideva as a "blameless source of pleasure, not prohibited by the virtuous, attractive to others in the highest degree" [Crosby and Skilton. The Bodhicaryavatara. p.57]. But we also need to see that the possibilities for developing virtue are endless, that we can go on cultivating generosity, love and wisdom infinitely. To get an idea of that potential we need an exemplar. We need someone who embodies virtue to a very high degree. A hero in other words.

In the modern west we have tended to be over-awed by spiritual teachers. It points to the state of arrested development I mentioned in my essay on ego. Many of us long for someone to come along and make everything better, to tell us what we should be doing, and to take responsibility for us. In other words we are like children who miss our parents. So we've tended not to look at the whole person, not even to look for weaknesses, and to be shocked and disappointed when they make an appearance. If you want to know the depths of this phenomena amongst Westerners then I'd recommend a book called Karma Cola, but Gita Mehta. At times funny, at others appalling, it recounts stories of Westerners travelling to India in search of wisdom but offering themselves up to the first man wearing a turban and a smile, and doing whatever he says, usually with disastrous results. The cola part of the title hints that at this time the Indians themselves, according to the author, were more interested Elvis and that famous cola flavoured fizzy drink.

The ancient Greeks had a pretty good handle on this. They admired virtue, but always gave their gods and heroes an 'Achilles' heel'. Nemesis was always waiting in the wings. The mythology of Buddhism can obscure the weaknesses of our gods and heroes. It's all too easy to get caught up in the ideal of perfection, and to expect that from our human heroes. Or we might become puffed up with self-preoccupied pride because our teacher is a Bodhisattva, as though that somehow says something about us; and then we are plunged into despair when they turn out to less than perfectly virtuous. Or we cynically refuse to acknowledge the virtue of someone who really is a Bodhisattva and thereby cut ourselves off from any benefit there may be from such an association.

So it seems to me that in contradistinction to 'Queen of Rock', that actually we do need another hero. We always will need another hero. But if we continue to act like children in respect of admirable people, then we'll most likely keep falling at clay feet. So if I was to write a song it might go: "we all just need to grow up".