Sep 8, 2010

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

The publication of Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design has stirred some new fire into the old embers of metaphysical speculation. Specifically, the discussion centres on one of the perennial Big Questions; why is there something rather than nothing?

Tough question that, probably impossible for the human mind to definitively answer. I haven't read Hawking's latest book yet, but from reviews I've noted on-line it would seem his answer is that the laws of the universe are such that it didn't require any outside force to initiate the manifestation  of a new universe. Which begs the question, where did these laws come from? Isn't the very concept of a "law" rather anthropomorphic? ("Your Honour, my client violated Planck's Constant by reason of temporary insanity.")

On the other side are the theists whose answer is that a transcendent, pre-existing entity, being or force willed the creation and set out the laws. This answer seems more complete but still doesn't offer a final solution because of course it begs the question, why is there a God anyway? Again, why is there something, even a transcendent something or someone, rather than nothing?

The Buddha's position was that such questions are fundamentally impossible to answer and useless to speculate about. His teaching was meant to be practical; what is our existential dilemma, how did we get ourselves into this mess, is there a way out and how do we manage to get there? Knowledge about the original manifestation or creation of the universe, even if it could be had, would not be useful in answering any of these practical questions.

Instead of a creation theory, the Buddha taught the dependent origination which has the more limited and practical purpose of describing how we find ourselves in this state of cyclic suffering known as samsara. It is a teaching that is entirely oriented toward the immediate human experience and does not attempt to push the question back to ultimate origins.

Without forgetting these original Buddhist principles, it may be interesting to think about how a Buddhist would position himself in the current debate.

For one thing, we should not assume that the universe needed to have a point of origin at all. While the Buddha, as noted above, refused to speculate on the matter, the later Buddhist tradition definitely leaned toward the idea that universe was both beginingless and endless, infinite in both directions and fundamentally cyclical in nature. This was in line with the general trend of Indian thought which is in stark contrast to the linear, eschatological view of Zoroastrian Persia and the monotheistic religions of the west, (whose cosmology may have roots in Zoroastrianism.)

Nowadays, the linear view has found some support in the Big Bang theory. But we should be careful not to take this as definitively proven. There is some contrary evidence that would support a "steady-state" or eternally existing universe. Most probably, the Buddha was right in that this is a question which can never be finally answered.

If we allow for the sake of argument that the universe may not have a single moment of origin, while this doesn't put to rest the question of why there is something rather than nothing, it does shift the emphasis somewhat and would tend against the idea of a creator. Schopenhauer addressed this from a philosophical perspective and said that there is no logical necessity for a first origin and that such an original moment would be a fundamental break in the chain of causality.

Another question raised by this debate is the reality of a transcendent element. Here, the Buddhist shares some ground with the theistic thinker but there are important differences in their understanding of the transcendent. The Unconditioned in Buddhism (the experience of which is called Nibbana or Nirvana) is completely ineffable, which means that it cannot be described in words or grasped in thought. This makes sense because words and thought are products of the conditioned realm. When the Buddha spoke about Nibbana it was always either in poetic similes or in negations; telling us what it is not. However, without forgetting its' ineffable nature we may venture on some approximations; it is outside time-and-space, it is neither physical not mental but sui generis in a category of its' own, it is not subject to change, suffering or cause-and-effect. In Christian theological language, the Nibbana-element is both trascendent (wholly other, "not-this") and immanent (present here-and-now.) Close Pali analogues would be lokuttara (lit. "Beyond the World") and sanditthiko (lit. "Able to be Seen Now").

In line with the practical nature of the Buddha's teaching, the only real argument for the reality of this transcendent element is experiential. "If there were no Unconditioned, there would be no escape from the Conditioned, but since there is an escape, there is an Unconditioned." In colloquial terms, you have to have been there.

This transcendent element seems to have some parallels with the concept of God but is different in that the Unconditioned is never conceived of as a person, being or entity that can through the power of its' will intervene in the Conditioned realm. For it to do so would be a violation of its' fundamental nature as outside of cause-and-effect. The closest approach to the Buddhist idea of the transendental found within theistic thought might be the apophatic view of the God-head held by the Eastern Orthodox or perhaps the Unmanifest in Jewish Kabbalah.

Perhaps a fair summary of the Buddhist position would be that while the question of why there is something rather than nothing is unanswerable (abhyakata) we can refer to the dependent origination to understand how this particular something we are caught up in comes about. Furthermore, we can venture that there are indeed two different modes of Something; samsaric and nibbanic, manifest and non-manifest, conditioned and unconditioned. So, once again, we take a Middle Path sharing some ground with both the theist and the atheist, but not agreeing completely with either pole.


The theist argument against Hawking - The Curious Metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking
An argument against the "Big Bang" - Religion Disguised as Science
What all the fuss is about anyway - Hubble Looks at Nothing, finds Something

Jul 29, 2010

Pali Tutor Upgrage

Thanks to the useful feedback, I've made some changes to the Pali Tutor. The vocabulary module now accepts direct keyboard input, including the use of the Return key to initiate "Check Answer." You can still use the Pali Keypad if you prefer, or if you are not set up to type Unicode. I've also added a couple more drills to the Declension module. Coming next: more vocabularies.

Jul 25, 2010

Announcing The Pali Tutor

Learning to read Pali is something many students of Buddhism would like to do, but many are put off because initially it seems so difficult. Admittedly, it's a shallower learning curve if you've already,  at some time, studied Latin or another inflected language. I went through school so far back in the mists of time that Latin was still a compulsory subject in High School. Although I remembered almost nothing of it by the time I tried my hand at Pali, the idea of inflected nouns was not altogether foreign to me.

If you can cross that conceptual bridge, what remains is the donkey work involved in learning any language; the memorization of vocabulary, declensions and conjugations. Having suffered an injury that kept me from useful labour out of doors most of this spring and summer, I found something useful to do indoors and brushed up on my Javascript to carry out a project I've had percolating in my mind for some time.

The result is the Pali Tutor, an online application that lets the user do interactive memory drills for Pali vocabulary and declensions. I may add conjugations at some future time. If anyone finds this useful, drop me a line. Especially write to me if you find any mistakes or bugs.

This is actually my second iteration of this idea, the previous one done about a decade ago was in Hypertalk format, which is now obsolete. Computers are here to remind us of anicca.

Jan 9, 2010

Palm Leaves to OSX; problems of Pali Fonts

Pali was originally a spoken language only, and was not committed to writing until several hundred years after the Buddha's time. During the Buddha's own lifetime writing was, in India, a fairly recent technological innovation and was used only for practical purposes such as commercial and diplomatic messages. It was still considered improper to use such a vulgar medium for religious texts.

So, Pali has no written alphabet of its own. The language has, by one count, 32 consonant and 8 vowel sounds. The consonants are organized in a logical fashion in a grid according to how they are sounded; whether aspirated or not and where the tongue is placed in the mouth. This is very different from the Roman alphabet used in English and other Western European languages, but is a system widely used in South and South-East Asian alphabets. (Some readers may be familiar with a similar system adopted by J.R.R. Tolkien for his imaginary Elvish languages. Tolkien was, after all, a linguist.)

In the traditional Theravada countries, Pali is easily rendered into the local alphabets and there are Sinhala, Thai and Burmese editions of the Tipitika. Pali was not rendered into Roman until the nineteenth century when German and English scholars began to take an interest in the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. A problem arose immediately in that the Roman alphabet does not have enough letters to render each Pali sound.

This was solved in two ways. First, the aspirated versions of several consonants were rendered by adding an "h." Thus; bh, kh etc. represent only one letter in Pali. "Buddha" has four letters, not five, in Pali. This is a reasonable compromise and only causes confusion to those not familiar with Pali orthography, thus we see common misspellings such as "Bhudda."

The other method adopted was the addition of diacritical marks. Pali vowels are relatively simple; there are five basic vowel sounds which occur as either "long" or "short." The length of a vowel does not change it's basic sound, but only the time it is held and is mostly important for metrical purposes in verse. The long vowels are indicated by a macron (dash) over the letter. ā ū ī

Several of the consonants have a "retroflex" version, a sound not familiar to English speakers. It is made by curling the tongue back in the mouth. This is indicated by a dot placed under the letter.  ḍ ṭ There is also a special version of n, which is pronounced like "ny" as in the English "canyon" which is indicated by a tilde (like a sine-wave) mark over the n, like in Spanish. ñ

This leaves one very special sound in Pali to be rendered. That is the "pure nasal" or in Pali, the "niggahita" which nasalizes the preceding vowel. It is not really a sound on it's own, but roughly it is like a terminal "ng" as in English "ring." There is a lot of typographical confusion over this letter in Roman Pali. Nowadays it is most commonly indicated by an "m" with a dot underneath but in many older books one will see a funny "n" with a curly tail, or an "m" with a dot over it, or even an "n" with a dot over it. ṃ ŋ

When books were still printed with moveable type, special letters would have to be cast for the diacriticals. If a page with Pali words was produced on a typewriter, the marks would have to be added by hand.

This was the case for the early pioneering editions of the Pali texts produced in Roman fonts by the Pali Text Society. That august body still prints from photo-engraved plates based on the original, hence their editions usually have a longish insert of "errata" since it is impossible to correct minor faults in the original.

The original Roman Pali was produced by painstaking scholarship, comparing word by word the Sinhala, Siamese and Burmese versions; footnotes indicated any variation between the three. This, of course, was done at a time when computer technology was no more than a twinkle in Sir Charles Babbage's eye.

Fast forward to the 1980's and the dawn of the modern computer age with its promise of a paperless office, expanded leisure time and easy to use Pali fonts. (Not so much for any of it.) My own first computer was a Commodore-128.  For the information of the younger set, this was a primitive device with no hard-drive, a black-and-white low-res monitor and packed with 128 kilobytes of RAM. The word "font" was not yet known outside of professional typographical circles. The word processor had one bit-mapped typeface for general use but it did come with an alternate to be used for typing in French, which included the various accented vowels for that language.

I needed to be able to produce Pali letters so I copied the French type-set, hacked the machine-code for the bit-mapped letters and put the most common Pali diacritical letters in place of the French accented vowels. I was able to type Pali because the poor Commodore thought it was speaking French. (Oddly, I miss that machine.)

Come the nineties (remember them?) and the computer revolution shifted into second or third gear. I started using a Mac (System 6) and cobbled together my own postscript Pali Fonts using a programme called Fontographer. After something called the Internets became a wildly popular fad, more and more Pali Fonts started to become available.

The problem now was one sadly familiar to computer users in those days; lack of standards. Each font had its own unique keymap. A document produced using MyNorman would not print properly in LeedsBitPali. Conversions required a lot of tedious search-and-replace. Worse, fonts and keymaps did not translate well across platforms. Changes in software eventually made my own Pali fonts obsolete. Sometimes cumbersome work-arounds had to be employed. I once produced a Pali chanting book using Word macros. The resulting file was huge and it slowed the computer to crawl just attempting to scroll through the pages.

But now we are at the dawn of a new era. Finally, it is getting easy to use not only Pali but almost any alphabet, thanks to Unicode. This is an expansion of the old ASCII idea; each character has a unique, universally agreed hexadecimal code. The old ASCII standard was limited to 256 characters. The new Unicode, by adding a few digits, increases the potential to over 2 million characters. Of course, not every font will have every known character, but as long as developers adhere to the standard (hah! I'm talking to you Bill Gates) we should be guaranteed that every font which has a Pali retroflex "d" will have it in the same place, i.e. use the same hexadecimal coding.

So documents produced in Unicode Helvetica on a Mac should be readable in Unicode Arial on a Windows box. And everything should display properly in a browser window. Let's see if it works; I'm going to type the Pali word for "Consciousness" which uses several diacriticals; how does it display in your browser window?


This was especially easy for me to do in Mac OSX using a freeware application called Ukelele which lets me define my own custom keymap. So, I have a home-made Pali keymap which puts, for example, the long-a under option-a. Because of Unicode, this doesn't matter at the other end because the hex code for the letter remains unchanged! When the Unicode standard becomes really universal we'll finally have reached the same ease of use for Pali letters as scratching on palm-leaves.

Paperless office and expanded leisure time coming next...

Dec 17, 2009

Questions Raised

Yokie, in the comments, asks

What we want to know (as the verdict is not conclusive) whether those 4 Bhikkhunis are still valid under the theravada tradition and is Bodhiyana monastery still valid under the theravada tradition (as we find that it is
"business" as usual for the Dhammasara Bhikkhunis and AB in Bodhiyana as though oblivious of the issue).There is still a lot of obscurity in this area...The other thing we lay people want to know is, does this tantamount to a schism in the Sangha

The first question is easy to answer; Ajahn Brahmavamso is still a Theravada bhikkhu and Bodhinyana is still a legitimate Theravada monastery. No one disputes this.

As for a schism, I do not think this reaches to the technical definition of schism because no one has questioned Ajahn Brahm's legitimacy as a bhikkhu. All that has occurred is that Bodhinyana is no longer accepted as a branch monastery of Wat Pah Pong, nothing more.

As for the status of the new bhikkhunis, alas there is not the same level of agreement here. To state my own opinion upfront, I do believe these women were properly ordained and are legitimate bhikkhunis and should be treated as such.

Not everyone agrees with this position. There is a view, still widely held in Thailand, that no Theravada bhikkhuni ordination anywhere is valid because the Theravada ordination line was broken. The continuity via the Dharmaguptika is questioned either because of their Mahayana provenance or because the ordinations in China were invalid on account of being done by the bhikkhu sangha only in many cases.

In my opinion, Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay on bhikkhuni ordination has dealt with these issues definitively. It does seem like there is an emerging consensus among those who have studied the issue that the revival of Theravada bhikkhuni ordination via the Dharmaguptika line is proper and valid.

Even among those who accept the possibility of bhikkhuni ordination in theory, a question has been raised by Ajahn Thanissaro as to whether the Perth ordinations were valid according to proper Vinaya procedure. Again, speaking only for myself, I do not find his argument at all convincing. Bhikkhu Bodhi and others have dealt with this particular in some detail; the arguments are very technical and I won't reproduce them here.

I am sorry that I can't give you the certainty that you want, Yokie. But remember Ajahn Chah's "MY NEH" ("whatever"). As a rule, certainty is not to be had in this samsara. The proper practice is not to seek certainty but to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.

For example, I said above that no one questions Ajahn Brahmavamso's status as a bhikkhu. This is not quite true. The conservative wing of the Dhammayut ordination line in Thailand does not accept any of us Mahanikaya monks as valid; visiting a strict Dhammayut monastery we are treated as sameneras (novices) only.

The reality is that any ordination lineage must be traced back to the Buddha. In twenty-five centuries and maybe half a dozen countries along the way there is plenty of room for anyone's ordination to be uncertain. Who is to say that every single ordination along the line was properly conducted in every particular? To let that stand in the way of practice would be very foolish.

Dec 16, 2009

Elder's Statement

While I would like to start blogging on other topics, both serious and light-hearted, I don't think we can leave the Perth Bhikkhuni controversy behind just yet.

To bring everyone up to date; the World Abbot's Meeting has concluded and the western elders have issued an official statement. This statement states the position of the sangha leadership in a clear and concise manner. The statement agrees with what I've said here, that the main problem with Ajahn Brahm's action has been in the method and the timing. There is a definite conciliatory element as it leaves the door open for consideration of bhikkhuni ordination in the future. It rightly notes that the Vinaya issues are not completely settled.

Already there is a flurry of postings and comments on various sites. The tone of most of these on the Women's Sangha Facebook page and on Sujato's Blog is highly critical. What I find troubling about these is something I've pointed out before; the arguments are framed in secular political terms and not in terms of Dhammavinaya. I have tried to elaborate my thoughts about the difference in the post below, Enlightenment vs Enlightenment.

Enlightenment vs The Enlightenment

(This post was inspired by a sentence in the statement made by the Insight Meditation teachers of Australia - "This was the original vision of the Buddha 2500 years ago, in far less enlightened times than today." Debatable sentiment that, to say the least. See an old post of mine - The Myth of Progress.)

Many of the English words used to translate Dhamma concepts are problematic; unavoidably so as no two languages are completely isometric. Some rather bad translations have become standard and are hard to avoid. The word "enlightenment" used to describe the state of one who has attained the goal is a particularly unfortunate example. It doesn't really translate any term in the Pali very well. "Awakening" as a translation for bodhi is better, but to my taste "Liberation" from vimutti is perhaps the best choice.

One problem with Enlightenment is that it is easily confused, consciously or not, with The Enlightenment of European intellectual history. We are the children of The Enlightenment whether or not we like it or even know it. Beginning in the eighteenth century with thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke The Enlightenment has bequeathed us such modern ideals as equality, personal liberty, freedom of conscience and thought, rationalism and indirectly, democracy.

It is far too easy to blithely assume that the legacy of The Enlightenment has been an unadulterated good. We forget that its first practical project was the French Revolution and the guillotine. The history of the world since has been bloody and cruel. The essentially inhumane systems of both capitalism and communism owe their distant origins to Voltaire and the Encyclopedia. A case could be made that even Naziism, a basically anti-enlightenment movement, came into being by way of Romanticism, The Enlightenment's shadow side, and would have been impossible without it.

This should not be surprising. As we should often remember, this is samsara and it's supposed to be broken. The Buddha's "enlightenment" came from a perfectly awakened mind in touch with the transcendental. The European Enlightenment was the product of the fallible minds of putthujana (the unenlightened many-folk.)

The underlying philosophy of The Enlightenment legacy has been called "secular humanism" and this is a way of thought which is at odds with the Dhamma in at least two important ways. First, its secularism means that it denies any spiritual aspect to humanity or the universe. There is no Unconditioned and therefore no escape from the Conditioned. This samsara is all we've got and we had best make the most of it. Second, it is humanist and that means that Man is the supreme value. This leads to the cult of the individual and a strong re-inforcement and validation of the Self principle. The implicit ideas of Enlightenment Humanism is one reason the anatta doctrine is so difficult for educated westerners.

To translate this into the practical issues confronting us right now. We cannot deny that in Theravada Buddhism for at least a thousand years women have not had the opportunities for practice at a deep level that men have. How we frame the problem defines how we will work toward a solution. A possible statement of the issue in Dhammic terms might be; some beings who have the potential for awakening do not have easy access to the ideal form for achieving that. How can we make the Dhamma more accessible to all? The Secular Humanist formulation would be; women should be equal in all things, including the forms for Dhamma practice. How do we attain this equality?

If the question is seen in terms of gender politics we are far away from the Dhamma. Man and Woman are not ultimate realities, they are dependently arisen transient forms born of karma and craving. If we primarily identify with these forms, we are taking refuge in the conditioned, the suffering and the impermanent. This works both ways; the patriarch and the feminist are both operating at a level of samsaric reality.

It may be appropriate, and even necessary, to work at this level within the realms of worldly politics. But the importation of this cognitive framework into Dhammavinaya moves us away from what should be the central concern; how best to disengage from samsaric identification and realize the Unconditioned.

Another way that secular thinking corrupts the discussion is in the call for "reform." The Dhamma, and the Vinaya, cannot be reformed. They are the product of a sammasambuddha (a perfectly awakened one) and cannot be changed until the next one comes. The Dhamma is not even invented by the Buddha, simply discovered and proclaimed, as the expression of a timeless truth. The Vinaya was invented by the Buddha, on a case by case basis, to deal with community issues as they arose. But is nonetheless a product of a perfectly awakened mind and any change made by an unawakened mind could only be for the worse.

On a practical level, there is no body within Buddhism that is competent to make changes in Vinaya. All that is possible is that some individual monks or nuns, or some communities, may choose to disregard some of the rules. They are still "apatti" (in offence) but may feel justified in doing so in this degenerate age.

This raises a whole range of problems regarding the bhikkhuni vinaya, which is not the same as the bhikkhu vinaya and is more restrictive in many ways. If there were to be bhikkhunis in the Wat Pa Pong tradition would they, like the bhikkhus of that tradition, attempt to follow the vinaya whole? Besides the practical issues arising from that, how would that satisfy the secular feminists who are so loudly advocating full ordination for women?

A final thought; there are three kinds of the "I Am Conceit." I am superior to you, I am inferior to you and I am your equal. All three are equally delusions.

Dec 10, 2009

Restoring Harmnony

I would like to attempt a reply to the very eloquent and heartfelt note left in the comments by a poster identifying himself as "EH."

This situation has unfolded like a Greek tragedy. The protagonist is a very good, upstanding monk, well known and respected internationally especially as a meditation teacher. Acting with the idea, no doubt, that he was doing something right and proper he committed one fatal act of hubris and the rest of the characters were forced to play out their roles. The original act came from a noble intention to make the holy life accessible to those who have previously been shut out. The opposition came from the equally noble intention to preserve intact a precious heritage.

I agree with the poster that the most important thing now is a restoration of harmony. Hopefully the passage of time will help. With Ajahn Brahm now outside the official circle of the WPP sangha it may be possible to gradually restore friendly relations with his group as with any other group of outside monks. In my experience, bhikkhus of quite different traditions and practices can almost always get together in a harmonious way. The Abhayagiri sangha has a very close and fruitful interchange with the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Chinese Mahayana monastery with many bhikhshunis, for example.

The poster ends with a plea for me to do something. Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) my influence is limited. Arrow River Forest Hermitage is an associated monastery, not a branch of Wat Pah Pong; I don't have many contacts left in Thailand and in any case my Thai language skills are on the lean side of Nit Noy (very little.) I hope I can contribute just a little by this blog.

To return to the Greek tragedy metaphor, one thing that concerns me, and indeed brought me to the decision to offer my own thoughts, is what I perceive as a certain element of discord coming from the Chorus; the various blogs and fora.

Not everything being said is skillful or conducive to harmony. If any of my words come into that category, I humbly beg forgiveness. In some quarters, emotions are running high and we should all try our best to come from a place of equanimity and clear seeing.

Too often the discussion gets far away from the Dhamma and Vinaya and is couched in secular political or western psychological language. This kind of discourse is not helpful, it is divisive and in the circumstances inappropriate. It is also intellectually lazy, it is easier to label someone with a different point of view with a label like "misogynist" than to try and understand with wisdom and compassion the complex layers of community relations, tradition and Vinaya involved. See another excellent comment by LV which touches on some of the difficult aspects involved.

The Buddha cautioned many times against attachment to views and opinions. It is not that we shouldn't have an opinion, but that we should hold them lightly and be open to hearing other views. We should also remember what is most important, that the Dhammavinaya is about transcending this conditioned realm, not trying to make everything perfect here, which can never be.

Dec 8, 2009

More on the Bhikkhuni Controversy

My recent post on the Bhikkhuni controversy (see below) has generated a fair bit of feed-back, in private correspondence as well as in the comments, both here at at the Women's Sangha Facebook page.

I would just like to add a couple of points; one correction and one explanation.

First, the correction. I had imagined I was fairly well read on Thai history and on the history of Buddhism in general. But like most people, I had been following the conventional wisdom that there never were bhikkhunis in Thailand. This turns out to be quite wrong. Some research by Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni has been brought to my attention by several parties, including the author. A more accurate conclusion would be, (in Tathaaloka's words;)

Within the domains of the current Chakri dynasty of Rama kings, since its
foundation; that is, in the Ratanakosin Era from the Ayutthaya Period through the
Bangkok period (1782 CE -present), Thailand has not yet had a royally- or State-
sanctioned and supported Bhikkhuni Sangha with dual ordination.

Her essay can be found here - The main body is a paper presented at the recent Hamburg conference but the historical information about Thai bhikkhunis is to found near the end, in an appendix. This appendix at least should be read by everyone who wants to have an informed opinion.

Unfortunately, this information will have little immediate effect on the issue of bhikkhuni ordination in the Thai tradition because the great majority of Thai and also western Buddhists remain, like I was last week, ignorant of it. Has it been translated into Thai yet?

Now for the explanation. Some respondents have thought I was too hard in my appraisal of Ajahn Brahmavamso's actions and even accused me of just "repeating talking points." On second consideration I realize I wasn't really clear in stating my objections. Let me try again. Hopefully without recourse to "talking points."

Bodhinyana Forest Monastery was a branch monastery of Wat Pah Pong. Membership in a group entails both privileges and responsibilities. A member of the group should do his best to follow the rules of the group, sometimes surrendering his own views and opinions to those of the larger collective, or its leadership. This is especially true in a sangha grouping where harmony is a very important quality.

If in all good conscience a member of a larger group believes that a ruling by the leadership or the collective is wrong, then he has two proper courses of action open to him. He can either work within established channels to change the policy in question, or failing that, he can secede from the group and carry on independently.

Even in a case where the individual is right according to either first priciples or Vinaya or both, it is disrespectful to take a deliberate action contrary to the policies of the group while still expecting the privileges of group membership. It is especially disruptive when this is a very public action which puts the leadership and other members in a difficult position.

Dec 4, 2009

Blogging Again

The Bhikkhuni Controversy

On Oct. 22nd 2009 at Wat Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia the ordination of four bhikkhunis was performed under the auspices of the abbot, Ajahn Brahmavamso who participated as chanting acariya. This was the first time that women were given the higher ordination in a branch monastery of the Ajahn Chah tradition. The act was done unilaterally by Ajahn Brahmavamso without the approval of the hierarchy or the greater sangha. It immediately opened up a very troublesome and divisive controversy. The elders of the tradition in Thailand called a meeting on Nov.1 to which Ajahn Brahmavamso was requested to attend. The result of that meeting was the expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso, and Bodhinyana, from the Wat Pa Pong group of monasteries.

There is now a great deal of chatter in various Buddhist corners of the internet regarding this series of events. Some harsh things are being said, and there is not always a full understanding of all the complex issues involved.

To begin with first principles; gender is irrelevant as far as realization of the Unconditioned is concerned. Men and women alike are enmeshed in samsaric suffering caused by their cravings and played out by their kamma, and the path out to liberation is the same for both. That being said, these lofty ideas may be cold comfort when the actual history of Buddhist institutions has not been fully supportive of women's aspirations.

(The next few paragraphs deal with the historical background, if you are already familiar with this information you can skip on ahead)

The problem in Theravada is that the women's order, established by the Buddha, died out completely at an early date. At that time, the Theravada school was pretty much entirely limited to Sri Lanka and after a disastrous war was nearly lost altogether. The male order of bhikkhus just barely survived, the female order did not fare even so well as that. When the Theravada spread in a later time to South-East Asia it came with the male order only. So Thailand and Burma have never known bhikkhunis. (This is an important point to remember.)

Indeed, for about two thousand years there were no Theravada bhikkhunis anywhere in the world. However, female monastics did survive in one lineage from Northern India, the Dharmaguptika, which was another of the original eighteen schools, more or less co-eval with the Theravada. In the peregrinations of later history, this lineage found its way to China and became the Vinaya foundation for the Mahayana schools. Many thousand of Mahayana bhikkshunis in East Asia, especially in Taiwan, hold this Dharmaguptika ordination at the present time.

About a quarter century ago a movement began to re-instate the bhikkhuni lineage in Theravada using the nuns of the Dharmaguptika tradition to perform the initial ordinations. This has had some success in Sri Lanka where there are now several hundred bhikkhunis.

About the same time, the western branches of the Wat Pah Pong tradition established the ten-precept siladhara order as a compromise to improve the opportunities for women without taking on the then very radical step of re-instating full ordination. It should be remembered that this was, at the time, a very progressive step in itself.

Here is an important historical and cultural difference between Sri Lanka and Thailand. Sri Lanka has a cultural memory of bhikkhunis; every school-child has seen pictures of the nun Sanghamitta bringing the cutting of the Bodhi Tree to the island standing in the prow of a dragon boat. No such cultural memory exists in Thailand, where the whole idea of female monastics must seem a strange importation from the Mahayana.

(End of historical background, back to the current controversy)

With this background, I'd like to consider the current controversy. There are many aspects of this; the issue of gender equality, the technical issues of Vinaya, the real concerns about respect for tradition and sangha harmony and not least, the question of skill in means.

Reading many of the comments by lay-people on various internet fora, it seems that many (not all but many) people cannot see anything more than the first issue, that of gender equality. Not to minimize the importance of that by any means, but it is far from being the only consideration. To read some of the comments, it seems that some people believe this is a simple case of men wanting to control the power and oppress women. I sincerely believe that is a very simplistic and actually wrong reading of the situation.

If we believe, (as I do) that women are the spiritual equals of men, and further that bhikkhuni ordination is, in theory, a positive development the very next question must be, is it even possible according to Vinaya? This is a very complicated issue with lots of controversial minutiae and it seems to get more complicated the more you look into it. I will not attempt to do that here; if you want to get a taste you can read Bhikkhu Bodhi's article given in the links which follow this post. Suffice it to say that this has been argued back and forth now for twenty or thirty years and the consensus seems to be emerging among those who have taken the time to go back to the texts that it is legal and possible. There seems to be no good reason to reject the validity of the Dharmaguptika Vinaya lineage. The Theravada-Mahayana split does not really come into it; the Vinaya lineage is a separate thing altogether from schools of interpretation of Dhamma.

Nevertheless, bhikkhuni ordination is far from being universally accepted in Theravada and there are plenty of Vinaya conservatives even in Sri Lanka who maintain that these ordinations are not legal. I do not think they are ultimately correct, but there arguments are not without some cogency. Vinaya is a very complex and legalistic subject and there will always be controversies of interpretation.

The anti-bhikkhuni arguments are not based on some putative idea of the inferiority of women. Rather, they reject the legitimacy of the Dharmaguptika continuity. If there is any prejudice involved, I think it is more likely to be a religious one; a rejection of anything tainted by the Mahayana "heresy."

Even if we cross the first hurdle and accept the legality of bhikkhuni ordination, there remains the concern for tradition and hierarchy that is at the core of the Theravada generally and the Thai Forest Tradition especially. The Theravada is a tradition that has survived intact for twenty five centuries, it is literally "the school of the elders." We have a very great reverence for the teachings and ways of practice that have been passed down to us from our spiritual fore-fathers. The whole tradition is very resistant to change. This may from time to time prove problematic, as perhaps in the present situation. But in the long run it has proven our especial strength.

It pains me to read some of the comments which portray the Thai elders as some kind of misogynistic patriarchy. I honestly believe that gender issues as we understand them in the West do not enter into it at all for the Thai elders. Their primary consideration, I think, is the preservation of the purity of Ajahn Chah's tradition against outside influences.

Consider it from their point of view. Thailand has never had bhikkhunis. The issue of full ordination for women, a lively one in the west and in Sri Lanka, has just barely began to register among the Bangkok intelligentsia. It was not even on the radar as a distant blip for the monks in Isan until the news came out of the blue that one of the western branch monasteries had performed a bhikkhuni ordination. This was their worst fears coming true, some weird Mahayana ideas infiltrating the remoter branches and beginning the corruption of the pristine tradition. They felt they had no choice but to sever the infected limb before the disease spread.

They may be wrong about the legitimacy of bhikkhuni ordination, mostly because they have never seriously examined the issue, but the Thai elders are not motivated by what we in the West would call sexism. These are very devoted monks, with a great love and respect for the traditions of their lineage and a strong motivation to keep it intact.

The western elders, for their part, are put in a very difficult position. Even if, as many do, they may support the idea of bhikkhuni ordination in theory, they also feel that reverence for tradition and wish at all costs to keep on good terms with the Thai hierarchy. They are caught between the pressure of their own laity, many of whom don't see beyond the first point about gender equality, and the Thai elders, who take their stand on continuity of tradition.

This brings up the final point, about skill in means. Even if we agree that bhikkhuni ordination is legitimate, and further that incorporating it into the Ajahn Chah tradition would be a positive development we can still question the wisdom of this particular act, at this particular time.

The bhikkhuni ordination at Bodhinyana was performed on Oct 22. The World Abbot's Meeting had been scheduled for Dec 8, with Bodhinyana acting as host. The preparations for the ordination were made in secrecy, it only being publicly announced two weeks or so ahead of time.

Why perform an unauthorized act, which even if valid in itself, would inevitably cause great disharmony and controversy? I don't like to be put in the position of criticizing a monk senior to myself, but I cannot see the wisdom in the way Ajahn Brahmavamso proceeded.

Especially when you consider that it wasn't at all necessary to proceed in this way. He could have waited until the WAM (which had the issue of female ordination on the agenda anyway) and brought forward his proposal to begin bhikkhuni ordinations for the discussion of the assembled elders. If, as is quite possible, no agreement could be had, if Ajahn Brahmavamso still felt that this was the right way to proceed he could then have respectfully resigned from the Wat Pah Pong group and announced that he was going his own way. Surely this would have been better than acting in a rebellious fashion and getting himself expelled! It would have at the very least moved the issue onto the front-burner in a respectful and harmonious fashion. Instead, there is a big painful controversy and attitudes against female ordination have hardened.

In all the letters and statements that have been published on this issue, I have yet to see from Ajahn Brahmavamso or anyone in his camp a clear and cogent explanation of why these ordinations needed to happen before the World Abbot's Meeting. I do not want to speculate on his reasoning; I do wish he would come out clearly and speak to this point.

In conclusion, it is to be hoped that all parties interested in this issue will try and take a broad view and look a little more deeply into the complex issues involved. More light and less heat, please.


Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination - essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi examining the Vinaya issues
Timeline and History - from DhammaWiki
Bhikkhsuni Ordination in Tibetan traditon - very similar issues involved
Summary of Public Statements - from all sides, very good reference
My article from 2000 - a simpler time perhaps? for historical reference
Sujato's Blog - a blog by one of Ajahn Brahm's key supporters
Women and the Forest Sangha - Facebook page by supporters of the ordination

May 21, 2009

Life of the Buddha

An excellent BBC production on the Life of the Buddha. Very well done.

Here is the YouTube page where you can watch the remaining segments;

Life of the Buddha

Quite a fine piece of work; the presentation of the Buddha's teachings is sympathetic and accurate, the look and feel of the dramatic scenes are believable.

Any points of criticism I could make border on hair-splitting. For instance, I don't think the Buddha on his return to Kapilavastu would have bowed to Yasodhara. And I did spot one anachronism; Prince Siddhattha riding a horse with stirrups.

May 20, 2009

Sri Lanka: What Next?

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers have been decisively defeated, and their leader, Prabhakaran, is almost certainly dead. Modern warfare is a cruel and ugly business and the cost in civilian death and suffering is always huge, and this conflict was no exception. And like in all modern wars, crimes were committed by both sides.

As a pacifist I cannot but deplore the method, and make no excuses for any crimes against humanity, like the shelling of hospitals, that may have been committed by the Sri Lankan military. Nevertheless, the end of the Tamil Tigers is a positive good.

The Tamil minority does have legitimate grievances, but this in no way justified the activities of the Tigers. These were probably the most cruel and bloody-handed terrorist group anywhere. The Tigers pioneered the use of the suicide bomb, using most often very young women. They had no compunction about hitting purely civilian targets, even the Temple of the Tooth. They forcibly recruited child soldiers on a large scale. And they terrorized and intimidated their own people more than anyone else. Prabhakaran was a figure who could only be compared to Pol Pot, a fanatic, probably a psychotic, who demanded absolute obedience. One of the biggest obstacles to finding a peaceful solution has been the systematic assassination of moderate and democratic Tamil leaders on Prabhakaran orders.

All this is true. But the Sinhalese side is not without blame. While the roots of this ethnic conflict run very deep (it is mentioned in the Vissudhimagga,) and the British bear some blame for playing their usual divide-and-conquer games, the modern on again off again civil war can be traced to the policies of the 1956 Bandaranaike government. A left-leaning nationalist and populist comparable to Nasser of Egypt, Bandaranaike promoted a unitary Sinhalese and Buddhist state. The linguistic rights of the Tamils were abolished; they were expected to conform to the majority culture.

This strain of aggressive cultural nationalism has persisted to the present day.Sometimes it wears the mantle of protecting Buddhism, but it is not in accord with the Buddha's teaching to oppress others. In no way is ethnic or religious chauvinism compatible with the Dhamma.

All this is past history. What is important is what happens now, and in the future. In the immediate term there is a humanitarian crisis pending in the north with up to a quarter million displaced persons living in make-shift camps who are in urgent need of food and medicine.

In the longer term, the only hope for peace and prosperity is for both sides to transcend ethnic tribal feelings and ancient grudges, to sit down to together and work out an equitable political solution. It may mean guaranteed minority rights within a unitary state, or a federal solution with a semi-autonomous Tamil province. The details are for the Sri Lankans to work out. It may actually be possible now that the Tigers are out of the way, provided that the Sinhalese side does not succumb to a triumphalist mood.

Mar 21, 2009

My Way or the Highway

I've been thinking more about a statement I made in a recent post; that in the long history of Buddhist sectarianism there were very few splits on issues related to meditation practice. In fact, the only example I could think of was the Zen split between Soto and Rinzai. In the comments to that post Honsing said;

Hence although there is no dispute over meditation, I believe for many, we quietly do have a favorite form of meditation and would reason that the other forms are less suitable for ourselves. Hence disputes are kept personal and silent. Meditation is a very personal experience, it is hard to conclude that what is not suitable would not be suitable for others.

Well said. It may be that a similar reason underlies the dearth of explicit meditation instruction in the Pali canon. Nevertheless, I'm feeling contrarian today, so I will post a rather large caveat. While it is quite true that there have been very few disputes over meditation that grew serious enough to culminate in schism, there always have been, and probably always will be many disputes among teachers and practitioners about meditation.

I'd like to list a few here. I am going to try not to let my own biases show too much but just present the controversies.

Jhana - If you just go by the Vissudhimagga tradition the topic of jhana seems very cut-and-dried. Four jhanas, five factors in the first jhana, jhana needed before insight and so forth. However, if you explore a little wider and read and listen to different teachers you'll find a very wide range of views about exactly what constitutes jhana, how best to attain it and how much is really necessary before undertaking insight. Just to demonstrate the wide range of positions out there, I heard of one ajahn in Thailand who taught that all four jhanas can be developed together, gradually deepening each one in turn. According to this teacher, the very lowest level of first jhana is the amount of concentration needed to thread a needle. Some teachers caution against developing the jhanas at all, warning about a danger of attachment.

Note that all this variation is just within the Theravada! Going further afield, the Zen school is actually named after jhana. Sanskrit dhyana is Pali jhana is Chinese Chan is Japanese Zen. And yet the Rinzai at least have moved almost completely away from one-pointed practice. And Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those who warns against attachement to jhana.

Discursive Thought - Some teachers seem to regard the quieting of thought as almost the goal of meditation. Others say it is not really an issue, it's just what the mind does and that the problem is only in the identification with thought.

The Importance of Technique - Some meditation methods rely heavily on the following of a fixed technique or even a graded series of techniques. Other teachers regard reliance on technique as a form of rite-and-ritual clinging and advocate a more free-form meditation. This contrast is strongly seem between Burma and Thailand.

Outside the Theravada we also see an interesting range. Zen Shinkaza (just sitting) could be characterized as a technique of no-technique. Vajrayana visualization practices are extremely programmed techniques requiring a great deal of disciplined attention to detail, whereas Dzogchen denies technique so radically that it asserts "the view is the practice."

Posture - While some Zen teachers make a very big issue out of sitting correctly, Theravada is much looser in this regard. But there are still differences of opinion. Some hold it necessary to sit still even when in pain, others say it is alright to shift posture mindfully to escape "galling limitations."

The amount and the style of meditation in the walking posture is also a matter of differences. Theravadins do a lot of it, especially I think in the Thai tradition. Most Zen practitioners do only a short brisk walk between sits mostly to ease the body. The Ajahn Mun tradition in Thailand says that walking must be done with hands folded in front and only in a north-south direction.

Mindfulness of Breathing - There are a wide range of variations on this very basic practice, some of which have been matters of controversy. You might think just breathing in and out would be too basic to foster a large literature of scholarly dispute but you would be wrong! For example, the passage in the sutta which says "noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths in, noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths out" is interpreted by the commentary as meaning the whole duration of the breath. Many later writers and teachers dispute this and hold that it refers to watching the whole body breathe.

There is also a very long-lasting dispute about the nature and role of the nimitta (sign) in breath meditation. The Visuddhimagga, which is generally the standard of Theravada orthodoxy, says that a visual image will arise which becomes the focus of attention. The nearly contemporary Vimuttimagga teaches instead that the proper sign in breath meditation is purely tactile.


I've only scratched the surface of possible controversies here. And we haven't looked at issues related to the peripherals of meditation like diet, exercise, view, life-style and so forth. I hesitate to draw any final conclusions, but will leave you with one thought; it isn't all cut-and-dried by any means!

Mar 4, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know About Sects

Every year at Arrow River we run a book study programme. This year the group wanted something to help them sort out the different Buddhist schools and so I suggested Peter Harvey's "Introduction to Buddhism" which takes a generally historical approach and attempts to cover the gamut of all branches of Buddhism. This book is widely used in colleges for the Buddhism 101 course.

This has led me to reflect on the diversity within Buddhism and how and why different sects arise in the first place. The proliferation of varieties of doctrine and practice is quite wide. And this seems to be a phenomenon that is not unique to Buddhism. All major religions have split into separate sects and the process seems to be on-going.

This is partly a natural result of geographical spread and consequent isolation, a factor particularly strong in Buddhism where land travel in Asia was always difficult. But this doesn't account for all splits by any means as for example in Japan which is a contained island culture with more sects than anywhere else and new ones happening all the time.

I think I can identify a few major causes of splits;

DOCTRINE - The special doctrine of the Buddha was anatta or sunyatta (no-self or voidness, the former being the special case and the latter the general case of the same basic principle.) This is a profound doctrine, difficult for beginners and in it's subtleties an ongoing source of speculation for the philosophers. Some of the breakaways seem to have been attempts to water down or domesticate the idea, this would be the case of the Puggalavadins and to a lesser degree the Yogacarins. The Madhyamika, on the other hand, seems to have been an attempt to radically confront the implications of the doctrine. The same could be said for the Avatamsa school from a different angle.

A related doctrinal issue is the nature of Nibbana or Nirvana and its relation to the conditioned world of Samsara. This is both transcendental and immanent, to purloin theological terms from another tradition. The early Buddhists, and the Theravada today, emphasize the transcendental aspect, the otherness, of Nibbana whereas the Mahayana emphasize the immanent aspect, its presence here-and-now and its fundamental non-separation from samsara. This very subtle doctrinal shift plays out in the difference between the Theravada Arahant ideal and the Mahayana Bodhisattva. The one seeks to escape the round of rebirth, the latter to play an active role in it for the benefit of beings.

VINAYA - The vinaya is the code for monks, regulating our behaviour in the world. Historically, disagreements over vinaya may have led to the very first split after the second council (this is historically debated.) It is still a cause of splits in the sangha in Theravada countries where separate ordination lineages exist which do not fully recognize each other (eg. Dhammayut and Mahanikay in Thailand). But it is not an issue which divides lay-people.

MEDITATION PRACTICE - Given the importance of meditation in Buddhist practice, it is surprising how little this has been a source of dispute. The Zen split into Rinzai and Soto is the only obvious example; the Rinzai (sudden enlightenment) called the Soto (gradual enlightenment) practice "sitting in a ghost cave."

Perhaps the emergence of Pure Land with its emphasis on "other power" could be classed as a practice issue as well.

SCRIPTURES - All the early schools had basically the same Sutta Pitaka but radically different Abhidhammas. This was not so much a cause of the splits but a symptom, as each attempted to explain their doctrinal positions precisely in their Abhidhamma texts.

With the emergence of Mahayana the scriptural issue comes to the forefront. The Theravada and other now extinct non-Mahayana schools never accepted the new scriptures as true "Buddha-vacana" or word of the Buddha. This is particularly problematic in the case of the Lotus Sutra which advocates some positions that the Theravada cannot accept and at the same time is venerated by some branches of Mahayana as the supreme text of all. The Nicheren chant Nam Ho Rengye Kyo translates as "Hail to the Supreme Lotus (Sutra)"

REFORM - In all religions there are periodic reform movements which arise to sweep away what they see as the accumulated corruption of centuries. Zen is in part a reform movement of this type. So is the Thai Forest Tradition although it never constituted a separate sect.

SYNCRETISM - Another repeated theme in the history of religions is the borrowing of ideas between religions. Tibetan Buddhism absorbed a big dose of Bon shamanism along the way. It's ancestor, Indian Tantric Buddhism, was already heavily syncretized with Hinduism. In China, there was much exchange of ideas with Taoism.

It's perhaps more speculative, but there is a possibility that Pure Land picked up some general tendencies from the Nestorian Christians who were present in China at the time. Nowadays in the West we see signs of syncretism with both New Age ideas and with western psychology. There is much speculation about the emergence of a new "Western Buddhism" but it is still way too early to know what shape it might take.


I'm sure other reasons for sectarianism could be found, but these are the major ones that have struck me so far. As a comparative note, we can see all of these operate in other religions as well. Doctrine about the nature of God, Jesus and the Trinity was a major source of division in early Christianity. Disputes about "vinaya" led to the emergence of the different monastic orders in that religion also. The issue of how strictly to apply the rules has also been the main cause of division within Judaism. Reform movements (in the sense outlined above) would include Protestantism and Wahabbism (movements which share many other features also, but that's a matter for another blog perhaps). Other religions have also seen new scriptures causing breakaway sects, think of the Mormoms. And syncretism is everywhere from pagan survivals in Christianity like the date of Christmas to Jewish borrowings from Babylon like the story of the flood.

In fact, Buddhist influences on Christianity have been much commented on. The birth story of Jesus, for instance, parallels in some details that of the Bodhisatta. In particular, the wise man noticing signs on the infant and despairing that he would not live to see the child grown.


Is the division of Buddhism into sects a good thing? That's a useless and naive question, it is as it is. The essence of the Dharma is pure and incorruptible but it is carried by human vessels who are not. Perhaps by having the internal light reflected from different angles we may get a better chance of catching the original beam.

Jan 21, 2009

Some Random Obama Silliness

You may have heard the song, but the cartoon video is great. There's No One as Irish as Bareach O'bama.

On the pessimistic side, there's a pretty persistent meme out there comparing Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev. Moribund economy, social system on it's life-support, even war in Afghanistan and then the high hopes raised by a brash young reformer.

Cartoonist Ted Rall took this tack as early as last July
And check out this Idleworm post in the same vein; All Hail Comrade Obamachev

Then again some of the reaction to Obama is just weird. Like this Japanese action figure for example;

Click here for the full photo set, including Obama with machine gun and samuri sword.

And the less said about this, the better....