May 16, 2006

Some Links

Fermi's paradox solved. (i.e why we haven't met any aliens yet)

Buddhist Economics

Anschluss anyone? A friend of mine commented recently that living in Canada now feels like living in Austria in 1938. Seems a tad over the top? Check out this on what the wonks are calling "deep integration."

Buddhist History - reference

Book Review - War for Civilization by Fisk

I've just finished a very excellent book - Robert Fisk's "The Great War for Civilization."

Robert Fisk is a foreign correspondent for the Independent. He's covered every war in the Middle East since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (remember that? remember when the mujjahadien were the "good guys"?) I first discovered his work in the lead up to the American invasion of Iraq, when I went online looking for hard news, without the patriotic b.s.

The "The Great War for Civilization." is a huge tome, 1200 pages. Fisk covers in depth Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the various Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Algeria and more. The book ranges from vivid first person accounts of battles in the horrendous Iran-Iraq war to political analysis of the arms trade to the psychology of the suicide bomber to very good historical background on topics like the Armenian genocide and the effects of the Treaty of Sevres.

Fisk knows what's he's talking about - he's been there. And he's smart, literate and solidly grounded in the history and geography. It's impossible to write about politics, and especially the Middle East, without bias. So what's Fisk's bias? This quote from his introduction should tell you;

...Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about "target-rich environments" and "collateral damage' - that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crimes of killing - and report of victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.

Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as dramas of opposites, good and evil, "them" and "us", victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit...
Fisk is a biased writer - he's biased toward the common people who just want to live their lives peacefully, and he's biased against all posturing conquerors and rulers and especially against their hypocrisy and lies.

What's more, he's a damn good writer; a crisp vigorous prose of a kind that reminds me somewhat of Hemingway. If you want to get some good solid background on the Middle East and try to sort out the craziness, you couldn't find a better read. And I bet you'll enjoy it too.

May 15, 2006

Buddhist History

Also, can you recommend one or several books on early Buddhist history and/or the development of Mahayana and what we now call Theravada? Summer reading season is upon us, and I need some recommendations.
The best historical introduction I've found is Peter Harvey's "Introduction to Buddhism" which is used widely as a first year college text. The chapters on the history of early Indian Buddhism are quite good on the councils, the arising of the various schools and the later gradual emergence of Mahayana.

If you want something weightier to chew on, A.K. Warder's "Indian Buddhism" remains a classic. I think it's still in print. You'll find all the minutiae about various early and medieval philosophical trends.

If you want to look at some interesting original source material, try and get a hold of a copy of the Katha-vatthu, "Points of Controversy" in English translation. The only english version I'm aware of is published by the Pali Text Society. This is a late Theravada book of debated doctrinal points in a point, counter-point form. It actually reads like usenet, except more polite.

Canada Census - Final Word

The census man came today and I filled out the form straight. On further investigation, I concluded that is overly alarmist. I'm still not enthusiastic about out-sourcing part of the job to an American arms-manufacturer but the facts are that Lockheed -Martin is only providing the hardware and software and the data will remain in Canada. I'll know if I've been naive if in some brave new world order my interrogators in Gitmo quote my census data back at me.

Mahayana/Theravada - a short note

The most unique characteristic of the Mahayana is the Bodhisattva concept. In many different schools of Mahayana, practioners take Bodhisattva vows. There are various forms of these vows, but the essential point is that one vows "not to enter final nirvana until all beings are liberated."

It may be a surprise to some, but there is a bodhisatta path in Theravada. (Pedantic linguistic note: whereas, scholar-types tell us that contrary to appearances, bodhisatta is not the pali equivalent of sanskrit bodhisattva, I've never seen that explained and they look like equivalents to me.)

However, the concept is quite different from the Mahayana formulation. In Theravada, a bodhisatta is one who is practising for Buddha-hood. A follower of the path can make a resolve to follow one of three destinies; to aim for arhantship, pacceka-buddhahood or full samma-sam-buddhahood. In actual practise, very few Theravadins take a bodhisatta vow. The road to buddha-hood is considered much longer and more onerous. Only someone motivated by a great compassion would forestall their own liberation for the hundreds of life-times required.

Perhaps that is the historical germ of the Mahayana idea; which certainly places a central emphasis on compassion. The concepts are quite different, but I think we can see a direct line of descent here.

Another important point is that, in Theravada, such a vow is not considered complete or binding until one makes it in the presence of a living Buddha, as Gotama did before Dipankara Buddha many aeons ago. Some say this is the meaning of the epithet "Bhagava" or blessed; that a Buddha was blessed in the distant past by another Buddha.