Nov 23, 2007

What Is Wrong With Us?

The tragic incident at Vancouver International airport, caught on video, highlights so much of how our society has gone wrong.

Readers outside of Canada may not be aware of this situation, so here is a brief recap of the facts. Mr.Dziekanski, a Polish citizen in the process of immigrating to Canada, was killed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mr. Dziekanski had never flown internationally before, was unused to procedures and spoke no English or French and had been wandering around the secure area prior to clearing customs for ten hours. He had grown increasingly agitated and at the end began to freak out and smash property, at one point tossing a computer monitor on the floor. There is no indication that he threatened violence against other people at any point. The airport security called for the RCMP. Four constables arrived and immediately used the taser on him, without any prior attempt to defuse the situation. As he lay writhing in the agony of the electric shock, the constables jumped on him, and one can be seen clearly forcing his knee into Mr. Dziekanski's throat. His breathing stopped almost immediately, but no attempt at resuscitation appears to have been made.

The reaction from the public has been outrage, but from the officials involved only the usual sad scurry to cover their rear ends. (Also, the company making the Taser is quick to scream "Ain't our fault!") The incident also has an international aspect, with the Polish ambassador publicly criticizing Canadian police procedure. This is also not an isolated incident, seventeen people in Canada have been killed by police taser. The difference this time is that the episode was caught on video, and posted on YouTube for all to see.

Truly our society has gone down a wrong path, a dark path. First, there is the evident lack of compassion towards a being in a state of suffering. The police and the airport officials clearly did not see this a person who desperately needed help. They saw this as an incident that needed to be resolved quickly, whatever the cost to Mr. Dziekanski. I once watched a truckload of cattle being driven into the slaughterhouse, and was shocked by the lack of compassion evidenced by the men wielding their vicious prods. We have fallen so low that we now use those prods on troublesome humans.

Second, we can also see how fearful we have become. Four constables against one distraught individual, and their first response is to use a potentially lethal jolt of electricity to incapacitate the man. I'm sorry but this is a cowardly response, and a sad falling away from the heroic history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force. We can see this whingeing fearfulness everywhere these days. We have become very risk adverse; just look at how our children are being raised. When I was a lad, back when rocks were soft, we played outside unsupervised until our mothers called us to dinner. Nowadays, you don't see kids playing in the street. They are kept locked indoors against unlikely dangers. Face it, folks, samsara is a dangerous place and no one gets out of here alive.

Third, and this relates to the last point, there is the theatre of the absurd atmosphere of high security especially at airports and border-crossings. There is a plethora of stories about security madness; from baby's sippy cup confiscated as a potential terrorist threat to panics over someone finding some marginal notes written in Farsi in an airline magazine. Just recently, there was an incident at the Windsor-Detroit crossing. A Windsor patient having a heart attack and needing immediate surgery was sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital equipped for the procedure, which happened to be on the US side. Everything was cleared by phone ahead of time, but the border guards still insisted on hauling the ambulance over for "secondary inspection" because it had the unlucky number for their daily quota of harassment. National Security, you know.

Fourth, the inhuman tyranny of bureaucratic procedure stifling all human initiative and even common sense and decency. The ambulance story also illustrates this point. Getting back to the Vancouver airport incident; how could Mr. Dziekanski have been allowed to wander around in a confused state for ten hours? Could not someone have tried to help him? I am guessing that any Canadian Customs staff who saw him felt it was not their responsibility. There were no guidelines for dealing with the situation, so it was ignored until it became "an incident" requiring police intervention.

On the positive side the reaction of the public has so far been healthy. Hopefully some good will come of this; some check will be made on the police's power to use this nasty thing with impunity and some shake up will happen at the airport authority and the customs. My fear is that one result will be a ban on video-taping police actions.

Nov 9, 2007

Is Buddhism Too Conservative?

Two people separately sent me a link to this Mark Morford column; Does your religion dance?

In it, Mr. Morford deplores the tendency of religions to become ossified, and he sees signs of this even in Buddhism (he is a Buddhist, by the way)

The idea is everywhere, and not just in the obvious, sour religious outhouses of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam and rigid Catholicism. It even popped up while I was in conversation with tattooed Buddhist and author of "Dharma Punx" Noah Levine at the Roxie theater during LitQuake '07, he and I chatting about the dangers of dogma and the problem of trying to adhere too closely, too severely, to classical Buddhist rules of behavior, concluding that even Buddhism has its dangers, its limits and its issues and general theological potholes.

Levine, a fairly conservative Theravadan Buddhist, admitted that even he had to seriously adjust some of those old rules to make them tolerable and digestible, particularly in regards to how poorly classical Buddhism valued women and the feminine principle (not to mention other rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions), outmoded ideas that sort of make you wince and cringe and say no no no, Buddha couldn't really have meant that, could he?

I'm not sure what he means by "rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions." True, some Mahayana sects require vegetarianism, but that is hardly "impossible" and Theravada Buddhism imposes no dietary restrictions on lay Buddhists at all. Even for the bhikkhus, the only practical restriction is to eat only between dawn and noon, which believe me, is quite possible. As for "lifestyle restrictions" could he be referring to the fifth precept? Certainly for lay Buddhists at least, there is very little of the regulation of the minutiae of daily life that can be found in, for example, orthodox Judaism.

The issue of gender bias in Buddhism is a more serious one, and the reader can follow Morford's link to an excellent summary by Mettanando Bhikkhu. I would add that in this regard, not unlike some other contentious points, we should separate at least four layers (possibly more) of teaching;

1. The actual Buddha-Vacana, "words of the Buddha." To a traditional Buddhist, Buddha-Vacana is equivalent to truth, because the Buddha was perfectly enlightened. There is no question of the Buddha being wrong, or misled by so-called cultural norms. Some modern Buddhists may differ on this point, but then they are changing the definition of Buddhahood and making the whole exercise rather trivial.

2. The canonical texts. This cannot always with certainty be equated with the first category. Scholarship by and large upholds the integrity of the scriptures pretty well for such ancient texts, but it is almost a given that some corruptions have crept in over the centuries. The passage most often cited as evidence of inherent sexism in Buddhism is the passage in the Vinaya texts concerning the founding of the nun's order. (This is discussed at some length in the article by Mettanando linked to above.) And this passage is also one which many textual scholars cite as a likely late addition, in other words, not Buddha-Vacana at all. (See also the study by Bhikkhu Gnanarama, "A Mission Accomplished.")

It should be noted that in the canonical texts we have ample evidence of the existence of female arahats, some of whom had male students. The spiritual potential of women is never stated to anything other than equal to that of men. Even in the troublesome Vinaya text cited above there is a categorical expression to this effect when Ananda asks the Buddha if women may become arahats and the Buddha answers in the affirmative.

A peripheral issue here; I don't think it is good enough to reject a text because of a feeling that the Buddha could not have said that. Who are we to judge the mind of a Tathagata? But we should be open to valid historical, linguistic and compartive studies.

3. The commentaries. In Theravada Buddhism, the orthodox position is defined by the commentaries. These texts have a complex provenance, which I won't go into here, but they are certainly several centuries later than the Buddha's time. They are best understood as the scholastic expression of mature institutional Buddhism. The commentaries tend to be rather more gender-biased than anything in the canon. (I would include the text portions of the Jatakas in the commentarial layer, and some of those are notoriously misogynist.)

4. The practice of actual living Buddhists at any given time and place. This has varied widely, and has not always been fully in accord with any of the above layers. It is important to remember always that Buddhism is not just a collection of old texts, but a living tradition. And as such it is not immune to the law of anicca (constant change.) In our own day, we are witnessing a great improvement in the role of women in the sangha, both in the West and in some parts of Asia.

Too often criticisms of some aspect of Buddhism fail to take these nuances into account, and take some point from one of the subsidiary layers to make a blanket statement.

This also bears on Mr. Morford's more general concern. Buddhism, or any other mature religion for that matter, is a constant interplay between various layers of teaching. There is the core expression, in our case the Buddha-Vacana, which may not be one hundred percent recoverable, there are all the various attempts to comment and explain the teachings, and there is the actual living expression. And Buddhism has always been in a state of change. A study of Buddhist history demonstrates this. For example, consider the twentieth century rise of the Forest Monk movement in Thailand. This is a good thing, but it can be taken too far, and westerners in particular are usually far too impatient. Useful, creative change must be cautious and guided by the core principles.

So, yes, Mr. Morford, my religion does dance, but it does so adagio.


POSTSCRIPT - (This is another comment from Morford's piece, but not related particularly to any of the above.)

Morford also says this;

A similar idea came up again as I was sharing the stage with the luminous Sera Beak, author of "The Red Book," a funky spirituality tome for fiery youngish women, she and I talking to the small crowd over at the Alameda Literati Festival about the hot ideological tongue baths that simply must take place between the divine feminine (her oeuvre) and the profane masculine (mine? Sort of?), the idea that you cannot have one without the other and they are both, in fact, required.....It's a decidedly Tantric principle
I'm not familiar with Sera Beak's work, and this paragraph may be an over-simplification, but I do object to the idea of a "divine feminine" set against a "profane masculine." In the attempt to give due place to the female, it is not necessary to slip over into a denigration of the male. Both the male and female principles have divine and profane aspects. Nor is the view stated above particularly tantric, which is all about a harmonious balance of the two sides. The tantric expression of transcendence is the lightning flash in the void. The flash alone is meaningless, and the void alone is barren.

Nov 4, 2007

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

The Brits have an odd sense of fun. Someone tried to blow up Parliament four hundred years ago and it's still an occasion for merriment, bonfires and old-fashioned vandalism. And oh yes, religious bigotry;

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.

Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.

traditional British Guy Fawkes Day rhyme

And now the whole thing has been given a new cachet because of the movie, V for Vendetta, which was based on a chillingly prophetic graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Wright published in 1989. Here's a relevant page from the text;

Click on the image to see a full-sized version.

Then there's this angle; there has long been the suspicion that the Gunpowder Plot was an inside job, orchestrated by Chief Minister Lord Cecil to discredit the Catholics. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Anyway, happy 5th Brits.

Oct 25, 2007

Does Capitalism Have No Shame?

Apparently not. Check out this column by SF Gate's Mark Morford, "Lets Get Drunk and Meditate." By the way, if you haven't discovered Morford's quirky writing yet, you are in for a treat.

Oct 18, 2007

"No, no, no!"

"...compassion for all beings most certainly includes evil-doers!"

Any Hope for Burma?

The mass protests in Burma, supported and led by the sangha, failed to topple the military regime. But for a brief moment they turned the attention of the world to the plight of that unhappy country. Given it's abundance of natural resources, Burma should be another Asian tiger, instead of an economic basket-case, near the bottom of all the UN rankings.

Burma is a beautiful country, and it has a rich tradition of Dhamma. Burmese bhikkhus have specialized in the two complementary fields of abhidhamma and vipassana. Some of the many insight meditation techniques developed in Burma are now practiced around the world. The modern western Buddhist tradition has strong roots there, particularly in the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw.

Many western Buddhists have been to Burma to meditate in the large practice monasteries. This in itself requires an ethical decision that I know many Dhamma travellers have agonized over. Does traveling there on a meditation visa (yes, they have such a thing) constitute support of the regime? Certainly the traveler has to pay visa fees and so forth which gives the government much needed hard currency. But spending money inside the country also helps the people, who are very hard done by.

World opinion has been appalled at the sight of repression of peaceful protestors, especially the monks. There is an understandable urge to do something to help. But what can the outside world do?

The obvious answer is sanctions. We need to think carefully, however, about measures that could impose even more hardship on the Burmese. Sanctions as an international measure have a very spotty history. Certainly they helped a lot to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, but on the other hand we should recall the ugly story of the starvation sanctions imposed on Iraq which took hundreds of thousands of innocent lives through lack of medicine, hygiene and food. We would not want to do that to Burma.

Nor is the international system governed by humanitarian principles. Statesmen in America and Europe may make noises about sanctions, but what they come up with will most likely be cosmetic. They will not want to touch the quite significant corporate interests which are profiting from resource extraction in Burma. Nor will China, India or Thailand agree to any real measures.

Furthermore, petitions and appeals from the UN, protests outside Burmese embassies and speeches by European leaders are all certain to fall on deaf ears. The generals just don't give a tinker's damn about any of that.

The fact is that the salvation of Burma must come from inside Burma. It is difficult to see how this can happen when the junta has such an overwhelming monopoly of force and no scruples against using it.

It seems to me that the one factor which may tip the scale in the peoples favour is a revolt in the lower ranks of the army. There were a few indications of this starting to happen back at the end of September. It appears that the regime managed to put a lid on it, but with the press blacked out, we don't really know how widespread it was.

The common soldiers come from the common people. They must have brothers and cousins in the democracy movement, and in the sangha. Political conditioning of the ranks only goes so deep. And the regime has destroyed the basis of it's own legitimacy. By cracking down on the monks, it can no longer use Buddhist themes in its propaganda with even minimal credibility. The Burmese people, and that includes the common soldiers, are devout.

Maybe next time....


On sanctions;

Here are two articles to read, pro and con.

Sep 26, 2007

Whatever Happened to....

Calvin and Hobbes?

Saffron Revolution

Everyone reading this is probably aware of the events in Burma. There is a massive uprising against the military junta. The sangha is playing a prominent, and even a leading role, in the massive, mostly peaceful protests.

Some of you may wonder how proper it is for bhikkhus to be engaged in political actions of this kind. When making your judgment, here are some things to bear in mind;

- The bhikkhus in Theravada countries are not isolated hermits but integral members of the society. They are the sons and brothers of the common people who are suffering under this horrid regime.
- The bhikkhus also have a natural leadership role, and are expected by the laity to give them guidance and moral support.
- There is a scriptural precedent, if not for political marches, at least for the monks to express strong disapproval of immoral laity. This is the Patam Nikkujana Kamma, the over-turned almsbowl. Sometimes called "buddhist excommunication" it is the symbolical cutting of a lay person by refusing to accept alms from him, physically manifested by turning the bowl upside-down. This has been done by the monks in Burma against the military rulers.
- The regime in Burma is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. Besides having all the marks of nasty regimes everywhere, brutal, corrupt, venal, oppressive it is also strikingly incompetent. Besides having abundant natural resources and a literate population, Burma languishes in poverty, near the bottom of the UN rankings.
- If all that wasn't enough, the leaders are quite mad, and have been for a long while. As far back as 1970, the then dictator Ne Win ordered the country to switch to driving on the right-hand side because of a dream he had. More recently, the capital was moved from Yangoon to a remote town in the jungle on the advice of an astrologer.
- Any reports in the media of bhikkhus being involved in violence should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not impossible that some monks may act improperly, of course, but it is much more likely that these incidents are perpetrated by government agents disguised as monks. (If even the Canadian police resort to these kind of tactics, why not the Burmese junta?)

The situation has the potential of turning very ugly. The long-suffering Burmese people have nothing left to lose, and the junta is not likely to show restraint. International pressure can do little, the regime is already very isolated and doesn't really care what outsiders say. Let us all hope this beautiful country, an important focus of the Dhamma, is able to come through the fire to peace, prosperity and freedom.

Some links -

Buddhist Channel
- a source for Buddhist related news has very good ongoing coverage of the crisis.
Rule of Lords - an excellent blog of Burmese and Thai politics.
Info Please - their page with background on modern Burmese history.
Human Development Statistics - for Burma, if you like your data raw.

Sep 5, 2007


What is freedom? The common view in the world is probably something like "the lack of restraint in doing what you want." Buddhism takes a higher view and sees the best freedom as the freedom from wants. The goal of the path is often referred to as vimutti, commonly translated as liberation and literally meaning "the breaking of chains." The arahant is one who is perfectly free, and the "master of the pathways of the mind, thinking only what he wants to think and not thinking what he doesn't want to think." This freedom from desire has the result of contentment in the here-and-now, and liberation from the painful process of repeated rebirth. It is, in the last analysis, freedom from the conditioned realm.

Moving down several notches, what if anything does Buddhism have to say about the practicalities of freedom within the conditioned realm, that is to say, political freedom? The Buddha was not primarily concerned with social and political questions, but he does address them here and there. The issue of political freedom does not appear directly. He probably was not a major concern, ancient states did not have the wherewithal to become truly absolute.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The erosion of civil liberty has become a major concern of our time. Especially, but not only, as part of the ubiquitous "war on terror." Even before 9-11 there had long been a drift in western democracies toward a more regulated, surveilled and restricted interpretation of individual rights. This drift has now become a cascade. The United States has pretty much abandoned the fourth amendment as well as habeas corpus, and Canada is not far behind. The UK is probably ahead of the curve with CCTV tracking the citizens every move.

We can't find a definite statement about this in the Buddhist teachings, but we can approach the problem sideways by examining the Buddhist attitude toward the state. We can, I think, determine two separate strands in the scripture.

First, there is a sensible and practical view of the state as a necessary evil. This is evident in the Agganna Sutta and here and there elsewhere. The Agganna presents what modern theorists would call a "social contract" theory of government.

‘Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying, and punishment. And they thought: "Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return we would grant him a share of the rice." So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.

This was a conscious retort to the brahminical view of government as divinely instituted. Not so, according to the Buddha, it was in the first instance a human contrivance to deal with human problems, specifically the lack of ethical restraint of some individuals. If everyone keep good morality, we wouldn't need a government at all. A nation of sotapannas would naturally adopt anarchism. It can't work for the rest of us, alas.

So consider what is happening here, exactly what the social contract entails. The populace surrenders some of it's liberty in return for a measure of security. Sound familiar? The practical question for our time is just this; where do we set the boundary between freedom and security?

To think about this clearly, it is important to understand one principle; the state never gave anyone, anywhere any liberty. By its nature, its origin and its very essence all it can ever do is take liberty away. The people give some of their inherent natural freedom away in exchange for an arrangement of peace and safety. This is a rational trade. For example, no sensible person would object to giving up their natural freedom to drive through a red light.

The problem is that if the state was instituted to protect and limit the nastiness of human nature, the rulers of the state are themselves flawed humans. If the state is instituted to protect us, the meta-question is, how can we be protected from the state?

There are two possible answers to this question. The first, which is the second strand of Buddhist political thought mentioned above, is that the rulers must be restrained by Dhamma. This is the central political myth of the Wheel-Turning Monarch, who rules by righteousness not force. It is, in a sense, a transcendence of ordinary politics to a new level. This was the ideal of Buddhist monarchs, often emulated, never achieved. The closest anyone anywhere ever came was probably Asoka, and his Dhamma regime passed away with him.

Other times and cultures have also had their myth of the "Good King;" from Arthur to Aragorn the "Return of the King" is a persistent motif.

The second answer is one of the really valuable contributions of European civilization to the world; the idea of restraining the King by laws. (A caveat here, this is not entirely European, the Buddhist texts mention how rulers should govern according to the ancient laws - but it was formalized and developed methodically in Greece, Rome and Europe) Thus, for an important example, we have the Magna Carta imposed on King John in 1215 (and blown away by Alberto Gonzales in 2006) whereby the King agreed to certain specified limits to his rule.

How does this apply to the social contract? The king (or the republican rulers) are not giving anyone freedom, they are simply agreeing not to take certain freedoms away. The American constitution seems to be cognizant of this distinction in it's wording; "...congress shall make no law etc." (Thus Gonzales assertion that the constitution gives "no grant" of habeas corpus is meaningless and deceitful. Either he doesn't understand the point, or he was being deliberately misleading. )

The bottom line is that if the people are to enjoy civil freedom, the rulers must be restrained somehow or they will naturally limit it more and more. If a way cannot be found to limit the rulers by having them behave morally, then they must be restrained by law and reminded that their authority comes from us, and is a limited exchange. No government can be trusted for long to set the limits of freedom.

How Old is the Suttapitaka?

A very interesting article making a scholarly case for the antiquity of the canon; How Old is the Suttapitaka by Alexander Wynn. He makes the argument that the Pali Canon was closed to new material at a very early date. One of his key arguments is that stories and doctrines that are found in other recensions are relegated to the Pali commentaries. This would indicate that the Theravadin sangha in Sri Lanka were unwilling to revise the canon, even though they were keeping abreast of developments in India.

Thanks Eisel for pointing this out to me.

Aug 29, 2007

Truth, a Rare Commodity

Truth is one of the ten paramitas (perfections) and the Buddha often stressed the importance of adherence to the truth. There are many stories in the commentaries about the power of a "truthful asservation." Telling a lie is really a grievous moral breach in the Buddhist world-view because it is a means of directly implanting delusion in another being's mind-stream, and delusion or ignorance can be called the ultimate root of all suffering.

The importance of this teaching is critical for many of the problems the world is facing today. We are saturated with streams of propaganda devised to befuddle our mind-streams. This is obnoxious enough if the goal is just to sell a new brand of shampoo, but it is diabolical if the goal is to promote war. Unfortunately, it is an old truism that the first casualty of war is truth. From Belgian babies on German bayonets, to Kuwaiti babies tossed out of incubators, from the explosion on the USS Maine through Tonkin Gulf to Weapons of Mass Destruction every war seems to generate its own awful atrocity lies. Before Hitler invaded Poland there was a month's long press campaign in Germany about Polish atrocities against innocent Germans in Pomerania. (Watch for stories about Iranian atrocities coming soon to a screen near you.)

A crucial part of making decisions in the present is to understand the past. That's why telling the truth about history matters. I was dismayed to hear the news this week that the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has caved in to two years of steady pressure from conservative pressure groups and removed their factual display about the fire-bombing of Dresden (in which Canadian air-men were prominent) with something more "patriotic."

The display board which upset the patriotic element so much read;

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.
Every word a reasonable and balanced interpretation of history. Now gone. We don't know what they will replace it with. One doubts, somehow, it would be this quote from "Bomber" Harris, head of the RAF strategic bombing programme;

“That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers
and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany. It should
be emphasised that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and
lives; the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale; and the
breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended
and intensified bombing are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy,
they are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."
Arthur Harris, October 25, 1943
And they also didn't like the photographs of charred civilians. Can't have that, quite ruins the reputation of a nice clean bombing run to show the actual effects on the ground.

This matters of course, because strategic bombing is still used today, and the aim of demoralizing the inhabitants is still with us. Why do you think they called it "Shock and Awe?"

Shame on the War Museum for this cowardly retreat.

Aug 23, 2007

Bhikkhu Bodhi Challenges Buddhists

Buddhadhamma Quarterly is possibly the finest Buddhist magazine available, always presenting thoughtful in-depth articles by leading teachers and scholars. In the current issue, Fall 2007, there is a thought provoking essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi (best known as translator of large chunks of the Sutta Pitaka.) You can read a long excerpt on the Buddhadhamma website; A Challenge to Buddhists. The gist of the piece is that Buddhists need to find ways to actively involve themselves in relieving the horrendous suffering experienced on this planet. As the Bhante puts it;

Seeing the immensity of the world’s anguish has raised in my mind questions about the future prospects for Buddhism in the West. I’ve been struck by how seldom the theme of global suffering—the palpable suffering of real human beings—is thematically explored... It seems to me that we Western Buddhists tend to dwell in a cognitive space that defines the first noble truth largely against the background of our middle-class lifestyles: as the gnawing of discontent; the ennui of over-satiation; the pain of unfulfilling relationships...our focus on these aspects of dukkha has made us oblivious to the vast, catastrophic suffering that daily overwhelms three-fourths of the world’s population.
Ah yes, the complacency of the "Upper Middle Path." While seeing some merit in the Engaged Buddhist movement, Bhikkhu Bodhi also sees some limitations;

while some Engaged Buddhists seek fresh perspectives from the dharma, for many Buddhism simply provides spiritual practices to use while simultaneously espousing socio-political causes not much different from those of the mainstream Left.
He goes on, in the remainder of the essay not yet posted on-line, to note how much more effective some organizations with Christian and Jewish roots have been (he cites World Vision and the Jewish World Service) than the much smaller Buddhist efforts. His conclusion;

The special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic nad political injustice who cannot stand up for themselves....This is, in my view, a deeply moral challenge...I believe it also points in a direction that Buddhism should take if it is to share in the Buddha's ongoing mission to humanity.
Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay raises two questions in my mind; why haven't Buddhists been more engaged in social and political action to relieve suffering? And how can we do better?

Bhikkhu Bodhi's critique mostly involves western Buddhists, and in the quotes above he cites the mostly middle class base and it's concern with purely personal manifestations of dukkha. That is a valid observation; most of the first or second generation converts to Buddhism in North America are above average in income and educational level. This is not in itself surprising or negative; the Buddha's own converts were disproportionately from the higher strata of Indian society. However, it has created a mind-set which finds it easier to relate to the dukkha of post-modern angst than to the dukkha of hunger.

It is also true that most new Buddhists are primarily drawn to the religion for the meditation, as a vehicle of self-help. Back in the 'sixties and 'seventies when various strands of Buddhism were first being imported to mainstream America, there was a conscious effort to avoid what were called disparagingly "cultural trappings" and to present the teachings in a form pretty much stripped down just to meditation. This was a tactical move that may have helped the initial early spread of the teaching, but led unfortunately to an unbalanced approach. I get the feeling that this trend has been turning around for at least ten years and that many western buddhists are looking for more than just a self-help practice.

It's not that western Buddhists are apolitical, on the contrary many are passionately committed to various causes, it is just that in most cases there isn't much intersection between their spiritual and political lives. Nor is there much of either community social work or political action coming from Buddhist institutional structures.

Is there a doctrinal aspect of Buddhism that hinders action in the world? Possibly. There is the underlying sense that this conditioned realm is inherently flawed and will always be so. However, there is also a very great emphasis on compassion for all beings caught in it. And there are plenty of scriptural references to the Buddha advising on how to live a comfortable and decent life within this world, and even commenting on what we would relate to as social or political questions.

Turning to the second question, what can we do about it? There may be many practical ways we can help relieve suffering, and some Buddhist groups are doing great work - the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya organization is a sterling example; founded way back in 1958. In the western countries, Buddhists have been active in hospice and prison work.

On the political side, I think we have to be wary of any organized "Buddhist Party." These have not always turned out happily in Asian countries. Better, in my opinion, to bring our Buddhist sensibilities to bear through existing structures.

But one thing I think would be very useful would be some attempt to formulate a coherent Buddhist vision of contemporary social issues and problems. (And we should acknowledge those who are working in that direction already, like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship)

Buddhism can have a lot to contribute to improving the dialogue. To begin with, we can try and transcend the us vs. them mentality that inflicts itself on so much political discourse, of the right and of the left. This is because the whole dichotomy of good and evil has no place in Buddhism. There is, instead, an analysis of actions into those which are skilful (relieving suffering) and unskilful (causing suffering.) This perspective alone, if widely disseminated, would improve both thought and action immensely.

The major issues of the early twenty-first century are the environment, war, poverty and liberty. All of these are closely related and need to be addressed holistically. Buddhism ultimately traces all of these problems to the three great roots of greed, hatred and delusion. This simple, but powerful, insight needs to be spun out and elaborated to define the various specific chains of causality, and to see where they can be effectively and compassionately addressed.

Hopefully I'll find time to spin out some of these ideas a bit more on this blog in the future. In the meanwhile, what do you think?

Aug 17, 2007

War is Madness

The Buddha condemned war and described it as motivated "by sensual desire, just by sensual desire." In the suttas, war is pictured as "men strapping on shield and armour and hacking one another with swords, causing death and painful wounds." Ancient warfare was horrible enough, and more horrible in reality than epic movies would lead one to believe. Most wounds in battle were in the lower body, because of constraints of human anatomy and the need for mobility the region from the belly to the knees was always the least protected by armour.

But modern warfare is much, much worse. Modern states have much more lethal means at their disposal than swords and arrows. What is more, in operations conducted by the most sophisticated military powers, there is always a higher rate of casualties among civilians than among warriors, either of the attacking or the defending force.

Modern warfare is nasty, cruel and cowardly. Pilots sitting safely in their cockpits, flying high enough to avoid ground-fire, are also too high to visually ascertain whether a target is civilian or military. The risk of war is not eliminated, it is simply transferred in a craven way from the warrior to the innocent. Aerial bombardment is a morally depraved tactic, no better or worse than terrorism. In fact, it is best called state terrorism. And they aren't "collateral damage," they are victims of war-crimes.

In recent years the biggest perpetrators of such crimes against humanity have been the Americans and their regional allies the Israelis. Are these nations somehow morally worse than any others? If only it were so, then it would be a special case. They are neither better nor worse than any others, in spite of their claims for exceptional status. They are merely the dogs currently on top in the scramble for scraps. They are killing the most civilians not because they are in any way worse than other nations, but only because they can.

In a recent action in Baghran province in Afghanistan;
United States Air Force (USAF) announced, "An Air Force B-1B Lancer dropped guided bomb unit-31s on enemies hiding in a tree line near Baghran. The bomb drop was reported to have good effects."
Of course, "deeply regretted by coalition authorities," there were some not so good effects;

On that fateful afternoon of August 2nd, hundreds of people had gathered for the traditional weekly market (or 'mela') in Bughni (or Bagh-e-Nahi) where local people trade everything from carpets, foods, clothes, to cows. Market day there falls on Thursday, the start of Afghanistan's weekend. Then, suddenly, the U.S. Boeing-made GBU-31, GPS-guided 2,000 pound bombs fell from the blue sky.

Panic erupted. Many villagers said they lost fathers, brothers, and children in the inferno.
This is by no means an unusual incident in any of the current theatres of war. In last year's invasion of Lebanon;

[Israel fired] at least a million cluster bombs, old munitions supplied by the US with a failure rate as high as 50 per cent, in the last days of fighting. The tiny bomblets, effectively small land mines, were left littering south Lebanon after the UN-brokered ceasefire, and are reported so far to have killed 30 civilians and wounded at least another 180. Israeli commanders have admitted firing 1.2 million such bomblets, while the UN puts the figure closer to 3 million.
Hezbollah too was guilty of war-crimes, cited by Human Rights Watch, such as loading rockets with ball-bearings. If the Israeli assault was a hundred times more murderous, it was only because they had the superior killing technology. There are no good guys in any of these awful wars.

In fact, a huge part of the problem is the simplistic tribal mentality that divides the world into "good-guys" (us and people who look and think like us) and "bad-guys" (people who live over there, eat weird food and worship weirder gods) This simplistic mentality makes it possible for the elites to justify their resource-wars as moral crusades. But no amount of lip-stick can hide the ugliness of that particular pig.

As a species, we ought to have grown out of this baboonish territoriality long ago. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who pointed out that war was the single most entropic activity of the human species. In other words, it is destruction, death and chaos. We can no longer afford to be killing each other, we have pressing issues to attend to if civilization is to continue.



Looking for signs of sanity is hard, but finding public voices that are stark raving mad is easy. Here are two of the scariest articles I've seen in ages. Scary because there are people out there who think like that;

This guy wants to nuke Iran, and sees "no moral dilemma."

And these guys want Bush to be President-for-Life (after killing all the Iraqis)

But some other folks, bless them, are trying. Here's the kind of thing that might actually be very helpful in letting us learn to see each other as human beings;

The Peace-Maker Game, a Middle East simulation available in English, Hebrew and Arabic versions. I guess you would call it a First Person Don't Shoot 'Em

Aug 13, 2007

Onward Christian Soldiers

I've defined "spirituality" as the quest for the noumenous and/or the trascendental, and "religion" as the institutionalized or organized expression of spirituality. Some people may find that oxymoronic, like trying to "catch a snark with a railway share," (Hunting of the Snark) but it's a definition I can work with.

There are some abuses of religion that divorce it from spirituality altogether. These may be superstitious and commercial, like the medieval sale of indulgences (recently secularized and updated as "carbon credits") or like the mass market for amulets in Thailand. But I can't get too upset about that, it's almost like the Nigerian scam letters, if you're foolish and greedy enough to believe in it, you're not a very sympathetic victim. The worst harm comes from the disrepute it brings to genuine expressions of religion, but I hope most people can discern the difference.

A much graver offence against the spirit of religion is when it religious rhetoric is used to justify war. No major religion has completely escaped this blemish; Buddhists sometimes boast that we've never had a war fought in our name, but that claim is historically dubious to say the least. We should face up honestly to the misuse of Buddhism by some Zen priests in 1930's Japan and by some Theravada monks in contemporary Sri Lanka. If we're not honest about that, we can't fairly point the finger when adherents of other relgions go down the same dark path.

A very dangerous aspect of the manifestation of Holy War is going on in Iraq. We hear a lot about Islamic extremists, but less about their mirror image found in the American forces. There are many stories coming out about the penetration of extreme dominionist christians in the US armed forces. Dominionists are a very polticized wing of the fundamentalist movement, who believe that America should be transformed into a theocratic state. It appears that the Air Force may be particularly full of these people. (See this article from the progressive Jewish site, Tikkun.) There is also the scary rise of the mercenary army Blackwater, which is run by Dominionists.

Now the Army has authorized a tour of US Forces in Iraq by the "Left-Behind" group to promote and distribute a video game based on a post-raptured New York where Christian soldiers seek to convert the heathens and kill those who can't be saved any other way. "Left-Behind" refers to a series of novels based on the Book of Revelations. The writing is pedestrian, the theology absurd and there is lots of righteous killing of the unsaved throughout. But they sell really well. They've already made a film, and now fans can download the game and destroy the ungodly hordes in comfort of their own homes.

Or they can go to Iraq and do it for real.

Jul 31, 2007

Generational Myths

Found this interesting observation at Duck of Minerva;

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, "I am your father," "he's my brother," "I've got a bad feeling about this," and so on . . . this is what we grew up with.

...For members of the next generation, the "millennial" generation, I'd wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series.

For many old fogies like me, born shortly after mid-century, coming into adolescence around 1970, the central cultural myth was J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

This got me thinking about how, if indeed these mythic structures define their generations, how they might differ. Part of the difference lies in the medium, which another boomer idol, Marshall McLuhan said "is the message." Lord of the Rings was a book (at least back then, it was only a book), Star Wars was a movie series and Harry Potter is really both (starting as a book but being translated to film very quickly) This in itself may say something about the three generations. Let's consider the three central myths (and all three are quite mythic in tone and content) according to how several key elements are dealt with. It might give a glimpse into future social history to see what the emerging generation resonates with compared to those that have gone before.

One of the most striking differences between the three mythologies is in their attitude toward technology. While Tolkien has a decidedly negative attitude toward machinery, calling it "orcish," he shows great love and respect for handicrafts and artwork. While Saruman, the evil wizard, builds huge ugly noisy machine-works at Isengard, the hobbits live in a rustic idyll and make things that are homely and useful; pleasant if not beautiful. The elves and dwarves make objects of great beauty. The comparison also shows in the races of men. The clean-living folk of Rohan, even their kings, live in wooden halls. The men of Gondor, whose near downfall comes about in part through arrogance and pride, pile up massive cities of stone.

There is no such nuanced attitude in the Star Wars universe. The series manifests an abiding fascination with technology, and a faith that it can work near-miracles (faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, etc.) Many of the most striking visual sequences in the films involve battles between space-ships; technological artifacts as eye candy. Both the good and the evil sides make use of these technologies, so in that way they are seen as value-neutral.

The Harry Potter books have another, and quite curious, attitude from either of the older myths. To the wizards of Rowling's world (with the eccentric exception of Arthur Weasely) muggle technology is neither an object of fear nor of fascination. It is generally just ignored as beneath notice. One of the characters dismisses our technology as "those gadgets muggles make because they can't do magic." There is, it is true, a whole alternate wizard technology of flying broomsticks, animated portraits and the like but none of this is strictly speaking technological in the usual sense. These things are not animated by a clever contrivance of their internal parts, but by an infusion of magical power. It may be significant that in the Potter world, only the goblins, rather nasty creatures, seem to actually make things in the ordinary way. When Hermione knits socks and hats for the Elves by hand, the others regard her as slightly dotty.


If we define spirituality as seeking the numinous and/or the transcendent, and religion as the organized and institutionalized manifestation of that seeking, we can see some degree of spirituality in all three myths, but a striking lack of religion.

This lack of a formal religion is especially odd in Tolkien, and has been pointed out by his critics. Tolkien himself was a rather conservative Catholic, but there seems to be no mention of any religions in Middle Earth. There is no temple in Minas Tirith that we hear of, nor priests anywhere. However, Frodo does call out to the Valar (gods) in moments of peril; "O Elbereth! Githoniel!" and Denethor in his madness makes mention of the "heathen kings of old." (Presumably the Gondor of the Third Age was not heathen, what then was it?)

The spiritual aspect of Middle Earth is alluded to in LOTR but we need to go to the Silmarillion to see it clearly. Tolkien's religious vision was monotheistic; all things emanating from the creator Eru Illuvatar. His manifestation in the earth was primarily through light, particularly the light of the two sacred trees that once stood in Aman. The light of these trees is reflected in the eyes of the High Elves. It may be that Tolkien felt that in his world the numinous was readily manifest through the Elves particularly, and that an organized religion would be superfluous.

There is certainly a metaphorical transcendence in Tolkien's world; passage to the Uttermost West as taken by Frodo and several other characters at the end of the book. The longing of the Elves for the West is a poignant allusion to the spiritual longing for transcendence, which sometimes feels like heart-break. "This shore and the other shore" is a symbol often found in Buddhist literature as well.

Much has been made of the spiritual side of Star Wars, in particular the numerous references to the Force. I think too much has been made of this, just as too little attention has been given to the spiritual aspect of Tolkien. The Force may be a quasi-religious concept, borrowed somewhat from Taoism but coloured by Manicheanism (the good and the dark sides) but it is hard to see much of the really numinous about it, much less transcendence. The Force is an integral part of the weave of this world, it is not separate or other. If the Force is a religion, it is a religion without any transcendence. It is really physics rather than metaphysics and Lucas' universe is more materialist than either of the other two myths.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Star Wars world has the closest thing to an organized religion in the quasi-monastic Jedi Order. But the battles of the Jedi are entirely of and for this world, and they do not seek any "further shore."

Harry Potter's world has little of overt spirituality, and avoids any religious allusions at all. Nevertheless, what the Zen people call the "Great Matter" of life and death is a major theme running throughout the series. The post-mortem state is deliberately left mysterious. When Harry has his near death experience at the climax of the last book, Dumbledore meets him in the anteroom of the after-life and tells him he has the choice to go back, or to go on. When Harry asks what he means by "going on" Dumbledore just shrugs and says, "going on." Likewise Sirius's death is portrayed as falling through a veiled doorway.

This side of death, however, there is no real transcendence in Potter's world. On the other hand, there is a clear sense of distinction between the ordinary (muggle) world and the magical realm of the wizards. This concept of a magical realm invisible to us, but at the same time penetrating our world with occasional visitations both ways, is more shamanic than anything else. While the transcendent is almost (but not quite) missing, Rowling's world is full of the numinous.


Turning now to the question of the politics underlying the three myths, we again find marked differences. When asked about his politics, Tolkien once described himself as an "Anarcho-Monarchist." The anarchist side shows itself in the rustic utopia of the Shire, which doesn't seem to have any real government at all (the Mayor being a mostly honorific post, and the Shire-Reeves being a tiny border patrol) and yet they seem to get along quite happily.

The monarchist side is evident in the major theme of the return of the rightful king. The king's right comes from his blood-line, particularly the infusion of Elvish and even Valar (divine) blood in Aragorn. Tolkien's politics is an odd synthesis totally out of harmony with any of the major trends of his own time, or ours. It is essentially an idealized medieval view. (Another close analogue, but one of which Tolkien probably knew nothing, would be the Buddhist ideal of the Wheel-Turning Monarch who rules by righteousness not by force.)

Certainly Tolkien was viscerally opposed to any kind of totalitarianism (one or another form of which seduced so many of his generation) as can be clearly seen in the "Scouring of the Shire," his most overtly political chapter. (Unfortunately missing from the film version.)

The Star War series is the most political of the three myths. The whole story is essentially a political one, the struggle for freedom against tyranny. In the prequel movies the politics even seems to allude to contemporary events, with Palpatine standing in for Bush, although Lucas denies that was his intention.

The politics in Star Wars has a very American flavour, with the ideal being a free republic. There is a strong valuation of the rugged individual against the overbearing collectivist Empire.

However, it also needs to be said that the politics in Star Wars are not really consistent or even coherent. The struggle for the republic includes a princess, and the robots being portrayed as autonomous, conscious and sensitive, represent a kind of slavery.

The politics in Harry Potter is not so overt but there is a constant theme of anti-authoritarianism running throughout the series. The Ministry of Magic is portrayed mostly in a negative light as ineffectual at best, compromised at worst. The only authority figure in the whole series who is portrayed positively is Dumbledore, and he actually does very little governing and even winks at the students' transgressions of the rules.

There is even a strong positive valuation of rebellion, as in the constant mischief of the Weasley twins, and even more powerfully in the student revolt of Dumbledore's Army against the strict regime of Headmistress Umbridge. Certainly Harry Potter, the hero of the books, is constantly in trouble of one sort or another with the wizarding powers-that-be. It could also be noted that in the prologue to Half Blood Prince, the muggle prime-minister is characterized in a rather comic way. But beyond this negative portrayal of authority, Rowling gives no hint as to what might be a desirable political arrangement. And how are the Ministers of Magic selected anyway? Politics in Potter's world is mostly an irrelevance, an annoyance whenever it imposes itself on everyday life.


Considering next how the three myths deal with that very human preoccupation, love and sexuality. Turning first to Tolkien, there is little to say because he mostly avoids the topic. In the whole trilogy you can count the love stories on one hand; Sam and Rosie, the Aragorn-Arwen-Eowyn triangle, Eowyen and Faramir and Gimli's distant admiration of Galadriel. All of these are treated very cursorily, and with the exception of the first, in a very formal and courtly manner. (Of course I'm speaking of the books here, not the movies)

There is more passion in Star Wars with the Luke-Leia-Hans triangle and even incest (albeit unwitting) with Luke and Leia being siblings. Nevertheless, the love stories remain a minor theme taking second place to the action of galactic war and the machinations of the various factions.

It is only when we come to Harry Potter that erotic relationships between the characters become a major theme. (After the first few books, of course, when the characters reach an appropriate age) It is one of the strengths of Rowling's writing that she portrays realistically and sensitively the adolescents angst of coming to terms with sexual desire. Harry's first date is a disaster (wasn't everyone's?), Ron and Hermione find each other with painful slowness and many detours, Ginny's hopeless crush on Harry finds fulfilment at last. It is all very real, and a very important part of the appeal of the books. The dominant tone is certainly not courtly like in Tolkien, nor even passionate as in Star Wars, but anxiety ridden and problematic.


The treatment of Gender Roles shows a gradual evolution through the three myths, paralleling what was going on in society. Tolkien's Middle Earth is very much a man's world (or perhaps we should say a male world to avoid offending the elves and dwarves!) There are very few female characters at all, and the only really strong ones are Galadriel and Eowyn, and the latter chafed at being restricted to a "woman's place." (We ought, I suppose, add Shelob to the list!) The only time a woman, Eowyn, does any fighting it is by disguising herself as a man. Women are not unsympathetically portrayed in Tolkien, they're mostly just not portrayed at all. It is not surprising that for the film version the role of Arwen, a very sketchy character in the books, was greatly enhanced.

Star Wars, too, is a mostly male adventure with the very important exception, of course, of Princess Leia. (And in the prequels, Padme Amidala.) Princess Leia does play a more autonomous and dynamic role than any of Tolkien's women, but she is greatly outnumbered.

It is only when we come to the Harry Potter world that we see something approaching a gender equality. There are many strongly defined, and powerful, witches in the series; Hermione, Tonks, McGonagall, Luna to name just a few, and also some on the side of evil such as Bellatrix. Nevertheless, even here, the three most powerful characters; Harry, Dumbledore and Voldemort are all wizards.


The attitudes toward Nature in the three myths is markedly different. Tolkien has the most empathy with the natural world, and he lavishes a great deal of descriptive prose on the varied landscapes the hobbits pass through. He, like his hobbits, obviously had a great affection and affinity for the natural world, the earth and the vegetation that grows on it. His most sympathetic characters, the hobbits and the elves, are those closest to nature. The most beautiful place on Middle Earth is not the stone city of MInas Tirith but the Golden Wood of Lothlorien. Most of the story takes place out of doors.

Likewise, the foulest deed of his evil characters is the way that they destroy the environment. Orcs are described as "hacking and hewing" and Mordor is of course a polluted waste-land. The revolt of the Ents against Saruman depicts the wrath of nature against human spoilage. It is also not with out importance that Sam, whom Tolkien himself called "the true hero of the book" was a gardener by trade.

The depiction of nature in Star Wars on the other hand is almost entirely either absent or negative. Most of the action takes place in the artificial and antiseptic environment of space-ships or technologically sophisticated buildings, and the planets the characters visit seem mostly to be either barren deserts or hostile volcanic worlds. The one healthy and natural eco-system portrayed, the forest world of the Ewoks, serves mostly as a backdrop for an action sequence involving flying motorcycles darting among the trees. This is a universe of men and machines, with nature playing very little part.

Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle. Most of the story takes place indoors, but an important secondary locale is the Forbidden Forest and the students of Hogwarts are never too far from the weather, with the ceiling of the great hall magically reflecting the sky outside. Rowling also pays some attention to the changing seasons, and the major character of Hagrid is pretty close to the earth.


Just to touch briefly on a few more points of comparison;

Violence is a factor in all three myths, sword or light-saber or death-dealing wand but interestingly enough, in all three the protaganist saves the world by at one point abstaining from harm. Frodo spares Smeagol, Luke Skywalker refuses to kill Darth Vader when he learns his true identity and Harry Potter destroys the last horocrux by letting Voldemort curse him.

If we could define the highest ideals of each myth, for LOTR it would be peace and domesticity in a rightly ordered world (very Canadian that, "Peace Order and Good Government" when Aragorn comes back!) In Star Wars it would be Freedom. In Harry Potter it would be the values of friendship and family; loyalty, devotion, sharing and self-sacrifice.

Evil in all three myths is in some manner faceless. Sauron was portrayed as a disembodied eye for the movies, but in the books not even that much is shown. He remains hidden throughout. Darth Vader was of course masked and Voldemort is described as being rather hideously featureless; a slit for a nose and eyes like a snake. He is also in a sense nameless; "He Who Must Not Be Named."

The cosmology in Tolkien is very medieval; all things emanating in ordered layers from the divine in an orderly chain of being. In Star Wars, the cosmology is modern; scientific and even materialist. In the Harry Potter books it is a dualism of the ordinary world and the magical, numinous other realm of the wizards and witches.


In some ways Tolkien seems an odd choice for a generation stereotyped as radical, self-indulgent and anti-authoritarian. In revolt against the claustrophobic world of the fifties, the children of the sixties ended up idealizing hobbit holes! Primarily I think the appeal was the return of an ancient mythic vision to the sterile landscape of the "Leave it to Beaver" world. It was a time when people wanted to break out of rigid structures, and a quest into Wilderland hit just the right note.

Even Tolkien's somewhat reactionary political vision resonated at some level. It was a generation in revolt against modernity, and "back to the land" is really a deeply conservative impulse.

Tolkien, too, could be called a romantic (in the nineteenth century sense) and there was a strongly romantic or anti-classical bent to hippie sensibilities in everything from clothing styles to spiritual seeking.

It is not hard to see Star Wars in Generation X. They are the ones who can't go out the door without an iPod jammed into their ear, who carry cell-phones everywhere, who make computer hacking into high art. Politically too, they tend toward libertarianism, the Republic against the Empire. Reagan in the 'eighties used allusions to Star Wars quite often; the Soviet Union as Evil Empire.

The Star Wars stories were not romantic in the same was as were Tolkien's tales, but didn't really represent a reversion to classicism either. There's something of the Heroic Age about them; a tone akin in some ways to the Illiad. The heroic individual at centre stage. There was certainly something individualistic about 'eighties culture, even if it seldom arose to heroism. It was, like Star Wars, also quite materialistic.

What of the Potter kids? It is too early to know for sure, but some guesses might be ventured from the tone of the books. If they develop into adults still resonating with this myth the culture of the twenty-teens may be marked by a strong emphasis on family and friendship bonds, a more balanced approach to technology and a seeking for the magic around the next bend.

Jul 27, 2007

Facing Facts

A few more thoughts about the climate crisis;

First, the situation is beyond serious. Check out this article in the New Scientist for some hard science about polar melting.

In the article James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard Institute) extrapolates our current situation based on geological history;

There is strong evidence that the Earth now is within 1 °C of its highest temperature in the past million years. Oxygen isotopes in the deep-ocean fossil plankton known as foraminifera reveal that the Earth was last 2 °C to 3 °C warmer around 3 million years ago, with carbon dioxide levels of perhaps 350 to 450 parts per million. It was a dramatically different planet then, with no Arctic sea ice in the warm seasons and sea level about 25 metres higher, give or take 10 metres.

...the palaeoclimate record contains numerous examples of ice sheets yielding sea level rises of several metres per century when forcings were smaller than that of the business-as-usual scenario. For example, about 14,000 years ago, sea level rose approximately 20 metres in 400 years, or about 1 metre every 20 years.
Second, even now there is a huge amount of denial. I'm not thinking here primarily of the dwindling breed of outright nay-sayers, but of the tendency to imagine things won't get that bad, or the gormless hope that some technological fix will save the day.

Hansen addresses one aspect of this, the strong economic pressure on researchers to downplay the data;

I was dismayed, because in conversations and email exchanges with relevant scientists I sensed a deep concern about the stability of ice sheets in the face of "business as usual" global warming scenarios, which assume that emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to increase. Why might scientists be reticent to express concerns about something so important?

...It seems to me that scientists downplaying the dangers of climate change fare better when it comes to getting funding. Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming may or may not have helped increase funding for the relevant scientific areas, but it surely did not help individuals like Mercer who stuck their heads out.
Of course there are powerful economic interests opposed to any restraint on burning carbon fuels. (Check out this two videos, both produced by public relations arms of the oil industry - Al Gore's Penguin Army and We Call it Life. ) But I suspect there is also something deeper going on. I think that many people who may intellectually accept the concept of anthropic climate change don't really believe in it on a gut level, because they are missing the idea of inevitable change, familiar to Buddhists as anicca. They find it difficult to imagine that things won't always be much the same as they are now.

Obviously, there is no justification for this erroneous assumption. Geology tells us that the earth has had many different climates, many different arrays of flora and fauna. It is only a scant fifteen thousand years since the end of the last ice age. Even on the scale of human affairs, history tells us that nations, races and civilizations rise and fall continually.

What may contribute to the inability to really imagine global change is the long era of peace and prosperity enjoyed by the developed countries since 1945. This is now coming to an end. In reality the only surefire prediction about the future is that it won't be anything like the present.

Third, there is almost no willingness to face up to what needs to be done. George Monbiot says it better than in could in a recent post, Eco-Junk;

Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green. A section on ethical shopping in Goldsmith’s book advises us to buy organic, buy seasonal, buy local, buy sustainable, buy recycled. But it says nothing about buying less.

Green consumerism is becoming a pox on the planet. If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing: one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first. I am now drowning in a tide of ecojunk. Over the past six months, our coatpegs have become clogged with organic cotton bags, which – filled with packets of ginseng tea and jojoba oil bath salts – are now the obligatory gift at every environmental event. I have several lifetimes’ supply of ballpoint pens made with recycled paper and about half a dozen miniature solar chargers for gadgets I don’t possess.

... Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

This aspect of the crisis has bothered me for some time now. There is a growing trend to want to do the right thing, the "green" thing. But only if it means no real sacrifices. Let's face the hard truth; switching to flourescent bulbs, putting your tins in the blue-box and buying bags made of hemp is not about saving the planet. It's about making you feel good. (The absurdity of off-setting carbon credits is an extreme example.)

I've said it before, the only thing that will work is a massive roll-back of consumerism. Never mind "green," the catchword should be "less."

And I have to respectfully disagree with fellow Buddhist blogger Cliff of Everyday Zazen who says, regarding the climate crisis;

as in all things,it comes down to individual effort. concern is not enough. it’s what i do that matters.
Given the scale of the problem, this kind of voluntarism is not merely disingenuous, it is actually dangerous. The damage to the environment is too massive to be met by the kind of paltry tinkering that individuals can accomplish. I agree with Monbiot that the only thing that would have a hope in hell of succeeding would be a strict regime of carbon rationing. Politically, there doesn't seem to be much chance of this happening.

However, people were willing to accept quite draconian rationing schemes during World War Two. Odd creatures that we are, we only seem to be willing to make real sacrifices in the interest of beating up on another tribe, not on securing the future for everyone.

Fourthly, The Prognosis is Not Good. Given the last point, it seems unlikely that anything significant enough to make a difference will be done in time. And to make matters worse, there is another consideration. Even if one or even several nations come to their senses and institute a Monbiot carbon rationing scheme, it still won't work. The problem is global and there is no global authority capable of addressing the problem. All the major carbon producing nations would have to get on board, and in the current state of the world, the chance of that happening before it is too late is between slim and nil.

It's just barely possible to imagine that some of the Europeans might be up to the challenge. But the largest single producer is the USA and 'nuff said about that. Also China and India are industrializing at a rapid clip and the middle classes are just beginning to taste the dubious joys of a consumer life-style. And there are an awful lot of them.

I'm sorry I couldn't end this post on a hopeful note. If it makes you feel better, sort the cans from the bottles until the endorphins kick in.

Jul 8, 2007

Saving the Earth with Rock and Roll

Well yesterday was 7/7/07 and the big Live Earth Concert which has saved us all just in the nick of time. By the middle of Madonna's second number, the Greenland Ice Sheet had started to refreeze and what with Al Gore's enormous investment in carbon offsets, we should all be laying in extra firewood for the cold winters ahead. Polar bears are celebrating.

Sarcasm aside, this whole event is quite depressing in the way it typifies our pathetic response to the very real climate crisis. Scientists like Monbiot and Lovelock are painting a very grim picture; according to the latter, we may already have passed the critical "tipping point" where the earth system is going into positive feedback through reduced albedo and released methane from the melting of the Canadian and Siberian permafrost. People at all levels, even the thickest of politicians, are finally facing the facts, about twenty years too late.

But what are we doing about it? Putting in flourescent bulbs mostly. And on the political level, setting ambitious "targets" decades in the future, targets without concrete plans in most cases.

And, oh yeah, holding rock concerts. A really good article from the online Daily Mail has the following snippet;

A Daily Mail investigation has revealed that far from saving the planet, the extravaganza will generate a huge fuel bill, acres of garbage, thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions, and a mileage total equal to the movement of an army.

The most conservative assessment of the flights being taken by its superstars is that they are flying an extraordinary 222,623.63 miles between them to get to the various concerts - nearly nine times the circumference of the world. The true environmental cost, as they transport their technicians, dancers and support staff, is likely to be far higher.

The total carbon footprint of the event, taking into account the artists' and spectators' travel to the concert, and the energy consumption on the day, is likely to be at least 31,500 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to John Buckley of, who specialises in such calculations.

But take solace in the fact that they've bought all kinds of guilt removing "carbon offsets."

The hard fact is that if we can stop this warming at all (which is doubtful, curly light bulbs or no) it can only be done by massively scaling back our (meaning the rich countries) lifestyles. Use less power, travel less, consume less. In many cases it may not hurt to eat less. Nobody wants to face up to that yet, and probably won't until Mother Nature scales back our lifestyles for us, the hard way.

We Have Returned

No postings this last three weeks because I've been travelling, with Samenera Paramito, on a teaching trip to Peterborough and Ottawa. We also took the opportunity to visit Tisarana Monastery for a few days, that is the new establishment near Ottawa of which Ajahn Viradhammo is abbot. Very heartening to see how well it is getting off the ground.

Commenting on Comments

From the comments to my post on Rebirth, Apichato Bhikkhu says;

The three lifetime idea, along with the ‘relative truth’ of rebirth, is Brahmanism, eternalism. Buddhagosa was originally a Brahman, and along with the eternalist view of Paticcasamuppada he also ‘endorsed’ other Vedic practices as part of Buddhism, e.g. meditative practices that are totally irrelevant to the cessation of suffering, and quite a few other ideas (although he was not the first to endorse such a view and such ideas).
No, he wasn't the first. The Buddha beat him to it by about a millenium.

Those who wish to characterize rebirth as a brahminical import into the pure Buddhadhamma would have to account for the numerous times the Buddha explicitly teaches it. Likewise, the strongest case for the "three-lifetimes" model is found in the suttas themselves, where the factors of "birth" and "death" are routinely defined in the literal terms of actual birth and death of beings, not in the metaphorical sense necessary for the momentary model, which is rather contrived for this part of the cycle.

As for the various practices described in the Vissudhimagga "totally irrelevant to the cessation of suffering" I can only infer Apichato is referring to the forty samatha meditations, such as mindfulness of breathing and kasina work. As far as I know, there is no practice in the Vissudhimagga that isn't found previously in the words of the Buddha himself. This is not surprising, as the VM was written as a commentorial encyclopedia, a precis of the canonical teachings. And while samatha meditation does not lead by itself to cessation of suffering, it is far from irrelevant to that endeavour. You have to practice your scales if you want to play at Carnegie Hall.

Lastly, dismissing a teaching as a "relative truth" implies a basic misunderstanding of that term. A relative truth is not a falsehood. In the case of rebirth or kamma, these teachings may be called "relative" because they are stated in terms of individual beings which in the ultimate sense are only conventional names. However, this does not mean they do not actually happen!


I've fiddled with the settings for the comments again, here is the new deal;

1. I've left on word verification. I know it's slightly annoying but less than having the comments fill up with spam for great stock tips and male enhancement products.
2. I've taken off moderation, we seem to have lost the nasties. If they come back, moderation will go back on.
3. Lastly, I've enabled the requirement that you register. We've got a lot of anonymous postings and it makes it impossible to follow any discussion in the threads. Registration with Google seems to be the only way to require posters to use a name (doesn't have to be your real name.) If you have a blog, or use other personalized Google services, you're already registered. If not, it's free and easier than most on-line registrations. We may lose a few posters doing this, but I think it will make the comments more readable for everyone.

Jun 17, 2007

Three Lifetimes or One Moment?

Picking up on a theme in several of the comments, I'd like to jump into the very hot water of the perennial debate about dependent origination. I like to say that when I was in Thailand, I saw only two topics that would be sure to generate heated debate among the monks; the correct interpretation of the dependent origination and the allowability of cheese in the afternoon.

(Not wanting to get lost in the legalistic minutiae of vinaya, we'll leave the latter aside for now.)

The twelve-fold dependent origination is a cornerstone of the Buddhist teaching, essentially a detailed elaboration of first and second noble truth, or in the scriptural phrase, "an explanation of how this whole mass of suffering comes to be."

The teaching itself is a subtle and difficult one, and as so often, the original texts are quite terse and formulaic. These factors have led to various attempts at detailed elaboration. Two of these have gained prominence in the Theravada world.

The traditional model, sometimes called the "three lifetime model," is the one established in the orthodox tradition by Buddhaghosa in the 5th century A.D. (The explanation of dependent origination on my web-site is based on this model.) The term "three lifetimes" is a bit of a misnomer, it should really be "many lifetimes." The model supposes that some of the factors refer to events from previous lifetimes, some to this lifetime, and others to future lifetimes. For example, the crucial link sankhara -> vinnana (formations to consciousness) is interpreted as past karmic formations causing rebirth-linking consciousness.

The other popular model is sometimes called the "momentary" model. Although some version of this interpretation was known to Buddhaghosa, as he mentions it in passing, it has only come into prominence in recent decades through the work of the great Thai teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa. This model prefers to see the dependent origination as occurring in it's full cycle in every single moment of consciousness. Thus, the links of birth and death are interpreted metaphorically, rather than literally. (Here is a site dealing with Buddhadasa's interpretation.)

Without coming to any definite conclusion (although in the interests of full disclosure I'll say that I lean toward the traditional model) I'll make the following observations;

1. I don't think the two models are mutually exclusive, despite what some partisans on both sides would have us believe. The process of cause-and-effect detailed by the dependent origination can, and probably do, occur on several time scales. We are coming into birth every moment as we take new objects of consciousness and run the gamut of feeling, craving and clinging. But we also go through the processes of actual physical death followed by rebirth periodically. The dependent origination serves as an explanation for both inter-related processes.

2. While some of Ajahn Buddhadasa's disciples have gone so far as to actually deny that there is any rebirth in the traditional sense, this does not appear to have been the Ajahn's view. I don't believe there is any place in his writings where he categorically denied the reality of physical rebirth. He did say something like "rebirth has nothing to do with Buddhism" but what he may have meant is that Buddhism should be about attaining nibbana (and thereby ending rebirth) rather than seeking a fortunate rebirth. This may have had a lot to do with the milieu of Thai Buddhism at the time, which in his view was neglecting the higher teachings.

I have also heard that when he was asked point-blank about this, he would say "What do the suttas say?" When the reply came back that the suttas clearly teach the actuality of rebirth (as they indisputably do) he would say, "Well, we musn't go against what the Buddha said." Make of this what you will.

3. From my reading of Ajahn Buddhadasa's writing (not comprehensive) it seems that the main reason he taught the momentary view was it's utility for practice. It is no simple matter to practice with factors spanning several lifetimes, but we can all watch the mind go through it's changes in the here and now. There is a lot to be said for this way of looking at it. In particular, watching the mind go through the sequence contact to feeling to craving to clinging to becoming is a very important aspect of developing insight.

4. Finally, whatever the merit of the two models practically or theoretically, it is quite clear which one is closer to the original texts. Whenever the Buddha gave detailed descriptions of the twelve factors, he always described birth and death in literal, not metaphorical language. Birth is coming into existence in one of the six realms, through one of the four modes of generation etc. and death is the failing of the faculties, the destruction of the body, the passing out of this realm of being etc.


POSTSCRIPT on Rebirth;

A correspondent alerted me to another web-site dedicated to promulgating Buddhism without Rebirth. Without getting into a detailed critique, it should be enough that this character quotes "the Buddha" using Paul Carus' Buddhist Gospel as a source. I've dealt with the dubious influence of this book before.

Jun 11, 2007

The Importance of Rebirth

Barry writes;

could you post on 'rebirth' re your comments agreeing with 'onemind' at '' I would be interested to read more of your view on this matter since you place a particular emphasis on it and it is a seeming point of agreement between you and the owner of the anti-Buddhist website.
To recap; OneMind had said that without rebirth, the whole structure of Buddhist teaching falls apart. Phrased a little strongly, but essentially he is correct. (The only correct statement on the web-site perhaps)

There have been many attempts to cobble together some kind of Buddhism that leaves rebirth out of the picture. I can't really understand why anyone would try. The result is either stoicism or existentialism with an optional dash of vegetarianism perhaps, but it sure isn't any Buddhism that the old teachers would recognize. I guess the motivation comes from a misguided impulse to make the Dhamma more palatable to modern people by pandering to their delusions.

Actually, and I've said this before, rebirth per se isn't the most important issue. Denial of rebirth means a total misunderstanding of the First Noble Truth. But the real damage in these bastardized materialist/agnostic/existential "Buddhisms" is to the Third Noble Truth. I'll go into this in a little detail, bear with me here.

The First Noble Truth is the statement of the problem. It implies dukkha, annica, anatta in every moment of consciousness. But it implies something much more profound than this; it teaches that there is no way out within the confines of samsaric existence. At each moment there is just mind vainly seeking satisfaction from the ten thousand objects. This is repeated ad infinitum. The only way out is to stop doing that.

Now, it is vitally important for the full grasping of this situation to realize that this process has been going on for an indefinitely long period in the past, and has the potential to go on for an indefinitely long period in the future. The true hollowness of samsaric satisfaction can only be fully understood in the context of manifold lifetimes.

This makes a crucial difference in the depth of meditation. If one is to realize the unconditioned, then there has to be a complete and radical relinquishment of the conditioned. No half measures will do. Every arising object, and every potential object, must be seen as completely empty, vain and undesirable. This is possible if one has really internalized the reality of multiple lifetimes. Whatever fantastic desirable thing may be out there is essentially just more of the same. Been there, done that, billions of times.

If however, one is working from the concept of one life-time only, this level of relinquishment is not possible. The experiences of the senses take on a different flavour, a greater importance or perhaps one should say, piquancy, if this is the only shot at the can. In fact, it would be fair to ask if relinquishment is even a worthwhile goal in this context.

So awakening is simply not possible if one adheres to miccha-ditthi (erroneous views.) Sorry to all the "agnostic Buddhist" but the Unconditioned is one place that particular eel is unable to wriggle to.

This brings us to the Third Noble Truth. Nibbana has to be written out of materialist or agnostic reworkings of the Dhamma. This is for both philosophic and experential reasons. Philosophically, there is no possible place for a transcendental reality in a materialist world. Experentially, Nibbana cannot be realized by adherents of false view, so none of them deal with it their writings. Or they redefine it into something that "fits" onto the flat-land of their impoverished world-view. And if one of them ever did attain the path and fruit, he would immediately and forever cease to be a materialist thereby.