Thursday, March 31, 2011

Logic, Argument And Theology

In relation to my previous post read these Twenty Arguments For The Existence Of A Supreme Being and have a bit of a laugh. I apologize for the uneven and untidy spacing. Try as I might it just wouldnt go the way I wanted it. Perhaps someone ‘up there’ was annoyed.

1. TRANSCENDENTAL ARGUMENT, a.k.a. PRESUPPOSITIONALIST (1) If reason exists then God exists. (2) Reason does exist. (3) Therefore, God exists.

2. COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT, a.k.a. FIRST CAUSE ARGUMENT (1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause. (2) I say the universe must have a cause. (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause. (4) Therefore, God exists.

3. ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (I) (1) I define God to be X. (2) Since I can conceive of X, X must exist. (3) Therefore, God exists.

4. ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (II) (1) I can conceive of a perfect God. (2) One of the qualities of perfection is existence. (3) Therefore, God exists.

5. MODAL ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (1) God is either necessary or unnecessary. (2) God is not unnecessary, therefore he must be necessary. (3) Therefore, God exists.

6.ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN, a.k.a. GOD OF THE GAPS, a.k.a. TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (I) 1) Check out the world/universe/giraffe. Isn't it complex? (2) Only a supreme being could have made them so complex. (3) Therefore, God exists. 7. ARGUMENT FROM BEAUTY, a.k.a. DESIGN/TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (II) 1) Isn't that baby/sunset/flower/tree beautiful? (2) Only a loving creator could have made them so beautiful. (3) Therefore, God exists. 8. ARGUMENT FROM MIRACLES (I) (1) My aunt had cancer. (2) The doctors gave her all these horrible treatments. (3) My aunt prayed to God and now she doesn't have cancer. (4) Therefore, God exists. 9. MORAL ARGUMENT (I) (1) Person X, a well-known atheist, was morally inferior to the rest of us. (2) Therefore, God exists. 10. MORAL ARGUMENT (II) (1) In my younger days I was a cursing, drinking, smoking, gambling, child- molesting, thieving, murdering, bed-wetting bastard. (2) That all changed once I became religious. (3) Therefore, God exists. 11. ARGUMENT FROM INTIMIDATION, a.k.a. TOMAS DE TORQUEMADA'S ARGUMENT (1) See this bonfire? (2) Therefore, God exists. 12. ARGUMENT FROM NUMBERS (1) Billions of people believe in some sort of supreme being. (2) They can't all be wrong, can they? (3) Therefore, God exists. 13. ARGUMENT FROM INCOMPLETE DESTRUCTION (1) A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. (2) But one child survived with only third-degree burns. (3) Therefore, God exists. 14. ARGUMENT FROM POSSIBLE WORLDS (1) If things had been different, then things would be different. (2) That would be bad. (3) Therefore, God exists. 15. ARGUMENT FROM CROCKERY (1) Pots don't go around giving orders to the potter who made them. (2) Therefore, God exists. 16. ARGUMENT FROM CREATIVE INTERPRETATION (1) God is: (a) The feeling you have when you look at a newborn baby. (b) The love of a mother for her child. (c) That little still voice in your heart. (d) Humankind's potential to overcome their difficulties. (e) How I feel when I look at a sunset. (f) The taste of ice cream on a hot day. (2) Therefore, God exists. 17. ARGUMENT FROM POSTMODERNISM (1) I'm going to prove to you that God exists. (2) [Insert any of the other arguments on this page in here.] (3) [Atheist refutes argument.] (4) I cannot prove there is a supreme being any more than anyone of us can prove we really exist in a tangible world. (5) Therefore, God exists.18. ARGUMENT FROM FORTUITOUS COINCIDENCE (1) What are the odds of that happening? (2) Pretty long, I’ll bet. (3) Therefore, God exists. 19. ARGUMENT FROM MYSTERIOUS USE OF PREPOSITIONS (1) It is impossible to disprove God with your puny human intellect unless you are above God. (2) Are you higher than God? (3) I’ll take that puzzled look on your face as a 'No.' (4) Therefore, God (being the highest thing ever) exists. 20. ARGUMENT FROM HURT FEELINGS (1) God exists. (2) [Atheist makes counterarguments.] (3) I am deeply offended that you do not believe what I do. (4) Therefore, God exists.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Not Dead But Ailing

God may not be dead but he is certainly ailing – at least in some places. Surveys and statistics indicate that religion is heading for extinction in nine countries. To find out which ones go to

Friday, March 25, 2011

Free Funeral Service Society

March 22nd, , Democratric Voice of Burma.
A charity set up by a prominent Burmese film star to provide free funerals for hard-up families yesterday held its 100,000th ceremony in Rangoon. A regular target of attacks from the Burmese junta, the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS) was founded a decade ago to relieve families of the onerous cost of funerals, which often cost several hundred dollars in a country where average annual salaries are little more than $US400. The founder, Kyaw Thu, a two-time Myanmar Academy Award winner and once one of Burma’s leading film icons, told DVB that the group was also able to provide the family of Chit Han, who was cremated yesterday, with 350,000 kyat ($US400). Since Kyaw Thu’s retirement from the big screen and switch to social work he has become an increasingly vocal critic of the ruling junta, and was arrested after publicly supporting the September 2007 monk-led uprising.
His relief work and raising of some $US400,000 following 2008’s cyclone Nargis also drew the ire of the generals, who eye with distaste anyone filling the void left by the decrepit public services. The rising popularity and influence of the FFSS, which relies on private donations, among the Burmese public has worried the junta, so much so that in February 2008 it ordered several Rangoon journals not to publish information about the group’s activities, while the year before, its registration renewal was refused by the government until an appeal met with success.
Please visit our websites, Buddhist Relief Mission:
Sri Lanka reports:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Buddhist Wisdom Verses

Until recently the vast treasure house of the Buddha’s wisdom was inaccessible to the majority of people who did not know Pali. Few people ever read the suttas other than the Dhammapada, the Metta Sutta, the Mangala Sutta and a few other small discourses. English speaking Christians had to wait until the beginning of the 15th century before they would read their sacred scriptures and the King James Version did not appear until 1611. Asian Buddhists had to wait until the 20th century. Today more of the Tipitaka is available in vernaculars but it is still little read. In 1952 in an effort to make the Buddha’s word more easily available one of the giants of the Sri Lankan Sangha Ven. Rerukane Candavimala, collected, arranged and translated into Sinhala 551 verses from the Tipitaka and published it under the name of Buddha Niti Sangrahaya. I am extremely happy to announce that this wonderful little book has now been translated into English by the English monk Ven. Anandajoti. The Buddha Niti Sangrahaya is an important work for many reasons not the least of which is that 63% of the verses in it are from the Jataka. Now the Jataka is often dismissed as ‘good for kids’, especially by Western Buddhists. This is to seriously underestimate them. In fact, the Jataka verses in particular, the only part considered canonical, contain a great deal of practical, challenging and insightful wisdom. The old translation of the Jataka (1877-96), while being a major pioneering effort, all too often obscures much of this wisdom. But Ven. Anandajoti’s online version of the Buddha Niti Sangrahaya under the title Buddhist Wisdom Verses, does more than just give a translation. He gives the reader a detailed introduction and a readable English translation of them, there is an index to the subjects dealt with, and an index to their source. To access this useful and important book work click here. And for more in the Jatakas see

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tree Worship

The correct term for tree worship is dendrolatry. In ancient India it was widely believed that sprits or gods inhabited trees, particularly large, old and gnarled ones, and tree worship was an important part of popular religion as it still is in India. The Greeks had similar beliefs and called tree spirits dryads. In the Tipitaka they are called rukkhadevata, vanadevata, or aramadevata, (A.III,369; M.I,307; S.IV,302). Some trees, called wishing trees (rucarukkha), were believed to answer prayers or more correctly, the gods in such trees did this. Likewise the healing power of certain herbs were believed to be due to the gods that inhabited them. There is no place in the Tipitaka where the Buddha endorsed the worshiping of trees the way he occasionally did for the gods. In the Dhammapada he said ‘Gripped by fear people go to sacred, hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines. But these are not a safe refuge, not the best refuge. Not by going there is one freed from all suffering.’ (Dhp.188-9). Several Jataka stories poke fun at tree worship.
I found these two ancient depictions of tree spirits. The first is from Bharhut and dates from about the 2nd-1st century. I photographed this second one in the Victoria and Albert Museum during a recent visit. On the top right hand corner of this sculpture we see the spirit in a sal tree weeping and wiping her tears with a handkerchief.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tsunami: A Buddhist View

I wrote this article after the tsunami of 2004. It seemed worthwhile to reproduce it in light of the terrible tsunami of a few days ago.

Buddhism teaches causation, that the whole universe is a web of interrelated causes and effects. There are two types of causation - natural causation and moral causation. Natural causation has nothing to do with people being good or bad, it is simply a matter of the various forces in the universe acting on each other. A rainstorm or crops ripening would be examples of natural causation. Natural causes can of course have an effect on us - being caught in a rainstorm can give us a bad cold. But suffering from a cold has nothing to do with moral or immoral past actions - it would be a natural effect of a natural cause. Moral causation is about how people think, speak and act and how they feel as a result. The Buddha’s teaching of kamma is only concerned with moral causation. Being helpful to someone, having them thank you and feeling happiness because of that; stealing something, getting caught and then experiencing embarrassment or shame, would be examples of moral causation. The person’s happiness or discomfort are a direct result of how they have acted. The person is not being ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ for their actions, their happiness or discomfort is simply a result of their actions. Now let us have a look at the recent tsunami in the light of the doctrine of kamma.

A tsunami is an example of an event caused by natural causation. The tectonic plates on the earth's surface move causing an earthquake, the energy released creates huge waves which, if they hit the coast, cause devastation. The people in the area where the recent tsunami hit are experiencing two types of suffering - suffering caused by natural causation and suffering caused by moral causation, i.e., kamma. During the deluge a person might have been hit by a falling tree, cut by a piece of metal or smashed against a wall. These would be examples of the painful effects of natural causes and would have nothing to do with past moral or immoral actions.
Kamma concerns peoples’ intentional thoughts, speech and actions (kamma) and the effects of those reactions (vipaka). I will give examples of different ways people could react to the tsunami and the effects they could have. Lets say there are two people - a man and women - both are injured in the tsunami and loose their home and means of livelihood. The man falls into despair, ‘Why me?’ he cries. ‘If only I had been out of town today,’ he said in anger and regret. By thinking like this he compounds his suffering. But soon his thoughts change. He notices that his neighbor’s home is little damaged and he thinks, ‘That dog, I never liked him, it’s a pity his house wasn’t destroyed.’ He is further compounding his suffering and as well as reinforcing ugly and negative states of mind. Later he thinks, ‘Well, it’s every man for himself,’ and he starts walking around seeing if he can steal anything from abandoned houses. Now the man’s negative thoughts and feelings are leading to negative actions.
Now let us have a look at the woman's reactions. After she recovers from the initial trauma her first thought is, ‘How fortunate I am to have survived.’ She has suffered but she has not added to her suffering by being regretful, despairing or angry. Then she thinks, ‘There must be others much worse off than me. I must see what I can do to help,’ and she starts looking around for injured people. Thinking of others gives her a degree of detachment from her own circumstances and thus, once again, this does not add to her suffering. The next day she manages to get some food which is being distributed by the government and as she walks away she notices a child who did not get any. She comforts the child and shares her food with him. Seeing that the child is all by himself she decides to look after him. After a few days the child's father sees him and is tremendously grateful to the women for having looked after him. The father is now living with his sister in a nearby town unaffected by the tsunami and invites the woman to come and stay with him where she gets food and shelter. The woman's positive thoughts and actions have now had a concrete positive effect on her life.
Now why did the man react in one way and the women in another? Because of how they have reacted to their various experiences in the past, i.e. because of their past kamma. The man’s negative mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that he has negative mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that he will have negative mental habits in the future. These mental habits make him suffer more than he would have otherwise (vipaka). The woman (she might be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian or of no religion) has been taught and has always believed that it is important to have a good thoughts and actions and has always tried to cultivate them. Her positive mental habits in the past (kamma) have meant that she has positive mental habits now and these in turn make it more likely that she will have positive mental habits in the future. These mental habits minimized her suffering and led to her being looked after by the father of the child. In other words, her positive past actions (kamma) have had a positive effect (vipaka) now.
So according to Buddhism, the physical pain that the victims of the tsunami experienced is the outcome of various natural causes. How they are reacting to these natural causes is their kamma, the results of their negative or positive reactions in the future (tomorrow, next month, next year, perhaps next life), will be their vipaka. As human beings of finite knowledge and power we have only limited influence over natural causes. We do, however, have the ability to mold and influence our reactions to situations. If we make no effort to develop our minds in positive ways we might, in the future, find ourselves overwhelmed by unexpected and unwelcomed circumstances. If we do make the effort to develop our minds, particularly through meditation, we may be better prepared to endure and even triumph over future adversity.
The news is full of examples of both. People ask, ‘How is it possible to remain free from grief, anxiety and fear under such terrible circumstances?’ But some people do. A man in Sri Lanka lost his wife and two children and of course was devastated. However, being a practicing Buddhist, he recovered from his grief about two days later when he found two children, starving, crying, with their dead parents nearby, and decided to adopt them. Apparently, other people had seen the children but had done nothing to help. When the man was interviewed he said that his two adopted children have given his life new meaning and the strength to go on despite the difficulties. We read other stories of people taking advantage of the disruption to loot, rob and steal. Each of us chooses to act the way we do and we will experience the results accordingly. When a Singaporean man heard of the disaster he loaded up his van and drove to Thailand with the intention of distributing food and water to the victims. Sadly, on the way his van skidded and he was killed. People ask, ‘Why did he suffer despite his good deeds?’ But such a question shows a confusion between natural causation and moral causation. This man’s swift and practical response to the suffering of others shows a great deal of compassion and will have very positive results in his next life. His accident had nothing to do with his good or bad deeds - it was a result of natural causation - a momentary lack of attention, faulty breaks, a slippery road due to rain, etc. Being good does not mean that we will never suffer due to natural causes, it means that when we do suffer due to natural causes we will be less likely to react in negative ways that increase our suffering.
Some uninformed Buddhist might say that the death and injury caused by the tsunami are the result of peoples’ past bad kamma. It need hardly be stated here that this is contrary to what the Buddha taught. In the Devadaha Sutta (M.II,214, also A.I,173 ) the Buddha says that the belief that every experience we have is due to past kamma (sabbam tam pubbe katahetu) is a wrong and false view (miccha ditthi). In the Sivaka Sutta (S. IV,228) he says that the suffering we sometimes experience can be due to kamma but it could also be due to sickness, to weather, to carelessness or to external agents (opakkamikani). The tsunami would be a good example of the third and the last of these causes. All kamma, whether positive or negative, certainly has an effect, but not all effects are due to kamma.
But what of us who have been fortunate enough not to be involved in this disaster? How can the Buddha’s teaching of kamma be relevant to us? Like the man and women mentioned above, our reactions to the tsunami could be either negative or positive. A person might read about the tragedy, shrug his shoulders and then turn to the sports page. When asked for a donation for the victims he might refuse to give anything, saying that he is short of cash this week. Or he might make a donation but then go around telling everyone hoping to get their praise or approval. He has been presented with an opportunity to react differently from how he has always done but the has failed to take advantage of it. He has failed to grown or changes, he has simply allowed himself to be carried along by his old habits of thoughtlessness, greed, pride and lack of compassion. But lets say a person has always been rather uncaring and self-absorbed but when he sees the victims of the tsunami on the television he feels a twinge of compassion. Then, rather than ignoring this flicker of compassion as he has always done in the past, he decides to act upon it. He goes to Red Cross and makes a really generous donation. While there he sees a sign asking for volunteers and on the spur of the moment he signs up and for the next few weeks spends all his free time collecting donations and helping out in other ways. As a result of this he would have weakened his selfish mental habits and strengthened positive ones, he would have grown and changed to some degree. If in the future he continued to act in such positive ways whenever he had the opportunity, he would gradually become a much more pleasant person and probably a much happier one too. Thus even a tragedy like the tsunami can actually have a positive side. Firstly, it can be an opportunity to develop generosity, care and compassion. Secondly it can be an opportunity for us to contemplate the truth of dukkha, the Buddha’s teaching that life in the conditioned world is unsatisfactory. Such contemplation can wake us from our complacency, remind us that no matter how comfortable our life might be, it can change at any time. This can help turn us from frivolous worldly pursuits to meaningful spiritual goals.
You might also be interested in reading God, Buddhism and the Tsunami at

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Comfort Or Challenge III

I turn to sex, and the treatment of women. Women make up half the human race: how does the religion of universal compassion treat them these days?
Women’s place in the world has changed, and I believe that unless we take account of that change we are doomed to global insignificance. To use the crude but relevant language of economics, women have always, so far as we can tell, predominated among the consumers of religion – perhaps because the world has given them a harder time than men, so that they need more comforting? – and I think they will continue to be the majority of our customers; but with new attitudes and expectations. Leadership roles in the world religions have in the past largely been denied to women, as throughout public life. The economy has led the way in changing the roles of women in society as the importance of muscle power has declined and that of brain power correspondingly increased. In advanced economies, service industries have become more important than agriculture and manufacturing, and in service industries, except only in the short periods when they have babies, women are at no inherent disadvantage. On the other hand, an economy needs all the brain power it can get, so societies in which many women are employed only in the largely unskilled role of housewife are literally thereby impoverished. With each generation women are acquiring more money and more power, and though they still lag far behind men, they are closing the gap. Above all, their self-esteem is rising, and they are not merely fed up with being bossed around by men but increasingly willing to say so and to do something about it.
All the world religions have traditionally given women subordinate roles, but in order to survive they are having to mend their ways. In Christianity Protestants have led the way with women ministers, and now the Church of England even has to contemplate female bishops. The Roman Catholic church has huge numbers and a very efficient and highly centralised organisation, but it seems to be losing adherents with increasing speed. A few days ago I heard the BBC News announce that a poll of Catholic women in Britain showed that almost two thirds said they were dissatisfied with the Church’s position on women. I don’t know about the Muslims, of whom relatively few live in advanced economies, but the voice of female protest is certainly heard among them too.
Enough said. Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand? If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.
Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.
First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.
I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.
But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.
My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravada restart the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravadin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravada Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravada Buddhism for many future generations.
How, then, can Theravada Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Comfort Or Challenge II

I agree that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play. From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many matters, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight. But I put it to you that it is their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or pastime: it is there to be applied to the whole of life.
Such crimes as torture and murder are not a matter of politics, but fundamental to morality. Anyone who acquiesces in them on the grounds that the torturers and murderers are powerful people who rule over us does not deserve to be called a Buddhist, or for that matter a member of any religion. Of course, people who achieve prominence in public institutions do sometimes find themselves in uncomfortable positions when the state does something obviously wrong; but surely that is the price they have to pay for their eminence. At the end of the Falklands war, the Archbishop of Canterbury presided over a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He led the congregation in prayers for the dead on both sides in the conflict, not just for the British victors. It was known that Mrs. Thatcher was angry about this, but that is the difference between a mere politician and a religious leader: the Archbishop was doing no more than his duty in following Christian values. Since Britain is a democracy, he ran no great personal risk. Church leaders in Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini were in a much more difficult position. It is common knowledge that the Pope at the time, Pius XII, did not behave well, whereas some members of the Christian clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, had the courage and sincerity to protest and even became martyrs, to their everlasting glory. (Though I am not a Christian, such Christian language is surely appropriate in this case.)
If an individual, whether monk, nun or layman of either sex, has decided to opt out of society and to lead a secluded life, we cannot demand that they make pronouncements on public affairs – pronouncements to which in any case few people would listen. But if they have willingly assumed leadership roles in religious institutions like the Sangha, they surely have thereby undertaken to play those roles with moral sensitivity, and not just to give silent acquiescence to every atrocity perpetrated before their eyes.
If the leaders of the Theravadin Sangha fail to raise a finger to help or a voice to protest against the maltreatment of their brethren in other countries, I believe that this has to do not just with cowardice and moral indifference, but also with nationalism. It turns out in the modern world that most people feel a stronger bond with those of the same nationality than they do with those of the same religion. If I draw my next two examples from Sinhalese Buddhism, please understand that this is not because I wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism: I simply happen to know more about them.
Here is my first example. The first Theravada Buddhist vihara, wat, or whatever you like to call it, was set up in London in 1926 by the Sinhalese Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala as an arm of the Maha Bodhi Society. To this day, that monastery, now called the London Buddhist Vihāra, is controlled by trustees who are members of Dharmapala’s family and live in Sri Lanka. This means that the Vihara cannot be registered as a charity in Britain, which in turn means that it has serious financial difficulties. Most of its supporters are Sinhalese and most of its activities are aimed at them. Not long ago I received an invitation from Colombo to become head of the lay branch of the British Maha Bodhi Society with a mission to revive it, but when I found that all major decisions, including the appointment of the monastery’s incumbent (who is always Sinhalese), would still rest with the Board in Colombo, I saw that this could lead nowhere. As some of you will know, the Mahā Bodhi Society, dominated by Sinhalese, maintains a similar stranglehold on its establishments in India.
This is not a terribly serious matter: compared with failing to criticise the murder of monks it is indeed trivial. But since this conference intends to discuss the problem of disseminating Theravada Buddhism to the rest of the world, it seems to me highly relevant.
On much the same topic, think of the history of Sinhalese Buddhist missions over the last century. Sri Lanka prides itself on being the Island of Buddhism, the Dhammadipa, and thus a suitable base from which to bring Buddhism to the world. It also contains, however, a sizeable minority of non-Buddhist Tamils; and it happens to lie just off the coast of Tanilnadu. Despite this, there have been pitifully few attempts since Independence to bring Buddhism even to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, let alone to those on the Indian mainland, because missions to the West seem so much more glamorous. How many Tamils have been ordained into the Sangha since 1947? I do not believe that anyone knows the precise answer to this question, but all would agree that it cannot be more than a handful.
I repeat that I have no wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism. Similar stories can be told about the other Buddhist nationalities, and not only the Theravadins. But what would the Buddha have made of this? It is worth pausing for a moment to compare Buddhism with Christianity and Islam in this regard. Of course, nations states and the terrible emotions they can arouse are a part of the modern world, and nationalism crops up in religions which fervently preach the brotherhood of man. But on the whole Christian and Muslim religious leaders, and even their followers when the context is religious, do not fail to respect or co-operate with fellow-religionists on the ground of nationality.
Back, then, to our question: why do so few people in the wider world find Theravada Buddhism worthy of their serious consideration? Well, mankind has two great moral problems: let me label them sex and violence. I shall now speak about each in turn; and since I have already mentioned murder and nationalism, I shall first say some more about violence.
Buddhism proclaims itself the religion of non-violence, ahimsa. It is therefore only natural that people ask how it measures up to this claim. My own experience is that they ask whether the recent history of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Kampuchea, the five Theravada countries, shows a better record in this respect than that of other countries. The answer, as we all know, is embarrassing. Sri Lanka has recently brought to an end a civil war which lasted for more than 25 years, a whole generation, and the new government is showing alarming authoritarian tendencies. In Myanmar the central government, which has no democratic legitimacy at all, has been fighting minority populations for even longer than that, and millions of people have fled the country. Thailand of course has a far better record, but here too there has been serious civil conflict, sometimes violent, for much of the last two years; in May this year people seeking refuge in a monastery in the heart of Bangkok were killed by what some call the forces of law and order; the last military coup d’état was only 4 years ago; the far south of the country is not at peace; and there has been sabre rattling in a border dispute with a Theravādin neighbour, Kampuchea. Laos (which I know little about) has not been exactly peaceful, while poor Kampuchea under Pol Pot suffered something close to auto-genocide.
Let me immediately add that this summary is, I know, very inexact. In some cases it is not the Buddhist population or Buddhist government who are primarily to blame for the violence. All I am saying at this point is that unfortunately it is not possible for those who want to persuade others that Theravāda Buddhism leads the world in non-violence to demonstrate that theory is at all matched by practice.
This gap between theory and practice is particularly glaring when we look at law enforcement, and in particular at capital punishment. While one has to be extremely careful in assigning blame for the general political record which I have just summarised, the same is not true in this area. What part does Buddhism, which professes non-violence and love for all, play in public life? We need look no further than the first precept: not to take life. More than half the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, which means that the state does not take life. Yet in the list of those which have no capital punishment figure only two Buddhist states, Bhutan and Kampuchea. This despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a deterrent, all of which have concluded that it does not. So there is not even a pragmatic argument for retaining capital punishment: it is there only to satisfy the desire for revenge.
Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and such crimes are certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out principles of love and non-violence. Of course, if someone murders a person dear to me, it is too much to expect me ever to love that murderer. That is why we have a judicial system, rather than allowing everyone to take the law into their own hands. But if I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf? And there is a further point. Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. If we sincerely believe in that fundamental Buddhist tenet, how can we justify multiplying the violence by making judge and executioner too commit murders?
Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching. I was present at a huge international Wesak conference here in Bangkok, when at a panel session a Norwegian proposed from the floor that the death penalty was incompatible with Buddhist principles and should be abolished. I was shocked by the panel’s glib response: that this was a difficult question to resolve, because many people in Thailand favour the death penalty. So is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd?
Again, I do not intend to single out one country. After all, the Norwegian spoke against the death penalty in front of Sangha members from every Theravada country, and not one of them spoke up to support him. So much for the religion of universal compassion.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Comfort Or Challenge I

The keynote address by Prof. Richard Gombrich to the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st held in Bangkok, Sept /Oct 2010. Reproduced with permission of the author.

I am truly grateful to the Ven Sugandho for having done me the honour of inviting me to give this keynote address. I sincerely hope that I do not give him cause to regret his kindness.
Some years ago two American sociologists of religion, Glock and Stark, wrote a well-regarded book on Christianity and contemporary America, and called it “To Comfort or to Challenge”. To sell their religion, the Christian churches in the United States had to focus on what people wanted from a religion and decide to what extent they were prepared to give it to them. What people want most is comfort. Life is hard, the world often seems unfair, and death is a terrifying prospect unless one is convinced that it is the gateway to something better than life on earth. Just as small children believe that their parents have the power to give them what they want and wipe away their sorrows, people want to believe, and so are very easy to persuade, that the universe works in the same way: that there is someone in charge who basically looks after us and makes sure that it all comes right in the end.
All the world religions except Buddhism offer this comforting picture, and there are even major forms of Buddhism, like Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land Buddhism), which do so too. Religions differ in how much good behaviour the Great Parent in the Sky demands in return for the comfort and consolation he can give. (I say “he”, because the Great Parent is more commonly imagined as a father than as a mother; but I am speaking of a parent of either sex.) In some religions all that is demanded of the little children – that is, mankind – is that they trust in the Great Parent and ask for his help; if they will only recognise his omnipotence, he is prepared to forgive them anything. In other religions, if the children are naughty the Parent will first see to it that they are punished before he shows his mercy. In such cases, the worst punishment is often reserved for those who don’t believe in the Great Parent and so do not deserve to experience his goodness.
Established religious institutions, then, mainly deal in comfort and consolation, and their personnel see offering this service as their primary duty. But if we think of the founders of religion and the great reformers, they have mostly felt the need to challenge their audiences, to criticise the status quo and to demand that people improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. Jesus, for instance, preached forgiveness, but he could be savage about sin; and the Sermon on the Mount shows how he opposed the values by which this world is governed, and promised that in future “the last shall be first and the first last”. For most of us, this is not a comfortable message, and it was not meant to be.
Religions thus face the problem that by and large the very reason why they came into existence is in stark contrast to what most people want of them. Their founders and most of their saints had fire in their bellies: they wanted people to wake up and see that they must become aware of how smug and self-satisfied they had become, how indifferent to evil and how lazy about doing good, that morally most of them had lost all sensitivity and become little better than buffaloes slumbering in the mud.
Carrying such a message is often dangerous. In most countries and at most times in history, those who castigate the people in power have run the risk of serious punishment, even of being put to death. Their followers then call them martyrs, “witnesses” to the truth. I count myself lucky that whether or not you, my audience, like the challenges that I am about to put to you today, I am unlikely to be made a martyr. It therefore requires only a little courage for me to tell you what I see as unpleasant truths. And however much I offend you, I think you will at least have to credit me with sincerity, for I speak out of a passionate conviction. At the beginning of my recent book “What the Buddha Thought” I have written that in my view the Buddha’s ideas “should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilised place, both gentler and more intelligent.” I am, I then say, perpetually horrified by the failure of the Buddhist establishment to understand the Buddha’s message, to teach it and to act upon it. That failure, that tragic and culpable failure, must set the agenda for this overdue conference.
In his write-up explaining the background to the conference, the Ven Sugandho has asked why the dissemination of Theravada Buddhism is no longer as successful as it used to be. After all, Theravada Buddhism is the guardian of the oldest and purest tradition of the Buddha’s message; and I believe that most of us here today consider the moral value and intellectual brilliance of that message among the very finest in the whole of human history. So if we have such a good product, why can’t we sell it?
I propose to offer answers to that question, in as much detail as I have time for. And at least you will have to agree, I think, that if there is nothing wrong with the message, there presumably may be something wrong with the messengers.

To start with, let me revert to comfort and challenge. As the Ven Sugandho has written in the conference document, Theravadin missionaries obviously prefer comforting to challenging. Rather than teaching Buddhism to the indigenous people of their host countries, they mainly run cultural centres for the Buddhist immigrants from their countries of origin, centres which indeed operate largely in Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, etc., not in the language of the country where the missions operate. To run such a centre is not in itself an unworthy thing to do: in the modern world most countries regard providing cultural attachés and consular services as part of their diplomatic mission. But if this is the main and central activity of the mission, it points to an extremely serious underlying weakness in the Theravada Buddhism we find in the world today: its parochial nationalism. It is outrageous that the vast majority of Theravada Buddhists, whether monastics or laity, consider only Buddhists of their own nationality to be true Buddhists; and whatever they may say in public, that is indeed what most of them think.
It is perfectly natural and unobjectionable for people to feel warmly towards their own family, and beyond that towards those for whom they feel an affinity because of shared language, customs and experiences. But there is not a word in the teachings of the Lord Buddha – or for that matter of either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed – which can justify treating anyone less well than one could simply on the grounds that they differ from us or are in some way a stranger to us. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are called the universal religions precisely because they are for everyone, equally. The great religious traditions all teach that people should love each other, be kind and compassionate. By this, they mean that one should love everybody, not just those whom it is easy to love. Loving someone who is always kind to you is no more than most animals do by instinct. Love becomes an ethical accomplishment when it is directed to our enemies, or others whom it is hard to love.
But how do Theravada Buddhist actually behave? Let me begin with a notorious and indisputable example: their attitude to Mahayana Buddhists. (I know that things may be no better the other way round, but that is not my concern: I am talking here to Theravadins.) I have done extensive fieldwork among Sinhalese Buddhists, and especially among members of the Sinhalese Sangha, from the highest to the lowest. I can say with confidence that almost all Sinhalese Buddhists consider that Mahayanist monks and nuns are not true Buddhists, because they do not prohibit taking solid food after midday.
Since they receive no proper guidance from the Sangha, the laity may be forgiven their prejudice. But at least the Sangha should know that the need for universal love goes beyond teaching how to do metta bhavana. They should also know that the Buddha declared, in his wisdom, that there are three fetters (in Pali: tini samyojanani) which bind us to samsara and are basic obstacles to spiritual progress; and the second of these is adherence to ritualism. In Pali this is called silabbata-paramasa. To give an adequate sermon on this vitally important topic would take me too long, but the point is so crucial to my argument that I must expand on it.
The Buddha declared that ethical value lies in intention alone. The individual is autonomous and the final authority is his conscience. Reciting words, even such words as the five precepts, is useless and pointless unless one is consciously subscribing to their meaning. By contrast, the point of ritual lies in doing, not in intending. Therefore ritual can have no moral or spiritual value. Please keep this in mind.
The Buddha often gave new meanings to old words. He took the brahmin word for ritual, karman in Sanskrit, and used it to denote ethical intention. This single move overturned caste-bound ethics; for the intention of a brahmin cannot plausibly be claimed to be ethically of a completely different quality from the intention of an outcaste: intention can only be virtuous or wicked.
That the Buddha replaced ritual action by ethical intention is the very foundation, the very bedrock, of his teaching as a system of ideas. It is no less the foundation of Buddhism’s historical success. Since intention is the same in all human beings, Buddhist ethics apply in an identical way in all societies. For example, the third precept, not to engage in sexual misconduct, is universal, but its application varies, because the customs of societies differ: for instance, some societies admit polygamy, some polyandry, and some neither. Differences in local custom were thus no obstacle to the spread of Buddhism. As I have written: “Since Buddhism was attached neither to community nor to locality, neither to shrine nor to hearth, but resided in the hearts of its adherents, it was readily transportable.” So Buddhism could go wherever men went, and take root wherever they resided. But what can spread is the Buddhism, the Buddha’s Buddhism, which cares only for moral good and evil and measures that by intention. The Buddhism which measures action by ritual and custom can never spread anywhere: it is just like the brahminism which the Buddha set out to criticise, which has never been and never will be adopted by any other society than the one where it started.
My venerable friends, this is the very heart and gist of my message today. I am begging you to give up obsession with ritual and custom, to follow the Buddha’s teaching about ethical intention, and thus bring his message to the world.
I was mentioning that hardly any Sinhalese Buddhists are prepared to regard Mahayana Buddhists as fellow-religionists, on the grounds that the Mahayana Sangha allows food to be consumed after midday. Of course, the Mahayana Sangha ordained in the Chinese tradition are equally contemptuous of their Theravadin brethren because they consider it obligatory for a true Buddhist to be a vegetarian; but few Sinhalese know that. In any case, I am not concerned with tit for tat arguments of this kind, but with the real and massive damage that such attitudes do to Buddhism. The Sinhalese Buddhist establishment is so little prepared to recognise the validity of Mahayana Buddhism that in the late 1950s, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, killed many monks and ransacked many monasteries, and the Dalai Lama had to flee, the government of Sri Lanka refused to join the worldwide chorus of condemnation. That ostentatiously “Buddhist” government still refuses to recognise the Dalai Lama as a great spiritual leader and he has never been invited to visit the country. What can an outsider who is trying to assess the value of Buddhism think of such disgraceful treatment of the person whom the world regards as the greatest living Buddhist?
But let us concede, just for the sake of argument, that Mahayana Buddhism is not real Buddhism and we don’t want anything to do with monks or nuns who, whatever their personal morality or spirituality, are so vile that they are prepared to eat after midday. So let us direct our gaze away from Sri Lanka to another home of the Theravada tradition, Myanmar. I doubt that there is a person in this hall who cannot guess what I am about to say. Within the last few years the whole world, despite all the Myanmar government’s frenzied attempts to exercise censorship, has been able to witness on television how monks peacefully expressing their disagreement with the cruelty and inhumanity of government policy have been murdered and tortured. Of course, we have only been able to see a tiny part of the atrocities committed, but even the little we have seen must have been enough to convince any sincere Buddhist of the utterly ruthless disregard that the government shows both for human rights in general and for the living representatives of Buddhism in particular. And what have other governments which claim to support Theravada Buddhism done about it? Nothing: not even a diplomatic protest. All right; they are politicians, you may say, and we don’t expect much ethical conduct from them. But what about the leaders of the Sangha? There have been a few brave individuals, I know, who have quietly exerted themselves to relieve a little of the suffering caused by the Myanmar government. A few Buddhist organizations in Thailand have publicly expressed disapproval of torturing and murdering monks. But in every Theravada Buddhist country, unless I am most grievously mistaken, the hierarchy has turned a blind eye, and shown no more concern than if the Myanmar government were merely squashing a few mosquitoes.
I am sorry to have to say it, but one of the main things that attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice. Where are the Theravadin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh? True religious leaders are not frightened to be controversial. As I have said, they must offer challenge. Among the leaders of the Theravada Sangha of today, even debate, let alone challenge, appears to be tabu. They prefer the comfort of endless self-congratulation; they prefer to lead the world in vapid rhetoric, framing resolutions about world peace which have never got a single soldier to lower a gun or persuaded a single politician to love his neighbour.
I know that some people are likely to have an answer ready to my objection that Buddhists hierarchies have raised no protest against the persecution of Buddhism, even the murder of monks, by foreign governments. That answer is that the Sangha should not concern itself with politics. Let us consider this view.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Varanasi, The Sacred City

Varanasi, often anglicized to Benares, is Hinduism’s most sacred city. Its name is derived from the fact that it was originally situated between two small tributaries to the Ganges, the Varna and the Asi. To die in Varanasi or to bathe in the Ganges there is the goal of every devote Hindu. In the Tipitaka Varanasi is called Kasi, the city’s oldest name, or Baranasi (D.II,146). The city has long been a centre of religious learning, culture and trade, especially trade in luxury goods. The Buddha said that before he renounced the world he only wore clothes made from Kasi cloth and used sandalwood from Kasi (A.I,145). Archeological investigations have shown that there was a Buddhist presence in Varanasi in ancient times but it was always overshadowed by Hinduism. Isipatana, where the Buddha preached his first and second discourses and now called Sarnath, is just beyond Varanasi’s outer suburbs.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011