Friday, 28 November 2008

Feelings

I think that a great many people have trouble seeing how they are responsible for their own feelings. We are responsible for whether we are happy or sad. We are responsible for whether you are grateful or take offense. I feel that thoughts might be like words in that sometimes we are just listening to someone else. I think that Thoughts, Words, and Actions all have an effect on the our realities, and the magnitude is based on the feelings we push.

I feel that we take offense to, anything, because we see some shadow of what we see within our selves, and our own self image. Simply ask yourself why you are letting something offend you. Our initial response is typically the correct one. Sometimes it takes meditation and further examination to face the dark side within us. We are responsible for our realities, and it seems a great many unconsciously give others control over us. We are still responsible even in ignorance.

Sometimes thoughts come from someone who is close to us or is thinking about us.  The easiest way to realize this is if you are thinking about something and then suddenly a stray thought comes out of no where.  Sometimes it is even the base feelings that we recieve.  An example could be of someone we just recently met, and then someone who knows us comes into the situation and suddenly you have an intense feeling towards the new person.  I think that this causes us a lot of trouble as we sometimes feel guilty over thoughts that are from someone else but somehow we think we are the source.  Guilt is a path to our dark side whether we are responsible or not.  A great gift we can give ourselves is to forgive ourselves, and others with love in our heart.

You may be driving along in the city and suddenly someone cuts you off.  I think many would instantly get angry at the person in question.  Yet that person could have a good reason for what they did.  Even if your desire to be unimpeded was greater, anger only lowers yourself.  Love, joy, and happiness are the highest of frequencies and help you the most.  Our dark sides only decieve us and lead to our own downfall.  Force yourself to smile for half a minute, listen to a joyful song, watch a movie with and happy ending, and you will notice your mood change.  We may live in a world of Taijitsu, and we still may be a source of joy for others.

Equanimity

A moment to practice equanimity: having started on a remodel job at our little Laguna Beach cottage some five months ago, we had been hoping to finally get finished by Thanksgiving Day. It seemed entirely possible. After many of the usual delays—and our share of unusual ones, our punch list was getting shorter. Our contractor, who has been through a period of personal tragedy unconnected with our job, seemed determined to see things through.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving, our architect comes knocking at our front door and asks about the “disaster” in the basement, where we have been enlarging a tiny garage to include some useful storage space. He makes a habit of checking up on his job sites after the first rains. The previous night, it rained. Sheets of the stuff. In normal circumstances, here in rain-starved Southern California, we are overjoyed on those rare occasions when it arrives. Last night… not so much. The painter, we knew, would not show up so soon after the rain; and the contractor might be loath to work in this circumstance. But when the architect added that there was a flood of water in the basement, our hearts sank.

We have been used to a small amount of water seeping down from the back yard, through the garage, and out onto the street. But this, we soon discovered, was different. This covered the entire new concrete floor, inches deep in places. This was a real flood.

Okay, I tell myself. Beware attachment to outcomes. Beware the sudden flush of disappointed anger. It’s an opportunity, I tell myself, to practice equanimity. What else have you been practicing for, these past ten years and more, with your daily sits? And yet… and yet… I watch the anguish rise, I watch the anger and the disappointment. So hard, to practice what I… I was about to say, what I preach. But no: to practice what I practice. Breathe…

Monday, 24 November 2008

Calling all bloggers

We've worked up a nice bit of momentum once more, fuelled primarily by regular postings from Kyle and added to with some of my own old material. Unfortunately, he's busy with other things now and due to other commitments I simply don't have the spare time these days to write regular new posts.

So I'd like to invite anyone who thinks thay could contribute to get in touch with me about getting on the contributors list. And if you're already on the list - get cracking!

Without regular new material, the readership we've built up will dwindle, which will be a bit of a shame.

In the meantime, I think Justin W's working on something and I can probably dust off a couple more posts from the vaults.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Universal Religion: Part 1

To bring an understanding of Zen to Europe, Master Deshimaru talked as much in terms of 'God' as he talked about 'Buddha'. Yet, this wasn't a belief in a literal creator being or personal God - he was using the concept as a metaphor for 'the universal' or the fundamental principle of reality, not unlike the way that scientists like Einstein and Stephen Hawking use the concept.

Zazen is the same thing as God or Buddha. Dogen, the master of transmission, said, "Zazen itself is God." By that he meant that during zazen you are in harmony with the cosmos. In hishiryo consciousness there is no more anything. It is satori consciousness. The self has dropped away and dissolved. It is the consciousness of God. It is God. People have a personal God. We are not separate. There is no duality between God, Buddha, and ourselves.
- Master Deshimaru

According to many sources (for example the scholar Richard Gombrich) the Buddha adapted his teaching to whatever beliefs his audience had, whether they were Tantrics, Vedic fire-worshippers, Naga-worshippers, Yogins, rationalists or skeptics. And in the same way, Deshimaru was adapting his message to the language and concepts of Europe.

During a mondo, I asked Godo Mokuho Guy Mercier what the difference was between practicing Zen and practicing Zen as a Buddhist. Godo Guy responded by saying that we are all Buddhists, that is, all religions are essentially about the same thing, that Buddhism is about the universal, rather than some sectarian dogma. He also argued that the teachings of Jesus really had the same meaning as the teachings of Buddha. He's not the first to say something like this and of course I wonder how far it can be stretched - are the violent, judgemental teachings of the Old Testament the same as Buddhism and what about non-religions?

Universalism

In many ways each religion is quite different - they have mythologies, divine laws and metaphysical schemas that contradict one another. Yet at another level, they seem to intersect at a point that might be called 'mystical experience'. At this point all the major religions seem to be talking about one thing - the transcendence of the individual sense of self. This common ground is so well documented by students of comparative religion that it is almost a cliche. This is known as Universalism and Perennial Philosophy are about . But it's easy to make glib comments about all religions being the same, glossing over the differences - we need to understand the similarities and the differences. And we also need to consider whether its right to give religion a special status and exclude the secular activities in life.

Not all religions include the concept of God of course or even any kind of transcendent absolute. The common ground of religious experience, I would say, is the opening up of the ego to the whole of reality.

The following quotations should give a hint of this.

Hinduism


As a lump of salt, cast in water would dissolve right into the
water...Arising out of these elements (bhuta), into them also one vanishes
away...

When his soul is in peace he is in peace, and then his soul is in
God...The Yogi who, lord of his mind, ever prays in this harmony of soul,
attains the peace of Nirvana, the peace supreme that is in me...Thus joy supreme
comes to the Yogi whose heart is still, whose passions are peace, who is pure
from sin, who is one with Brahman, with God.

- Bhagavad Gita

Buddhism


The individual shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at
the moment of satori...my individuality...melts away into something
indescribable, something which is of quite a different order from what I am
accustomed to.

- Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

Christianity

It was granted to me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevetheless, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul... This view was so subtle and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it.
- Terisa of Avil

Teresa's most famous book The Interior Castle describes a person's soul as a multi-chambered castle. Going deeper and deeper into your soul and facing your own fears, self-interests, ego and temptations gradually leads you into a deeper relationship with God. At the very central chamber the soul is at complete peace and complete union with God. This reminds me of the lyrics to Terrible Canyons of Static by God Speed You! Black Emperor.


That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
- Jesus, John 17: 21 -23


Islam


Adorn me with Thy Unity
Clothe me with thy selfhood
And raise me up to thy Oneness,
So that when Thy creatures see me
They will say we have seen Thee
And thou art That

- Abu Yazid
Fools laud and magnify the mosque, While they strive to oppress holy men of
heart. But the former is mere form, the latter spirit and truth. The only true
mosque is that in the heart of saints. The mosque that is built in the hearts of
the saints Is the place of worship for all, for God dwells there.
- Masnavi, Book 2 Story 13
I pray God the Omnipotent to place us in the ranks of His chosen, among the
number of those He directs to the path of safety; in whom He inspires
fervour lest they forget Him; whom He cleanses from all defilement, that
nothing remain in them except Himself; yea, of those whom He indwells
completely, that they may adore none beside Him.
- Al Ghazzali

Mystical Experiences

According authors such as William Stace, all mystical experiences share the same characteristics:

  • unity
  • time- spacelessness
  • sense of reality = knowledge not subjective
  • peace/happiness
  • sacredness paradox/logic defied
  • ineffability
  • loss of sense of self

Only the packaging varies - the framework of ideas, culture, language and mythology in which they are conceived and described. As I see it, to the mystic, God or Brahma or Buddha is everywhere - it's only when a strong attachment is made to the philosophical, theological or mythological framework - the means of communication - that this self-transcendence descends into dogmatism, self-righteousness, bigotry, intolerance and potentially violence. The experience of satori and samadhi are the equivalent of union with God, Brahma etc. Only the metaphysics or dogma varies.

Every major religion has it's mystics and it's universalists, but every religion has its dogmatists and fundamentalists too - just as every polical party has a left wing and a right wing. Perhaps more than any other faith, Bahá'í puts a great deal of emphasis of religious universality. Bahai is a branch of Islam which teaches that all religion is an expression or appreciation of God.



This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2007.

Monday, 10 November 2008

A reply to: 'Buddhist Retreat, Why I gave up on finding my religion', By John Horgan


Original article

This article was first published in 2003. Seemingly it is John Horgan's previous dabbling with Buddhism which qualifies him to criticise what he claims it represents, but Buddhism is very difficult to understand and many spend their lives following or reacting against misunderstandings of it. While I don't claim to fully understand it myself I certainly understand it better than John Horgan, so I'm going to respond to his criticisms.


Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word.

Something appearing (naively) to be 'functionally theistic' is not the same as it being theistic. Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings. Anyway, there do appear to be some functional benefits to theism. Why else would it have evolved and become so dominant as a biological tendency and a cultural phenomenon? Those who are engaged in organised religion are happier and healthier than those who are not. Perhaps organised religion is also good for the moral welfare of nations. Buddhism, it would seem, gives the same benefits as theism without having to rely on faith to believe in the literal existence of beings which are really (at best) unknowable.

Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation and the difference is not just in name. In Hinduist reincarnation, a permanent self ('Atman') is incarnated in body after body like someone changing their clothes. Buddha denied that such a permanent self exists. With Buddhist rebirth there is no entity to be reborn, just effects following on from causes just as in ordinary existence. Some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. There is no need for judgement. Admittedly traditional Buddhism does not necessarily have the same notions of what actions lead to bad conseqences as modern westerners, but that is really just a difference of detail. If someone kills an insect I don't believe that that will lead to bad consequences - except in so far as cruelty may be cause of unhappiness or unless the insect is a killer bee. Nevertheless it is true that some actions are in the interests of my future happiness and some are against the interests of my future happiness.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point. However, the aim of meditation is the elimination of suffering and there is good evidence that meditators are happier. And what worthwhile activity is free from challenges and difficulties?

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

Anatta is not the principle that there is no self at all. Anatta is the principle that there is no unchanging, permanent self. And this is indeed borne out by neuroscience which reveals a mind that is a series of massively parallel and constantly changing processes. There is not even a single central 'place' where all our perceptions and experiences meet.

Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.

It seems presumptious to suggest that not absolutely accepting the relatively new (by the standards of Buddhism) ethical philosophy of Humanism is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I agree with Horgan in so much as that being a senior member of the Buddhist clergy is no guarantee of compassionate behaviour. As for whether Buddhism leads to compassion on the whole, I simply don't know. But again, the final aim of Buddhism is not compassion but elimination of suffering.

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.

I agree that some such abuses have happened. People who act like this I would suggest have an incomplete understanding of Buddhism as amoral. It is foolish to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that being 'beyond good and evil' makes you immune to moral culpability. Many sociopaths could be described as internally 'beyond good and evil' in a similar way.

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

Lots of Zen Buddhists are agnostic. It doesn't matter what you believe in Zen with regards to metaphysical notions. I would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described. The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths. All of these explanations require that in some sense conscious beings are a necessary part of the universe.

The Buddhist view in my mind is quite close to the Anthropic Principle not in the sense that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind or with the purpose of creating mankind, but that what we think of a 'the universe' cannot really be separated from what we think of as 'ourselves'. Any belief in a fundamental separation would be very difficult to defend scientifically and would be correctly understood to be a metaphysical belief.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2006.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

E PLURIBUS UNUM


I apologize in advance for the political and American nature of this post, but I think that what is about to happen here in the United States is important for everyone, from every country.

One of my favorite Latin sayings is E PLURIBUS UNUM which means "Out of Many, One" It is a motto adopted here in the United States and is displayed on all the paper currency. It is a reminder that the 50 separate states that make up our country, come together as one national unit. The Buddhist philosophy in me loves this saying, because it is symbolic of our mind's leaning to split one into many. I guess, it’s really the reverse of the motto, but I digress.

I don't wish to make this a US centric post, however I believe tonight and tomorrow, what happens in this US election, if all the polls and pundits are corrects and Barack Obama wins the Presidency of the United States, will be something special for all Western Countries and really all nations. Weather we agree or disagree about his politics, this achievement, of electing a man of color, after 400 years of slavery and 150 years of Jim Crow laws will be nothing less than some kind of epic rebirth.

We pride ourselves on diversity and tending to our difficulties by using our large pool of different backgrounds from all around the world to achieve one goal. You ask most Americans their heritage, and you will get a huge diverse response. "I am of Dutch, Romanian, English, and Spanish etc. etc decent." Yet we have been marred by prejudice, intolerance and injustice from ever shrinking portion of our citizens. We sometimes fear what we don't know.

With a warm heart and prideful feeling(yes I know), I feel we have begun to truly wash away the sins of our past and become a nation of what we have always told the rest of the world we were, a nation of diverse people that come together in a common cause. Perhaps, Barack Obama is becoming the icon of this change, a new nation, forged together, with old scars of hatred and bigotry that has toughen our skin and a new generation that has softened our hearts.

Maybe our whole world could learn the phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM ? Who knows’, but I know we all have a long way to go.

**Update:Barack Obama wins Presidential Election!




Now let us heal those stinging wounds between us Americans and the countries of rest of the world. We hope we can begin to see we do not live in a bubble, alone and on top of the world, but as dependent on others as they are on us. Dr.King, here is your promised land you spoke of that cool April night in Memphis, 1968. You did not die in vain. From many, one.....






Two speeches I wanted to post here from two iconic Americans that I think truly capture this moment, in all its splendid glory. Relatively of course!


Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

~Abraham Lincoln
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863


I Have a Dream:
Full text can be found here:
http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm




"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."²

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

~Martin Luther King Jr.
August 28, 1963
Washington, DC - USA

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Determination


Your destiny is to realize the truth of your existence. Weather you like it or not, one day your mortality will draw down on you like an iron avalanche of fear and disbelief, destroying everything you spent your entire lives building. While we choose to ignore these road signs that say the bridge is out and doesn't exist, that something is terribly off, yet we speed ever faster towards that bottomless gorge. We may say we know we will go to heaven if we do good or say a prayer. We may tell ourselves God will carry our souls off to eternity, name, rank, and serial number included. However, blind faith is that mirage of an oasis in the desert and belief coaxes us onwards, regardless of knowing how our thirst never gets quenched.

We are extraordinary builders and creators, no question. There isn't one doubt that the human mind is capable of marvelous feats beyond our own poor recognition. It is as wondrous as the most beautiful vista nature can display. We have created in our minds this shadow of me, owned and operated year round, who's sole purpose is self preservation. We name it, put labels on it, dip it into the sweet river of attachment and place it upon a shelf of memories to admire. With your mind, you have created human life, built its foundation on ignorance and fed it with lies and embraced denial.

What is real and what is true, is right here, right now. We know it already. This isn't some exalted secret handed down by ancient scribes and sages. If we just took a moment, just one true moment of life, in perfect honest understanding, we may see this actuality. This inescapable truth of the emptiness of who you are is not the greatest fear imaginable, it is infinite liberation. This liberation is total and complete freedom from the bondage of mind. Worry, doubt, fear and confusion will begin to burn off like the dense fog in the mid-morning sun on a hot summer day.

Tomorrow, I will rise and watch this beautiful painting of life I've created fade a little more into the canvas of my mind. Disciplined determination to do so? Well, thats the bitch, isn't it?

Dhammapada

Who shall conquer this world
And the world of death with all its gods?
Who shall discover
The shining way of dharma?
You shall, even as the man
Who seeks flowers
Finds the most beautiful,
The rarest.
Understand that the body
Is merely the foam of a wave,
The shadow of a shadow.
Snap the flower arrows of desire
And then, unseen,
Escape the king of death.

And travel on.

~Buddha Guatama

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Is Buddhism a religion?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:



religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.


The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.


An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder

But let's not forget that any desire we may have to adjust Buddhism to our tastes itself arises from our own modern cultural trappings.

This post is an updated version of one I published in my personal blog in 2006.

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