Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Empty of what?

One of the more difficult concepts in Buddhism - one of the most fundamental as well as perhaps the most widely misunderstood - is rendered in English as emptiness. In Zen it is taught with the Japanese word Ku. Many people misunderstand emptiness as complete non-existence. When I first came across this idea as an undergraduate, I imagined it was teaching that the phenomenal world was a sort of hologram hiding a sort of vast, cosmic nothingness. The term is sometimes translated as void, or worse The Void, which doesn't help. The word in English also has negative connotations implying a destitution of meaning or value or feeling. Is it any wonder that people think Buddhism is nihilistic? Is this misunderstanding of emptiness just a problem of its translation into English?

The concept that is rendered as Ku in Japanese derives from the Chinese Wu , which comes from Sunyata (Sanskrit), which in turn comes from Sunnata (Pali). The adjective in Pali is Sunna (empty). Have we lost the meaning in this game of Chinese whispers? Sunnata has the same connotation of ordinary physical emptiness in Pali as emptiness has in English - and it was sometimes misunderstood in similar ways. Confusion about the meaning was common even in the time of Buddha it appears and Buddhism has at times been accused of nihilism through much of its history. But in 'Dhamma language' emptiness doesn't mean total nonexistence, or nihilism. It means something quite specific, which can be expressed in positive as well as negative terms, but which is an experience that is beyond words and even concepts. It is the transcendence of the narrow identification of self to an egoless experience of reality without borders, the experience of samadhi - the non-dualistic state of consciousness seen as a pre-cursor to Nirvana.

Originally Sunna referred directly to the anatta (no self-nature) doctrine.

According to orthodox religious and philosophical thought at the time Buddha lived, each and every living being had its own unchanging 'soul' or essence - the atman - which was or became unified with the cosmic Atman (according to some the same as Brahman) on enlightenment. Buddha was contradicting this doctrine - anatta/anatman was a denial of atta/ atman - and sunna was an expression of this. It wasn't a denial of mind or consciousness or the sense of self, it was a denial of a real, enduring, independent, self-existent essence or soul.

In the Suñña Sutta, Ananda asks the Buddha, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."

So, emptiness is not total nonexistence, but refers specifically to the absence of an atman - an ultimately real self, essence or identity. And describes reality in terms of interdependence rather than self-standing existences. But what relevance does this have to non-Brahmanists and non-metaphysicians?

Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities. The identities of things in the world are conventions of the human mind and society. We project these perceived identities outwards onto the universe itself, as if the universe really was divided up into discreet and abiding objects. At best, we see these 'things' as having changing relationships and properties, but nevertheless, an enduring identity. Buddhism teaches that the notion of entities is nominal or conventional. It is a necessary feature of thought and language that we treat identifiable aspects of reality as if they have a continuous existence - even if we acknowledge that this existence is characterised by change. Many computer programming languages are said to be 'object orientated' in the sense that they handle data in terms of identities or objects which have certain properties at any given time. The way that human beings think is remarkably similar to this in some ways. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, we confuse conventional reality with ultimate reality - that is, we confuse the nominal with the actual. No doubt it is a functional, pragmatic way to deal with information, but not a true reflection of reality, which as modern physics tells us, is a seamless and deeply interdependent flux - an evolving matrix of processes within processes. According to Buddhism it is this disparity between out attachment to the notion of enduring entities and the transience of reality, which causes the suffering that we experience from day to day.

Why do the original teachings emphasise this negative description, in terms of absence? It was framed in this way, to respond to the eternalist atman doctrine while perhaps minimising the chance of being interpreted as a new set of statements about the essence of reality. The power of this tendency to reify reality - to project our concepts of identity as if they existed externally - means that we may see even a teaching of inter-dependence in terms of a network of relationships between entities, when really it is only the mind that creates the existence of any entities or even relationships - reality is a seamless - and ultimately indescribable - whole. This is why, to avid nihilistic misunderstandings, some modern teachers describe emptiness in terms of openness or fullness - because phenomena are empty of that which would separate or confine them - a self-existent identity or essence.

Buddha taught that all phenomena are characterised by three qualities - the Three Marks of Existence:
Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.

Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)

Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) impersonality, or non-Self. The human personality, "soul", or Self, is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.
These characteristics are inter-dependent: it is because things lack an independent essence, that they are in a constant state of change; it is because we hold onto the changing aspects of reality as if they had a continuous existence that they are unsatisfactory for us. Emptiness is really just the same as interdependence or dependent origination, and some of the clearest accounts I've come across explain it in these terms. Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Heart Sutra (which I recommend) describes it using his own terminology of 'inter-being'.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper...So we can say that the cloud and the paper 'inter-are.' We cannot just be by ourselves alone; we have to inter-be with every other thing.
A class of Mahayana sutras called the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras developed this concept of emptiness. The earliest is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which is chanted in a shortened form in Zen dojos as the Heart sutra. It includes a number of quite enigmatic lines on emptiness:
"Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty."

"Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase."
Emptiness is that which is beyond dualities - it is raw reality, prior to conceptualisation and language. It is not to be seen as another concept, set in opposition to phenomena such as form (matter), sensation, perception, mentality, or consciousness. Reality is not separate from appearance. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this beautifully as follows:
Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.
Probably the second most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself was Nagarjuna who, at the time that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging, developed the concept of Sunyata with a thorough and extensive philosophy of negation - the best known exposition of his thought is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Key features of this teaching are:
  • The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness of all things (i.e., all things, including the Buddha, have no inherent existence)
  • The identity of pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) with śunyatā
  • The indifferentiability of nirvāṇa from saṃsāra
  • The tentative or merely conventional nature of all truth
The former is expressed in terms of the 'emptiness of emptiness':
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
One of the problems with philosophies based (for teaching purposes) on negation, such as anatta, sunna and to an even greater extent the work of Middle Path philosophers such as Nagarjuna, is that it is easily interpreted as nihilism. Many people misinterpret these ideas as a denial of reality. But Nagarjuna's philosophy is not nihilistic, it is negative to avoid all attachment to concepts, all reification. But really it is indicating through denial and silence, that which is beyond language and concepts. It is intended to negate attachment to concepts in order to see through them to reality. He has prompted comparison with the (equally misunderstood) 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A group of Mahayana sutras referred to as the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Womb) Sutras teach that there is a permanent, unchanging essence within each being. The term Tathagatagarbha can be variously translated as 'Buddha Womb', 'Buddha Embryo' etc, and is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with Buddha Nature. It may have arisen as a result of Hindu/Brahmanist influences since it arose during a Hindu revival in India. These sutras are in agreement that the Tathagatagarbha is an undefiled, eternal essence within all beings. It is presented as an antidote to a false, nihilistic understanding of emptiness. But, as I have already argued, to see these doctrines as nihilism is to totally (yet understandably) misunderstand them. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists adhere to this view literally. However such an interpretation seems essentially indistinguishable from the Vedic/Brahminist teachings of Atman that Buddhism rose out of and broke away from. Others see such interpretation as being in contradiction to the principles of anatman and sunyata. To me, this raises the question of why, if Buddha was essentially in agreement with the Brahminists, he felt any need to debate with them and to give radical, innovative teachings which directly contradicted them. Buddha rejected eternalism as well as annihilationism. How does this interpretation differ from eternalism? Is this not just another attempt to cling to atman, to imagined permanence? Another reification of concepts? How do we reconcile this with the rest of Buddhist philosophy?

Could it be that the authors of these sutras (which were of course attributed to Buddha, but which did not appear until several centuries after his death) had misunderstood such doctrines as Anatta, Sunyata and Madhyamaka philosophy as nihilism? Or perhaps they were creating an antidote to the popular misunderstanding of such teachings as nihilism - redressing the balance by teaching emptiness in positive terms.

In one of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, it is explained that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is a teaching method:
Then Mahamati said to the Blessed One: In the Scriptures mention is made of the Womb of Tathágata-hood and it is taught that that which is born of it is by nature bright and pure, originally unspotted and endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence. As it is described it is a precious gem but wrapped in a dirty garment soiled by greed, anger, folly and false-imagination. We are taught that this Buddha-nature immanent in everyone is eternal, unchanging, and auspicious. It is not this, which is born of the Womb of Tathágata-hood the same as the soul-substance that is taught by the philosophers? The Divine Atman as taught by them is also claimed to be eternal, inscrutable, unchanging, and imperishable. Is there, or is there not a difference?

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the Divine Atman as taught by the philosophers. What I teach is Tathágata-hood in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unborn-ness, unqualified ness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathágata-hood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of ego-less-ness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imageless-ness. The religious teaching of the Tathágatas are just like a potter making various vessels by his own skill of hand with the aid of rod, water and thread, out of the one mass of clay, so the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness in order to remove the last trace of discrimination that is preventing disciples from attaining a self-realization of Noble Wisdom. The doctrine of the Tathágata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of "soul" as being something self-existent may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment. All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind. No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.
Note the phrase 'the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness'. In what sense is the ego-less-ness twofold? I propose that it is twofold through both negative expression (anatta, sunyata) and positive expression (Tathagatagarbha, dependent origination).

In his article The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata' Heng-Ching Shih expresses the same argument in detail.
In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? ...It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'.
There is a passage in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra' in which Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It reads:
Good son, Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness ,which is 'prajna' itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and non-self. What is empty is 'samsara' and what is not empty is great 'nirvana' ... Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.
Heng-Ching Shih explains this as follows:
The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony [between] being and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both encompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.
Interpreting the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as soteriological - as a teaching device - rather than as theoretical and literal in this way, we can resolve an apparent conflict into a teaching which is harmonious with the rest of Buddhist philosophy.

As with Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching of emptiness, we have another, relatively easy to understand, positive expression of the core teaching of Buddhism. And again we have the danger of literalism and reification - an even greater danger in this case due to the ambiguity of the texts and the ease with which they can be seen as metaphysics. The key, I believe, is to see all of these teachings as just that - to walk a Middle Path, avoiding literalism, clinging to no particular articulation, positive or negative, but instead letting go of all attachment to concepts and language and instead being open to reality itself without such 'mediation'. All good Buddhist teachings are knowingly pragmatic and soteriological, in my opinion.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2007. Image copyright Rein Nomm.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Itch As Glitch: Deconstructing Externality and Sensation

Any meditator will undoubtedly be very familiar with our old friend, the itch. While I think the connections between scientific discoveries and Buddhist beliefs can be over-emphasised, in this article, taking uncontrollable itching as a starting point, Atul Gawande looks at the new light being thrown on the relationship between external objects, sensation, and consciousness.

Scientific developments are challenging what Gawande calls the ‘naïve view’ – that we perceive the world directly, that sensations transmitted by objects are ‘picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.’ Rather, he argues on the basis of this research, the mind is not so much decoding sensations, as constructing objects from signals, signals which are ‘radically impoverished’ compared with our experience of embodiment. On this view, perception, rather than being a response to external stimuli, is in fact the brain’s ‘best guess,’ or inference, about what’s ‘happening out there.’ Phenomena like phantom limb pain, or itching in places with no nerve endings, are what happens when the best guess happens to be wrong; and thus a solution might be possible if that guess can be adjusted – in the case of phantom limbs, by ‘mirror therapy’ through which patients appear to themselves to possess the missing limb.

What’s interesting about this from a Buddhist perspective, it seems to me, is that it dovetails with the teaching that our impression of our own embodied objectivity, and hence our whole concept of the ‘reality’ we inhabit, is illusory, and that in normal everyday life we do not have access to unmediated experience (indeed, this would suggest that there can be no such thing as unmediated experience, only the experience of experience as mediated – though the nature of meditative insights is not a subject on which I’d claim any authority from experience whatsoever). It seems to me (from my limited knowledge) that there’s a particular affinity here with Yogacara perspectives on cognition as constitutive of a (supposed) reality external to consciousness. The mind not only imposes particular constructions on objectively-experienced sensation as a result of contact with objectively-existing, separate external objects; all those sensations and separate objects exist as they are experienced only as a result of being constructed mind-objects, or dharmas.

As well as giving a new approach to problems like those mentioned above, this perspective on consciousness might also relate to new practices in dealing with pain. Rather than distraction - an older technique - Gawande notes that people with chronic pain are now often advised to ‘work through’ the pain, giving the body a chance to ‘reset’ pain sensors. Though it’s not mentioned in the article, there’s some fascinating work out there on mindfulness as a method of long-term pain management, which would seem to bear definite similarities.

I wouldn’t want in any way to diminish through comparison the agony people experience when dealing with these kinds of medical problems. But there is something fundamental here about the fact that our suffering can be our own creation, and that we may not be conscious of this, or, if we are, this intellectual understanding in itself does not serve to mitigate that suffering. Sakyamuni is often understood as a physician, and in identifying ‘everyday life’ itself as dukkha, we might ask what treatment we could use to help readjust our fundamentally faulty understanding – which brings us full circle, away from these abstracted intellectual meanderings and back to the cushion…

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


I was wondering the other day on The Buddha Diaries about healing. The proximate cause was a sit, last Sunday, during which my attention had wandered continually to a friend who is currently fighting a battle with cancer, and the practice of metta, sending goodwill and wishes for her happiness, seemed somehow... inadequate, let's say, to her predicament. My thoughts turned to my father, an Anglican priest, who in his lifetime believed in the laying-on of hands and who practiced it himself with some success. Also to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen which, as I understand it, is a use of the breath to draw out toxins and replace them with healthy energies. I asked our sangha's teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, about Buddhist healing practices, and--much as I expected--heard that in his (Thai Forest) tradition, it's largely a matter of metta. I would be interested to hear from others what their experience or practice is when it comes to healing. Is there such a thing as a Buddhist "miracle"?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Society Without God: a review

(note: this is quite a bit more lengthy than a typical blog post)

In today’s rapidly evolving religious climate, few studies have been made of secularity in the modern world. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist from California, brings us Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment to help fill that void. It is an ambitious project, blending personal stories and sociological data gathering, as well as historical, political and theological insights. For those of us in America who can feel that our country is a bit (religiously) strange, but can’t quite put our finger on how and why, this is the perfect book. It is, indeed, an apology for secularism, showing how it is woven into the wonderful societies of Denmark and Sweden. For readers of Progressive Buddhism, we find questions of “Cultural Religion,” discussions of issues such as belonging vs. believing, and perhaps some hints at where we as individuals as well as Buddhism as a whole will fit in to the above-mentioned rapidly changing religious climate.
There have been two noteworthy trends in our society of late. The first is the rise in somewhat hokey movies (Signs, Henry Pool is Here) and some not-so-hokey ones (The Passion of the Christ) trying to convince us of the existence of God or miracles. And the second is the recent boom in psychology, popular writing, and even philosophy, trying to describe and teach us the so-called science of happiness, the art of happiness, or (one of my favorites) the accident of Stumbling on Happiness.

It has become commonplace in America to equate religiosity with happiness, with some even pointing to social and sociological studies suggesting the greater contentment of believers. Atheists (and often Buddhists by implication), now as much as ever, have quite a challenge in modern American society. In one scene in Henry Pool is Here, a movie I only watched because it was shown on a plane, two of Henry’s nosy neighbors are talking about him and one says (I paraphrase), “he seems so unhappy,” to which the other replies, “well, no wonder, he is an atheist.”

It is perfectly acceptable or perhaps even common sense, it seems, to connect atheism and unhappiness. As a Buddhist (and atheistic), this is not only ignorant, but offensive. It is an assumption based only on prejudice. What if they had observed instead that he seems angry: “well, no wonder, he is a Muslim” or wealthy: “well, no wonder, he is a Jew.”? Attacks on atheists seem to slip through the cracks in our society, perhaps simply because they are so widespread. Indeed, Zuckerman recounts the vitriol spewed by a half-dozen media pundits and religious leaders from Bill O’Reilly to Pat Robertson (pp. 19-20). All make similar and patently false statements regarding the demise of any society lacking a robust faith in God.

Religion, and by that I mean mostly the Religious Right, has exerted itself mightily in the last twenty years in America despite, scandals and abuses. And whether it is a science, an art, or an accident, happiness is a hot topic these days. It is into this melting pot that Phil Zuckerman throws his latest work: Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. In this book Zuckerman takes us to Denmark and Sweden, two countries that seem today to be less religious than ever (p.2).

It’s a difficult book to classify. It is the work of a trained sociologist and thus carries the mark of that discipline: interviews, data, statistics, and the analytical tools needed to make sense of it all. But it is also something of a travel-log by an intelligent atheistic American in an amazing society that, as he points out, so many Americans would not – could not – believe exists. As he says in the end of chapter 2, after describing an idyllic bus ride through a major city in Denmark, “So many Americans assume that without strict obedience to biblical laws, society would be chaotic and horrific. If only they could take this ride with me, I thought to myself” (p.31).

The third genre is something of a socio-religious biography of the people, 149 formal interviews with adult Scandinavians of all ages, education levels, and jobs. The sample, while large and in some ways random, did have a ‘convenience’ factor (meaning Zuckerman interviewed people who were readily available and even sought some out based on interesting conversations or their occupation) so it shouldn’t be misconstrued as representing the entire Scandinavian population. (see note 1 at bottom) It is in these interviews that one gets the best feel for Scandinavian life and thought, as you hear the views of so many ‘average’ people. These interviews reveal a richness of life in family, friendships, and social responsibilities all without a faith in God.

The very existence of the people in these interviews and their stories would not be remarkable, Zuckerman points out, if they were the exception to the rule in Scandinavia. In fact, atheists are the norm. Their existence and the flourishing of these “Godless” societies should put an end not only about the vitriol of the Pat Robertsons of the world, but also those who attempt to show by science that we are ‘hard wired’ for faith in God (cf. pp.55-56). If only it were so simple.

Interestingly, in interview after interview the Scandinavians speak of their society as being based on the ethics of the Bible, following ideals of kindness to others, honesty, and so forth. To them it seems that it is these teachings that are important, not the belief in God, heaven, or hell – not to mention biblically motivated anti-Semitism, discrimination of homosexuals, or denial of women’s reproductive rights. And Scandinavian society reflects just this: higher openness, a welfare state (based on the belief that free education and healthcare benefits everyone), strong community relations, the virtual eradication of poverty, and so on. Many of these same interviewees hypothesize that in past generations, when belief in God was far more prominent, the reason was precisely the lack of equity and stability in society. As life became better, as the society became more socialist (to use an overly and unduly harangued term), the need for religious belief simply fell away.

Further into his analysis, Zuckerman covers this very idea in his discussion of Why? (chapter 6). Several theories are presented, including the idea that “Secure Societies” are more likely to be irreligious. Other theories suggest that “Lazy Monopolies” – in this case the Lutheran church – lead to decline or that “Working Women” no longer keep their husbands and children in the churches. What we find is that while some theories match up remarkably well in Sweden and Denmark (all three of these, in fact), it is impossible to pin the cause of secularism on any one of them. Each also faces counterexamples elsewhere in the world.

Society Without God includes a history of religion in these countries, attempting, albeit very cautiously, to discern the religiosity of these people over the last 1000 or so years. We also find a discussion of what it means to be a Christian (chapter 8). Reflecting on his own (very secular) Jewish upbringing, Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are similarly “culturally” religious while personally atheistic or agnostic. As Christmas draws near I wonder how many of us (Buddhists and otherwise) might consider ourselves "culturally Christian." Most of us will do something on Christmas, even if it is simply spending a little extra time with family. And if we put up a tree, exchange gifts, put up lights, and God (ahem, I mean Buddha) help us, sing Christmas songs together, then we are “participating in something ostensibly religious, without actually believing its supernatural elements” (p.155). Ergo we are being culturally Christian.

Zuckerman concludes his study with thoughts from back in the US. Within hours of his return, he finds himself in the house of a born-again Christian showing off his “new toy” (a handgun). Ahh, how things change. Then, at a bank, he overhears an employee advising a debt-ridden patron to see a pastor to pray over the indebted person’s bills, give $50 a month to his ministry, and trust that “within a year, God will see to it that your debt is all gone” (p.167). Traveling from a land where God is practically obsolete to trusting Him with your personal debt must have been quite a shock. It was also traveling from a land of general contentment, good health, and security to a country with only moderate life-satisfaction, a perilous (despite being technologically spectacular) health-care system and depressingly high rates of violence.

If one could criticize the book, it would be on the grounds that it is too ambitious. In trying to tell so many stories in under two hundred pages, Zuckerman stretches the bounds of his own expertise and potentially the patience of his readers. Despite its core of sociological data-collecting, it is clear that the book is in fact an extended musing on the fairly personal topic of religion by a young and talented scholar. Yet it is difficult to imagine the book being anything other than what it is. Cut out the interviews and history and it loses its punch, remove the personal stories and ties to politics and contentment and it loses its emotive appeal. This reader was both very satisfied in this book, seeing much more clearly that (in the US) it needn’t be this way - we can be happy and safe without faith in God, and at the same time I left yearning for more.

1) Zuckerman goes over his methodology in a brief appendix.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Boiling Down Buddhism

As a philosopher and teacher of Buddhism I find myself often trying to "boil down" Buddhism in response to the question of "what is Buddhism?"

And it has occurred to me that how we answer that simple question can set the direction for a person's whole understanding of Buddhism. In the case of Buddhist Ethics (where I work) this can be easily shown with some examples:

What is Buddhism?
Damien Keown: "... Buddhism is a response to what is fundamentally an ethical problem - the perennial problem of the best kind of life for man to live." (The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p.1)
While this seems to leave the terrain of the conversation rather open, when we look closely we see that he has not mentioned awakening, delusion, suffering, craving, or any other centrally Buddhist term. While these do come later, there also is a focus on the "best kind of life" throughout the book that lead him to see Buddhism as akin to virtue ethics.
Mark Siderits: "The Buddhist Enlightenment project is aimed at helping us overcome existential suffering, by dissolving the false assumption that there is an "I" whose life can have meaning and significance.": in this video, (5:22)
Here Buddhism is a bit different. It is a "project" focusing on 1) existential suffering and 2) the "conceit I-am" (Pali: asmi-mana) that the Buddha posited as the central cause of suffering. Siderits takes the focusing on non-self and suffering toward a very utilitarian reading of Buddhist Ethics.
Alan Sponberg: "Just let go." (from a talk given at the local - Missoula, MT - FWBO seven or eight years ago)
It's not difficult to see the appeal, nor the historical accuracy, of such a boiling-down of Buddhism. Dr. Sponberg's Dharma name happens to be Saramati, meaning roughly "he who gets to the pith of things." Interestingly, Sponberg is the only of the three that has managed to retire from teaching to live a life dedicated to his practice.

Through this meandering post comes a question: how would you boil down Buddhism? What aspect(s) of the Dharma are most pressing in your life and practice? What do you think your boiled down version of Buddhism says about you and the Buddhism you practice?

Thursday, 4 December 2008


The questions in the previous entry are too big for me to attempt an adequate response. This one is for "Progressive Buddhists" who may, like myself, have trouble with the concept of re-birth. This, indeed, is why I have never managed to cross that bridge to actually calling myself a Buddhist. I love the teachings, I have a daily meditation practice, I embrace the wisdom, but I'm not ready for religion, and I think that this is the point at which philosophy or life's journey must necessarily become faith. I have often tried to discuss this matter on my own daily blog, but never so clearly and succinctly as in this beautiful essay that I found at the ThinkBuddha blog.

If anyone knows of an answer to this argument without resorting to faith, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Jedi not an option?

On my personal blog I recently conducted a poll asking the question 'Why did you get into Zen?'. The results of my highly-scientific poll are in!

Don't know (33%)
A full third of the sample simply don't know why they started to practise Zen. Is this something to do with mokusho (non-thought)? Or are people really unaware of their own motivations?

Jedi not an option (26%)
Now this is a response I can relate to. My teacher may be be disappointed to discover that if Obi Wan Kinobi to appear to me in the desert offering me a lightsabre and paranormal powers, I would be very tempted to follow him. But it hasn't happened so I'll have to settle for the next best thing. Any Jedi masters looking for a new disciple can contact me at the email address above.

Mu (19%)
This response means 'I don't know, but I am a smartarse'.

Receeding hairline (11%)
Another valid response in my opinion. Would you rather be a disciple of The Way, a monk of the special transmission beyond words and letters, or would you prefer just to be a bald git? A no-brainer for me that one.

Like the outfits (7%)
Seems a bit superficial. I suspect that many people like the outfits because it allows them to imagine they are Jedi. If you want to be a Jedi, you should have the courage to admit it. The key question: have you ever swung around a toy lightsabre/cardboard tube/kyosaku while wearing kimono, kesa etc ?

'Nam (2%)
We had one respondant who gave this answer. I now have an image in my mind of a veteran tormented by PTSD going AWOL and trekking through jungles of Vietnam in search of a way to find peace; perhaps finding a Zen master there. How intriguing. Actually I once met someone who did almost exactly that except it was a master of kung-fu he followed. Please contact me if you'd be interesting in making a movie.

To annoy parents (0%)
So no one is prepared to admit that they practice Zen to annoy their strict Catholic/Evangelical parents? Come on - do you expect us to believe that?

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