Monday, 29 October 2007

Progressive Buddhism: in the news

A very brief 'kudos' to Paul Jahshan, one of our Progressive Buddhists, and heads up to the rest of you. Click the image (or here) for the full story.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Greetings from the (Progressive) Buddhist Society of Lebanon

Hi all,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Paul Jahshan, Lebanese, currently teaching American/English Studies at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. A Christian by birth and upbringing, I have been interested in Buddhism for the last twenty years and, probably like many of you, went through the different Buddhist "flavours," beginning with Theravada, then Mahayana, then more specifically Zen, and now back to a personal form of Theravada (Reading Brian Victoria's Zen at War has made me a little wary of Japanese Zen, helped shed many illusions, and has made me adjust my stance noticeably).

Last year, I thought that founding a Buddhist society in Lebanon would be a good idea. Traditionally, Lebanon recognizes only three religions (for legal and administrative purposes): Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, so becoming a Buddhist is a little bit difficult, and this does not even cover the fact that becoming a Buddhist is probably unheard of here. I am sure that there are a lot of "closet" Buddhists in Lebanon, but nobody has gone as far as openly professing it. Not that we would be persecuted or anything; it is just something that has not been done. We do have many Buddhists, but they are overwhelmingly among the domestic helpers coming from Sri Lanka and other Far Eastern countries.

So, with an additional member, my cousin, the society was born.

We do not think, however, that Buddhism, the way it is practiced both in the East and in the West, is a viable alternative to contemporary, rational minds. My stay in the UK during my Ph.D. (Nottingham U.) and a few trips to the United States convinced me that Buddhism, in its present form, is in danger of becoming (or has already become) just another fad, and yet another form of mass consumerism. The idea of forced donations, both in the UK and in the USA, so obviously and so arrogantly demanded by Buddhist centers, is just abhorrent to us. Not only does it violate the principles of Buddhist teachings, but it also makes the whole noble act of striving for enlightenment a purely monetary exchange.

This was not, however, the only misgiving we had about modern Buddhism. As Dr Ambedkar aptly remarked, Buddhism is weighed down by many contradictions and faults, such as social passivity, the belief in Karma and rebirth, and other unpalatable issues. In the absence of scientific evidence, it is very difficult for us to blindly accept, on the basis of tradition, hearsay, and mere faith, such imponderables like the above, in addition to superstitions like the different realms of being (devas, asuras, etc.), obvious gender discrimination, and so on.

The advice to the Kalamas still holds true, and Justin's early posting in response to Bikkhu Bodhi's own interpretation of the sutta in question is excellent. B. Bodhi would have us believe that the Buddha's exhortation was just a trick, albeit a valid and rational one, in order to entice or convince the Kalamas to join the Sangha. Once this is done, he says, faith takes over and rational testing can take a nap.

Nonsense. Even if Siddharta Gautama actually believed this, I would say nonsense again. Faith is something, trust is something else. Trust is built on experimental bases, the way faith is not. Do I have faith in the Buddha? Absolutely not! Do I trust him? Absolutely. The difference is huge.

Indeed, rational inquiry should never stop; it is active and vigilant, just like vipassana attention is vigilant and checks incomers and outgoers in a continuous gaze that observes and dissects in order to understand. Observation is made by us, the observer, and never by somebody else. Our reason is the only "weapon," if I may use the word, to combat superstition, ignorance, blind obedience, and the centers of power so actively busy controling us. If Buddhism is not a method of liberation, in the full sense of the word, a liberation from brainwashing (initiated by others and then self-imposed in panopticon-like fashion) then it is nothing, and we will be the first to repudiate it. If B. Bodhi is afraid of freethinking and of freethinkers, there must be a good reason for it.

We strongly hold that Buddhism, sometimes despite Siddharta Gautama himself, is one of the best vehicles for intellectual emancipation, and that the practice of attention is one of the best tools created in order to wade through the morass of acquired, automatic set(s) of beliefs only necessary for our childhood upbringing. Freud's celebrated essay, "The Future of an Illusion," delineates the process by which humans, ideally, should begin to think for themselves after maturity. Siddharta Gautama was, to us and to many others, one of the first freethinkers, and it is as such that we value him and his--eminently practical--teachings.

It is high time that we wake up and regard Buddhism not as an exotic, Far-Eastern, mysterious way of life replete with treasures and secrets and strange realms, but as a psychological method capable of carrying us--if we exert ourselves, that is--into understanding the way we perceive things and thus into understanding the phenomenal world around us.

We accept the fact that Buddha was imperfect, and that his teachings were partly coloured by his culture, his age, and the idiosyncrasies inherent to them, and we also know that we are also weighed down by our own idiosyncrasies. Nobody is perfect, nobody was perfect, and nobody will be.

What we can strive for, in full honesty and humility, is to better understand ourselves and the functioning of our thought processes in order to better understand our brethren and the world we are living in. Tolerance, forgiveness, and love can only be achieved after a long and arduous process begun inside of us. We believe that Buddhism, adapted to us now (the famous "here and now"), and cleansed as much as possible of its understandable accretions, can offer much in the way of personal and worldwide salvation.

We do believe, just like you do, that Progressive Buddhism is the future of the Middle Way.

Thank you for listening to our views, and thank you Justin for inviting us to join the blog!


(For more on our views, please read our "Statement of Principles" on the society's webpage at

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Buddhism and the Use of Force

10/31/07 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post included a quote from Paul Carus's 1894 book "The Gospel of Buddha" that has now been deleted.

A recent post by Army Chaplain candidate Somya Malasri to the blog Buddhist Military Sangha raises an interesting question: Can a Buddhist Join the Army? And, it raises further, related questions of what role we should expect for “force,” from the military or police, to play in society.

Many Western Buddhists are wholly non-violent, staunchly opposed to the violence the military might unleash, yet haven’t a scintilla of opposition to a competent, adequately careful police force in a free society. Policemen, like soldiers, often must use force, or violence, to achieve their ends, be it in the apprehension of suspected criminals or to deter harm coming to innocents.

Second Lieutenant Malasri cites Ven. K. Sri Damavanda [from “What Buddhist Believe,” downloadable from Buddhanet in PDF format, quoting the chapter beginning on page 385] which has the same ultimate source as the chapter “Simha’s Question Concerning Annihilation” which comes from Paul Carus’s compilation of Buddhist wisdom in a book published in 1894, called The Gospel of Buddha. [Where in the Pali canon the Simha story is, I haven’t been able to locate -- but I have little doubt it’s there, somewhere.]

Here, Buddha‘s words regarding police work in response to Simha‘s question asking whether Buddha permits punishment of the criminal:
‘He who deserves punishment must be punished. And he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Do not do injury to any living being but be just, filled with love and kindness.’ These injunctions are not contradictory because the person who is punished for his crimes will suffer his injury not through the ill will of the judge but through the evil act itself. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executors of the law inflict. When a magistrate punishes, he must not harbor hatred in his heart. When a murderer is put to death, he should realize that his punishment is the result of his own act.
Thus, Buddha approves the administration of law and order within a society, even speaking of the death sentence, though I don't think we should presume that he approves of that based on the text here.

But the final Buddha quote from the military chaplain’s post, surprisingly, is this: “There is no justice in war or violence. When we declare war, we justify it , when others declare war, we say, it is unjust. Then who can justify war? Man should not follow the law of the jungle to overcome human problems.”

The most-often cited quote from the suttas declaring Buddhas opposition to war comes from the Sumyatta Nikaya (The Connected Discourse of the Buddha) 42.3, “Yodhajiva Sutta: To Yodhajiva (The Warrior)”:
When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: 'May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.' If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: 'When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,' that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb.
Thus, a warrior goes to hell -- or is reborn into the unfortunate life of a weasel or a chicken or something.

Confusion arises in the modern day where military might isn’t an event of nations bumping heads in pursuit of territory, each having a rationalization for their cause. There are times, now, when nations are ruled by despotic men or gangsters who seek nuclear capability, restrict freedom, have no empathy for the impoverished lives of their citizens, and have the will to impose their harsh regime on a wider patch of the world or to extract payment or concessions or an agreement where there would be no contribution from outsiders to bring down their regime.

Because there are global threats, the world is effectively a small place, a One World Sangha in many respects, and the military of good nations, most often, engage in efforts that are policework (or meant as policework that can go awry) and not the warrior work of Buddha’s day and age.

Who can doubt that the world effort to intervene in East Timor turned out well? Or regret that the world didn’t do more to try to prevent the Rawandan Genocide of 1994 when the Hutu leaders effected a campaign to wipe out the Tutsis and killed an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers? President Bill Clinton’s greatest regret as president, as stated in a Frontline interview, was that he did not send in 5,000 US peacekeepers which, he said, might have saved a half million lives.

There is no doubt that military policework is not as straightforward or easy as what is done by municipal police within a city. The military of our time must first establish a stable presence where, understandably, there is likely to be resistance to foreigners.

Who can doubt that there was a path, albeit a difficult one, that Bush might have followed, “exhausting all means to preserve the peace” that would have brought a very satisfactory outcome in Iraq, with Saddam & sons exiled or ousted in a way that was complete, yet much more peaceful, and did not leave America in a quagmire with possibilities of civil war or war breaking out on Iraq‘s border?

And now there is a situation in Burma with hundreds of monks killed and a cruel regime in place. What do we do? Is it just to leave things as they are?

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. That’s 45 years, already!

Quoting wikipedia:
In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by the SLORC [the government], which refused to step down. Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerrilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. To date, this military-organized National Convention has not produced a new constitution despite well over ten years of operation. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
When will the people of Burma have the government they deserve? one that seeks to work for its citizens? And how is the establishment of a proper Burmese government going to be achieved? From petitions? From marches in streets outside Burma until interest dissipates and we all move on to worrying about Britany's latest randy bit of foolishness or a new, real crisis somewhere arises to grab our interest before its fifteen minutes of media attention passes, disappearing with nothing having been done?

Progressive Buddhists aren't beholdened to every word we suppose Buddha may have spoken, but doesn't it make sense to rescue people who are trapped in an Orwellian nightmare? Aren't we obligated to heroically take on illegitimate governments, somehow, some way? Forcefully?

UPDATE The hard reality in Burma: "The Burmese Way to Fascism," essay by Bertil Lintner, posted in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Here, a paragraph near the end ...

"The bitter reality is that nothing is going to change as long as the military remains united and willing to gun down its own people. A younger generation of army officers, who see the need to negotiate with the pro-democracy movement, is probably the only hope. But for now, no one is aware of any “young Turks” lurking in the wings, and there are no signs of serious cracks within the ranks. But if change does come to Burma, it will in any event be because of action taken by such younger army officers, not demonstrations led by monks."

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Monday, 8 October 2007

Women, Buddhism and the Internet

by Tom Armstrong

Though the Internet offers us an arena of egalitarian play, and Buddhism is a fount of compassion -- a quality closely associated with women -- Western Buddhism is dominated by the galumphing presence of men, as much in the virtual world as in flesh-bone-bricks-and-morter sanghas. Why is this? And what is a proper vision of Buddhism Online for the future? and how do we get there? And if we can drag Online Buddhism to a more genteel, creamy, cosmopolitan [i.e., woman friendly] space, might the physical world of middle-aged white-guy Buddhism, like Mary’s lamb, follow close behind … toward it becoming more diverse and welcoming?

Out in our walk-about lives, we live through a mostly lovely, but certainly slow, journey toward equality between men and women. Ever more women enter occupations previously monopolized by men [and vice versa]. Ever more, gender is less of a bar, toward a point of being unrecognized, except where pairing off is concerned. And, women are shattering the glass barriers: taking control of big corporations and, probably, in January 2009, securing the reins of a big North American country.

Most Buddhists are perhaps like me, hopeful that one day our goals for what progress is shifts -- away from seeing being On Top of the Mountain, ordering around others and, usually, living in the lap of luxury as being the, ah, apex of having had a meaningful life. But, at least for now, access is being made more available to a greater array of people and that is all to the good. People aren’t as hemmed in, disallowed by societal pressure to do what they are best at or desire most to do with their lives.

Yet, on the Internet the differences in the behaviors and values of men vis-à-vis women is stark. Instead of the physical world’s vector of proof coming more and more into focus that men’s and women’s brains are very similar, the Internet -- a field for masked play -- is very much Mars and Venus [or, Google and Yahoo?], the genders being planets apart in how they behave and what they choose to do. And most curious of all, instead of everyone being emboldened by semi-anonymity to engage in all manner of daring-do -- crossing boundaries, venturing into unknown territories -- most people are shy and blinkered by their meatspace fear of being potentially naked in public.

I found this pithy sentiment of gender differences, online, in a Powerpoint presentation written by ReadySetPresent. It’s imperfect, sure, but fair and apt given a limitation of a couple dozen words per gender:
"Men are externally focused and often view situations as issues to be resolved. They talk to inform others."

"Women are internally focused and often talk as a way to connect and relate to others."
A recent New York Times article tells us “We know that women outnumber men online,” but both the oceanic buddoblogosphere [i.e., Buddhist blogging outside walled social communities] and Buddhist webspaces, generally, are in overwhelming proportion managed, written and visited by males.

This is somewhat explained by the general differences between what men and women do online. According to a December 2005 Pew report, “How Women and Men Use the Internet,” with the subheading, “Women are catching up to men in most measures of online life. Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes.”

Women are keen on email. “Women send and receive email more than men. Some 94% of online women and 88% of online men use email,” says the report. “Women say email improves relationship with friends, family, and colleagues more than men do, and that it improves the work climate as well.”

One section of the report is titled “Using the internet to get information: Men pursue and consume information online more aggressively than women.” The report tells us, “Although men and women say equally that they find the information online that they are looking for, men are a lot more confident in themselves as searchers, and they are less overwhelmed by the glut of information that’s out there.” But I think this reading of the data may be a little suspect. If woman are as successful at finding what they’re looking for, then male gung-ho confidence may be a chimera or women may be overly self-critical.

We are also told that “men pursue a [wider spectrum of] activities with greater enthusiasm [than women]” and that “women are more likely to use the internet … to get support for health or personal problems, and get religious information.”

To sum up, a concluding paragraph from the report:

Men and women share an appreciation of what the internet does for their lives, particularly in making their lives more efficient and expanding their world of information. Men seem to value these strengths most in the context of the activities of their lives, from jobs to pastimes, while women seem to value them most in the context of the relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and communities.
So, the report tells us that woman use the internet to get religious information, are highly communicative [love email] and interested in relationships of all sorts. Doesn’t that sound like it should be a hotbed of bloggers? But in the worldwide English-speaking Buddhist community, it just isn’t. It's male aggression and gung-ho get-it-done determination that makes The Blogger.

Not only do men outnumber women in the buddhoblogosphere by a ratio of, perhaps, 4 to 1, there is nothing to suggest the ratio is improving. Many of the most proficient female Buddhist bloggers have left us, while not nearly the same proportion of men have. Gone from us are these great women buddhobloggers: F. Kwan [Foot before foot: a photoblog]; Kimberly Gold [this zen life]; Zenchick [Zenchick: Musings from the Lotus Position]; Andi Young/Soen Joon Sunim [Ditch the Raft & One robe one bowl] and Audrey [Taming the Heart]. Also, chalip of Zen Under the Skin; Chodpa of Luminous Emptiness; and Dharmasattva of Dharmasattva's Meditations now post very infrequently. Plus, the great An Xiao recently put her haiblog, That Was Zen, This is Tao on hiatus. Some vital niches in the buddhoblogosphere are now empty and may be lost!

So, What’s an online Buddhist to do? In one sense, it seems that the problem is clearly THE WOMEN’S FAULT!!! [And I say that not just because only men post to this group blog and, perhaps, only men are reading this.] While we pretend that any group of people is wholly interlinked, truly, one’s online presence has a ambience you create for yourself. If you want to be loved and popular, you have enormous control in effecting that by networking with others you like, promoting yourself, and being charming and interested in others. If you’re a curmudgeon [like myself], or are unwilling to do the networking to create a known online presence, hopefully you will be satisfied writing your posts for a more-meager audience.

Similarly, some snarling complaints that meatspace sanghas are overrun my old white men are specious. Isn’t it really the case that at the workplace or in a community of any kind there are sub-groupings of associations that are near always the most important to us? At least until we are a lot wiser and more accepting, it is always a small number of people that are let into our lives and become especially important to us. So, if you're prejudice against OWMs, not to worry: There are sure to be others you can bond with in a rump sangha of some sort.

Perhaps every Buddhist community online is a loose and transient confederation. The most stunning thing about it is that there is little governance and it's easy, with no permission needed, to alter one's presence there to something that might be more satisfactory. Ditch the old blog and get a new one. Create a wholly new screen presence.

It is probably the case that if more women are to become a part of Buddhism Online, we will need to solicit them, and only then, if they come on board with glee and enthusiasm, will the virtual world become more genteel, creamier and have a more cosmopolitan air about it:


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Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Journal of Progressive Buddhism

Just a quick note to say that a few days ago I had an email from Professor Paul Jahshan of the Buddhist Society of Lebanon who runs a journal called the Journal of Progressive Buddhism. It all looks very intriguing and very much in line with the sort of stuff we've been talking about here, so I've invited him to come and introduce himself here and what he's been doing and to contribute to the blog. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma: how?

Free Burma!

A couple weeks back my fiancée asked me what I thought of the then recent demonstrations in Burma that were broken up by security forces (Sept. 5, demonstration in Pakokku). I sighed, thinking of the long, unjust, and widely ignored house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is a nation ruled by its military essentially since its inception just after WWII. What power do a few, or even a great many, monks have there?

My response was that it would probably pass. The government would give some grounds on the monks demands, or it would escalate to a point of violence and then the monks would back down. It seems now that my prediction then, the latter one unfortunately, has come to pass. The escalation culminated in massive protests including tens of thousands of monks and perhaps 100,000 lay supporters being met with automatic gun fire and tear gas. The result, according to the French news agency AFP, quoting Shari Villarosa, is that "a semblance of normalcy has returned, but those of us who live here see the mood has changed..."

However it is unclear what will happen next. And what is the proper Buddhist response?

I asked my advisor, Damien Keown, about it in passing and he too sighed. This was just after we had discussed the lacuna that exists in Buddhist politics and ethics in general, not to mention for specific situations such as this. Buddhism has generally been a religion that stays out of politics. That's not to say that Buddhists always stay out of politics, only that in terms of the body of Buddhist thought, little exists that deals with politics. Think of Tibet: even there the Dalai Lamas (and earlier Buddhist rulers) controlled their nation more with traditional Tibetan methods than with any enlightened and expounded Buddhist political philosophy.

Ashoka was perhaps the Buddhist King par excellence, but no treatise on his methodology was ever written, no rigorous handbook on the principles of proper rule ever composed. Only perhaps in the last thirty years, most notably with Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, has Buddhism found a voice for political action. Perhaps contrary to professor Keown's and my pessimism is Hannah Beech's comment that, "After all, it was Burma's monks who spearheaded acts of civil disobedience against British colonialists. Time (9/17). Yet the article immediately follows with, "Buddhist clergy were also at the forefront of mass protests in 1988, which ended when the army gunned down hundreds of peaceful protestors and declared martial law."

From a practical standpoint there are many questions:
  1. how strong is the military junta today?
  2. How unified are the Buddhist monks?
  3. How devout/willing to follow are the citizens?
  4. The same goes for the soldiers - will they attack monks?
  5. What is to make us think that now, after nearly two decades of military rule, something will change?
From a more theoretical standpoint I also wonder:
  1. does Buddhism demand social justice, or simply seek it?
  2. Can Buddhists in Burma rise up like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers and demand justice?
  3. Does Burma as a nation have a strong enough history of social justice (as the US did in the 1960s) for such a movement to succeed?
Perhaps most importantly, what can we Progressive Buddhists in the "privileged West" say or do here? Should we boycott Burma? Urge our government to invade and liberate? Or perhaps something in between? And what are the great Buddhist leaders out there saying/doing already?

Further reading:
China's hand behind junta's fist (The Australian)
Timeline: Burma, A chronology of key events (BBC News)
Burma: A Political Timeline (PBS)