Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Muslim Attack on Buddhism Part 2

Adnan Oktar (aka Farun Yahya)

Present-day Buddhists believe that the more pain they endure, and the more hunger and misery they suffer, the sooner they become enlightened. But this is not enlightenment; it is an inhuman life of self-abuse. A verse of the Qur’an (40:31) says, “God does not want any injustice for his servants.” This perverse practice of Buddhists is totally contrary to Islamic morality.

(Ibid. page 73)

The above quotation from Harun Yahya’s ‘Islam and Buddhism’ is particularly loathsome and inaccurate. It amounts to either gross incompetence when interpreting Buddhism, or a deliberate attempt to smear the religion with beliefs and practices that are simply not part of it. The Buddha taught the Middle Way between the extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism, as every decent student of his teachings would know. The idea that Buddhists believe that an increase in misery and suffering brings them closer to enlightenment is absolutely wide of the mark. That kind of thinking is an example of the very asceticism that the Enlightened One rejected.

Moreover, it seems that the writer(s) of this awful misrepresentation of the Buddhadharma have mixed up the Path to enlightenment with the centrality of suffering in Buddhist teachings. It is not that suffering is to be cultivated as a process of awakening, but that it is to be understood, rather than just avoided and buried in the subconscious. Buddhists aren’t expected to increase their levels of suffering, but to understand how and why it is there in the first place. Unfortunately, ‘Islam and Buddhism’ seems more concerned with defaming Buddhism than giving an accurate description of it. Yahya also displays a certain lack of clarity when focusing on reincarnation:

So many people in throughout the world believe in reincarnation, even though it has no logical basis, because they have no religious faith. Denying the existence of an infinite afterlife, they fear death and cling to the idea of reincarnation as a way to escape their fear. Belief in reincarnation – like belief in karma – is based on the false consolation that death is nothing to be feared, and that anyone will be able to attain his goals in a new birth.

(Ibid. page 88)

The first thing to note here is that the various (and rather different) ideas of reincarnation are lumped together. No distinction is made between the soul-centered theory of reincarnation typical of religions like Hinduism and Jainism, and the impersonal process that forms part of Buddhism’s description of how karma works. This is why it has become prevalent amongst English writers to use the word ‘rebirth’ when referring to the Buddhist theory, and reincarnation when thinking of the soul-based doctrine.

Secondly, Yahya attacks this generalized idea of reincarnation as being illogical, as though it is any less illogical than the superstitious theories of God and creation that he himself promotes. More to the point, does the specifically Buddhist idea that an impersonal process of elements of consciousness transferring from one form to another takes place any more fanciful or lacking in logic than the belief in a personal god, angels, demons, heavens and hells. Throughout the book, the only evidence for Yahya’s Muslim view of the world is that it is written in the Koran. Is this a logical step, to base one’s entire belief system on the particular writings of one particular book, rather than, as the Buddha encouraged his followers to do, test things out for oneself?

Thirdly, is the belief in reincarnation grown entirely from a fear of death, that later in the same paragraph Yahya claims Buddhists do not have due to their false faith in reincarnation? (This seems a somewhat muddled argument.) As it happens, many Buddhists – including this one - do not put faith in ideas such as rebirth just because they are found in the Tripitaka. In line with an approach to the Dharma that goes as far back as any teachings do in Buddhist history, we test out the teachings in our lives, seeing if they are true or not. And, if no proof exists for or against them, retain an open mind. True, this is not the emphatic arrogance of dogmatists such as Yahya, but it is an honest approach that acknowledges, “I don’t know.” Next, ‘Islam and Buddhism’ returns to theme of morality:

Buddhism’s superficial understanding of morality is completely contrary to human natural pattern in many respects. To an extent, it lets people avoid the torments of conscience that comes from having no religion and so, functions as a false source of spirituality. Believers in Buddhism console themselves with the idea that they have attained spiritual mastery by inflicting pain on themselves and denying the needs of the body.

(Ibid. page 110)

Just why Yahya considers Buddhism’s understanding of morality to be “superficial” is not explained in the book, but again it looks like a cheap shot at the religion to make it look bad in the eyes of the reader. Is it “contrary to human natural pattern”? The basic precepts of Buddhism discourage killing, stealing, adultery, lying, and the taking of intoxicants. These are much more stringent guidelines for living than found in many other major faiths of the world, and not that different to some basic morals found in Islam, for that matter.

Does adhering to Buddhist precepts help people to “avoid the torments of conscience”? Well, if practiced well, yes, they do, for if someone refrains from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and getting intoxicated, then they are surely living a pretty decent life that’s likely to encourage contentment rather than a tormented conscience? Again, the false accusation that Buddhism encourages people to inflict pain on themselves is brought up by Yahya, and as this slander has been dealt with earlier, it will be left with a dignified silence this time around. After attacking the morality of Buddhism, Yahya next evaluates the worth of Buddhist meditation:

Buddhist literature proposes meditation as the best way to attain a sense of well-being and avoid daily anxieties. But this is a great deception. Those who meditate to push concerns out of their minds come face to face with the same worries when their meditation ends. Trying to forget worries may afford temporary relief, but does not remove them; temporary tranquilization of the brain is of no use. The only way to true well-being and happiness is submit to the fate that the One and Only and true God has decreed.

(Ibid. page 119)

Some forms of meditation, especially those basic ones that beginners practice, do act as temporary means to let go of anxieties. And, this is no bad thing, for when a clear, peaceful state of mind is established through simple meditation techniques, life’s worries can then be dealt with in a wiser manner than a mind that is caught up in its concerns and cannot think straight. True enough, those worries have not been removed, but the meditator is developing skills that can enable him or her to deal with them in more effective ways in the future.

As to Yahya’s claim that true well-being comes from acceptance of the way things are is true enough from the Buddhist perspective. Ironically, however, it is through the cultivation of meditative techniques and tranquil states of mind that the Buddhist is able to accept the world as it is, rather than abandoning them to some vague belief that one’s life has been preordained by a deity to be the way it is.

In some quarters, Buddhism is seen as a path of high morality, mutual support and self-sacrifice. But the fact that people are living in destitution in Buddhist countries like Nepal, Tibet and Cambodia shows clearly that this mutual support and self-sacrifice is not a reality.

(Ibid. page 145)

When criticizing another’s religion, it’s important to get one’s facts right, isn’t it? So, in relation to the above paragraph, here are a few facts: Nepal is not a Buddhist country. A small minority of its population is Buddhist, but the far mass of Nepalese are Hindu, not Buddhist. And, would not communist Chinese rule over Tibet for the past five decades have something to do with the alleged destitution to be found there, rather than the faith of its people? Again, the current state of Cambodia is the direct results of the diabolical regime of the atheistic Khmer Rouge back in the Seventies. Of course, Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia might be examined to see just how destitute their people are when compared to the countries mentioned above, but that would be stooping to the level of Yahya and his writers.

Architects of atheism and materialist culture see that their theory is collapsing. To prevent the rapidly growing movement towards revealed religions, they counter it by promoting pagan faiths such as Buddhism. In other words, Buddhism – and other Far Eastern religions like it – are spiritual reinforcements of materialism.

(Ibid. page 157)

Here, ‘Islam and Buddhism’ makes the interesting claim that the popularity of Buddhism in the West is due to materialists and atheist scientists promoting it as preferable alternative to what the book calls ‘revealed religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and, you guessed it, Islam). There is a secret conspiracy going on where evil evolutionists, bent on denying God’s place in Western society, wish to insert the Buddha in his place. Most scientists and materialists I’ve ever met reject Buddhism wholesale, as they do all other religions.

It is true that some of Buddhism’s teachings and practices do seem to have more in common with modern scientific views of the world than most other religions, a subject featured on this blog often. But, are desperate atheists turning to Buddhism? Richard Dawkins, perhaps? No. Stephen Hawking, maybe? Not on your life. The only prominent atheist I know of with sympathies towards Buddhism is Sam Harris, author of ‘The End of Faith.’ And he has called for the killing of the Buddha and the religion of Buddhism, wishing to see the religion’s meditative practices stripped of their Buddhist trappings. When examined, the above claims by Yahya seem nothing more than nonsense, like much else in this book. This attitude towards Buddhism obviously flows from Yahya’s own religious convictions, which see all true religion and morality having their roots in a Islam-style monotheistic religion. Here’s an example:

Buddhist scriptures warn people against stealing, encourages them to be helpful to one another and cleanse themselves of selfishness and worldly ambitions. All this suggests that Buddhism possibly began as a religion founded on God’s revelation, only to become corrupt over the course of time.

(Ibid. page 161)

At last, some of the actual teachings are (briefly) touched upon, only for Yahya to sink back into his all too familiar Muslim bias. So, according to him, the good parts of Buddhism, or at least its better morals, derive from it originally being a ‘revealed religion’ like Islam. Of course! Only Muslims are moral people, according to Yahya’s warped view of things, so any decent aspects to the Buddhadharma must come from the Muslim God! So, this godless religion that is promoted by atheists to thwart God’s plans for humanity began itself as a religion inspired by this very same all-powerful deity. Now things are starting to make sense…not! Here’s some more airy-fairy theories backed up with a healthy dose of disdain:

Buddhism may have been a true religion that was ruined after the development of priesthood. It has certainly degenerated much more than Judaism or Christianity. However much these two religions have been distorted over the course of time, still they are devoted to God’s revelations and found their faiths upon him. Even if the essence of Buddhism actually comes from a true source, it has completely departed from that essence and become smothered in superstitious ritual, with only a few true moral principles left.

(Ibid. page 164)

What do you think, dear reader? Is Buddhism a degenerated religion, much worse even than Judaism and Christianity, with barely any moral element remaining, and secretly promoted by Islam-hating atheists? Throughout ‘Islam and Buddhism’, its attitude has been both condescending and insulting. In much of the western world these days, if it was brought to light that someone had slandered Islam in this way, the culprit would find themselves in court. But, what should the Buddhist response to this work be? Tolerance? Forgiveness? Understanding? Or, should we allow people all over the world to be brainwashed by this sort of trash into viewing Buddhism in a bad light, converting to Islam instead, as the book itself does towards its end?

In this book, we invite Buddhists and all others, for whatever reason, feel sympathy this superstitious religion to understand the truth that there is no god but God; and to accept that God is One and that there is no other.

(Ibid. page 177)

To view a website dedicated to the above anti-Buddhist propaganda, link to this site:
Islam and Buddhism

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Muslim Attack on Buddhism Part 1

Not so long ago, I was researching interfaith movements, and wanted to see how followers of Islam and Buddhism might be finding ways to have constructive dialogues with one another to help create a more harmonious world. My searches lead to a promisingly titled book ‘Islam and Buddhism’ by a well-known Turkish Muslim scholar called Harun Yahya. When I opened the e-book and began to read its beautifully illustrated pages, I was thoroughly disappointed, however. For, rather than being a book that explores ways that Islam and Buddhism can work together in the world, it seeks to criticize and discredit both Buddhism and Buddhists. Here’s a typical extract taken from the book’s introduction:

Throughout the world, but especially in America and Europe, some individuals have been intrigued by Buddhism, spurred on mostly by the superstitious, secret, and awesome qualities they perceive in this religion. Generally, those who adopt Buddhism do so not because they believe in the logic of its philosophy, but because they're attracted by its "mystical" atmosphere, drawn to this superstition because it is presented to them as far more different and awesome than any other philosophy they encounter in their normal lives. Books and films about Buddhism depict Buddha as the source of a great mystery. Likewise, Buddhist priests are presented as possessors of secret, arcane knowledge. They fascinate Westerners with their exotic robes, shaved heads, style of worship, elaborate ceremonies, dwelling places, meditation, yoga and other such strange practices.

(‘Islam and Buddhism’, by Harun Yahya)

Perhaps yoga and meditation are ‘strange practices’ to a Turkish Muslim, but who’s to say that they are to be universally considered so? Harun Yahya – or the many writers that he has working on the massive number of books that his organization has published – fills ‘Islam and Buddhism’ with such loaded and arrogant statements. In the above quote, of course, he has focused primarily on Westerners interested or practicing Buddhism, claiming that we are attracted to its superstitious elements and exotic robes! (I don’t know about you, but I have no fetish regarding Buddhist monks’ and nuns’ robes!) One might wonder if he levels similar accusations against Westerners attracted to Islam, particularly those that like to dress up in the exotic garb of the Whirling Dervishes, and spin in what might equally be deemed ‘strange practices’. Yahya goes deeper in his criticism of Buddhism, however, claiming that it is based on ‘deviant doctrines’. Deviant from what, you might ask? Well, we’ll find the answer to this in the following extract, along with another delightful attempt at describing Buddhism:

When we consider Buddhism's appearance, its scriptures, general beliefs, style of worship in the light of the Qur'an, we begin to see that its basic philosophy is founded on very deviant doctrines. Indeed, its worship contains strange practices leading its devotees to worship idols of stone and clay. As a belief, Buddhism is contrary to logic and intelligence. Countries where it has been adopted have mixed it with their own idolatrous ideas, traditions and local customs, joining it with myths and deviant ideas until it has evolved into a totally godless philosophy.

(Ibid. page 16)

Do those of you that are Buddhist, dear readers, “worship idols of stone and clay”? I can’t say that I do, and nor do the millions of Buddhists here in Thailand. True, we bow before statues of the Buddha, paying respect to his memory and humbling our egos in the process, but we don’t worship him as an idol (an embodiment of a deity). Oh, and is Buddhism “contrary to logic and intelligence”? One of the things that originally attracted me to the teachings of the Buddha was its very logical and systematic way of describing reality. Was I, in fact, deluded by what is in fact a superstitious and fundamentally strange philosophy? Like many Western and Eastern Buddhists that I have met, it is the very logical and well thought out teachings that continue to fascinate, not an obsession with ‘deviant doctrines.’ Yahya and his colleagues have a different theory as to why people like myself are attracted to the Buddhadharma – because we are disillusioned by modern materialism:

Those who long to escape from a materialist society's hard, disputatious culture—along with its worries, anxieties, quarrels, pitiless rivalry, selfishness and falsehoods—resort to Buddhism as the way to achieve peace of mind, security, tolerance and a fulfilling life. But Buddhism is not, as it is generally thought to be, a belief that brings contentment. On the contrary, those who are taken into Buddhism are often drawn into a deep pessimism. Even people with a considerable level of education and modern worldview will become individuals who see nothing wrong with begging with their bowls in hand, who believe that in their next lives, human beings may be reborn as mice or cattle, and who expect help from idols carved from stone or cast in bronze. For these people, Buddhism's deviant beliefs inflict serious psychological damage. In countries where Buddhism is widespread, or in regions inhabited by many Buddhist priests, pessimism and gloominess are clearly prominent.

One basic reason for this is the laziness and indolence that Buddhism inculcates in its adherents. Because it lacks any faith in an eternal afterlife, Buddhism does not urge its devotees to be better or develop themselves, to beautify their environment, or to advance culturally.

(Ibid. page 18)

Tell me, reader, have you been drawn into Buddhism’s “deep pessimism”? Have you been psychologically damaged by “Buddhism’s deviant beliefs”? As to countries where Buddhism is widespread being predominately pessimistic and gloomy, I can only write of Thailand. And what is the well-known nickname of this downtrodden Buddhist nation, as this might give us some clue as to its general level of happiness and contentment? Why, it’s “the Land of Smiles” isn’t it?! People in this country are usually courteous, generous, friendly and profoundly…happy. I can’t imagine a brighter or more fun-loving place to live in. Any excuse and the Thais are having a festival, a party, or just a good old-fashioned laugh. In fact, compared to the vision of Islam promoted by Yahya in this book, Thailand is heaven itself!

In the above quotation, Yahya displays real contempt for the Thai people, and any other nation that traditionally practices Buddhism. It is claimed that Buddhist devotees are not urged to better themselves. Is this true? What are the moral precepts for if not to better ourselves? Buddhists are encouraged to be kind, generous, charitable, friendly, and non-violent. We are discouraged from killing any living being, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, lying, or taking alcohol and drugs. Buddhists are taught how to meditate to develop more peaceful and contented minds. Are these not ways to better and develop ourselves? And, as to a beautiful environment, Thailand is full of gorgeous temples and parks, people decorate their homes and themselves in the brightest colors. Flowers abound wherever people reside. And, as far as I can see, this Buddhist country is in continual debate as to how it can advance culturally, looking for ways to improve on traditional modes of behavior that seem outdated or no longer relevant.

The word Buddha means "the awakened, or enlightened one," signifying the spiritual heights that Siddhartha Gautama is supposed to have attained. Those Buddhist teachings and texts that have come down to us do not date from the period in which he lived, but were written down between 300 and 400 years after his death. In the following pages of this book, we will examine these texts in detail and we will see that they contain false beliefs, practices that go beyond all logic and present Buddha perversely as an idol to be worshipped.

(Ibid. page 28)

Here, the book gives a reasonable translation of the word Buddha, but then inserts one word, “supposed”, that seems intended to cast doubt on the realization of the Buddha. Again, it is true that the teachings ascribed to him were not written down for several hundred years after his death, but then as those very texts encourage Buddhists to examine them with intelligence rather than blind faith, they are not to be believed without examination, anyhow. This is in stark contrast to the Koran, which Yahya promotes as the infallible (and therefore unquestionable) word of God, never to be contradicted. And despite promising a detailed examination of Buddhist texts in subsequent pages, the remaining thirty-five pages of the chapter from which the above extract comes, do nothing of the sort, instead mixing luxurious illustrations with numerous quotations from the Koran, which contain absolute statements that extol that religion above all others.

Today's Buddhist priests regard these texts as holy; they worship and organize their lives according to them. They portray Buddha as an actual god (God is surely beyond that!), and for this reason, modern Buddhists bow before his statues, place before them offerings of food and flowers, and expect help from them.

(Ibid. page 69)

Do you expect help from statues of the Buddha when you bow before them? And, do you consider the Buddha to be a god, as Yahya suggests we Buddhists do? No doubt, some Buddhists do appeal to certain beings and powers for assistance, much like a Roman catholic might ask one of the saints for help. Religions evolve over time. But, surely ‘Islam and Buddhism’ is dead wrong when it claims that Buddhist scriptures make the claim that the Buddha is a god? Certainly in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, the Buddha is recognized as an enlightened man, not a deity, and this is based on the teachings to be found in the Buddhist scriptures.

So, what do you make of Harun Yahya’s take on Buddhism, dear readers? Is it a mere fad amongst us Westerners, due to a fascination with bald heads and robes? Is Buddhism inherently weird or strange, and by what criteria would one make such a judgment? Do you worship images of the Buddha in the hope of gaining assistance from him? Are its teachings on impermanence, suffering, and not self “deviant doctrines” in your opinion? Are you overly pessimistic or psychologically damaged by practicing Buddhism as yahya suggests you are? Do you consider Buddhist texts holy, as Yahya considers the Koran, no doubt, and do you think of the Buddha as a god? If ‘Islam and Buddhism’ is a Muslim attempt at understanding Buddhism, then there’s a long way to go for the two religions to find common ground! If, on the other hand, it is as it appears, an attack on Buddhists and their way of life, what should the Buddhist response be?

If you wish to read 'Islam and Buddhism' for yourself, please click this link: Islam and Buddhism (PDF)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Buddha Space: The Final Frontier

Captain Kirk (center) & the Star Trek crew

In the famous opening sequence of that seminal science fiction TV series Star Trek, it’s central character Captain Kirk would recite the following lines: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…” He would go on to state that he and his crew were exploring “strange new worlds and civilizations”, and were to “boldly go where no man has gone before!” What stirring stuff! And, as it happens, not that far away from the ongoing voyage of discovery that the Buddha encourages us travel in the Tripitaka. The world that we are to explore is this world, of course, and the civilization is our own, not some distant alien one. And, at the heart of all this, lies the journey of self-discovery (or not-self discovery!) that promises to liberate us from the ignorance that causes our unenlightened states.

Unlike some lucky (?) persons that claim to have met extraterrestrials right here on Earth, I’ve only had the pleasure of earthly acquaintances, and the two most impressive earthlings that I’ve met in my journeys thus far are the forest monk Ajahn Sumedho (1934 – present) and the British ‘philosopher’ Douglas Harding (1909 – 2007). I’ve had the privilege of meeting both men on several occasions, and cherish the memories of my encounters with them. I have met Ajahn Sumedho a few times at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the UK, and I met Douglas Harding several times during the 90s, staying at his home near Ipswich in England, as many, many people had, due to his enthusiasm for sharing his particular insight.

The main similarity between the two men is that in their teachings and methods of mindfulness they have emphasized the direct experience of spaciousness as a liberating force in one’s practice. In an age of rapid scientific advance, when spacecraft speed through the solar system and human life is extended by use various technological developments, these two men have pointed out “the final frontier” as famously talked about in the TV series Star Trek. Well, almost. The difference being that the final frontier in Star Trek was ‘out there’ in the expanses beyond the Earth, whereas Ajahn Sumedho and Douglas Harding have spoken of a space that’s much closer to home. In fact, it is our home.

Ajahn Sumedho

One of Ajahn Sumedho’s innovative mindfulness practices is called noticing space, and consists of retuning the focus of our awareness in daily life. Instead of placing attention on people, animals, buildings and other objects, one focuses on the space that lies between them. So, observing your surroundings now, rather than homing in on the shapes, forms, and colors of the things before you, become aware of the space that they are in. Things are limited by their nature: they are so big, they have a certain form, and they reflect specific shades of color. Space has no such limited and limiting forms, for it is limitless; even scientists say that it is immeasurable. Being attentive to the space around (and between) things creates a spaciousness of consciousness, where it no longer appears so constricted and confining, seeing its mental and physical objects in a much broader context than before.

Douglas Harding

Douglas Harding had a different way of exploring the final frontier: turning attention around 180 degrees, we look back at that which is looking. Rather than finding a face or head we find…well, what do we find – why not look for yourself right now? Point at an object in the place where you are. Take note of its size, shape, color, etc. Now, slowly turn the finger around to point back at where your face is. What do you see? As for me, no face is found, nor a head on which it would be stuck, for that matter. Pointing home right now, I find a big space where I thought I’d find a face. And yet, this spaciousness does include my face, however, in the form of tactile sensations such as itches and the air brushing against the skin. But these sensations arise in awareness, with no gap between themselves and their ‘container’ – the interdependence of all things is experienced in the here-and-now!

Being mindful of this spacious awareness through the day is a liberating experience, freeing one from the self-conscious idea of walking around face-to-face with the world. In actual experience, there is no dividing line that separates me here from you there; it all occurs in an undivided awareness. Combing these two space explorations - the first being the space over there, the second the space right here - inseparable from each other and the objects that they contain, is a powerfully liberating experience, freeing us from the delusion of being merely an isolated human being here up against a (largely) hostile universe over there.

The Starship Enterprise

In Star Trek, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise explored the depths of outer space, constantly facing danger from deranged aliens and cosmic forces, with characters often dying at the hands of extraterrestrial evil. In taking note of the final frontier that is the space that surrounds objects, as well as being at the heart of what we really are, we find that we are those ‘aliens’ and ‘monsters’, and that they deserve our compassion & wisdom as much as any earthling. Living in mindfulness of the final frontier of this ‘Buddha Space’ we can see the habits and conditions that usually confine us to a life of separation & suffering, realizing that they do not constitute a separate self. What we are left with is our true identity which is to be experienced by those ‘Buddhanauts’ that are willing to explore the very limits of space. How are your explorations going? And how about the starship Buddhism – is it proving a worthy vehicle for this ongoing mission?

This is a reworking of an article that first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom' back in September 2007.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Buddha & Science: Psychotherapy

In Buddhist sutras and Zen texts, there are many passages with deep implications for Western psychotherapists. The dialogues recorded in them have evidently a psychotherapeutic significance. They could be examples of an Eastern version of psychotherapy. It is certainly interesting to compare them with conversations known from psychotherapeutic sessions today with regard to both form and contents. This leads beyond the concern of the present study. What I would like to propose here is that psychotherapy, as generally considered, is not necessarily of the West. In other words, I contend that Buddhism also has by nature psychotherapeutic elements. (Muramoto, from ‘Awakening and Insight’ – see below*)

As Muramoto writes above, many modern scholars and those working on the science of the mind believe that there is an intrinsic psychotherapeutic aspect to Buddhism. This comes as no great shock to those of us that practice Buddhist techniques such as mindfulness & meditation, of course. Many of us have ourselves experienced the benefits of Buddhist practice, such as feelings of contentment, compassion, and happiness. Moreover, we may have witnessed similar qualities arise in other Buddhists, as well as in those that do not classify themselves as ‘Buddhist’ but practice vipassana, zazen, or the like. Although Muramoto is primarily concerned with the relationship between psychotherapy and Zen Buddhism, other forms of Buddhism have been observed via scientific experiments to have the same positive effects on those that employ their techniques of mindfulness & meditation.

Nowadays there is a development of Buddhism in the West due in large measure to the efforts of Japanese Zen Buddhists such as Daisetsu T.Suzuki, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu and others. It is true enough that the understanding of most Westerners remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions. At the same time, the phase of intensive introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West is gradually coming to an end. The so-called ‘Zen boom’ is certainly passing away. There is less and less ‘Beat Zen’ as one of the phenomena of the counter-culture, and instead there are more and more Western scholars who are no longer satisfied with translations or with introductions written in English, but find it very important to read Buddhist texts in their original languages. In addition, they strive to experience Buddhism directly in the Eastern countries where it has long been a central element of cultural tradition. (Muramoto, ibid.)

What do you make, dear reader, of Muramoto’s claim that “the understanding of most Westerners [of Buddhism] remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions”? It seems true that these days the free-form styled ‘Beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac et al is on the decline, along with various ‘hippy’ interpretations of Buddhism. Nowadays, Western Buddhists are more serious in our application of the Dharma to our lives, are we not? But, is it true that we find it important to study Buddhist texts in their original tongues, or experience Buddhism in its traditional cultural settings? (I, of course, do live in Thailand, and experience the good & bad aspects of Thai Buddhist culture daily, but this is surely not so for most Western adherents of Buddhism.)

We can say nowadays that the so-called encounter between the East and the West is taking place within Buddhism as well as within psychotherapy. No serious problem of the contemporary world, be it politics or philosophy, can be simply said to belong to either the East or the West, but must be recognized as a worldwide problem because it necessarily concerns all the people of the world. In the confrontation with any problem we already find ourselves permanently connected with all people in the world, most of whom we do not know personally at all. (ibid.)

Here, Muramoto seems to be hinting at the interdependence of the modern global society, something that humanity is waking up to, albeit at a rather late stage! Buddhism and psychotherapy have many elements in common, as well as divergences of course. Approaching the world’s problems with the aid of psychological and Buddhist understandings of the mind, as well as techniques for calming and stabilizing it, would appear to be a wise course of action in these troubled times. Muramoto seems to suggest that neither a solely Buddhist approach to this situation, nor a wholly Western, scientific & psychological one, will cure the world of its ills. The suggestion here is that as Buddhists we should realize that the Buddhadharma is not the only answer to the suffering in the world, but that other paths of investigation, including not only science but also other religions, can combine to help us come to our senses. Buddhists alone, no more than Muslims, Christians, scientists, or politicians, can heal the world. Put succinctly, we need one another.

The notion of the cosmos or the world still remains, but it has greatly changed. There seems to be no other principle than a cold mechanism called the ‘laws of nature’. Confirmed only by mathematical procedures, they provide us with the means of technological manipulation of all beings. The personified universe of the good old days does not show us a familiar face any longer. All that we can read in its indifferent countenance is meaninglessness. There appears to be no place where one could live in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’. (ibid.)

Muramoto appears most despondent in the above passage, seeing in the scientific world view nothing but a meaningless nothingness at the heart of all. Is this an accurate representation of science? Or is it an emotional response to what are, after all, theories & views of life based on facts? Science itself is surely no more negative than it is positive. Like the Dharma, it simply is. It’s us human beings that interpret the world this way and that, impregnating it with the meanings that we see fit. Is living in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’ incompatible with a scientific world view? Is living the Buddhist life, moreover, incompatible with a scientific world view? Things would seem pretty hopeless for us Buddhists if this is so, for as suffering human beings in a world full of scientific facts, it would appear that we are barking up the wrong tree with our ancient Buddhist understanding of the universe. Either that, or the worldwide scientific community is off its rocker, and we’re all in trouble, whether Buddhist or not!

The primary concern in a dialogue is not to prove which party is the greater, but to let the truth reveal itself through the dialogue so that both parties gradually and mutually deepen their understanding of each other and confirm their common ground. A dialogue is no competition or conquest but an experiential process of the common participation in finding the truth, and demands the confession that everyone knows the truth a little but not in its totality. It is worthy of practice in our pluralistic world. (ibid.)

Here is where Muramoto gets to heart of the matter, declaring that Buddhism is in a dialogue with psychotherapy (and science). As Buddhists, it surely does us no favors to react against modern understandings of the mind, and the universe in general. To engage with modernity, finding common ground on which to stand together will benefit both Buddhism and the world at large. Psychology and psychotherapeutic techniques, along with physics, genetics, archeology, zoology, cosmology etc, can complement our understanding and practice of Buddhism; it does not have to be an ‘us and them’ situation, as often found between Creationists and Darwinists. Are you open to this dialogue between East and West? And, dear reader, what do you think are the benefits and pitfalls of Buddhists falling in with scientists in their mutual search for truth?

All quotations are from the article ‘Buddhism, Religion and Psychotherapy in the World Today’ written by Shoji Muramoto and taken from the book ‘Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy’, edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath & Shoji Muramoto, and published by Brunner-Routledge, 2002.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The True Eightfold Path

Venerable Ajahn Chah

“Traditionally the Eightfold Path is taught with eight steps such as Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Concentration, and so forth. But the true Eightfold Path is within us – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, a tongue, and a body. These eight doors are our entire Path and the mind is the one that walks on the Path. Know these doors, examine them, and all the dharmas will be revealed.”

(Ajahn Chah, taken from ‘A Still Forest Pool,’ edeited by Kornfield & Breiter.)

According to Ajahn Chah, we can cultivate wisdom through observation of our own body, which will show us the various conditions (dharmas) of our psychophysical existence. Correct Understanding - the first of the eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path - arises out of noticing the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects. When all these phenomena are realized to be not self, the mind will turn inwards, seeking out what it might cling to as ‘me’. But if it looks with absolute clarity it will find emptiness. Behind sensations, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness, there lies clear, endless space. I sometimes call it ‘Buddha Space’.

This experience of ‘Buddha Space’ via the sense doors is not a replacement for the traditional Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, however. Rather, it is the foundation on which the Noble Path is built. Ajahn Chah himself regularly taught about the eight aspects of the Way, emphasizing that this was a well-tested and proven method of awakening to the Dharma (the-way-things-are). We can use our senses to indulge in worldly pleasures; we can also punish ourselves through rigorous asceticism, but neither of these is the Middle Way that leads to emancipation from the yoke of suffering. It is using the Path to see life as it is that leads to such freedom, the result of understanding the three characteristics of all things and processes: They are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self.

Sights come and go; they are impermanent. Sights do not totally satisfy us; they are unsatisfactory. Sights to not make a self; they are not self. This is so with the other physical senses…and the psychological ones, too. All phenomena can be observed to arise in this spaciousness which is without characteristics or limits. Therefore, it has been dubbed the Deathless. The true Eightfold Path, as Ajahn Chah describes it, is the opening up of the mind to the reality of created things, and the beginning of a wisdom born in emptiness. Dear reader, what are your views and experiences of the Path? And what do you make of Ajahn Chah’s view of the body as the doorway to enlightenment?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fundamentalist Buddhism

As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps northwards and, with a white sunshade over him, he surveyed each quarter. He spoke the words of the Leader of the Herd: “I am the Highest in the world, I am the Best in the world, I am the Foremost in the world; this is my last birth; now there is no more renewal of being in future lives.”

(Majjhima Nikaya 123 & Digha Nikaya 14)

Wow, what a fantastic tale: a new born babe able to walk unaided…and speak meaningful words, describing himself in such grandiose terms. Even the infant Christ couldn’t do that! And, which bodhisattva is being portrayed here? It is the Bodhisattva, of course; the Buddha, who’s birth story is apparently being recited to him by his faithful companion Ananda, much to the former’s approval. Are these miraculous events literally true, however, and are Buddhists expected to believe them as historical facts that actually took place?

In the same parts of Buddhist scripture as the above quotations are taken, further revelations are revealed to the pious believer: a ‘measureless light’ pervaded all the world, including those places where the sun & moon cannot reach; deities attended the birth; no blood or other bodily fluids were on his ‘pure body’; and, he did not touch the earth upon being born, but kind of hovered above it, so not to become soiled. Are these amazing events fact or fiction?

If factual, then the birth of the Blessed One was truly a supernatural occurrence, beyond the understanding of the human mind, and fitting, no doubt, for the founder of a world religion. If fiction, what is their purpose? To glorify the Buddha in the eyes of the world, as a myth that would inspire millions to believe in his extraordinary status as the Enlightened One, perhaps? Maybe, in the world of the religious, wondrous occurrences sell. That is, if Buddhism wanted to flourish – or even survive – in a country dominated by miraculous holy figures and events, it needed to incorporate amazing elements into its accounts of the Buddha’s life.

Earlier, Christ was mentioned, and for many of his followers every word found in the Bible is true, and beyond doubt. So-called Christian fundamentalists are well known for their literal interpretation of both the Old & New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. No mythology, no symbolism, but solid historical facts to be believed as central parts of their religious faith. Literal interpretations of the Koran have recently come to light also, as certain Islamists assert their understanding of that book in various ways, sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent.

Buddhists do not generally, if ever, use scripture to support acts of violence or intolerance, however, most likely because there are no sources of such justification therein. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of presenting Buddhism to the modern world, with its emphasis on scientific facts and empirical knowledge, the continued reference to marvelous and magical happenings isn’t likely to engage the ‘enlightened’ world. A Buddhist dialogue with modernity which is centered on the verifiable benefits of morality & meditation, including the central experience of not-self, would appear more important than clinging to ancient cosmologies and beliefs that may well ‘turn-off’ society at large.

Throughout Buddhist scripture, there are uncountable accounts of marvelous incidents, involving not only the Buddha, but many of his senior, and not so senior, disciples. Oftentimes, Buddhists speak as though we are a breed of fundamentalist, also, quoting the Tripitaka as if it were the infallible word of the Buddha. Does such a thing as infallibility exist in Buddhism, or are the events in the life of the Buddha and his disciples symbolic of the Buddhist Path? Is making such a distinction even important to walking and sharing this Way? What do you think, dear reader?

Footnote: In exploring the above issues, the writer may inadvertently offend a reader; that is not his intent, and he humbly asks for the reader’s understanding of this. May we grow together in exploration of the Dharma.