Monday, April 27, 2009

Violent Buddhists

Some 'devilish' Buddhists on the rampage!

Like many former residents of Bangkok, I have been watching the country's slide into virtual civil war with a mixture of incredulity and tetchy disillusion. It is hard for us to think of one of the world's only truly Buddhist states descending into a chaotic thuggery that would, alas, be less remarkable elsewhere. But why? Is it because of misperceptions we have about Buddhism?

(Are Buddhists Violent? by Lawrence Osborne, Forbes, April 14, 2009)

In response to the recent political upheavals in Thailand, the author Lawrence Osborne has written an interesting article that explores the relationship between Buddhism & violence. His main focus is on Thailand, but the implications of what he writes can be applied to all Buddhists living across the globe. Osborne has some challenging things about Western Buddhists, too, which we will come to shortly.

In essence, Osborne has difficulty squaring the recent political violence in Thailand with the popular idea of peace-loving Buddhists. In addition to the above quotation, he further writes:

Buddhist violence--or violence committed by Buddhists, more properly speaking--is a strained concept for us, to put it mildly. I can easily imagine being assaulted by an infuriated Christian or by a hysterically outraged jihadist, by a Zionist even, at a pinch--but by a Buddhist? What would you have to say to get him mad? Deny transmigration?


Despite the rather amusing reference to transmigration, there’s a serious point here: Buddhism, unlike the other religions that Osborne mentions, does not cling to its doctrines as unquestionable & sacred truths that must never be contradicted. Whereas in Islam, for example, extremist Muslims might behead you for challenging their Koran-centered view of existence, and a fundamentalist Christian may well kill you for aborting an unwanted child, it is almost unheard of for Buddhists to support Buddhism with violence. This is, of course, because at the heart of Buddhism lies the teaching that violence is both unwise & uncompassionate, and therefore against the basic principles of any devout Buddhist. But, herein lays the crux of the matter: what do we define as a devout Buddhism? Indeed, are our conceptions of the words “Buddhism’ & ‘Buddhist’ too restricted or just plain wrong?

Buddhism is traditionally summed up in the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, which details how Buddhists should conduct themselves to develop wisdom & Compassion, among many other qualities, which lead to enlightenment. One aspect of the Path is Correct Action, which includes being non-violent to others, whilst another part of it is Correct Speech which discourages Buddhists from uttering confrontational words. Even the mind itself is covered in the Eightfold Path’s coverage of violence, for in the guidelines on Correct Attitude, three kinds of thoughts are encouraged: thoughts free from lust, free from ill-will, and free from cruelty. Thinking of committing violence is certainly not part of Correct Attitude, either! Having written all of this, however, most Thai Buddhists seem to be ignorant on these teachings, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to follow the Eightfold Path that closely.

I confess that I rather like the idea of an ax-wielding Buddhist thug. It would prove, at least, that stereotypes are stereotypes. Ever since America switched on to Zen, that exceedingly odd variant of Buddhism propagated by the tireless and slightly loopy Japanese writer D. T. Suzuki, among others, we have thought of Buddhism as being inseparable from an exemplary nonviolence.


Being a fan of D.T. Suzuki – although admitting that not everything he wrote is to be taken on face value, like all words, in fact – I wasn’t too sure of why he calls him ‘slightly loopy’, unless the enlightened & enlightening perspective from which he wrote appears ‘loopy’ to the unenlightened mind, that is! Anyhow, Osborne’s main point in this segment is that stereotypes are often inaccurate ways to view the real world. And in this light we might ask, “Are all Buddhists peaceful anymore than all Muslims are suicide bombers, or all Americans are materialist gluttons?” The answer would be, “Of course not.”

Taking this idealized representation of Buddhism as a guide as to what every day Buddhists get up to isn’t a particularly wise course of action. For, the thing about the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and many other Buddhist authors, is that they are not written about what Buddhism has evolved into, under the corrosive influences of the world, but from an idealist viewpoint of how things can be, if we awaken ourselves to the truths of Buddhism. According to Osborne, this ideal of Buddhism is the cause of a gross misunderstanding of what Buddhism and Buddhists actually are, as opposed to what they could or should be:

Our popular idea of Buddhism is little better than Madonna's unhinged vision of the Torah, a "spirituality" gutted of context and complexity. Moreover, Buddhists in America and Europe are mostly middle class and economically comfortable. Theirs is a religion of consumerist choice, individual and private, not one of national inheritance and governance, and their form of Buddhism doesn't have to get its hands dirty by running an actual state.


Dear western readers, are you middle class and economically comfortable? (It’s interesting that whilst Osborne decries stereotypes of Asian Buddhists, he seems most content to describe their western counterparts in such judgmental terms.) Surely the context of someone’s spiritual practice is the context within which they live, east or west, rich or poor. Comparing American & European Buddhists with Madonna seems more of a cheap shot than a serious point, with all due respect to the Kabbalist singer. By associating Western Buddhists with someone regularly ridiculed in the media for her religious beliefs would appear to be an attempt to lump them together, insinuating that Westerners with an interest in Buddhism are merely playing around. Are you playing around with the Buddhadharma, dear reader?!

That many of us in the West are converts to Buddhism is widely known; that we are spiritual consumerists that have shopped around for the religion that suits us best, or makes the best sense to us, isn’t such a bad thing, is it? It’s certainly an improvement on forced conversations and blind acceptance of one’s ancestors’ faith. Regarding Osborne’s remark that occidental Buddhists don’t have to run countries like thir oriental counterparts, there’s a simple reason for that. It is because Buddhists are a tiny minority of the populations of western states that they do not run governments and other traditional national institutions. Given the call to governance, some would probably be only be too glad to try to introduce some compassion & wisdom into their governments. Perhaps one day…

Pursuing as we do happiness, that improbable Moby Dick of an idea, we think Buddhism can make us happier by controlling our egos and our anger. Maybe it can. But did Buddhism ever think of the world as "happy" as we'd like it to be? Does it think of us as individuals, as we'd like ourselves to be? Does it comprehend political identity as we understand it, or as even Thais understand it now?


Here, Osborne asks some philosophically interesting questions regarding the core teachings of Buddhism. The assumption appears to be that the popular western ideas of happiness are the same as that of Western Buddhists. Osborne is suggesting that the ego-centered happiness of the masses is the same as the kinds of happiness aimed for by Western Buddhists. He believes that we are not in search of Nirvana (enlightenment), as traditionally taught in Buddhism, but are seeking a hedonistic vision of bliss that satisfies the personality rather than transcending it. Is this so?

Returning to events in the Land of Smiles, Osborne refers directly to the political unrest involving the yellow-shirted and red-shirted protesters in Thailand. What is noticeable is that while there have been violent acts at some of these protests over the last few years the vast majority of people taking part have been peaceful. Focusing on a small number of incidents and trying to suggest that Thailand is on the verge of a bloodbath, if not out and out civil war, is stretching credibility, to be honest. Not that Thais are incapable of violence: they are human beings with the frailties that we all posses. But, it does seem to someone living in the midst of the present political turmoil that things are a hell of a lot worse in many, many other countries across the globe.

Last November, I was caught at Suvarnaphumi airport as an army of "Yellows" swarmed through the terminals screaming "Martyrdom!" and brought the place to a standstill. Masked, carrying sticks and piping, the merry Yellows were not a very Buddhist-looking lot, at least according to our sentimental conventions,

Now, it's the turn of the "Reds," who have stormed Bangkok and caused the Asian summit in Pattaya to be aborted. They are also devout Buddhists, but they are not in an especially nonviolent mood. A protester has finally been shot dead. Thaksin has cryptically commented that the death toll is far higher, though nobody seems to know. That it will rise, and that the violence will come to the streets, seems tragically likely.


When excited, and Thai people can get very excited on occasion, people’s enthusiasm may well get the better of them. People shouting “Martyrdom!” has to be seen in context. No one at these rallies in Thailand strapped on a bomb and blew themselves and their opposite numbers to smithereens. Quite the contrary; most of the protests were broadcast hour by hour on Thai television, showing happy, smiling people waving flags and peacefully listening to speeches. Sometimes things got more heated, but then that’s only natural when people are passionately protesting against those they believe to be ruining their country.

Since writing the above, Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent yellow-shirts leader has been shot, along with his driver, in an apparent assassination attempt. This shows that the situation is volatile and the likelihood of further isolated incidents of violence are probably on the cards. Following on from the suppression of the red-shirted protests, one of the movement’s leaders, who is in hiding, has promised continuing resistance to what he sees as an illegal government, with the threat of possibly violent acts. At the time of writing, the situation seems to be calm, but as we all know, things change. There are more twists and turns down the road to political stability for the Kingdom of Thailand.

As Osborne mentions below, there has been a much more violent and deadly conflict going on for several years down in the south of the country. Not all of the deaths caused by this conflict have been at the hands of Muslim insurgents, either. The Thai Army has been accused on numerous occasions of unnecessary killings, torture, and the general harassment of the local Muslim population. No doubt, again in the heat of a volatile & dangerous situation, the Thai military has acted in ways that cannot be justified by Buddhist standards of behavior. But, is this the result of most of the military personnel being Buddhist? Osborne observes that:

The Islamic insurgency in Thailand's southern provinces, which are predominantly Muslim, presents us with a grim and in some ways ironic spectacle: Virulent Islamic insurgents inordinately fond of decapitating monks facing down a Buddhist army that has itself committed atrocities.

This war has dragged on semi-secretly for years, with many thousand deaths, cities living under curfew and fear regnant. What effect, I wonder, has it had upon the rest of the society? And we can hardly forget the dozens of coups that the country has suffered over the last hundred years, which have not been extraordinarily bloody by world standards but which have not been peaceful either. Is this Buddhist politics too?


Are army-led coups ‘Buddhist’? Well, if not out of compassion for the people, no. Buddhist teachings are clear that leaders as well as ordinary citizens are expected to behave compassionately towards all beings. The example of the ancient Indian king monarch King Ashoka is cited as an example of how to rule with both compassion & wisdom. Many army coups and other controversial military conflicts have occurred in the history of Thailand (and other so-called Buddhist nations such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Vietnam). This is in spite of what Buddhism has to teach on the matter, however.

Nevertheless, the last army coup, it must be remembered, involved no loss of life. How many army coups can boast of such a peaceful path to power? Perhaps we should be open-minded enough to recognize that democracy is not necessarily always the answer to every country’s problems. Focusing on the issue of Thai Army’s violence, whether committed against Muslims, Buddhists, or others, however, it is important to remember that when soldiers are ordered to open fire, it’s not after consulting the teachings of the Buddha on such matters. In fact, it is direct contradiction of them. Osborne broadens his appraisal of Thailand and its Buddhist heritage in the following paragraph:

The country has a high homicide rate for crimes of passion but is paradoxically one of the safest in the world for street crime. Its national sport, muay thai, or "Thai boxing," is exquisitely brutal, and I might add very much to my taste, but where else are manners more considerate and intelligently designed to abate violent personal conflict? Where are strangers treated better, and where is tolerance of a certain kind more pragmatically enjoined? It can hardly be far-fetched to think of these as in some way Buddhist virtues. Outside of politics, the Thai vibe is summed up by a single common word: Sanuk, the principle of enjoying life.


Crimes of passion & Thai boxing are widespread in Thailand, as are the peaceful manners cultivated in traditional Thai society. This seems only natural, however. It is inconceivable to imagine that the Thai psyche has not been influenced by centuries of Buddhist practice, but Thais remain humans, with all the shortcomings that are common to Homo sapiens throughout our recorded history. Therefore, whilst politeness & friendliness may well be the result of Buddhist influence, there are bound to be aspects to Thai psychology & culture that are apparently un-Buddhist in their characteristics.

In comparison to Thailand, for example, can we say that every aspect of American culture derives from the Christian faith of that nation, or that every kind of behavior found amongst Iranians is the direct result of their Islamic history? Societies are surely a complex mixture of different and competing influences, constantly in a flux that creates and recreates the common psychologies of their peoples. Therefore, while a people may conform to the ideals of their main traditional religion in some of its teachings, they may well fall short with regards of other principles.

What, then, to make of this new spiral downward into chaos and confrontation? Of course, to expect ordinary people who happen to be Buddhists to be moral supermen is absurd. All peoples are violent, and they are torn by the injustices inherent in human life.


Much to his credit, I think Osborne finds the answer at the end of his article. Here he acknowledges that Thais are people, and ordinary people at that; most Thais are by no means enlightened beings. Neither are many Thais, by the way, devout Buddhists. They may well be Buddhist by birth, and follow Buddhism as part of their (very strong) national identity as Thais. This means that they are neither enlightened beings nor particularly up to scratch on Buddhist teachings and practices. This is true of many peoples around the world, of course. It seems reasonable to remark that just as most British people couldn’t describe Jesus’ life & teachings in much detail, so most Thais couldn’t do the same for the Buddha. (The author has much personal experience in Britain & Thailand that backs this assertion up.)

And here lies the answer to Osborne’s questions regarding Buddhist violence. We do seem to have both misconceptions about what a country with a Buddhist history would be like, and we overestimate the level to which most people take their involvement with Buddhism. Furthermore, to get a Buddhist mad one simply has to do something that offends that particular individual so much that they break their usual friendly façade. There are as many different kinds of Buddhists as they are Buddhists; each one is different and has their own breaking point. Even enlightened Buddhists, who presumably have no breaking point as such, are not clones. They have different cultures, histories, trainings, etc, and will express the Buddhist teachings very differently from reach other.

It’s not that Buddhists are violent because they are Buddhists; it’s despite the fact that they are Buddhist, or at least despite the fact they’re born into predominately Buddhist societies. Being aware of, and thereafter following, the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the letting go of violent thoughts, words, and deeds, but how many Buddhists actually adhere to this Way? Moreover, Buddhists, along with the rest of humanity, are battling to overcome (or let go of) the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. In this, we are all in the same boat, and recognizing this fact, and sharing our ideas of how to overcome the challenges that we face as individuals and societies can only help us to cease from creating more suffering.

To read the original article by Lawrence Osborne, please click the following link:
Are Buddhists Violent?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Sangha

The early enlightened Sangha

The Sangha, traditionally speaking, has two connotations; firstly, it refers to the two orders of monks and nuns, originally founded at the onset of Buddhist history, and, secondly, it makes reference to those men & women that have achieved awakening or enlightenment. It is this latter group that are included in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, which every Buddhist takes refuge in as a source of inspiration upon the Path. In more modern times, the term Sangha has been extended to include non-celibate priests, as are found in Japanese Buddhism, and even to the whole Buddhist community at large, including lay people, as often happens in the Western Buddhism. In more traditionally-minded Buddhist societies, this latter meaning of Sangha is unrecognized, and only an ordained priest, monk, or nun is recognized as a member of the Order.

For the author, having taken refuge in the Forest Buddhism of Ajahns Chah & Sumedho, and living in conservative Thailand, using the word Sangha to include myself and other lay Buddhists seems inappropriate and potentially misleading. Describing myself as a member of a Buddhist Sangha feels akin to claiming to be enlightened or to being a monk (imitating a monk is a criminal offence in Thailand). But is it all that important in reality? Perhaps this is another example of clinging to the form and not the essence of the spiritual life that is being pointed to.

A Zen priest ready to whack the Sangha!

In truth, Sangha is another word and concept. We can use it effectively to encapsulate some abstract idea, or we can attach to the meaning we give to it, creating suffering around it. Even reflecting on the usage of Sangha to indicate the community of enlightened ones can lead to the realization that the mind is creating duality between enlightened and not enlightened, Sangha member and non-member. Sometimes, perhaps always, it can be useful to get back to basics so as to see things with a little more clarity. So, let’s get simple!

Traditional relationship between Sangha & the laity

Sit comfortably with eyes shut, perhaps in your meditation position, and, after settling down through an exercise such as watching the breath, mentally say the word ‘Sangha.’ Listen to its sounds: s-a-ng-gh-a. What reaction occurs in the mind to these sounds? Repeat the word slowly several times, and notice the space that precedes and follows each word. How does experiencing the word in this silent context affect the mind’s response to it? Now say the word internally and focus on the various connotations that arise in relation to it. What images come to mind; monks, nuns, robes, bowls, meditators, a chanting congregation, a gentle smile? Break the word into two syllables, and silently recite ‘sang’ on the in-breath, then internally say ‘gha’ on the out-breath. As the air gently sweeps into your body and then out again, see how any controversy or confusion associated with the word itself disperses into the softness of your breathing. How do you feel about the word ‘Sangha’ now?

Nuns form part of the traditional Sangha

What of yourself, dear reader? Are you a member of a Sangha, or the supporter of one? Does it concern you that if you use the term Sangha to mean one thing, and Asian Buddhists use it to mean something quite different, misunderstandings can arise, and the suspicion that Westerners are yet again taking another cultural tradition and bastardizing it to suit themselves? Is the distinction between renunciate and lay person an important one in the Buddhism that you practice, or do you think that such categories are no longer relevant to modern Buddhism?

Is any collection of Buddhists a Sangha these days?

Friday, April 17, 2009

You're An Idiot Buddhist!

Someone calls you an idiot. Then you start thinking, “How can they call me an idiot? They’ve got no right to call me an idiot! How rude to call me an idiot! I’ll get them back for calling me an idiot.” And you suddenly realize that you have just let them call you an idiot another four times.

Every time you remember what they said, you allow them to call you an idiot yet again. Therein lies the problem.

If someone calls you an idiot and you immediately let it go, then it doesn’t bother you. There is the solution.

Why allow other people to control your inner happiness?

(Ajahn Brahm, ‘Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?’ p.226)

Ajahn Brahmavamso – ‘Brahm’ for short – has a lovely down-to-earth way of presenting the Dharma. The above is typical of his method of teaching, with a simple, direct story, organized into a neat framework. (Note how, as an ex-scientist, he first illustrates the problem, clinging to an insult, and then shows us the solution, letting go of it. And what’s the result of this simple formula? We retain our inner happiness.)

How to put the above into practice may not be quite so simple, however. If insulted, the natural human response is not to say, “Oh well, never mind,” and immediately forget all about it. That’s not the way most minds work, anyway. Elsewhere in his books and collected talks, Ajahn Brahm discusses various ways that we can counter this normal reaction to other’s criticisms of us. Indeed, Buddhism at large is full of techniques to assist in the letting go of such negative feelings. Let’s explore some here.

Okay, so your neighbor has called you an idiot, or a work colleague said that you’re really useless – what are you going to do? Slug them? Gush out a torrent of abuse? Nah – you’re Buddhist for heathen’s sake! So, what’s your first option, from the Buddhist perspective? You could try some metta-bhavana (goodwill meditation), generating positive, warm feelings towards them. Here’s a brief description of how to cultivate a bit of ‘loving-kindness’ as it’s called:

This can be done sitting in meditation position, or just in a comfy chair. Picture a cuddly, helpless puppy or kitten, or some similar creature that evokes sympathy in you. Really focus your attention on the little being, maybe it’s hungry or in pain, perhaps it’s missing its mother, with tears rolling down its cute face. Aaahhh! When feelings of goodwill have built up towards your small companion, turn your attention to those emotions themselves. Really dive into that metta/goodwill. Swim in it, and feel it fill your mind. Next, pick someone that you respect, perhaps a spiritual teacher such as…Ajahn Brahm! Generate goodwill towards this person, really wishing them all the best. Spend a few minutes doing this. Now, think of a friend, sending loving-kindness in their direction, taking the time to really feel positive emotions for them. Following on from this, do the same with someone you know a bit, like the guy who drives the bus, or the women that lives opposite. Wish them only good things, sending positive feelings to them, just as you did previously. Next, pick the person that called you something horrible. Picture their face, their humanity. Think of them as a vulnerable and imperfect being, just like that helpless little dog or cat, like Ajahn Brahm, the good friend, and the vague acquaintance. This person that insulted you is a suffering being just like any other. Maybe their bad attitude is due to their own particular problems and is something that they really can’t help right now. Whatever the reason for their rudeness, they’re deserving of your goodwill, and your sympathy. Give them some now, as you reflect on them.

Now, did that hurt? It certainly won’t have hurt the person that insulted you, and it won’t have done you any harm in the long run, either. Perhaps next time you meet them, this feeling of metta will rise in you again, and, if it’s strong enough, lighting up your face, that person might just pay you a compliment rather than call you an idiot!

The above cultivation of goodwill is really a long term answer to dealing with negative reactions to other people’s faults and insults. If you haven’t had the time for it, or someone else calls you dumb, you’re stuck! (Not unless you’ve become so good at meta-production that you can generate such emotions on demand, or are in a constant state of metta-production.) So, with that in mind, here’s an alternative strategy to dealing with a potential hate figure:

Really observe them. Notice the little things about them: the shape of their fingers, the color of their skin, their hair, and their eyes. See the wrinkles – or lack of – lining their face, the shape of their torso. What are their shoes like, and do their clothes fit nicely, or are they too loose or tight? Listen to that voice as it insinuates you’re the lowest of the low: is it a deep, resonate sound, or is it lighter in tone, perhaps even wavering in a kind of vulnerable way? Using acute observation skills this way – a form of mindfulness – can take your focus away from what they’re saying to who they are, what they’re like. It can also lead to becoming more aware of the person’s humanity, and their imperfect state that produces such impolite words. Awareness is a liberating force; it’s the heart of the Buddha Way. Becoming aware of the whole person in front of you can move your focus away from the bad things they’re doing or saying, and perhaps lead you to see the troubled being that produces negative speech.

Another technique that helps not clinging to the nasty things people sometimes throw at you is more radical than the previous two examples. Put simply, it is to see that the other person is you, that there’s nothing separating the two of you, and that whatever insults they’re coming up with are directed as much at themselves as they are you. This might seem somewhat odd at first, but give it a try: its results can be startling effective:

Looking at the person opposite you, really look – are they opposite you, or do they (and ‘you’ as an ego) exist in the awareness that’s at the center of your being? This awareness is impersonal, it’s neither belongs to you nor to anyone else, and it’s the same awareness in us all. The details that occur in it can differ immensely, but if they are seen in the context of this knowing, they are revealed to be interconnected processes arising in this spacious awareness. Your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations all exist as an expression of this naked heart, as does everything and everyone else that you are aware of. Even the harsh words that can occur in this emptiness-full-of-the-world are seen as the way things are right now, neither good or bad in themselves, just phenomena arising and falling away in the knowing. Despite the detachment that can come out of this kind of observation, there’s a touching connectedness to everything experienced. So, although you may discover a certain detached attitude to your egotistical self and all that happens to it, a sense of the underlying unity of all separate things is also known. You are liberated from the self-identity that causes the clinging to insults that come may your way.

Lastly, you might want to try this one. It involves something called compassion:

The person with you has just told you that you’re an idiot. Rather than responding to these unfriendly words, reflect on the suffering state of the person before you. And, be assured that they are suffering. For, unless they’re enlightened, that is, they’ve let go of the causes of suffering, they do experience an underlying unsatisfactory quality to existence, even if they’re not conscious of the fact. And the offending words that spew forth from their lips are the direct result of their suffering state. They are subject to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal conditions of the universe that we all are. Identifying with the person that they think themselves to be, they react against the world in the only way that they know how, which at the present time takes the shape of distasteful diction. They are truly a pitiable being, and feeling compassion for them will result in immediate forgiveness for anything done that wasn’t nice. The compassionate one simply wants to help others escape their self-made, self-perpetuating prisons. Seeing them in this light, it’s hard to hang on to the stuff that they said to you, since you are more concerned with their well being than what they say.

There you have it: four ways to counter that natural, but ultimately unwise and uncompassionate, response to being called an idiot that results in suffering. They all involve a certain level of mindfulness, meditation, and time. Cultivate them at home, when the going’s good, and then, when next someone implies that you’re the dumbest of the dumb, you can respond with wisdom, goodwill, and compassion. What a wonderful way to put Ajahn Brahm’s advice into practice.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Primary Buddha Face

“The primary face” is possessed by every one of us. According to Zen, it is not only physical but at once physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual, gross and subtle, concrete and abstract. The Zen master wants to see this kind of “face” presented to him by his monk. In one important sense “this face” must go through the baptism of “Do not think of good, do not think of evil,” and of “Have no thoughts whatever.” For the face we have on the surface of our relative psychological way of thinking is not “the primary face” demanded by the master.
(Taken from ‘Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, p. 286)

Can you reveal your “primary face” right now? This is, as often described in Zen Buddhism, ‘the face you had before your parents were born.’ What on earth does it look like, this multifaceted façade? Is it, indeed, a mere façade at all? Well, yes and no. “The primary face” is not to be mistaken with your human face, limited by certain features, and yet, neither is it to be differentiated from it. Hopefully, this is making no sense to you whatever – for what we are after is completely beyond reach of the intellect. Thoughts cannot trap it…

What can possibly be concrete and abstract, and yet neither good nor evil? Your Buddha Face, to give ‘it’ another name, isn’t a something, but on the other hand, it isn’t the absence of things either. It’s abstract to the degree that it can’t be pointed to as being here or there, as our human faces can, and yet, these very faces are none other than the Buddha’s own. I can see my face in the mirror, and I can feel it here; it exists in a concrete way. This blob of flesh exists in the same (no-) space as my Buddha Face, however; they are two and yet not two; one and yet not one.

All this contradictory talk has a purpose, of course, which is to take us beyond the reach of the rational mind, to a place where we can experience that to which all this verbiage points: “the primary face.” If you want to see your primary Buddha Face, it isn’t really all that difficult. (I think the old Zen masters and their students are having us on, entertaining us with their jolly shenanigans.) Try out the following experiment in awareness with an open mind, and see what you come up with.

  • Gaze into the mirror and see your human face. That’s you, as Tom, Dick, Harriet, or whoever.
  • Now turn your attention to that which is aware of your reflected façade – what is that?
  • Does it have features of its own? Is it limited to a particular location? Is it beyond the concrete world of form, and, as D.T. Suzuki would have it, abstract?
  • And yet, is there a here and there right now? Is not the reflected face really located in the same place as that which is awake to it? Scratch your face – where does this happen but exactly where the Buddha Face is?

If we wish to experience what the Buddha, the Zen masters and forest monks have pointed to for thousands of years, we must cast off the rational part of the mind. Koans, or ‘Zen riddles’ are one course of action; constant mindfulness another. Alternatively, we might like to experiment with awareness, and see things in the light of no thing. “The primary face” that Daisetz Suzuki writes of above is always present, waiting to be looked upon by the very same awareness that is this beautiful, shining ‘Buddha Face’ that we all posses.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Buddha & Science: Religion Becomes Science

Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind's place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.
(P.A. Payutto, ‘Towards Sustasinable Science,’ p. 5)

The Venerable P.A. Payutto is probably the most well known & respected Buddhist scholar in Thailand. He is also a Buddhist monk. He has written many outstanding works on various aspects of the Buddhadharma, one of the most interesting being ‘Towards Sustainable Science,’ from which the quotations are taken in this article. In the above-quoted segment, he argues that, in essence, Buddhism and science are not in conflict, as the latter is concerned with knowledge regarding the natural order of things, which Buddhism has also been concerned with since its founding over two and a half thousand years ago.

But what is this ‘natural order’ that P.A. Payutto writes of? In Buddhist terms, the natural order is the law of karma and rebirth, the fact that every thought, word, and deed has a result. Now, science has not (yet) verified rebirth as an observable fact, but as to the idea of cause and effect, science is largely in agreement with the Buddhist teachings. Every action has a reaction, however infinitesimal the latter may be. In other words, what goes up must come down: Sir Isaac Newton was very much acting in the spirit of Buddhism when he developed the theory of gravity.

It is the fusion of science & Buddhism that Venerable Payutto points to that is so intriguing. He suggests that scientific discoveries and the technologies that come out of them can complement Buddhism, rather than contradict it, or make it seem defunct. Need Buddhism and science be in conflict? As the scholarly monk acknowledges elsewhere in the book, science and the technologies that arise from it can be used to destructive ends, but then humanity has an almost limitless capacity to abuse anything. The misuse of scientific discoveries is due to greed, hatred, and delusion, not science itself.

As to the limits of science, many religionists are keen to indicate that it will soon reach a dead end, much as atheists claim of religion; in truth, we just don’t know how much more science will discover in the coming centuries. Religionists may be in for some seriously unpleasant facts to be revealed in relation to their central beliefs, with Buddhism no exception. How as Buddhists should we respond to this - with dogmatism or open-mindedness? Questions relating to the nature of consciousness are being probed by science, and in the realm of technology, new inventions are beginning to challenge what we commonly understand to be ‘self.’
Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.
(Ibid. p.11)

The idea of artificial intelligence comprising consciousness or some kind of ‘self’ are abhorrent to many people, attached to set notions of what makes a conscious being. It is a subject that religious people of various persuasions find uncomfortable, given the implications. Can an artificial form of consciousness be reborn, rise to heaven or be cast down to hell? (The Dalai Lama has toyed with this very idea.) Should we, therefore, approach such technologically-created minds with compassion?

Investigating the nature of self and consciousness have long been the concern of Buddhists, of course, and it is in this light that modern scientific discoveries regarding the mind and the universe can be understood with wisdom. As suggested in the following extract, it is our use of science and technology that causes so many problems in the world. Venerable Payutto cites the desire to conquer nature and drive for material wealth as the primary reasons for humanity’s rapid destruction of the natural world. These are forms of greed (for power and resources) and hatred (of material poverty), fueled by the delusion of selfhood.
Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind's internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.
(Ibid. p.14)

Industrial development has indeed had a catastrophic effect on the environment, as few people would now deny; recognizing the interdependence of all things, as science is now doing, confirms what Buddhism has taught us for thousands of years. How we treat our surroundings will have consequences for ourselves, our descendants, and all life on Earth. That humanity is only now becoming aware of the full implications of this interdependence illustrates that there is still a long way to go before we might be considered an ‘enlightened’ race. Enlightened, that is, not only in the scientific sense, but also the spiritual one.

Venerable Payutto has something to say on this, also, for he sees in future scientific discoveries the possibility that some religions at least will become unsustainable. Buddhism, as a religion that points to a deeper reality, a natural deeper reality, is in a position to continue to complement science, however. This vision of the merging of science and religion might disturb some, attached as they might be to certain opinions on the distinct natures of the sciences and religions, but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science. What do you, dear reader, make of Venerable Payutto’s views on Buddhism & science, particularly the idea that they are in a process of eventual unification in the light of the truth?
When science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind's ultimate questions, it will be perfected. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, a religion, which points to the highest truth, to reality, will be in a position to unify with science. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.
(Ibid. p.24)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Samurai Sword

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words, the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

(Taken from ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ by Reps & Senzaki

Many readers have probably come across this story before; it is very well known in Zen circles, and perhaps over quoted. I couldn’t resist joining in the fun, however, and giving it a place on Buddha Space. It’s a joy, isn’t it?

A fascinating aspect to this interchange is to reflect on its central theme: are heaven and hell real? Do good people get reborn in heaven, and bad ones end up in hell? All the major religions teach the existence of such realms as literally existing, rather being symbols of divine & hellish states of mind as many would have it. What is Hakuin saying in this dialogue?

When the Zen master says, “Here open the gates of hell!” he might be indicating that the doorway to Hades (or the Japanese equivalent) is agape, waiting for Nobushige to slice through Hakuin’s neck. Upon his death, thereafter, the samurai will then descend to his infernal punishment. Alternatively, Hakuin may be bringing Nobushige’s attention to the present moment, telling him that there and then he is about to descend into hell, psychologically speaking. The same alternatives can be applied to the statement, “Here open the gates of paradise,” of course. Well, dear reader, what do you think? Was Hakuin referring to the samurai’s possible future destination or a more immediate mental condition…or perhaps both?

Some will laugh off this commentary as so much waffle, and rightly so. For, it could be said that the interchange between master and warrior is no different to the myriads of koans (or Zen riddles) that point to our true nature. In this interpretation of events, it matters not whether the paradise & hell referred to by Hakuin are physical or psychological. The whole point of the dialogue is to bring the reader into the present, where notions of heaven & hell, physical & psychological, good & bad etc. are transcended. With this understanding, we can see that paradise & hell are everywhere & nowhere, and Nobushige’s sword has already removed our heads, even though it never left its sheath.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

E-book Review: The Eightfold Path for the Householder

To be a Buddha is to be one who has awakened, awakened to the nature of life and death and the world in which we live, wakened to the body and mind. So the purpose of practicing meditation, the Buddhist and other traditions, is not to become a meditator, or a spiritual person, or a Buddhist, or to join something. Rather, it is to understand this capacity we have as human beings to awaken.

(‘Eightfold Path for the Householder’, p. 4)

Jack Kornfield is an experienced meditation teacher, himself having trained under the famous Thai monk Ajahn Chah, and later becoming a co-founder of the well known Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Author of many best selling books on Buddhism and meditation, Kornfield specializes in presenting traditional Theravada Buddhist teachings in a more modern & non-sectarian way. The Eightfold Path for Householders is a fine example of this adaptive style of the author, its chapters structured around the eight aspects of the Path with a ninth section focusing the common hindrances to meditative progression cited by lay meditators.

The first chapter sets the tone of the book, by defining Right Understanding (the first of the eight aspects of the Path) by using both Buddhist and non-Buddhist illustrations, even referencing God – probably to the consternation of some orthodox Buddhists! And this is an important part of the approach the author has in this work, quoting such diverse sources as Don Juan, Ajahn Chah, Thomas Merton, Albert Einstein, Nisargadatta, William Blake, and Mahatma Gandhi, but to name a few. Kornfield uses these people and their tales to bring to life the Path with colorful quotations and stories.

As to the book’s representation of the various parts of the Eightfold Path, the author displays an insider’s view of how the cultivation of morality, meditation, and wisdom are developed by the dedicated practitioner. Right Understanding, for instance, is described in very organic and natural ways, as opposed to a doctrine set in stone which must be memorized by all devoted Buddhists. In this, Kornfield reveals the influence of his former teacher Ajahn Chah, with whom the American studied as a Buddhist monk three decades ago. Of Right Understanding, he says:

You start to see the law of things, that things are impermanent, that attachment doesn’t work, and that there must be some other way. There is actually what Alan Watts called, “the wisdom of insecurity,” the ability to flow with things, to see them as a changing process. You also see not only are they impermanent and ungraspable, but that there’s suffering if we’re attached to them, and that there’s pain as well as pleasure in this world; it’s part of what we were born into.

(Ibid. p.7)

The book weaves its way through the three segments of the Path concerning virtue with equally comforting and inspiring insights, mixing in with the anecdotes and quotes guided meditations – the book is a series of talks transcribed from a meditation retreat. When addressing the subject of Right Livelihood, something that all of us lay people will struggle with at some point in our lives, he writes not only about the moral aspects, but also ways to incorporate increased mindfulness into the workplace:

There are a lot of ways that one can begin to bring awareness to one’s work. There are the simple ones of exercises. For example, Gurdjieff used to give awareness training exercises where he’d tell people to do things in a different way than they were used to. Tie your shoes and do the bow around the other direction, or open your car door with your left hand instead of your right hand, and let it be a signal for a little while, maybe for two minutes, that you’re going to wake up and you’ll go off automatic pilot and be conscious as the door opens and you sit down in the car and you begin to drive. It becomes a meditation.

(Ibid. p. 58)

The book describes the heart of Buddhist practice, Right Concentration and Mindfulness (or Awareness as Kornfield prefers) from the viewpoint of someone who has been cultivating them for decades, sharing his experience with the reader in an open and humorous manner. He describes meditation techniques such as the watching of the breath (vipassana) and answers questions from members of the retreat the book is taken from. Kornfield has this to say on mindfulness:

Fundamentally, “mindfulness” means to learn to be aware where we are. If not here, where else? If not now, when? Mindfulness is the opposite of “if only,” it’s the opposite of hope, it’s the opposite of expectation. It has in it a certain kind of contentment, not that one might not choose to change the world, but a kind of acceptance that this is the really what we get, these sights, these sounds, these smells, these tastes, these perceptions. This is it!

(Ibid. p.105)

As mentioned above, the final chapter of this excellent book centers upon the hindrances that we come up against in our walking the Buddhist Path. The five hindrances are: desire, irritation and anger, laziness, restlessness, and doubt. Kornfield knows them well and describes them vividly, revealing anger, for instance, to include irritation, judgment, boredom, and fear. He notes that sometimes intense anger is used as a confirmation of believing oneself to be right, authenticating the egoistic sense of who one is. Of doubt, he states:

We Americans have the curse of choice. That’s not a trivial thing. It enlivens and it enriches the culture and our lives, but it’s a very difficult thing and it’s not so for most cultures. And usually when doubt arises strongly it does so because our heads, our thinking apparatus is not connected with our heart. If you look in the moment where there’s a lot of confusion or doubt, it’s there because there’s much thought and not much connection to the heart, to what we might do based on our deeper values.

(Ibid. 119)

Jack Kornfield is a skillful teacher. In ‘The Eightfold Path for the Householder,’ he displays a level of sensitivity for the human condition that makes his words all the more inspiring to the reader. This is no academic work on the Buddha’s teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path, and has more impact because of that. (Not that there isn’t a place for scholastic interpretations of the Buddhadharma, but they do have their practical limits.) This book comes highly recommended for those lay Buddhists that wish to infuse their lives with the living force of the Eightfold Path: Walk on, and read on!

Please click the following link to Buddhanet to download the free e-book ‘The Eightfold Path for the Householder’ by Jack Kornfield:

Buddhanet E-book Library