29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.

22 July 2011

What is the Dhamma, and what isn't it?

Solitary Retreat Hut at Danakoṣa

Solitary retreat hut
Danakoṣa Retreat Centre

MY TEXT TODAY is quite well known. The version usually cited is in the Vinaya, but I've opted for the Aṅguttara Nikāya version because it will be easier for people to find other translations to compare mind with. [1] If one is stuck with having to read translations, one should never be satisfied with only one, but consult several. The different Pāli versions agree perfectly with regard to the essential teachings. As I often do I'm opting for a slightly different reading to what I have seen others give.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Jñānagarbha for asking the question which sparked this post.

Saṃkhitta Sutta
(A 8.53; iv.279 = Cv 406; Vin ii.258)

One time the Bhagavan was staying at Vesāli in the gabled hall of great forest. The Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. Then standing at one side she addressed him: "it would be excellent, Sir, if you could give me a brief teaching, and I, having heard that teaching will dwell on it alone, secluded, vigilant, active and resolute.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to passion, not to dispassion; conduce to bondage, not to freedom; conduce to accumulation, not to decrease; conduce to much desire, not to few desires; conduce to discontent, not to contentment; conduce to socialising, not to solitude; conduce to idleness, not to vigour; conduce to delighting in the ugly, not to delight in the beautiful -- you should definitely remember "this is not the teaching, this is not the discipline, this is not the edict of the teacher.

Gotamī you should remember: these things conduce to dispassion, not to passion; conduce to freedom, not to bondage; conduce to decrease, not to accumulation; conduce to few desires, not to much desire; conduce to contentment, not to discontent; conduce to solitude not to socialising, ; conduce to vigour, not to idleness; conduce to delighting in the beautiful, not to delight in the ugly -- you should definitely remember "this is the teaching, this is the discipline, this is the edict of the teacher.
In contemporary language Gotamī is going on a solitary retreat and she asks her teacher to give her a subject to reflect on. So my approach is not to take this as a doctrinal teaching, but as a methodological one, that is to treat the content of the discourse primarily as a subject for reflection rather than as a definition of the Dhamma.[2]

The teaching is given in response to a request, to a particular person at a particular time and place. One imagines it tailored to that person and their particular needs. However it has more general implications as well. Meditation subjects in early Buddhism, by which I mean subjects for reflection designed to stimulate insight rather than concentration techniques, could often be quite specific. A more general subject like this sets up a different dynamic though. It seems to me that the idea here is to undermine attempts to intellectualise and rationalise, to prevent the student becoming too literalistic. The effect is to throw Gotamī back into her own experience, and to assessing the consequences of her own actions.

Human activity is driven by various motivating factors - what we call the emotions (from Latin ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'). To break it down to it's most fundamental level we are usually seeking pleasure or avoiding displeasure. There's a rational level to this. We find pleasure in food, because if we didn't -- as in anorexia -- then we'd probably die of malnutrition. Pleasure stimulates the behaviour that keeps us alive. Similarly if my finger is in a flame, it is only rational to remove it, rather than to try to ignore the pain. But a lot of the time we're not simply responding to things in this way. Because of the view that happiness consists of pleasant sensations for instance, we tend to equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. It's not an overwhelming and over-riding urge, more of an underlying tendency, and it affects some more than others, though one can see the effect quite clearly on a societal level.

If we take this teaching seriously what we have to do is ask ourselves before we act: does this emotion conduce to passion, to bondage, etc., or not. If it does, then it's not the Dhamma, it's not helpful. If it is conducive to dispassion, to freedom, et., then that is the Dhamma, it is helpful. If we continue on a course of action motivated by these unskilful emotions then we may be harmed, and we may harm others. And this restrains us from acting harmfully. The teaching draws our attention to feedback loops between emotions, actions, and outcomes. I would think that an intense retreat situation is the only place where you could really take on this kind of practice. One needs to be leading a very slow paced, and very simple and undemanding, and probably solitary life to pursue this kind of practice successfully. It's only with substantial progress that one can bring the practice to bear in more lively situations.

I won't say much more, but I do want to look at some of the terms more closely. Passion (rāga) is the old fashioned sense of the word: as in the passion of martyrs. The PIE root is *√pēi 'to hurt; to scold', and from this same root we get the word fiend.[3] It refers here to emotions that rise up and overwhelm us, against our will. The Pāli (and Sanskrit) word rāga literally means 'red' and seems to refer to the flushed face of the person in the grip of hot emotions like anger and sexual arousal. These strong emotions tend to carry us away, and cause us to act on impulse without considering the consequences. A lot of time in Western society we seem quite pleased to be caught up in emotions like this, even though we are also frequently horrified by the consequences. The Romantic movement idolised emotions and emotionality - which may account for why we think of passion in a positive sense nowadays. Buddhism asks us to adopt a more cool approach to life, so that we don't act without reflection and cause harm.

Bondage (saṃyoga) seems fairly straight forward in this context. The next word (ācaya) is less clear however. The pair here is ācaya and apacāya: and ācaya means 'increase, accumulation', whereas PED has for apacaya 'falling off, decrease; unmaking'. If we turn to the commentary it glosses ācaya as vaṭṭassa vaḍḍhanatta, which I take to mean 'gaining and fostering of alms donations'. So Buddhaghosa, as he often does, sees this from the point of view of a settled monastic. I think more generally it may well mean the accumulation of material possessions. However PED also hints that it might mean the accumulation of kamma leading to rebirth (sv. apacaya). The latter would also fit the context quite well.

The pair mahicchata and appicchata are literally - big-wished and small-wished, where icchata is the past-participle of icchati 'to wish, to desire, to long for'. The meaning is clear enough, though rendering this into good English requires translating the meaning, not the words themselves. The next term, contentment (saṇtuṭṭhi), is also reasonably straight-forward.

Where I imagine we struggle is with the pair: saṅgaṇika and paviveka. The first term saṅganika is from saṃ- + gaṇa + -ika. And gaṇa is used for collections of people: so it can mean 'a meeting or chapter of two or three bhikkhus', or on a larger scale: 'society, a crowd'; and with non-human items 'a suite or collection'. I think these exhortations to solitude are the ones that many people find difficult. People often say that they don't want to cut themselves off from the world, they want to live and practice in the world. Of course such a lifestyle was known in ancient India as well. We tend to call it 'lay Buddhism', though I don't think the monk/lay divide is a useful one any longer (given that many monks don't really practice, and many lay people really do!). But while Buddhism can accommodate this less intense approach to practice, the recommendation is to seek out solitude (paviveka). I think this goes back to what I said earlier about a slow and simple lifestyle. There is nothing evil about living a busy and full life. It's just not conducive to insight. And while I know that saying so will get some people's back's up, I think we need to be honest about the level of intensity and direction of our practice. I have one friend who for the last 12 years has spent 3 or 4 months on solitary retreat each year. If anyone I know is likely to be insightful then I expect it to be him, rather than my other friends who've married, got careers and had kids. Realistically most of us aren't able to sustain intense practice, and we play other roles in our Buddhist communities. I for instance do not expect to become enlightened. But I actively participate in a community in which it seems reasonable that someone will, and there's every indication that people are having insight experiences. It's all about creating the conditions for awakening, and it doesn't have to be me. So the Buddha recommends solitude to better pursue our practice. One reasonable compromise to full-time solitude is to spend regular time alone, preferably on retreat. In the past my teacher has suggested one month in the year on solitary retreat as a guideline. The more progress we make, the better able we are to take the fruits of our practice into relations with other people.

The last two pairs are kosajja (idleness, sloth) & viriyāmbha (making an effort); and dubbharata (delighting in the harmful or ugly) & subharata (delighting in the beautiful or wholesome). I don't think I need say much about these.

I think anyone who has been on a meditation retreat of more than a few days duration will have some inkling of what I'm saying about the conditions which would be conducive to sustaining, and acting on the kind of reflection practice given to Gotamī. On retreat, with the simplicity of it, the intensity of practice, and the space to pause and reflect, one comes alive in a way that is simply not possible in a busy urban life. Those people who think that having more and more stimulation and excitement is living life to the full are fooling themselves. To be fully alive to one's experience requires quiet, space, stillness, and simplicity. This is a life lived to it's full potential.

There is another, perhaps more usual, way to interpret this text. I have read it as primarily a methodological text, one which is advising on a way of living. But we might also read it as doctrinal and definitional. The different readings turn on the ambiguous use of the word dhamma. So here ime dhamme could mean: "these things", "these teachings" or "these mental objects". My interpretation emerges from taking dhamma here to simply mean "thing", or "mental object", or perhaps even "mental state". If however we take it to mean '"teaching" then the emphasis shifts. In this case we might see the pairs of antonyms as definitional. In this reading anything which conduces to liberation is the Teaching. This has interesting implications as well. It points away from dogmatism, sectarianism, and conservatism, towards a more open, ecumenical, and progressive attitude to what it means to be a Buddhist. It moves us away from prescriptive definitions of the type 'you have to believe X, or do practice Y'. I believe that most commentators have seen the text this way, though my opinion is that my methodological interpretation is the more likely. Mahāpajāpati asks for, and is given, a meditation subject; she aims to dwell on it in solitude; and though it is unstated her aim appears to be liberation from dukkha, and her verses in the Therīgāthā (Th2, v.157-162) tell us that she did achieve this aim.


  1. Access to Insight refer to this as the Gotamī Sutta.
  2. Having written this, and in a slightly surreal moment while checking for other translations, I find that I myself have already commented on this text on my blog, but had no memory of doing so (and it wasn't that long ago). It is quite interesting to see that I have taken a very different approach this time. See What is Buddhism? (23 Apr 2010).
  3. PIE /p/ changes to /f/ in Germanic -- c.f. Sanskrit: pitṛ; Greek/Latin: pater; Proto-Germanic: *fader; German vater; Old English: fæder; English: father. 'Fiend' is from the Old English foend, which also devolved to foe. Compassion comes from the Latin which combines this same word in the form pati 'to suffer' with the prefix com- 'together'. Compassion is cognate with the Greek derived word sympathy 'to feel with'; while the closest Sanskrit term is anukampa 'to tremble with'.

15 July 2011

Faith in What?

teaching Buddha
teaching Buddha
Asian Arts
I'VE BEEN PONDERING FAITH quite a bit recently. I've written a number of times about belief, and then last year was interviewed by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist. Subsequently I joined a discussion group in which we talked about faith and belief; and about secularism and religion. One of our number came up with this aphorism;
Religious Buddhism doesn't convince us;
Secular Buddhism doesn't move us.
This seems to sum up a dilemma faced by modern, Western Buddhists. We often get this dichotomy between faith and reason. In our group we discussed the Kālāma Sutta which I have already written about. [1] It's one of those texts that gets cited far too often and usually for the wrong reasons. One of the negative criteria put forward in this text is:
mā ākāraparivitakkena...
don't use reflecting on signs...
To put it in context, this is saying that we should not decide on what constitutes good and bad behaviour on the basis of ākāraparivitakka, which I translate as 'reflection on signs'. Ākāra is from ā– + √kṛ 'to do, to make' and means 'a way of making; a state or condition; a property, sign; a mode'; while parivitakka derives from takka with prefixes pari– and vi– and means 'thought, reflection', or 'meditation' (in the English sense). Bhikkhus Nyanaponika & Bodhi translate it as 'reflection on reasons' which is not incorrect, but leads to a strange conclusion: that one should not reflect on the reasons for acting ethically. I've discussed the problem a little in my post about the ten negative criteria, but want to return to consider the context a little more.

In the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60) Gotama asks the Brahmin lay folk he's just met whether they have settled on a teacher in whom they 'have reason to have faith' (ākāravatī saddhā paṭiladdhā) - or perhaps 'have obtained reasoned faith'. Here ākāra is combined with the possessive suffix -vatin so the sense is a faith which possesses (-vant) 'reasons', or perhaps 'signs'. They have not found a teacher and so he gives them an incontrovertible teaching (apaṇṇakadhamma). There's no sense here that reasoning is a bad thing, and the expectation seems to be that people can be expected to have reasoned faith in a teacher.

The task of understanding is not made easier if we then read the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta (MN 47). Here the disciple has faith in the Buddha, which they should explain this way:
Where-ever I approach the Bhagavan, friend, he teaches a dhamma better and better, higher and higher, with dark and light counterparts, and [as a result of] direct knowledge of a certain aspect of that teaching I arrived at the conclusion (niṭṭḥamadama) I found satisfaction (pasīdi) in the teacher (expressed) thus 'the the Bhagavan is perfectly awakened, his dhamma is well taught, and his community on the good path.'
Most Buddhists will tend to talk about faith in the teachings, and indeed much of the discussion on the Kāmāla Sutta, both with my friends and in published work, revolves around the content of the teaching. Here, although his good teaching is certainly a positive criteria, saddhā is associated with the teacher, not in the teachings. Note that the Kālāmas ask "who is telling the truth?", not "what is the truth?" The Kālāmas are apparently not seeking independence, only guidance on which teacher to have faith in. Here in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta we see that one firstly has faith in the teacher. Likewise the culmination of the Kālāma Sutta is the act of going for refuge to the Buddha by the Kālāmas - i.e. they place their confidence in him. The worldview of the texts is one in which not having a teacher is almost inconceivable, hence the magnitude of Gotama's achievement.

This same theme is repeated elsewhere. In the Karandaka Sutta (MN 51), the Mahānāma Sutta (AN 6.10 & AN 11.12), and the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) one develops confirmed confidence (aveccapassāda) in the Buddha after hearing a Dhamma talk. It seems to me that the one thing that faith does not require, in these texts, is practice or experience. Faith arises merely upon hearing the Buddha speak. Elsewhere in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta it says that faith should also be 'rooted in vision' (dassanamūlikā), a metaphor here for personal knowledge, but this vision also seems to arise upon hearing the Buddhadhamma, not upon practising it.

A number of texts in the Saṃyutta Nikāya refer to faith in the Buddha. For instance:
SN 55.37 (S v.395)
"To what extent, Sir, is a layman endowed with faith (saddhā-sampanna)? Here, Mahānāma, the layman is faithful (saddha), he trusts (saddahati) in the understanding (bodhi) of the tathāgata [as expressed in the Buddha vandana or itipi so gāthā]. To this extent, Mahānāma, the layman is endowed with faith."
This is interesting because it contains the noun (saddhā), the verb (saddahati), and an adjective (saddha) all from the same root. Faith here is faith in bodhi of the Tathāgata. In the Cabbisodhana Sutta (MN 112) we find it explicitly said:
tāhaṃ dhammaṃ sutvā tathāgate saddhaṃ paṭilabhiṃ

Hearing the Dhamma, I gained faith in the Tathāgata.
I have yet to find a text which describes faith, in the sense of saddhā, in anything other than a teacher. So despite the received tradition - and I include here the tradition I received - in the early Buddhist texts faith (saddhā) seems to mean faith in the person, or the personal achievement, of the Buddha.

There is another kind of confidence that arises from personal experience of practice and this is called aveccapasāda. Pasāda is more literally 'clear, bright' and we might translated it as 'clarity', and aveccapasāda as 'definite clarity'. SN 48.44 explicitly contrasts faith in the Buddha, with knowledge gained from personal experience. Sāriputta says he need not rely on faith in the Bhagavan (Na khvāhaṃ ettha, bhante, bhagavato saddhāya gacchāmi) to have faith that the faith faculty has the deathless as it's final goal (saddhindriyaṃ... amatapariyosānaṃ): he knows it for himself.

As I mentioned above there are texts where aveccapasāda is synonymous with saddhā, but more often the two are distinguished. Although this distinction is reasonably clear in the texts, it seems to have been lost in practice. And this has a downstream effect on discussions of faith in Buddhism. There is an over emphasis on what is effectively aveccapasāda (confidence based on personal experience), and a down playing of saddhā (faith in the teacher) as irrelevant. Although we use the term saddhā we do not use it in the same way as the canonical texts do, we tend to mean something more like aveccapasāda.

However this discussion still leaves the problem of how to understand and translate the occurrence of mā ākāraparivitakkena in the Kālāma Sutta. Frankly the only way it makes sense to me is to assume that ākāra here means something other than 'reason', and we do know that the interpretation of signs was practised since monks are banned from doing it in the Brahmajāla Sutta. [2] In various places Buddhaghosa equates ākāra with liṅga and nimitta (e.g. MA 3.38), both of which mean 'a sign'. For instance the clothing, long hair and beard are said to be a sign (ākāra, liṅga, nimitta) of the villager. Perhaps then our little phrase means 'don't go by external appearances', which would also fit the context.

If our morality is unreasoning, then it will likely be unreasonable. Similarly with faith. But in the texts I've cited faith is a quality of relationship between the protagonist and the Buddha. According to traditional compound analysis (in Sanskrit):
śraddhā iti. yatra hṛdayam mama dadhāmi, sā.
'Faith' [means] where I place my heart. [3]
This suggests that we don't place our hearts in things or ideas, but only in another person. For us it could could refer to the relationship between ourselves and our teacher, or perhaps between us and our imaginative connection with the Buddha. The latter, though, leaves us vulnerable to narcissism and hubris since we tend to imagine the Buddha (as Theists imagine God) to be like us, but a bit better.[4] Perhaps what this reinforces is the necessity of contact with a living exemplar of the practices, although even this is no longer a straightforward proposition in the West. So many of us have been more than a little naive about who we trust, and so many of the trusted have proved untrustworthy. And given that many of us convert to Buddhism, having already fallen out of love with Christianity or some other religion, faith is a subject fraught with tensions. We have a naive, romantic view of trust and love, and falling in love. Perhaps this is the fundamental problem - we court betrayal by trusting naively; then being hurt we think we'll find a refuge in ideas (aka The Dharma). I'm quote doubtful about this.


  1. I discussed this three years ago in a post on Persian influences on Indian Buddhism.
  2. See my Visible Mantra blog post on śraddhā, especially the comment by Elisa Freschi a scholar of Sanskrit, and Indian Philosophy.
  3. Since originally publishing this essay I came upon some research which has quantified this phenomenon. Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. PNAS. Part of the abstract reads: "In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated [brain] areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs." Put simply: we appear to believe that God agrees with us. I leave atheists to contemplate what it means for us.

08 July 2011

Rescuing the Dharma from Fundamentalists

Then a miracle occurs
© Sidney Harris
MY TITLE THIS WEEK is taken from a book by Bishop Shelby Spong, who, apart from having a delightfully resonant surname, wrote Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, a book I read long before converting to Buddhism. I no longer recall much about Bishop Spong's opus other than the title, but that phrase has popped into my head a number of times recently as I have been confronted by fundamentalist Buddhists. Surely the phrase 'Buddhist fundamentalist' should be redundant, at least if I am referring to the colloquially pejorative use of fundamentalist, but sadly it is not. Over the years I've met many fundamentalist Buddhists online, but have also met one or two in person.

Buddhists will often tell you that Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith. I think this is at best a misconception. Buddhists take many things on faith, most of them blindly, and many of us have spent a good part of our lives searching for confirmation of those articles of faith, usually without ever finding it. To keep believing, after decades of seeking and not finding, requires a great deal of faith. (Though I should add it's not that we've found nothing at all, just not what we were told to seek) Amongst the articles of faith that characterise Buddhism are beliefs in ideas such as karma, rebirth and nirvāṇa. For many years I myself accepted the notion of some kind of Absolute Reality, some reality above and beyond the one I currently experience - in philosophical terms this kind of thinking is called Idealism. This Absolute Reality has many names: nirvāṇa, dharmakāya, amṛta. Sometimes it is described in terms of paramārthasatya - ultimate truth, or ultimate reality, or Even Ultimate Reality! Talking to Buddhists it rapidly becomes clear that the belief in such views is not supported by personal experience, though personal experiences have been interpreted to fit these dogmas. These truly are articles of faith in the sense of beliefs unsupported by any evidence, only ancient, scriptural testimony. And what's more, when one presumes to question the validity of such beliefs the believer can become upset and even aggressive.

The basic problem of fundamentalism seems to be that if you question the articles of faith, then the faith disappears, and the person is left with nothing. I do not believe that this faith is Buddhism in the first place, or that it harms Buddhism to set aside views, or that we cannot dispense with the Iron Age Indian worldview that underpins traditional Buddhism and the Indic language terminology that comes with it. If Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith (and I am saying that for the majority this is a moot point), then relinquishing articles of faith should present no problems at all.

Because I'm in the habit of reinterpreting scripture, and questioning traditional authorities, I often find that fundamentalists are upset by what I write. For instance some time ago a chap going by the name of 'Namdrol' on the E-Sangha bulletin board, in a discussion of the Theravāda three lifetimes model of the nidāna chain - for which there is no Pāli Canonical authority - declared: "to reject the three lifetimes model is harming the dharma". I mentioned back then that I thought this a fundamentalist view, but was told that the word "fundamentalist" was banned in that forum (along with any reference to the New Kadampa Tradition which was a bit of a give away). E-Sangha died not long afterwards, but not before I realised that online forums, and arguing with strangers on the internet generally, were a waste of my time and started focussing on writing this blog.

When I first discovered the Dharma I fell in love with it. I just took the whole thing on, accepted everything I heard uncritically for a long honeymoon period. When you're in love you don't see the flaws in your lover. I read quite widely, but mostly at the level of popular Buddhism, and certainly nothing very scholarly or critical (in the sense of critical thinking). And I ended up getting into arguments. I've always learned through intellectual disputation, and I wanted to test this new found belief system. But as I got older, and I got interested in Buddhist scholarship, I found myself becoming less sure, more doubtful about what was now more obviously dogma at best, and often rank superstition.

As time has gone on I have come to see that the traditional accounts of Buddhism are not entirely coherent, that certain key terms and concepts are very, very difficult to understand, though talked about incessantly. [1] Indeed some dogmas which seem reasonable at a level of popular simplification, are positively incoherent when considered in detail. At the same time I became more interested in practice and what actually happens because my own experience of doing Buddhist practice was exciting and revealing. I began to have insights into my own character and the dynamics of my personality that I don't think I could have gained except through intensive practice. These insights changed my life, in some cases dramatically, and mostly positively. I don't claim that these were Insights in the technical Buddhist sense, but they were significant breakthroughs for me personally, and as a result I suffer considerably less than I used to, though still a lot more than I would prefer.

Where a dogma is incoherent or inconsistent I think we have a duty to say so. Where history or archaeology is at odds with tradition, we must not sweep it under the carpet. And where the Iron Age Indian world view conflicts with the modern scientific world view then I think we must accept the findings of science and adapt our presentation of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has said something similar [2], though I've found his followers more the usually ready to accept dogma - with one or two exceptions (see e.g. the blog Buddhism Sucks).

I've written a number of posts exploring the philosophical problems of belief in karma and rebirth [3]. Intellectual honesty says that at best we can be agnostic about rebirth, but it's the kind of strict agnosticism associated with the Tooth Fairy (this is cited from Richard Dawkin's book Unweaving the Rainbow). Tooth Fairy agnosticism acknowledges that we cannot know for certain that there is no tooth fairy - after all how would one disprove such a proposition? It would be much easier to disprove the opposite proposition - that the tooth fairy doesn't exist - simply by producing the Tooth Fairy. Equally the Tooth Fairy is not something we need to take seriously, or spend a lot of time agonising over. Rebirth is a pre-scientific afterlife belief with very little to distinguish it from other afterlife beliefs, at least there is no more evidence for or against it than any of the others. The so-called proof of such beliefs is merely that at some time in the past, some people appeared to believe it, though the argument over whether the Buddha himself believed in rebirth continues to bubble away 2500 year later. The same people appear to have believed in gods, demons, and animistic spirits. The same people believed that a person could possess magical powers to fly though the air, hear conversations at a distance, and multiply their body so as to be in many places at once. If we accept rebirth as 'true' then why not all these others things? And of course there are some credulous folk who do believe every story the ancients told as having a basis in fact. They may also believe in bigfoot, the yeti, visitors from another planet living amongst us, that economics will solve the world's problems, and no doubt the tooth fairy. But what people believe is not as important as how they behave as a result of what they believe!

In a recent comment on this blog, one person asked what was left if we stripped away all of the articles of faith. I suggest we are left with some simple propositions. We suffer. We can gain insights into the conditions for, and workings of, suffering, and thereby suffer less (and help those around us to suffer less also). We gain insights into suffering through examining the arising and passing away of suffering. That we suffer is a simple observation, and I do not think any one can argue against this. Sangharakshita has proposed that the Buddha starts with an experience because it cannot be argued with (A Survey of Buddhism, p.145f.). The problem of suffering is not incidental or accidental: suffering is the central problem of Buddhism. I do maintain that there is a distinction between pain and suffering on more or less traditional Buddhist lines, and that suffering is a mental response to physical pain. The early Buddhist tradition was talking about suffering in this sense (c.f. my commentary on the Salla Sutta).

The proposition that we can gain insights into why we suffer, and thereby lessen our suffering, is one I can vouch for from personal experience and without resorting to mysticism, or obscure Indian jargon, or a world-view alien to the one I grew up with. The one article of faith that I maintain is that there is, so far as I can see, no limit to the extent of the insight which is possible; and therefore no limit on the extent to which we can reduce suffering in the world. Pain is inherent to sentient existence, suffering is not. One can be in pain, for instance and be happy. I can see no reason that the insights gained could not make permanent and irreversible changes in the way we perceive pain. After all we've probably all had an experience which has forever changed us.

And what I find is that the methods of Buddhist practice, and even more so the fundamental principles of Buddhist practices, are very conducive to understanding and relieving suffering. There are also methods not traditionally associated with Buddhism - tai chi, yoga, psychotherapy etc - which can help. Clearly the idea that anything that helps is part of 'the method' is one that is very attractive to some, but threatening to the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists are not simply conservative, they don't just resist innovation and change, they are opposed to any change - in direct contradiction of the dictum that everything changes.

In the last year of so I have had a little contact with varieties of so-called 'secular' Buddhist, 'atheist' Buddhists and even 'non-Buddhist' Buddhists, and while I have some sympathy with them I think we differ in some ways. To me religious Buddhism is fine. I have no problem with bells and smells, and devotional practices, or even idol worship. Because my criteria is not ideological or philosophical, it is pragmatic. I think religious Buddhism, with some caveats, is a good thing.

Buddhism has near enemies and far enemies. A near enemy is something we mistake for the true quality, while a far enemy is the polar opposite.

One near enemy of Buddhism is that instead of disinterestedly investigating our minds for insights into suffering, we tendentiously try to prove a dogma, to achieve a certain state, and see every experience in an elaborate sectarian ideological framework. It is a delicious irony that the great figures of Buddhism, from the Buddha onwards, have been the one's that said - "no, my experience does not fit the traditional narratives" and developed their own ways of making sense of the experience of doing Buddhist practices. In this respect I must say I find the new crop of arahants, who appear to confirm the traditional narratives, intriguingly old school.

One of the great problems of Buddhist fundamentalism is the way we Buddhists speak of our beliefs as Reality (always capitalised). Our dogmas are different because they are "the way things are". But are they? How do we know this? The knowledge that our dogmas are Reality, if it comes at all, only comes with Awakening (which we also capitalise). So logically if we are not awakened, we do not know the truth - so why do we believe? The best the unawakened can do is to have faith in the awakened - who ever they are. But few Buddhists really make this distinction, and many argue as if they personally know the truth. I've done this. It seems plausible partly because paṭicca-samuppāda is superficially a theory of cause and effect. Cause and effect is how we experience the world, so a doctrine which proclaims cause and effect must be true. But paṭicca-samuppāda was not originally a doctrine of cause and effect, it was an idea about how the experience of suffering arises, and used the language of conditionality, not of cause and effect. There's no real evidence that the originator(s) of this doctrine intended it to be a theory of cause and effect, let alone a Theory of Everything. And there's every evidence that the Western Intellectual tradition has understood cause and effect for at least as long as the East has - at least since the Buddha's Greek contemporaries, but throughout the intervening period we find quotes to the effect that "everything changes". If cause and effect, or even conditionality, was all the Buddha was talking about then we are all awakened, because in fact this is all rather easy to understand, and is covered in high-school physics. The fact that we do not appear to be awakened, in the sense that we still suffer, suggests very strongly that in focusing on cause and effect we are looking in the wrong place!

When a doctrine is Reality, when it is the Truth, when it is just "how things are", then to question it is not really possible. Indeed to question Reality is seen not merely as heresy, but as insanity. Buddhists will happily tell you that we don't have a sin called heresy; but they are also fond of the apocryphal quotation "all pṛthagjanas are crazy". The pṛthagjanas are you and me, the hoi polloi, the unawakened, and usually this statement includes the people citing it (and after 17 years of looking I've yet to find the source). So if I question the notion of karma, I'm not simply a heretic, I'm not offending anybody (because we Buddhists don't get offended) I'm just expressing my insane "views".

Most of the time this delusion of knowing Reality is actually pretty benign. Buddhists, on the whole, are tolerant of lunatics like me (See the case of the mad monk). Buddhists don't tend to coerce, manipulate, bully or injure unbelievers. It's been known to happen, including amongst our clergy, but it's rare. We are mostly harmless, as one would expect. We spout incomprehensible jargon a lot of the time, and are often a slightly edgy combination of zealous and defensive. But Buddhism, on the whole, is not a cult that is going to damage you. The main problem is confirmation bias -- if you already know what Reality is, you will dismiss everything else.

A far enemy of Buddhism, which we are seeing more and more, is militant nihilistic iconoclasm which strikes down any and all manifestations of religion. Perhaps we need to reflect on why some people are so violently opposed to religion per se - after all religion in some form is a feature of all human cultures, and to hate religion seems to me to be tantamount to hating our humanity. Many people appear to be appalled by their humanity. The sociality, irrationality, emotionality, and fragility of all humans appears to be deeply problematic to some. Is it a symptom of the widespread alienation that characterises the post-industrial world?

Buddhism proceeds by many ways and means to illuminate the way that suffering arises, but the focus is always on the arising and passing away of mental states. I would say that even those who "merely" offer generosity to monks are at least potentially fully participating in this exploration since to be truly generous one must find a deep empathetic connection with another being and give them what they truly need, to make them happy at whatever the cost to ourselves (the very opposite of the philosophy of Ayn Rand which has been so very influential on Wall St and in The City, as well as in Silicon Valley). Poor traditional Buddhists assiduously feeding and caring for monks are in some ways more admirable than middle-class Western Buddhists with desultory meditation practices and still driven by their own selfishness. Though we so often scoff at them as merely 'ethnic Buddhists'.

So, yes, I think we can dispense with the vast bulk of traditional Buddhist narratives, worldviews and terminology, and yet still consider ourselves to be Buddhist if we pursue Buddhist practices. I define a Buddhist in terms of what they do, not what they profess to believe. A Buddhist is someone who explicitly and purposefully pursues some form, any form, of practice whose purpose is ultimately to identify and ameliorate the causes of suffering; and who calls themselves as a Buddhist in the process. The last bit is relatively inconsequential. I personally know Buddhists with beliefs ranging from outright materialism, through the wackiest aliens-amongst-us conspiracy theories, to the most esoteric mysticism, whom I know to be good people, sincerely pursuing a Buddhist path, and even finding some success upon it, at least in the sense of manifesting Buddhist virtues like friendliness and generosity. I also know plenty of people who share values I hold dear, and even express them in virtues I admire, but who have no inclination to call themselves Buddhist.

Karma and rebirth as traditionally taught are just dogmas. Buddhists are afraid that if we dispense with karma and rebirth no one will be moral, and freedom from suffering will not be possible - after all it takes many lifetimes to practice the perfections. Christians expressed a similar fear about the death of God - without God, they said, people will be immoral, and the world will turn to chaos. Are we more or less moral than our 17th century pre-European-Enlightenment forebears? Probably about the same on average. Probably about the same, on average, as individuals anyway, as anyone anywhere, any time. Because morality is not determined by profession of belief. Even the faithful can sin; even the heathen can be moral. To find what makes us moral we need to look deeper than belief and religion. To find out what causes us to suffer we need to look at our own minds, and set aside our preconceived ideas.

Buddhists, of all people, should recognise that our traditions have sprung from centuries of cultural change, that our narratives and doctrines are not "original" and haven't been for more than 2000 years. Buddhists, of all people, have nothing to fear from change, should embrace change, should initiate change. Fundamentalism just seems out of place amongst us.

"What can we take on trust in this uncertain life?
Happiness, greatness,
pride - nothing is secure, nothing keeps."

Euripides (ca. 480 BC – 406 BC), Hecuba. [4]



  1. See for instance: Confessions.
  2. "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview." The New York Times (12 November 2005) [via Wikiquote]
  3. see e.e. Rebirth and the Scientific Method; and Hierarchies of Values.
  4. Note that Euripides's estimated dates coincide exactly with the most recent estimations for the dates of the Buddha.

01 July 2011

The Buddha's Biography

I'VE ALREADY WRITTEN quite a lot on the confusion surrounding the name of the Buddha, and concluded that we don't really know what his name was. More recently I was pondering the Buddha's biography and considering the two different accounts of his going forth: the familiar elaborate version in which a princely man aged 29 who leaves behind wealth, status, wife, child, and family; and the shorter, less detailed, and probably less familiar story found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta [MN 26], but corroborated in other places. Scholars seem to agree that the biography found in the Ariyapariyesanā represents a more primitive version of the story which is likely to predate the more elaborate version. It's a given that the life stories of famous people tend to become more elaborate with time, not less, especially post-mortem. I'm sure many Buddhists will be surprised to discover that there are two different stories, as the more elaborate version is usually presented as a more or less factual, historical account.

Whether or not the Ariyapariyesanā version is the original story we will probably never know. But it provides a valuable insight into how the legend of the Buddha grew after his death. The process is no different from other saintly figures in other cultures and times. It's a case of the medium is the message: the common outlines of hagiographies tell us more about human nature than the content of such stories tell us about the historical Buddha. I want to look at just one paragraph from this earlier, less elaborate biography and draw out the implications it has for our stories about the Buddha.
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena daharova samāno susukāḷakeso, bhadrena yobbanena samannāgato paṭhamena vayasā akāmakānaṃ mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ kesamassuṃ ohāretvā kāsāyāni vatthāni acchādetvā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajiṃ. [M i.163]

At a later time, though still only a boy, with much black hair, in the first stage of life, and endowed with youth and good fortune; with my mother and father unwilling, tearful and wailing, I cut off my hair and beard, donned brown robes, and went forth from home, into homelessness.
I don't think it's overstating things to say that this is one of the most important biographical passages in the whole canon, because here much of what we think we know about the Buddha is contradicted.

Let's begin with his age. The text reinforces his young age with several terms: dahara, yobbana and paṭhama vaya. The word dahara means 'little, a young boy, a youth'. Buddhaghosa glosses it with taruṇa 'a tender young age, esp. a young calf'. The second word, yobbana, also means 'a youth'. The phrase paṭhama vaya means in 'the first stage of life', as opposed to middle age and old age. However the text also says he shaves off hair and beard (kesa-massuṃ ohāretvā) and this is common to all of the various narratives of the Buddha's going forth. Unless this is simply a stock phrase the youth must have passed puberty, and had a year or two to grow a beard. But not much more: if we were to describe a grown man as 'a boy' or 'a youth' it would seem awkward at best. I think we could say that this is describing a youth of 15 or 16. The tradition later made him 29, which is into middle-age by the standards of the day. Why 29? I don't think anyone knows, but it is interesting that the Jain leader, Mahāvīra, an elder contemporary of the Buddha, is described as a prince of Magadha who left home aged 30.

Something which is noticeable for being absent here is any mention of wife and child. The youth here is apparently not married. His parents weep and wail as he leaves, but not his wife. In my opinion the whole story of a wife and child is a later fiction, as is everything associated with them, including stories about Rāhula (who calls their child 'fetter'?). Many people are disturbed by the idea that the young bodhisatta left behind a wife and child. Of course had they existed they would not have been trapped in a neurotic nuclear family like most of us, but would have been part of a large extended family, and if we believe the stories they were wealthy and privileged. They were certainly not alone, nor destitute, and Gotama's role in the raising of his infant, and in the day to day life of his wife would most likely have been minimal in any case. I've never had a problem with young aspirant leaving wealth and family to pursue the deathless, because in the story he returns liberated and frees his family from suffering forever. One must take the story as a whole. But this whole story is a probably a fiction anyway.

Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father -- mātāpita -- are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn't sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha's mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists. For example in the eighth century Śāntideva wrote:
If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? [Bodhicaryāvatā ch8 8 v.59; translation by Skilton & Crosby]
This reflects Brahmanical notions of the polluting nature of bodily fluids, which with the Brahmanisation of the subcontinent, became pan-Indian concerns. The Buddha himself is shown to mock the Brahmins for this attitude in the Agañña Sutta (DN 27.4). He says their creation myth (Ṛgveda 10.90) which tells that the Brahmins were born from the mouth of Brahmā is a lie, since they were born in the usual way -- with all the implications of ritual pollution that entailed in the Brahmins own belief system. So in the later stories the Buddha is not born from his mother's (polluted and polluting) vagina covered in amniotic fluid and other nasty substances, but miraculously and pollution free from her side. And then she, rather too conveniently, dies and is transported to heaven where she can not cast any doubt on the sanctity of the Buddha himself. One is reminded of those 1950's and 60's American sitcoms that featured a family without a mother, ostensibly to play down the subject of where children come from. If indeed this represents a Brahmanical spin, then we can observe that the Brahmanisation of India was not completed until after the reign of Aśoka, ca. 2nd century BCE, about 150 years after the most likely date Buddha's death, which may give us a limit for dating these stories.

Finally observe that when he leaves the bodhisatta dons robes (vatthāni) which are brown (kāyāsa). It's well known that the wanderers of the day would stain the cloth of their simple robes with dirt to make them unattractive to bandits. The samaṇas who didn't go naked did not originally wear elaborate robes, or use expensive fabrics (unlike many Buddhist monks these days) but the cheapest cloth, or even rags, stained with dirt. The word kāyāsa means 'brown', but is often interpreted as 'yellow'. I think the latter is because of the brightly coloured robes that many modern Theravādins wear. PED links kāyāsa to Sanskrit śyāma 'dark' which can mean anything from black to dark blue or green; or śyāva 'dark brown, brown'. Neither of which suggest yellow, orange or red! There is a direct cognate kāṣāya but PED says this is a Sanskritisation of a Pāli word, and in any case it also means 'brown, or reddish-brown'. So the word means 'brown, dark', except in the context of bhikkhu's robes. Which suggests that changes in the colour of the robes lead to the change in meaning of the word in this specific context.

Though it is not related to this particular text, there is another little oddity about the way we see the Buddha. All of the early literature describes the Buddha as having a shaved head, and cutting of his hair and beard, as I have already mentioned is a central part of all of the Buddhist biographies of the Buddha. And yet more or less all images of the Buddha show him with tightly curled hair. Eisel Mazard goes into this puzzling discontinuity in some depth in an essay entitled The Buddha was Bald. I think Mazard makes a mountain from a mole hill (he seems to see depicting the Buddha with hair as a sinister conspiracy to defraud us), but it does confirm that the popular conception of the Buddha has changed over time, and that earlier versions of his life story get over-written.

So this 'man', who's name we are unsure of, was probably a 16 year old, unmarried youth when he left his (still living) mother and father, against their wishes. And this is not so far fetched really. Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), with whom there are other biographical parallels, was this age when he left his home to go forth. Sangharakshita was about this age when he had his first mystical experiences also, and had be been living in India at the time might have wandered off at that point (as it was he had to wait 6 years to go forth aged 22.).

It's probably meaningless to talk about the "historical Buddha". I forget now where I first came across the distinction, but I like to see the information we do have as pertaining to the traditional or legendary Buddha. The historical Buddha is lost in the mists of time, though it seems very likely that the traditional Buddha is based on an historical person. Another important character, the mythic Buddha, is a product of our imaginations - which is not a criticism, or a pejorative. I think myth -- a word I use in the same spirit as Joseph Campbell -- is very important and significant aspect of our traditions. Myths are vital for a living spiritual tradition. I've written about how a much later figure went from being an historical figure, to a legendary one, and finally attained to the mythic dimension as a kind of Avalokiteśvara-like figure who intercedes to ensure one gets into the pureland. (see: Kūkai: Buddhist Hero of Japan.)

Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India documents the way that the Buddha's life story became the archetype for stories of later Buddhist saints, with the biographical details being recapitulated throughout history. And indeed the same thing has happened in other world religions. There is no reason to think this process began with the Buddha, or that the biographies that have come down to us are not influenced by his predecessors even if they are even less clearly visible than he himself is.

Across cultures saints often share common features. It would be interesting for instance to compare the Buddha with St. Francis of Assisi. This is not to devalue the methods of Buddhism, or of religion generally. Though I am not in favour of superstition, I think there are remarkable people who rise above the ordinary concerns of the rest of us: saints, for want of a better word. And these people leave us with a legacy of alternatives to: "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes. Leviathan. Chap. 13, para. 9).

In writing on this subject, critically and even polemically, I ask readers to opt for an honest confrontation with history, rather than a dishonest collusion with either tradition or secular humanism. The former blinds us and leaves us mired in eternalistic superstition, and the latter urges us to lives of nihilistic mediocrity. One of the main ideas communicated by the biography of the Buddha is that we do not have to accept either common superstitions or the general consensus; nor do we have to accept ourselves as we are, as limited and earth bound. We can be free. However the confrontation with history can be painful as it challenges our beliefs and calls into question aspects of our religious faith. I think in the end this makes us stronger, and forces us to focus less on belief and ideology, and more on practical matters, i.e. on doing the practices. Everything changes, and it seems very likely indeed that the stories we tell of the Buddha have changed too.

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