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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Three Jewels Buddhism: Seeking the Heart of the Dharma Traditions


As it’s the start of the Order weekend and we’re celebrating our fortieth birthday, I’ll start with a joke. And as it’s a Saturday morning it seems fitting to make it a Jewish joke.

Benjamin is lying in bed on the Sabbath. His mother comes into his room, pulls back the curtains and says, “Benny, you’ve got to get up and go to the synagogue!”

“I don’t want to,” says Benjamin.

“Well, you have to,” says his mother.

“I don’t have to,” he says.

“Oh, yes you do,” she replies.


“Because you’re forty years old and you’re the rabbi!”

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it. Forty! It's so old — nearly as old as that joke! When the Order had its sixteenth birthday, Sangharakshita gave a talk and made much of the Order’s coming of age. At forty, the analogy seems a little less attractive. But lets not dwell on that — for a Buddhist sangha, forty years is a blink in eternity. All the same, a birthday prompts reflections on who you really are, and what’s most important to you.

For myself, I’ve been reflecting on the Buddha in recent months while writing a book on his life. There he is, sitting on our shrines and perching on a flower in the middle of our refuge tree; but there are so many, sometimes competing, perspectives on the Buddha’s life — historical, canonical, archetypal and transcendental. When I was first asked to write the book, I wondered if here was anything new I could add, and I threw myself into some of the many volumes that already exist. Eventually, I sensed what I wanted to say. I wanted to approach the Buddha as a human being who was grounded in his society, but not to reduce him to that. I wanted to maintain a sense of the mystery of awakening at the heart of his identity. I wanted to see him as a forest renunciate who was also at home speaking with kings — a man of wit, intelligence and kindness, as well as the grander-sounding qualities of wisdom and compassion. I was pleased with myself. I did have something fresh to say about the Buddha! Then I reread the sections on the Buddha in The Survey and The Three Jewels, and realised that all my wonderful insights were there in Sangharakshita’s writing fifty years earlier.

That realisation made me think about my desire to be original, which doubtless contains some vanity, and to think for myself, which seems important. I was thinking for myself, but I saw that my thought were deeply molded by Sangharakshita’s — they arose in dependence upon them. This discovery seems relevant to a birthday reflection on the Order, perhaps especially at a time when our shared sense of our identity is changing. I want to reflect on a key part of that identity: our relationship to the Buddhist tradition, which also means reflecting on Sangharakshita and, eventually, on the Buddha himself.

One of Sangharakshita’s key teachings is his acceptance of the whole Buddhist tradition. The great figures of the major schools surround the Buddha on the Refuge tree, and from them we draw our practices and liturgies. Yet in my early years in the FWBO I was schooled in the belief that we alone possessed a key to the future of Buddhism. Others might practice ‘Buddhism in the West,’ but we practiced ‘western Buddhism’. We had stripped the tradition of Asian culture and revivified its essential teachings within the culture of the modern world. Along with that went criticism of other Buddhist teachers and a degree of isolation, sometimes backed by explicit discouragement from studying or developing close contacts with other Buddhists. I found that personally constricting and I thought it was unhealthy for us as a movement.

Things have changed among us. We are much less secluded, and it is not uncommon for Order members to attend non-FWBO retreats, and even study with other teachers. We are more aware of others’ virtues and our limitations. In some ways I think this is a positive development — there is much we can learn from others, we can’t do it all ourselves, and there is really no reason why we should try to but it’s unsettling. Losing an undue sense of your uniqueness is a sign of maturity, but it can also knock your confidence. If we aren’t unique, who are we? It also brings risks. We might maintain, or even extend, the open, inclusive aspect of Sangharakshita’s teaching, but lose the critical edge that is so central to his thought. In my view, the more we engage, individually and collectively, with other parts of the Buddhist world, the more important it is to retain that critical perspective. Our relationship to the Buddhist tradition is a familiar topic, but I hope you agree that in the present context it is worth revisiting.

Let me start by offering a simple map of Buddhism in the West, which is of my own devising. Firstly there is transplanted Buddhism: the schools that have transplanted Theravada, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and so on, from the soil of Asia, and set it down here. Secondly there are the Harvesters, who regard Buddhism as a resource from which westerners may harvest insights and practices. Those following this approach may meditate, practice mindfulness or engage with Buddhist art or symbols without being Buddhists or considering Buddhist teachings as a whole.

I am using a broad brush, and these descriptions are not intended as criticisms. Transplanted Buddhism has not stayed still, and westerners who follow Buddhist traditions with roots in Asia have also found ways to practice effectively and make their own cultural connections. Harvesting Buddhism for non-Buddhist ends is proving to be a dynamic and attractive way of opening up at least some of what it has to offer the modern world. As a Breathworks mindfulness trainer myself, I’m involved in doing just that. But while I appreciate the virtues of these approaches, it’s important to be clear what distinguishes Sangharakshita’s. Let us call it the seeding approach. He has wanted to take a seed of the great tree of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, and replant it in the soil of the West or India where it will grow in the soil of that culture, creating a new form that is suited to it.

As this talk is about the importance of preserving distinctions while remaining open to other Buddhists, in the limited time I have, I won’t consider our relationship with transplanted Buddhism. The differences are usually quite apparent. Less straightforward is our relationship to the Harvesters, and I want to explore this by discussing a book, which expresses this approach at its strongest. This is by Joseph Goldstein the well-known American ‘vipassana’ teacher and it is entitled One Dharma. In other words, this is a book about the unity of Buddhism, and no less significant is its sub-title: The Emerging Western Buddhism.[i] It might not be apparent why I should consider this is an example of harvesting, so let me explain.

The book grows from Goldstein’s personal spiritual journey. He trained in Theravada meditation and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, but since 1992 he has also practised dzogchen with Tibetan teachers. This leads him to wonder if he can now really call himself a Theravadin, and what he should make of his Zen-trained friends whose practice now includes vipassana. He concludes that the categories of Asian Buddhism are collapsing as westerners’ practice cross-fertilises.

This mingling of traditions echoes the FWBO’s approach, but is it the same? The obvious danger in mixing traditions is superficiality. You take what suits you, leave aside what challenges you, and pay no attention to whether it all makes sense. Goldstein believes that the key to avoiding this lies in the experience of western practitioners like himself, who bring together in their own practice what he calls ‘the diversity and depth of the ancient Buddhist culture … [and] the openness and pragmatism of our contemporary western culture.’ The Dharma is a raft and Goldstein says that in bringing together Buddhist pragmatism and its western counterpart, ‘we are giving birth to a skilful form for our times.’ It’s defining characteristic is asking, ‘What works?’ What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender a heart of compassion? What works to awaken?’ Goldstein’s approach, favours experience over doctrine and intuition over clarity, and it fits the zeitgeist as most people who turn to Buddhism are interested in changing themselves, not in belief or philosophy. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Goldstein’s approach harvests Buddhism as a resource for addressing personal, pragmatically experienced spiritual needs, rather than relating to it as a coherent tradition. Sangharakshita is all for experience and intuition, but he also believes that there is an underlying coherence to the Dharma, and he finds this in the basic teachings that underpin the tradition as a whole. This is the seed he wishes to replant in new cultural conditions. However simple such teachings appear he believes that they possess incalculable depths and can lead us to awakening. Goldstein would probably agree, but for Sangharakshita this implies a critique of Buddhist schools — a transcendental critique. We can ask whether their doctrines and practices conflict not just with one another, but also with the values at the heart of the tradition. Words like ‘clarity’, ‘critique’ — and even ‘tradition’ — aren’t really part of the zeitgeist, but if you don’t have them, you don’t have Sangharakshita.

What difference does this make? Goldstein identifies as the goals of Buddhist practice the qualities of wisdom, compassion and mindfulness because these are what speak to him pragmatically as the heart of his practice. He leaves out ethics, faith, energy and samadhi in the sense of developing concentration, presumably because he has not, so far, felt them to be relevant. There is much to value in Goldstein’s approach, but I have learned from Sangharakshita to value these other faculties and practices, and without them much of my inner and outer life would be untouched by the Dharma. Being clear and valuing coherence forces you to you take account of important realities you would otherwise avoid, and escape misunderstandings. In the sutta that includes the parable of the raft the Buddha also compares his teaching to a water snake. Unless you take care in how you grasp the snake, he says, it will bite you. So you should hold its head down with a cleft stick and then grasp its neck![ii]

There’s another difference between Sangharakshita and Joseph Goldstein. If Goldstein’s reference point is his own experience as an aspiring practitioner, Sangharakshita’s introduces something else, which he sometimes calls ‘the vertical dimension’. As a way of approaching the large question of Sangharakshita’s relationship to the Transcendental, I turn to the third volume of his memoirs where, picking up an image from Gnosticism, Sangharakshita tells us that in his forties he felt like ‘the alien whose true home is Elsewhere, and who sojourns on earth as in a foreign land.’[iii] His ‘true home’, he says, is the transcendental reality he had touched aged sixteen when he read The Diamond Sutra.

It can’t be easy to feel you are an alien without feeling alienated, and no doubt this has brought difficulties. But since he was sixteen, I think that Sangharakshita has tried to stay true to his connection with this transcendental reality. He believed this to be not only his true home, but also the source of the transcendental unity of the Buddhist tradition. He draws on many branches of that tradition, and while he doesn’t claim to have mastered them all he does say that he has explored them in the light of that insight. He ranges freely through western culture to make connections, but he always resists reducing the Dharma to any other system of thought.

As I see it, the hallmark of Sangharakshita’s teaching is that he brings together the pragmatic perspective of the individual who struggles to live a kind, aware, authentic life of conflicted humanity, with the dimension that is represented by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is why he emphasises so strongly the centrality of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. This most basic of Buddhist formulae brings together the individual and the ideal; for us it means bringing the Three Jewels into our lives and into the world.

I offer three reflections at this point, on the bearing of these thoughts on our current practice. The first concerns Sangharakshita stress that going for Refuge is not just a teaching or a practice, but an act. Notwithstanding the current vogue for talking about meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, early Buddhism is clear that all experience is action. The word translated as action is karma, and the defining characteristic of karma is intention. So every moment of conscious experience is a significant action in which we make moral choices between the skilful and the unskillful. To live is to act; and to act is to choose. No wonder Sangharakshita is wary of the language of ‘choiceless’ or — dare I say it — ‘pure’ awareness, which comes from later Buddhist discourse. His own teaching often stresses the importance of making choices — moral choices —that necessarily spring from our impure awareness, and acting from them. Going for Refuge is the intentional act of coming into relationship with the boundless, liberating energy of wisdom and compassion that is represented by Buddhahood; of sensing the challenges that offers our habitual ways of being; and of choosing a skillful response.

My second reflection is to wonder if it might help to give Sangharakshita’s approach a name. Having been involved in instigating two unsuccessful attempts to change the Order’s name, I’m not suggesting that we try again. But I’ve been starting to think of the FWBO’s approach as Three Jewels Buddhism — or Triratna Buddhism, if you prefer. Try it out. See what you think.

My third reflection returns us to the start of this talk — not to the joke about the Rabbi, but to the Buddha. One of Sangharakshita’s teachings, which is important to me but is also, perhaps, a little neglected among us, concerns the centrality of the figure, Shakyamuni Buddha and the man, Siddhartha Gotama, to our practice. His biography is the paradigm of Buddhist spiritual path; he combines the human and the transcendental; he is the source of the tradition and the scriptures that take us closest to him also offer the clearest version of Buddhist teachings. As Sangharakshita repeatedly insists to us, we should study them. This is not to disparage the teachings or texts of later schools; but if we are to combine these with the vision of the earliest texts without lapsing into incoherence, we will need the help of Sangharakshita and the combination of clarity and inspiration with which he has drawn on the tradition.

In my own search for the Buddha, I recently went on a pilgrimage to the holy places in India. When I arrived in Bodh Gaya with a group of fellow pilgrims it rained torrentially — thick rain that seeped into the huts where we slept the first night and buffeted us as we scurried from the Om Café to the Mahabodhi temple, whose precincts include the Vajrasana, the Bodhi tree and an array of ancient stupas. As much for shelter as for inspiration, I sat all morning in the temple’s main shrine room, and a stream of pilgrims passed through. Sri Lankan laypeople chanting Pali verses shuffled behind their bhikkhus; Tibetan monks murmured sadhanas and counted their malas; and watchful Taiwanese nuns sat erect in their neat grey robes.

On both this and my second visit a couple of weeks later, when the rain had stopped, it seemed that in the precincts of the Mahabodhi temple we entered a space made sacred by the constant multi-vocal, multilingual multi-denominational chanting, and by the meditation, prostrations and pujas of pilgrims from across the Buddhist world. We weren’t practicing together; at best we were practicing in parallel. But as I sat in the temple and meditated on the mind of the Buddha I felt that we were peering together through a crack in the earth that opened into unending space.

Such glimpses are not uncommon among us. Catching them and sustaining them is the point of sadhana and insight practice and puja, and something like them is at the heart of our ordination. Then comes the lifelong task of fleshing out those glimpses in the wholeness of our lives. The encouragement and guidance of Sangharakshita’s teaching means enables us to draw on the wealth of Dharma traditions as we engage with this task. The clarity and profundity with which he expounds the historical, doctrinal and transcendental unity of the Dharma traditions is a distinctive contribution, one we should cherish, maintain and pass on.

This is Three Jewels Buddhism. For me it means staying true, among the perplexities of my life, to the commitment I made at ordination when I went for Refuge to the Buddha Dharma and Sangha and to the mystery of awakening. It means remaining true, while thinking for myself, to what I have learned from my teacher, Dharma Master Urgyen Sangharakshita.

[i] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, Rider; London, 2002

[ii] Majjhima Nikaya 22, Alagaddupama Sutta

[iii] Sangharakshita, Moving Against the Stream, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2003, p. 97

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dharma Life: First Editorial

Editorial of Dharma Life, Issue 1

Spring 1996

This magazine’s predecessor, Golden Drum, was launched 10 years ago. In his first editorial , Nagabodhi wrote: ‘The FWBO has, in a sense, come of age. And now it is time to speak out with a new voice. That voice is Golden Drum.’ For the launch of Dharma Life I would like us to speak out in our own voices. Those voices can be heard in Dharma Life.
As the magazine evolves, I hope it will articulate, to as wide an audience as possible, the Buddhist values on which the FWBO is based. In this sense the magazine will be spiritually committed. I am also determined to encourage people to speak for themselves.

Real Dharma

Dharma Life is a magazine written and largely produced by committed Buddhists. It is not ‘about’ Buddhism in an academic way. Nor is it hoping to popularize Buddhism, by linking it to spiritual fashions in a New Age manner. Its editorial policy is founded firmly on the principles of Buddhism and the experience of putting those principles into practice.

More specifically, Dharma Life has grown out of a particular Buddhist movement, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. It also aims to reflect the FWBO’s values but Dharma Life is not for nor about the FWBO alone. Its values are simply the fundamental values of the Buddhist tradition imbued with the determination to bring them alive in the modern world. Thus the magazine is concerned with the encounter of Buddhism and Western culture and is for anyone interested in what Buddhists make of that encounter.

Real Life

Dharma Life is not the place for theoretical presentations of Buddhism an, in that sense, it is not intended to fulfill a teaching role. It expresses the experience of practising Buddhism in the modern world.

When teaching one is inevitably trying to present a clear exposition of the Buddha’s path and to encourage people to put it into practice. Too easily this can become a form of censorship, a quiet deletion of anything in the tradition, or in one’s experience, which might counteract that positive impression or raise questions to which there are no easy answers.
I am personally more interested in difficult questions than easy answers. And in Dharma Life I hope to publish writers who are able to express their Buddhist values by being prepared to speak up for what they believe to be the truth. I want to find committed writing that is new, true and considered.

I believe that an open-minded approach that is unafraid to take risks is the only one in keeping with the spirit of Buddhism, and indeed, of the FWBO. It is also an approach that allows the creative space for incisive writing and stimulating reading.
One potential pitfall is to look to ‘armchair experts’ for dispassionate, intellectual discussions of ‘Buddhism in the West’ (as if writers can be aloof from their subject). This would be quite wrong for a spiritually committed magazine – dispassion is the last thing we need. Instead Dharma Life will draw on the deep reserves we have developed among Western Buddhists.

If we can genuinely speak for ourselves we will find that we speak to others. I am confident that Dharma Life will be relevant far beyond the Buddhist community. It is traditionally said that spiritually committed people are essential to civil society because they point out ways in which it can grow beyond its existing limitations.

Buddhist ideas and experience are powerful indeed. The task is to unleash their potential.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Ethics of Abortion & the Buddhist Perspective

In the grounds of the Purple Cloud Temple in Chichibu, Japan, stand row upon row of 2ft-high stone images. Each has robes, a shaven head and eyes closed in meditation to show it represents a Buddhist monk. They also wear a red bib, and many have toys – pinwheels spinning in the wind or miniature pianos. Not only are these figures monks, they are also children
These child-monk statues represent the spirit of an aborted child. Men and women visit them singly or in couples to perform rites of apology. As a child, the image represents a mizuko, the living being that was aborted. As a monk it is Jizo (a form of the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha) who may guide the spirits of the departed children on their journey through the realm of the dead. They evoke sadness and hope, aspiration and pity.

Temples like Purple Cloud devoted solely to mizuko ceremonies marking the passage of an aborted fetus are common across Japan. The images are vivid expressions of the Buddhist belief that a fetus is a living being, and yet they occur in a culture in which abortion is common. This combination of elements seems natural in Japan, but strange in the West – although some American Zen teachers perform mizuko ceremonies. Such ceremonies do address the emotions that abortion provokes. But the danger is that the rituals may tacitly condone abortion. So what are the ethical issues that abortion raises for Buddhists the world over?

In recent years abortion has been debated in western countries with perhaps more passion than any other ethical issue. On one side the feminist lobby argues that a fetus is part of a woman’s body, and she should have the right to choose what happens to it. On the other side anti-abortion campaigners argue that the fetus is an independent being and that termination is murder. An extreme fringe of anti-abortionists in the us have even killed doctors who perform abortions, while in Ireland, where abortion is illegal, a referendum will soon be held on whether it should be legalised.

While many political debates are abstract and can seem remote from ordinary experience, abortion concerns the mysterious stirrings of life in the deep intimacy of the womb. It involves flesh, blood and tissue. It touches strong feelings, and choices made around it alter the course of lives. Readers of this article may have had an abortion, or considered having one, or have been closely involved with a friend or partner who faced the issue. It is perhaps the most acute ethical problem that many of us are likely to confront in our personal lives. I also think men can and should engage with the abortion issue. It affects men, too, and while the choice will be a woman’s, the issues it raises are human, not just personal and subjective.

Disagreements about the ethics of abortion point up deeper uncertainties in post-Christian societies. When is the start of life which we can recognise as human? What is life anyway? How do we balance ‘the woman’s right to choose’ against ‘the child’s right to life’? And in the absence of consensus on these questions, who decides? Political debate about abortion has tended to polarise, but between the opposing stances stand ordinary people, including Buddhists, trying to act ethically, wanting lives that are free and fulfilling, yet which do not cause suffering.

Sometimes reasons for having an abortion are intensified by issues of rape, sexual abuse or severe disability. But in the space of this article I want to focus on basic ethical principles. These, however, are not rules, and must be applied in individual circumstances with compassion and imagination. For those who look to Buddhism as a source of #wisdom, can the Buddhist approach to ethics point out a path through the maze?

Each day all around the world Buddhists place their hand together in a gesture of devotion and chant the Pali words panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I undertake the training principle of not taking life). This is the primary principle of Buddhist ethics, the first precept. It is alternatively rendered as the principle of non-violence, and the imperative to act from compassion, or love. This is perhaps Buddhism’s greatest contribution to ethics, a single great principle: do not cause harm. When I started researching Buddhist responses to abortion I expected to find a range of views, mirroring the disagreements in society at large. In fact I found widespread agreement that for a Buddhist abortion is a breach of this precept – it is taking life. What was less straightforward was how this view should be implemented, how it translates into the complex, difficult realities of life.

Damien Keown is a leading academic authority on Buddhist ethics, who in 1999 edited Buddhism and Abortion, the first scholarly study of the subject. Talking over a coffee in London, he emphasised that Buddhism has a clear response to abortion. ‘If you look at the canonical texts and the views of the scholars the position is clear. It falls squarely within the first precept.’ The overwhelming majority of Buddhist teachers echo the view that abortion is taking life. Ven. Vajirajnana, a senior Sri Lankan bhikkhu living in Britain repeats the traditional view. ’Abortion is very wrong, because it is taking a life,’ he said. ‘We have no authority to take life.’

Buddhist texts do not deal with the issue of abortion at length, but where it is touched upon it is seen as killing. The Vinaya monastic code specifically forbids monks and nuns to perform abortions, and other texts suggest its harmful consequences. One garish semi-canonical text (a Jataka) even describes a river flowing through Mahaniraya, the Buddhist hell, from which abortionists and those who oppress the weak cannot escape. Its waters are sharp and bitter, and swords cover its sides.
The Buddhist position, then, seems plain. But it should be added that in fact Buddhism has had little to say on the subject. While the principles are clear, coherent and sound, there is little in the tradition by way of practical guidance. And, put so starkly, there is also something lacking in its message. Faced with so fraught a subject its words seem abstract, even inhumane.

I want to know what these teachings have to say to a woman experiencing the pain of an unwanted pregnancy, and contemplating the hardship and thwarted hopes an unwanted child would bring. What can they say to the guilt and confusion of many who have had abortions? Do these teachings simply compound that guilt with yet more religious disapproval? And do they imply that abortion should be made illegal, when doing so pushes it into an unregulated, inequitable back-street economy?

Such questions cannot be fully answered in this article, but it is instructive to consider why they have not yet been formulated. Damien Keown (who is not a practising Buddhist) suggested the reason lies in Buddhism’s role in Asia. ‘The Buddha was not concerned with reforming society, and subsequently institutional Buddhism has been driven by monks who see these as issues for lay-people. So it has backed away from many hard problems in favour of
world-renunciation.’ One reason for this is related to its greatest strength. The emphasis of Buddhist morality lies in the cultivation of personal virtue. Buddhism has precise instructions – such as the metta bhavana (development of loving-kindness) meditation practice – for becoming more morally sensitive, and aware of others. But Keown remarks, ‘Buddhism has avoided commenting on moral questions by saying that if one has the requisite qualities one will know what to do.’

The result in some Buddhist societies, so far as abortion is concerned, is what Keown calls ‘schizophrenia’. His book contains studies of Thailand, Korea and Japan, where abortion is common among Buddhist women. But it has been hidden away, little discussed, a cause of shame. Keown explained that Buddhism is now being confronted by issues it has hitherto avoided. ‘In the West Buddhism is a non-monastic phenomenon and westerners want moral guidance. But in the absence of Buddhist ethical literature teachers don’t know where to look for answers. So you get a response like "it’s up to you, find your own
way". Perhaps worst is the Zen emphasis on emptiness and saying there is no right or wrong, which doesn’t help in a moral context. It is up to western Buddhists to develop a proper response. That will be the main growth area in Buddhist thought.’

The limitations of Buddhism’s practical ethics may come as a surprise to those who see it as an ideal religion with the virtues but without the faults of western religions. But the sincere ethical enquirer is likely also to be disappointed by the discussion of abortion that has taken place in the West, with its emphasis on rights, legal definitions, and appeals to science. In the remainder of this article I want to explore ways in which the encounter of Buddhism and the western abortion debate might be fruitful for both.

The key question in the abortion debate is, when is the start of life which we can recognise as human? Since Christian morality ceased to define a consensus, western societies have looked to science for guidance and to the law for judgement. The challenge for the law is to define a point at which a fetus should be under its protection. Before this a fetus is considered part of a woman’s body, and abortion is equivalent to surgery. After it, the fetus is considered to have an independent identity, and it may not be aborted.

But when should that point be? Virabhadra, a member of the Western Buddhist Order and a consultant gynaecologist, is aware of current scientific understanding such as when the brain can support a consciousness that can feel pain, and when a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb. However, he emphasised that science cannot decide when a fetus is a being in its own right. For example, he said, ‘an embryo can’t survive without the mother until quite late in pregnancy, but the point at which a fetus can survive independently has come down as technology has advanced.’

Whatever point one chooses in the embryo’s development as constituting life seems arbitrary and artificial. It is one thing to describe changes, another to evaluate their significance, and yet another to decide how one should act upon them. As Virabhadra said, ‘Science cannot tell us what life is, nor whether it should be taken.’

The traditional Buddhist answer is more clear cut. Buddhism teaches that life starts with the conjunction of sperm, egg and the gandabbha (the consciousness that is reborn). For most Buddhist commentators and for some western Buddhists, that decides the issue. But I wonder if this is adequate. If the Buddhist position on abortion depends on a belief in rebirth, it will have nothing to say to those who do not share a conviction that rebirth occurs. This includes western society at large (including many western Buddhists) which is uncertain, agnostic or sceptical about rebirth.

The more one studies what Buddhist traditions have said about rebirth the more mysterious it seems. How can a very simple organism, such as a recently fertilised egg, be conscious in any recognisable sense of the term? And is it meaningful to speak of a consciousness that is seeking to express itself through such an organism? An embryo is a potential human being, but this is different from saying that something has been reborn. So Buddhists use metaphors that combine ideas of presence and potentiality, such as saying there ‘is’ a ‘seed’ of consciousness. However, an alternative Buddhist tradition (described in the Theravadin Katthavattu) argues that rebirth is a progressive process, lasting 11 weeks, that occurs as the fetus develops. So what implications might this have for abortion during that time?

It seems best to say that consciousness and human life are mysteries, and one looks in vain to Buddhism for explanations that clarify the mystery. Both Buddhism and science assert that the life of a human is a process which starts with conception. But to draw ethical conclusions one must consider the significance of the stages in that process. A plant is a form of life, and one’s fin#er is ‘alive’. But it isn’t unethical to dig up a potato, nor to cut one’s finger. The issue is not so much whether it is life but whether it is something we call human. The ethical question turns on when this ‘life’ becomes an ‘individual’ that will be affected by our actions.

Reflection on Buddhist teachings may suggest why the topic is elusive. If there is no soul or permanent, abiding self, and consciousness is a flux, then how can one speak of what it is to be alive and conscious? One can formulate cogent doctrinal descriptions, but there is something irreducible in the experience of being an individual separate from others, yet connected with them. What is it to think, to experience, to live? How, then, can one say what is reborn? When I reflect on the process of conception, gestation and birth I feel amazement and – to be honest – fear at nature’s mysterious power.

From this perspective one plainly cannot pin down questions of selfhood and identity. Similarly the question of when one should start to treat the fetus as human depends on conscience or moral sensibility. And one thing Buddhism can offer is an approach to learning how to listen to that conscience, and develop that sensibility.

I have asked many Buddhists from various traditions about their views on abortion and, while the overwhelming majority felt abortion was an ethical breach, their reasoning turned on a gut-felt, intuitive response to the question of when life starts. At the London Buddhist Centre Vimalachitta is responsible for working with women who are mitras or ‘friends’ in relation to the Western Buddhist Order. Mitras undertake to follow the five Buddhist precepts, including the precept of not taking life, with its implications for abortion. Vimalachitta reported that in her many conversations on abortion, rebirth rarely figures. She told me, however, that because of intuitive factors this issue is rarely a problem.

‘When people start meditating they almost always come to feel that an abortion would be taking life. There are concerns about what would happen in an extreme case (such as a pregnancy resulting from rape) but that is understandable. It helps when I explain that this is not a political statement, and when I say it does not mean you are condemning people who do choose to have abortions.’

This intuitive response to ethics seems to me to point to a dimension that has been missing from debate in the West. Buddhism can learn from the western tradition of ethical reasoning. Learning to think about ethical issues seems to be an important aspect of preparing ouselves to meet them: a crisis such as an unwanted pregnancy is probably the worst time to try to think clearly about right or wrong. But ethics usually concerns human relationships, and understanding these requires intuition, sensitivity and an emotionally integrated awareness of others. Then we need clarity and courage to draw conclusions and stick by them.

While researching this article I spoke to women who have had abortions, and I think their testimonies are important. I have space for just one case study. Lisa (not her real name) is an ordained Buddhist who teaches meditation and Buddhism in England. She had an abortion aged 28, before she became a Buddhist. ‘I was a student and a committed feminist trying to understand what it meant to be a woman at that time, the 1970s. I had no desire for kids, and ‘the woman’s right to choose’ was an article of faith for me; and for medical reasons there was also a chance that I would have a spontaneous abortion. So I immediately decided to have one. Moral considerations did not enter at all.’

However the abortion affected Lisa in unexpected ways. ‘I really underestimated the emotional impact. After the operation my response was, “Oh no, how dreadful.” The emotional distress I felt stayed with me a long time. I had made my decision intellectually, but in retrospect I think I cut off from my emotional responses. I had not anticipated that I would feel grief, and that there had been a death.’

Talking with other women who have had abortions I found frequent echoes of Lisa’s experience. They were unprepared for the actual experience of having an abortion, the instinctive sense that the fetus was alive. One person’s experience can never represent everyone’s, and responses to having an abortion do vary. Some women feel sadness, but not regret. Some say they would do the same thing again, given similar circumstances. Others wouldn’t. Intuitions are not arguments, but it seems important to value emotionally-aware responses such as Lisa’s and I wonder what happens when political views overlay them.

Ethical decisions involve value judgments, so it is inevitable that subjective factors enter. Scientists’ descriptions and legal definitions cannot tell us when humanity starts. The doctrines of Buddhism will persuade us only if we already have faith in them. But perhaps the feeling that abortion is wrong helps us to draw closer to a truth. For Buddhists it is ironic that the law seeks to define identity through separatenes. Buddhist ethics are based on the idea that we are not separate, all life is dependent on other life, and for that very reason it is natural to care about each other. Even after a baby is born it could not survive without the sustenance and protection of its mother. The language – of rights and legal identity – in which the abortion debate is framed seems inadequate to the subtle connections between mother and fetus, fetus and baby.

If reality is subtle and changing, then our understanding of it cannot be definitive or absolute; yet it seems wise to err on the side of ensuring that one is not causing harm. I do not know to what extent animals can suffer, but I choose to be vegetarian because I feel that they can, because there is some evidence that they do, and because I know that they might. So I may not be able to prove that a fetus has consciousness, can experience pain, or should be regarded as a human individual, but the fact that this may be the case is a decisive consideration for me.

Western discussions of abortion have been identified with the legal question of whether abortion should be permitted. This pulls it into a political arena, which is hardly suited to open-hearted reflection on the nature of life. It also mixes legal and moral issues. We tend to think that if abortion is legal that means it is right, but all it does is to move moral responsibility from the state to the mother. We speak of an individual’s ‘right to choose’ whether to have an abortion, but we speak too little of what that choice involves.

I like the suggestion of the Buddhist commentator in his book Inner Revolution. ‘Aware of the serious moral, physical and psychological consequences [of abortion], we should offer every facility and advantage to the woman who chooses to bring her baby to term … great honour and respect, excellent health care, good adoption programmes …’. This seems more constructive than the violent protests of American pro-lifers, but I am also aware that the facilities which Robert Thurman advocates are not available to many of those confronted by an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion presents a challenge to our compassion. This compassion must include the baby and the aborting mother, holding together their conflicting perspectives and their sad collision. So I would add to Thurman’s wish-list the kind of sensitive counselling for women considering abortion that helps the decision to be made in an atmosphere free from panic, fear or guilt. The days of ‘coffee-break abortions’ are long gone, and the decision to have an abortion is rarely taken without strong reasons. I am not arguing for making abortion illegal. The fact that debate has continued unresolved suggests there is genuine room for disagreement.

Damien Keown says, ‘Buddhism cannot offer a middle way on abortion, because it has already taken sides.’ Its contribution is a single, clear principle, the ethical precept of not taking life. But as I have explored this issue, spoken to those who have views on it, talked with women who have faced abortions, and considered the traditional teachings, I have understood more fully that the way this principle is implemented is as important as the principle itself. Perhaps the most important thing Buddhism can contribute to this ethical debate is a compassionate and engaged sensibility that seeks to be true to life’s difficulty and complexity.

Culture's Peak: an interview with Harold Bloom

by Vishvapani

When I first encountered Harold Bloom’s work, I discovered a remarkable mixture. Bloom is Professor of Humanities at Yale University, and is widely considered America’s leading literary critic. His many books combine an enormous breadth of reading with a great depth of response. He is both an upholder of western literary tradition and a radical critic of the ways it has been interpreted. He is ironic and sceptical, but in books such as the Anxiety of Influence and The Western Canon, he has championed an approach to literature that is based upon the concerns of spiritual life. In this way he opens up possibilities of looking to the western literary and spiritual traditions to fill the gap left by the conventional religions.

Bloom’s most recent book, Omens of Millennium, explores the preoccupations of contemporary spirituality in the light of the western mystical traditions of Gnosticism, the heretical counterpart of early Christianity; Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam; and kabbala, or Jewish mysticism.

Central to Bloom’s approach to both literature and religion is the idea of ‘the imaginal’, which he draws from Henri Corbin, the French writer on Sufism. This idea suggests the richest and deepest kinds of experience that can only be expressed in poetry or religious symbols. The imaginal, according to Bloom, ‘is a middle reality between ordinary perceptions and the realm of the divine. This middle world of angelic perception is equated with the human world of the awakened imagination, the dwelling place of sages and poets – and all of us in certain exalted or enlightened moments when we see, think and feel most lucidly’.

I first became familiar with the idea of the imaginal through the writing of Sangharakshita, my own Buddhist teacher, who emphasises the importance of cultivating ‘the imaginal faculty’, the ability to enter the world of an artistic or religious image, through meditation and aesthetic appreciation. Bloom’s approach has much in common with Buddhism, and offers a way to discern what is most valuable in western traditions, in the arts, and perhaps even in Buddhism itself. However, Bloom still uses traditional western religious terms, including God and ‘the self’.
Fulfilling a long-held ambition, I visited Bloom at his home in Connecticut, to explore the similarities and differences.

Dharma Life: In Omens of Millennium you speak of your rejection of the major western religious traditions, including their view of God, and you explore alternative ways of thinking about spiritual life. What did you reject?
Harold Bloom: I was raised in the Judaic tradition, but I am totally alienated from it. I have increasingly seen it as a terrible parody of what I regard as the authentic Jewish religion. What we call ‘normative Judaism’ is based on a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible, propagated in the 2nd century ce in Palestine by rabbis who were trying to meet the needs of the Jewish people under Roman occupation. To think that 1,800 years later it answers the realities of Jewish (or anyone’s) existence is preposterous. It accounts for so much of what is wrong with Israel and what is wrong with Jewish life in the us.
But I think that nothing can be done about this. A historical imposture that has lasted for 1,800 years will not be undone, just as the imposture of what absurdly calls itself Christianity, and has lasted 1,900 years, is not going to be undone. It seems that Buddhism is not so contaminated among most of its adherents by a false reading of its original texts as every variety of Christianity that I know.

V: In looking for viable spiritual alternatives you draw on the esoteric traditions of western religion – Gnosticism and kabbala. Why are you so drawn to these seemingly arcane traditions?
HB: I cannot hope to understand the religious history of the East. Hinduism is impenetrable to me. A number of my friends have become Buddhists – I estimate there must now be several million Buddhists in America. But for me Buddhism is barely available – I have tried, but I don’t think I understand it. So I am confined to the western tradition. That means I look at Judaic tradition, and what came after it in Christianity and Islam. And I find that all I can identify with are the heterodox elements – the traditions of ‘gnosis’ or ‘knowing’ in its various manifestations.
If I look at Classical thought, I can only identify with a particular strain in Platonism, which in turn engenders the vast neo-Platonic tradition, and then rejoins the Gnostic tradition, in Hermetism. The early Hermetic circles were confined to a very few people who were evidently secular, philosophical and scholarly, but they have had a vast influence on western literature. Again and again when you have poetry that is aware of itself as poetry, Hermetic elements reappear. This happens with William Blake, with the French Symbolists, with the High Romantics, with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the us. That seems to be most available to me.
What fascinates me about Sufi texts as expounded by Henri Corbin – the indispensable guide to Sufi tradition and a grand writer – is that they turn invariably on the notion of the imaginal, which they speak of as ‘the angelic world’. It is a notion implicit in Hermetism, which I first came to know through my study of Kabbala. The imaginal is that realm which is available to us in many guises, aesthetic and not at all aesthetic, which is neither the super-sensible nor the empirical. It is what Corbin calls ‘the middle territory’.

V: ‘The imaginal’ suggests the realm of the imagination. But when you speak of the angelic realm, I am reminded of Wallace Stevens’s phrase ‘the necessary angel’, which suggests there are some truths and experiences that can only be expressed through images or symbols. Why are angels ‘necessary’? Why do we need images to apprehend the spiritual?
HB: The traditions of western heterodox spirituality that fascinate me have always been concerned with image-thinking. Poets do not conceive without imaging. Plato himself is the most powerful of image-thinkers. The Yahwist [the original biblical writer], who is the gateway to a more archaic Jewish religion, is a great image-thinker. Jacob’s encounter with the angel cannot be regarded as literal, and therefore must be seen as an enormous image. The Yahwistic account of the creation is an ironically humorous image. God makes a mud-pie, and breathes into it! I don’t know if any spiritual traditions are possible without images. In every Buddhist text I know there is extraordinarily beautiful image-thinking.

V: The implication seems to be that if we ponder such images deeply enough we can have access to the realms of experience from which they arise. Could you say something about your own explorations of the imaginal in your engagement with western literature?
HB: I have used the concept very much in my work, though I have found alternative ways of talking about it. I am now writing – you see the evidence piled up around me – a vast book on Shakespeare and Imagination, which I have been trying to write for the past 11 or 12 years. I don’t think I will actually use the term ‘imaginal’ in the book, but I will use the concept, drawing my terms from Shakespeare himself.
Shakespeare is the greatest inventor of character, and I believe he is the inventor of the human as we know it in the West. I think Shakespeare’s also the greatest master of the imaginal. For instance, the world of the Romances, where we think of things as supernatural or preternatural, is simply the exercise of the imaginal. This is perhaps more suggestive than anything in Dante because it is so ambiguous. There is a kind of glancing upward from the human condition to something beyond the human condition.

V: This implies that in investigating poetry you are also investigating how the human mind makes sense of reality in ways that go beyond ideas and concepts. Could you talk about how this process works?
HB: In his death poem, Of Mere Being, Wallace Stevens uses the image of ‘the palm at the end of the mind’. I don’t know if he was aware that it was a Sufi image. The Sufi Ibn Arabi says, when God formed Adam from the moistened red clay into which he breathed, there was a certain lump left over that he couldn’t put into the Adam figure and from which he made the palm tree. Stevens says:

The palm at the end of the mind
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance … on the edge of space

Here we are surely in the realm of the imaginal. It is a reaching towards what would have to be called the super-sensible, yet Stevens is a wholly secular and naturalistic poet. Simply because he executes the full range of the poetic imagination, he finds himself again and again in the imaginal realm. He defines the imaginal in the America of his day. Just before he left for the hospital to die of cancer, Stevens wrote the last lines of the poem:
The bird sings, its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in its branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
The last words of a master. ‘Fire-fangled’ means fashioned out of fire, so the bird is a kind of phoenix. He did not overtly think the poem was about resurrection, but I interpret it implicitly in that highly Gnostic sense of resurrection. As the Gnostic Valentinian gospel says: ‘Christ was resurrected, he rose, and then he died’. The resurrection takes place in this life. That view is purely American. The American relation to Jesus is one of knowing yourself resurrected in this life. By being ‘born again’ American Christians mean something much more graphic than European Christians ever meant.

V: When we move from the sphere of literature to the sphere of religion, one of the differences is that religion in the West has traditionally involved belief. Your emphasis on the imaginal seems to be an alternative approach, and yet from a Buddhist point of view it is striking that you use certain terms (such as God and the self) drawn from the theistic traditions, which Buddhism would reject. Why bring God into it?
HB: The deepest influence on me since my own ‘middle of the journey’ crisis around 1965 has been Emerson. I am always battling with friends like Richard Poirier who, like myself, argue for Emerson’s centrality in American literature, thought and existence, but who want to despiritualise him. It is Emerson who insists on bringing God into it, because he says, ‘it is God in you who speaks to another or hears his own words on the lips of another’.
But also it is an experiential matter for me, as it was for Emerson. I do believe – in fact I know – there is a best and oldest part of oneself, and that best and oldest part seems to me definitive of God. That hardly means I am sitting here as a representative of God. I am certainly no such thing. Finding that best and oldest part of one, that spark or pneuma as the Gnostics call it, is not easy. I can’t get at it. There is so much rubble in the self. You have to burrow down and try to get at the original spark and usually the effort does not work. Occasionally it does manifest itself, but most of the time I am not in communion with the best and oldest part of myself – alas. I am far too imperfect an old wreck for that.

V: You say that to understand literature or religion ‘the only method is the method of the self’ – experience is the only touchstone. Can you say more?
HB: I think everything else is a delusion, or an imposition, or yielding to someone else’s self. Anything else is inauthentic.

V: Your critics say that by insisting on this you deny social and political realities, and even risk falling into solipsism or relativism. When one moves from questions of literary response to questions of religious truth, many people would find the method of the self inadequate if it denies the possibility of ‘objective’ truth.
HB: We cannot get at anything ultimately authentic outside of ourselves – outside our experience – so we have to look into what we understand by the self. Here my understanding of the self comes out of the complexities in Gnosticism. There are two selves. One is a self-aggrandising, or outward self, which is what Meister Eckhart meant when he said so fiercely that ‘only the self burns in hell’. But the other self is what Whitman calls ‘the real Me, or Me myself’, what Emerson calls ‘part or particle of God’. Emerson does not mean the outwardly aggressive, accumulative self. He means something else, and I do also.
When I use the term I mean what Gnosticism calls the individual spark or breath, which is what remains of the authentic God in one. But my academic critics, who are preoccupied with what they assert are communal (i.e. political) concerns, are not going to understand this. That is why you get the developments in modern academic life, which I call ‘the school of resentment’. In a Buddhist context, where I would agree with the rejection of the limited self, I do not think I would face so many misunderstandings.

V: There seems a strong tendency to literalise images, which is perhaps the origin of conventional religion. Instead you try to see the imaginal in its own terms. Most writers on religion or literature, however, tend to ‘interpret down’ something that is expressed in images and symbols into a system of rational thought.
HB: Far from understanding poetry to be ‘spilled religion’, as Matthew Arnold considered it, I’ve always thought religion is spilled poetry. I try to interpret religious or poetic symbols upwards – to apprehend at a distance those elements in the imaginal which really do intimate something that goes beyond the realm of the aesthetic and seems to knock at the gates of the super-sensible.
In my writing and thinking I try to establish a ‘modern Gnostic’ version of the imaginal. I draw on Romantic and post-Romantic literature for my vocabulary because of its intense implicit Gnosticism – its insistence on the direct experience of knowing, which creates its own images. I utilise that as a vocabulary for the imaginal. But I cannot say that I have as yet made such a project cohere, though I am trying, with help from Shakespeare.

V: Your recent work in religious criticism has grown out of your career as a literary critic. How did that change take place? Was it because you came to see poetry in more or less religious terms?
HB: I would emphasise that my work is religious criticism, not religious writing. I have not learned to cross the divide – I am far too limited in the religious sphere. I want to make the right distinctions and help others to do so. But I cannot become a religious teacher because I have no light of my own to dispense.
I am not so sure there has been any fundamental change in my approach to poetry, but my work has moved into new areas and I think Shakespeare has made the difference. The distinction between secular and sacred vanishes when you invoke Shakespeare. He is not a Christian dramatist, and yet he is not an anti-Christian dramatist. GK Chesterton brilliantly said that although he wanted to make Shakespeare into a Catholic writer, he couldn’t because what Shakespeare essentially shows is ‘great spirits in chains’. And that isn’t the Christian vision. I agree.

V: In The Western Canon you are highly critical of recent developments in academic approaches to literature, such as ‘cultural materialism’, which are mainly concerned with political agendas. Does literary study still offer this training in the imagination?
HB: There is always the hope that we might revive the study of literature as one which takes the images of literature seriously again. But I think that is a dream. The study of literature in the West has been effectively destroyed. It will certainly not revive in the academies. It is by no means dead among common or general readers, as my correspondence shows. Every time a new translation of The Western Canon appears I am deluged with letters from readers who dislike what the academic study of literature has become, because it belies their experience.
Traditional literary study teaches you not to reduce the image. It takes images very seriously indeed as ways of structuring reality. The leading literary critics of the 20th century – Wilson Knight, Northrop Frye, even a secular figure like Kenneth Burke – taught that everything depends upon the sanctity of the image. It must not be reduced or discarded, and one must not try to find a cognitive substitute for it.

V: Can the tradition of western literature provide an alternative canon to that of theistic traditions, a source of spiritual nourishment from within western culture?
HB: That is a fascinating suggestion and it runs counter to current fashion in the us and Britain, particularly in the universities. It is what I suppose I stand for, or battle for. But it is an extremely optimistic notion. People who are supposed to be students of literature and scholars of the literary canon have turned against it with a horrible odium.
None the less, what is still most available to us, as a gateway to the imaginal, is indeed the literary tradition – if only we knew how to get at it. When you read texts from kabbala, Sufism or Gnosticism, they retain an arcane aspect. Something that does not lose the aura of the esoteric is, in a sense, never fully ‘available’. But the literary tradition is not arcane, even if its spiritual aspects are becoming arcane, because it has been so hideously politicised and it is so badly taught – where it is taught at all.
Shakespeare is available. So is Dante, though to fewer people as he is more abstruse. Blake is available, though not perhaps when he is most fully himself in the Prophetic Books; Whitman is available, though he has been so badly expounded and it has become difficult to see that he is indeed a religious writer. The idea of aesthetic experience still has a universal aspect.
So, for me at least, the aesthetic can provide a gateway to the imaginal. I find myself happiest and most at home when I teach Shakespeare. In trying accurately to expound Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or the high comedies, it seems as if I am closest to my own spiritual experience. I cannot regard Blake as other than a spiritual preceptor on the one hand, and on the other hand a very great aesthetic phenomenon. What moves me in the Hermetic writings, or Sufi texts, is the image-making power that is involved. To me the aesthetic is the imaginal. The heterodox tradition in the West is the imaginal, and the two fuse.

first published in Dharma Life 5, Summer 1997

Responses to September 11th

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last year airport security was dramatically tightened. News reports showed proud security guards parading huge piles of penknives, letter openers and kitchen knives they had confiscated from hapless travelers.

There was a buzz on the Buddhist circuit, too. Everyone felt affected, and we all wanted to have a response. Governments spoke of revenge and plotted war, while Buddhists expressed shock: ‘We stand against all this,’ commentator after commentator pronounced. And ‘all this’ included not only terrorism, but also western warmongering.
But these responses – the photo-opportunities, the e-mails, the peace marches – were made in the heat of the moment. In retrospect they seem like ways of restoring our sense of identity, and telling ourselves we are in charge after all. The wave of nationalism that has engulfed America is an attempt to restore the equilibrium of those whose identity depends upon the solidity of American culture. But the converse is true of those whose sympathies are counter-cultural (including most Buddhists in the West), and their automatic opposition to the responses of governments seems no less an emotional reaction.
Perhaps, many months on, it is time for us to reconsider. The worst time to think about issues of war and peace is when a war is underway. We are caught in a maelstrom of nationalist and anti-nationalist sentiment, and deluged by media images and comment that includes both propaganda and the wariness of journalists afraid of being used.

Our reactions came from trauma. I watched aghast as those great towers crumbled, and found myself buffeted by a whirl of images, and swirling speculation: the faces, the deaths and, above all, the sense that for a couple of hours the world was out of control. Like many others I felt I had undergone a horrifying experience. Only I hadn’t. Not directly. That sense of involvement came from the deceptive immediacy of television. Across the world we felt disproportionately affected as our categories collapsed along with those towers.

I have no answers to whether or not wars are ever justified, but I would like to make two points. Firstly, our shock at September 11 suggests we have paid insufficient attention to the Buddha’s teaching of dukkha. Life is full of suffering, he said. That means the world is the kind of place where terrorist attacks occur, and wars are waged in response: there are atrocities and disasters every day that fail to capture our attention because they are absent from the media, or affect less iconic targets. The Buddha told us that such things happen, have always happened, and that we cannot stop them from happening again.

This acknowledgement is not callous or cynical. Being simply the truth, it is the only possible basis for the calm the Buddha also recommended. The fact that evils are endemic does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent them, but merely that the latest one need not throw us, however graphically it is presented. Such equanimity is a basis for finding a wise and compassionate response that goes beyond impotent assertions that ‘Hatred is not overcome by hatred, hatred is only overcome by love’.

This cannot be just a matter of forming an opinion for or against when war breaks out. The whole of our lives needs to be a response to dukkha – namely cultivating awareness of suffering and trying to do something about it. To my surprise, I noticed that some of those who feel most confident that they are leading meaningful lives which address suffering and its causes were least affected by the events of September 11.

Secondly, we need to inoculate ourselves against simple, moralising responses to complex events. The principal contribution that Buddhists can offer the world is exemplifying an alternative way of life to conflict and hatred. And we can hardly advocate or support war without compromising this example. However, we must pause before jumping into opposition. Military action is not necessarily blind belligerence and it may sometimes find a legitimate justification in such reasons as deterrence and prevention. Anglo-American military action in Afghanistan has caused death and bloodshed. But would there be less violence in the world if nothing had been done?

It is too easy to adopt a purist opposition to military action, when we have no responsibility for the consequences of choosing or not choosing it. We must resist the consolations of the sense of rectitude this offers. The forces that lead to war often cannot be circumvented or transcended; world politics is intractably complex and demonstrates a second key Buddhist teaching ­– that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. We cannot judge September 11 or the War on Terrorism in isolation. Each is an aspect of a vast web of conditions and connections.

I recently encountered the following scenario when I re-read the poet John Milton. The Palestinians (aka Philistines) have conquered Israel, and rule it from Gaza City. Samson, the Israeli resistance leader, (a ‘terrorist’ to his foes) has been captured through the covert action of a Philistine agent, Delilah. In violation of human rights, he is tortured, blinded and assigned to forced labour at Gaza Mill. Yet he still exacts a fearsome revenge against the Philistines’ twin towers.

‘As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, these two massy pillars
With horrible convulsions to and fro
He tugged, he shook, till down they came and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath.’
(Samson Agonistes)

Is this past, present or future? The world has spun for eternity. We wish it would stop, and that the tensions of history might settle into a loving harmony. But the wheel won’t stop – although Buddhism tells us that we can step off it – and political leaders have to cope with its chaotic motion. We are legatees of the past and debtors of the future. And thus the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

Bodh Gaya’s Giant Maitreya Statue

Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha gained Enlightenment, is especially important to Buddhists the world over. The sixth-century Mahabodhi Temple is the focus for pilgrims from around the globe, and in recent years temples and monasteries built by Buddhist organisations from across Asia have sprung up nearby. Soon an enormous golden statue of Maitreya Buddha will dominate it all.

Before his death, Lama Yeshe, the revered founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Teaching (fpmt), urged his disciples to build a statue of the Buddha Maitreya at Bodh Gaya. ‘It should be huge,’ he said. ‘As big as possible’. Spearheaded by entrepreneur Peter Kedge, the Maitreya Project is planning to erect the largest statue in the world – to reach 500 feet and to last 1,000 years. It will dwarf the world’s largest statue in China, and the 150ft Statue of Liberty would barely reach its knees.

The figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, will be filled with millions of mantras, relics and sacred objects. The throne will itself be a huge temple of staggering opulence featuring, for example, important Buddhist sutras written in gold, pearls, or semi-precious stones. The statue will sit in 40 acres of landscaped grounds, including a complex of monasteries, meditation pavilions, a hospital and guest houses. The organisers estimate the whole complex will cost $20 million, but some observers expect the final cost to be much higher.

The statue will probably be cast in bronze and will have to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. It is due to be finished in 2003, while the whole project will be completed two years later. However, executing such a complex feat of engineering in a region so short of infrastructure and skilled labour could bring many technical difficulties. The whole project is a magnet for both excitement and criticism.

Bihar, the poorest state in India, is famous for its lawlessness. And, despite the economic benefits of the tourists and pilgrims to Bodh Gaya, the local town is no exception. Many inhabitants are illiterate and have no access to primary health care. So the lavishness of the project has drawn criticism from some western Buddhists and local aid workers. But the latter are wary of criticising the project publicly for fear of disapproval from the local government, which is keen to attract foreign investment and tourism. According to one aid worker, ‘The hardest thing to stomach is the sheer amount of money that is being spent, when just a tiny proportion could make a huge difference to health or education in the local town.’ Last winter two children froze to death in a school at Bodh Gaya, because it had no blankets.

The gulf between the surrounding poverty and the wealth being poured into the Maitreya Project (known locally as ‘Buddhaland’) causes a number of quite practical problems. Temples and guest houses in Bodh Gaya, built on a far less lavish scale, are already vulnerable to attack by the region’s many ‘bandits’, and some employ armed guards. The new temple faces the prospect of being ringed by intensive military-style protection. The project also has to negotiate the prevalence of local corruption.

Supporters of the project argue that the money spent on the project will ‘trickle down’ to the local population, in the form of building contracts and employment. But local aid workers are sceptical. ‘Experience has tended to show that contracts for huge prestige projects do not go to local people but to companies operating at a national or even multi-national level.’ However, alongside the Maitreya Project, FPMT Buddhists also run the Maitri Leprosy Centre, as well as primary health-care and education projects, which provide real help to local people. In 1998 the original plans were extended to include a hospital in the grounds, although further details were not available.

The Project organisers also emphasise the potential benefits to pilgrims. The publicity material claims ‘it will create facilities of an international standard and offer many facilities that are not widely available in Bodh Gaya’. Yet certain leading local Buddhists complain that the new statue will detract from the Mahabodhi Temple itself. ‘This is an aesthetic issue that will affect all Buddhists,’ one commented. ‘There would be uproar if this happened at a Christian pilgrimage site.’

Other criticisms have been levelled at the spiritual basis of the donations. Peter Kedge is leading a huge fund-raising drive in Taiwan, Singapore, China and Japan, attracting wealthy Buddhists as well as ordinary devotees. The promotional material highlights the value of ‘making merit’ through giving money. While traditional within Mahayana Buddhism, this line smacks of ‘spiritual materialism’ to many Buddhists in the West. It promises that ‘those who sponsor or help to erect this statue will be the first disciples of Maitreya Buddha when he comes to this world.’ It also quotes a sutra promising that those who erect statues will not be reborn as slaves, poor, workers for a low salary, women, or disabled people.

The organisers use similar logic to argue that the statue will benefit locals. Rilbur Rimpoche says, ‘The people around Bodh Gaya will sow seeds of liberation and omniscience just by seeing the statue, hearing and remembering it’. From this point of view it does not matter that local people may have no understanding of what the statue represents because everything done towards a Buddha ‘is a cause for Enlightenment without depending on Dharma motivation’. IDP literature also controversially asserts: ‘Even the poor people who offer only five paisa will purify their negative karma of poverty and sickness and create the cause of wealth, happiness and peace.’

Justification for the statue is perhaps similar as for Europe’s great cathedrals (constructed amid similar deprivation): a monument to the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the values he represents will have a positive impact across the world. But this also means the ethical issues raised by the project will be subjected to intense scrutiny. Bodh Gaya is a special place for all Buddhists and this statue will profoundly alter its character.

Until now there has been little public debate about the statue in the Buddhist community, and criticism from within the fpmt itself has foundered because it was Lama Yeshe’s dying wish. Christopher Titmuss, who leads retreats at Bodh Gaya, has been an outspoken critic. He described the Maitreya Project as ‘wholly inappropriate and deeply distasteful’. The Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor believes ‘the project plays into the worst kind of Asian Buddhism. The crazy competition to build the biggest statue goes down well in Taiwan and Singapore, but it really is just atavistic superstition’.

Behind the varying responses lie different interpretations of Buddhism. For most followers of Tibetan Buddhism there is no moral conflict between the notions of making merit and the broad Buddhist goal of mental and spiritual development; for other Buddhists these two are profoundly at odds. As these perspectives collide in the modern world, it grows ever more vital that such differences are recognised and discussed.

Comment by Vishvapani www.vishvapani.org

Dharma Life 10, Spring 1999

Entering the Buddha’s Realm

The Buddha said that his teaching was both ‘strange’ and ‘wonderful’, and the word ‘realm’ suggests the same. A ‘realm’ is a region presided over by a ruler, a kingdom, and it’s an archaic word, suggesting something romantic and mysterious, like ‘the realms of gold’, through which John Keats says he passed in his journeys through literature.

On the one hand the Buddha and the Dharma are very down to earth. The Buddha continually reminded people to be alert to the present moment and what is actually happening. His key insights were into things you can easily verify by observing the world around you: that everything is impermanent, for example. But on the other hand it would be a mistake to think that the Buddha is just like you or me, and that the state of enlightenment he describes is just like our ordinary experience minus the anxiety and grumpiness. The Buddha also comes from another world, a world which is very strange and quite beyond anything we already know. The Buddha has been described in the West in many ways: as a philosopher, a psychologist, a social reformer, and a religious teacher like the other teachers who we think we understand. Sometimes descriptions like these can suggest useful points of comparison, but if we take them literally they are just as likely to mislead us. We might be better off thinking that the Buddha is a mystery: not a muddle and not an enigma, but something that we cannot understand through concepts alone.

Perhaps a key to reconciling these two perspectives on the Buddha and the Dharma is in the experience that you can have when you connect strongly with Buddhist teachings. If you become deeply engaged with meditation you can feel that you are connecting with yourself more truly than you have for a long time, even that you are able to experience yourself – to be yourself – more fully than you ever have in your life. When you have such an experience you also feel that it is just the start: that if only you could say connected to that way of being it would unfold more and more fully. Or sometimes a truth, such as the teaching of impermanence, can strike you with a stunning force – for example if a relationship ends or someone you love dies – and along with the pain is a sense of touching something more real and more true than your daily life. And you sense that this is something you have always known somewhere deep down, and perhaps you have forgotten. In the Buddha’s teaching we could say (as the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it) ‘we recognise our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.’

The realm disclosed by the Buddha’s teachings is wonderful for the same reason: because it tells us something that we may have always known and forgotten, but which we certainly don’t know in our present experience. But there is also a sense, when we engage deeply with the Buddha’s teaching, that we are being told something that is absolutely new – not because it is novel, but because its truth is as fresh and penetrating now as it has ever been. This is the sense in which the Dharma is wonderful. Plato says that philosophy begins with wonder, and the same is also true of the spiritual life. It grows from the sense that the universe we inhabit is vast beyond imagining, and the possibilities of our human lives are similarly incalculable.

Returning to the quotation from Emerson, the question arises, if these really are our own thoughts then why should we have rejected them. Emerson himself says that it is because we are fooled into thinking that other people’s thoughts are more important than our own. This is conformity, the tendency to think that others know best and that we should keep quiet and fit in. Emerson’s antidote to this, which is also very Buddhist, is to ‘learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across the mind from within’. These insights do flash into our mind, only we do not have the habit of noticing them, and they offer the opportunity to discover our selves in their glow.

But perhaps there is another reason as well. Perhaps we turn from such understanding because we are afraid of what our deepest understanding tells us: afraid of the challenge it poses our habits, the thousand ways we have found to make our lives comfortable. And perhaps we also sometimes have the same response to the Dharma itself, the Buddha’s reminder to us of what we might be.

The Buddha’s teaching does not come down to concepts such as the eightfold path or the four kinds of emptiness; it isn’t about stories or symbols or rituals or the other things we associate with religion. Perhaps it is best to say that it comes down to an orientation. This doesn’t mean becoming oriental, it means a direction we can take in our lives. Following the Buddhist path means becoming more kind and more aware, but we can go further than that. It means travelling more and more in the direction of truth, and away from ignorance and concealment about the real nature of ourselves, our lives and our connectedness with others. And it means travelling more and more in the direction of freedom. So not only is the Buddha described as being awakened, wise and compassionate, he is also described as being free, and the Dharma is the path of liberation.

Siddhartha’s Going Forth

But what are we freeing ourselves from, and what are we freeing ourselves for? An incident from the life of the Buddha tells the story of the start of his journey to freedom, when he was known as Prince Siddhartha. The well-known legend of the Buddha’s upbringing describes how he was protected from ugliness and suffering, and surrounded only by the young and beautiful. But his dream of pleasure was interrupted by what came to be known as the Four Sights: travelling outside his palace he encountered an old person, a sick person and a corpse, and he understood fully and finally that these were parts of life. Maybe, we can imagine, he had seen such people before, but this time he saw them afresh and realised that they challenged everything he held dear.

But there was a forth sight in addition to the old person, sick person and corpse. Siddhartha also saw a wandering monk or sadhu, a yellow-robed spiritual seeker who had left behind the worldly life. The sight of this person affected Siddhartha just as deeply as the others and seemed to suggest a way forward. He would have known that in the forest lived other monks, who devoted themselves to seeking the meaning of life through meditation and philosophy. There were rumoured to be great masters who could dwell for weeks in a blissful trance, or go for months without eating. Perhaps, he may have wondered, he could find among them a teacher who would help him answer his questions. One thing was for sure, a life in which one did not try to find a way to overcome human suffering was not worth living. It was a lie or an evasion.

So it was, the legends tell us, that In the middle of the night Siddhartha quietly rose from his bed, and the Palace was asleep as he stole through its noiseless corridors to where Chanda, his charioteer, was waiting. They rode into the night, and even the hoof-beats of their horses seemed muffled. On the brow of a hill they paused to look back on the sleeping town while the night-sky glittered above them like a thousand gods offering their blessings. At dawn they crossed the border to the neighbouring kingdom of Magadha and rode on to the edge of the forest. Siddhartha drew his knife from its sheath and knelt down as he cut away at his hair. It lay on the ground like the past he was leaving behind.

This episode has become known as the Going Forth, and the image of leaving behind the world and its pursuits has inspired Buddhism ever since. Siddhartha went forth from one lifestyle into another, a life of renunciation and intense practice. We may not be in a position to follow him all the way into the forest, but he was also leaving behind a set of attitudes and attachments that fettered him spiritually. Whatever lifestyle we adopt, if we are to follow the Buddha at all, we need to ask what holds us back, and how we can let go.

This connects with the question, what is freedom? America describes itself as the ‘land of the free’ and the Declaration of Independence speaks of the ‘unalienable Rights’ to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Leaving aside the equally thorny question of what really makes us happy, this leaves us asking, what is liberty? The Buddha’s key insight was that true freedom is not to be found in free speech, free trade or even free love, fine though these may be. It is to be found within, in freedom from what the English poet William Blake called ‘the mind-forged manacles’: the tendencies that cause us to constrain and limit ourselves, and which lead to the world’s other oppressions. As the Buddha endlessly repeated, ‘All things proceed from the mind’.

The Three Fetters

Following his Awakening the Buddha described the spiritual path in numerous ways and one of these formulations speaks of breaking ten fetters: or we might say the chains and shackles, the constraints and impediments that bind us to our limitations. The fact that there are ten of these suggests that our tendency to restrict ourselves goes very deep, but it is traditionally said that we can focus on just the first three, because if these are broken we ‘enter the stream’ meaning that we have liberated within ourselves powerful spiritual forces that will surely continue to carry us forward.

The traditional formulations of these fetters are: having a fixed view of self; doubt and indecision in regard to the Dharma; and attachment to rites and rituals as ends in themselves. These may sound a little abstract, but I want to look at them in the way Sangharakshita, our teacher at this centre, has reformulated them. He translates the traditional terms into three tendencies that are very down to earth and relevant, whoever we may be. These are habit, vagueness and superficiality.


Habit means our tendencies and dispositions, and we would all accept that we have some habits. We tend to notice habits most when we attempt to change them or when circumstances change. The New Year always seems like a good opportunity to try to shift some habits, like giving up smoking, or losing weight, or taking up exercise or maybe setting up a meditation practice. Resolutions are excellent, but often when we make them we discover unsuspected regions of resistance. If you try to lose weight you will become aware of your eating habits. And if you try to get up earlier in order to meditate, you will probably become aware of your habitual desire to sleep in and be comfortable.

To speak of habit as a fetter is not to say that all our habits are bad, though some may be very harmful. It means that they constrain us from being free to act in the ways we want to and in accordance with what is best in us. Another example, which suggests how deep our habits go, is the experience we often have when we sit down to meditate. If we look carefully at our experience, we can identify certain impediments to meditation. These are tendencies in the mind that rebel against our efforts to be focused, calm and positive. The mind goes chasing after stimulation; it pushes away thoughts that are unpleasant; it gets agitated and restless; it wavers in uncertainty; or it gives up and we find ourselves falling asleep. These ‘five hindrances’ are habits of thought. They don’t start when we sit down to meditate, they are there all the time, its just that when we try to alter our state of mind through meditation we become aware of them.

In the story of Siddhartha’s Going Forth, when he sees the Four Sights the young prince becomes aware of his habitual views of the world as pleasant and comfortable. And from these views arose a lifestyle – habitual ways of living and operating. In going forth from the palace life he was leaving behind everything that was known and familiar and the habits of seeking satisfaction from the material pleasures.

Siddhartha in the story had been brainwashed by his father, who wanted to seclude him from the harsh side of life so that he would become King after him, rather than following the path of renunciation. That may seem the stuff of fairy stories, but our own culture, we could say, brainwashes us, influences us to accept certain values and the behaviour that follows from them. Entire industries, abetted by advertising, are devoted to turning us into consumers, who will keep the economy growing by desiring and purchasing their goods. We come to believe that we need to have a certain income, drive a certain kind of car, dress a particular way or get stimulation from this week’s package of entertainment. And even if we don’t respond, our children probably will. Advertising aims to instil consuming habits in us, and pretty soon, we’re sold.

So one of Buddhism’s teachings that is more relevant now than ever before is the emphasis on contentment and leading a simple life. We may not be about to walk off into a forest, but we can look at how we spend our money and what we do with our time and, rather than searching out more of everything, we can ask how we can be more content with less, and how we can simplify things.

Overcoming the fetter of habit means being open to our experience: what our life is really telling us, not the old story we have pre-packaged. This is why the traditional formulation says that we overcome our ‘fixed self-view’. We get away from the idea that are stuck with ourselves exactly as we are. But saying that we have no fixed self view doesn’t mean that we have no character. As Sangharakshita puts it: ‘It is not so much that we never have a self as that we always have a new self. And if each new self is better than the last, then we can say that spiritual progress is taking place. The opposite of habit is creativity.


Habit is really the fundamental fetter, and all the others could be seen as aspects of this overarching tendency, so I will deal with them a little more briefly. Vagueness, or doubt could be seen as another kind of habit: it is the persistent wish to avoid making decisions, forming definite views and opinions, or knowing who we are. This is different from the uncertainty that comes with critical thinking: if we cannot genuinely be sure about something then we need to be aware of that. This is an emotional predisposition to be unclear and uncommitted.

Why should human beings do that? Well, if, as I suggested earlier, we really do already have an intuitive sense of the truth, even if that is deeply buried, then the reason for us to remain vague is obvious. If we were to become clearer we would have to act, we would have to change our lives so that they were more in keeping with our ideals. So the antidote to vagueness is clarity: having the courage to see when we are failing to act and prefer to remain in a comfortable state of indecision, protected from outside influences. We can develop this for ourselves, or be shocked into it by circumstances, as Siddhartha was when he saw the old man, the sick man and the corpse, but when clarity comes we betray only ourselves if we fail to follow it.


The third of these fetters is superficiality, or in the traditional formulation, ‘attachment to rites and rituals as ends in themselves’. The traditional form sounds as if it is referring to a religious context but, as ‘superficiality’ suggests, its implications go much further. This is our tendency to stay on the surface of our experience without putting ourselves into anything fully or wholeheartedly.

In any aspect of our lives, whether it is our career, social life, our love life or our spiritual life we find that we achieve most when we are wholehearted. But often our ideas are telling us one thing while our emotions are saying something quite different. We think we want to lose weight or take up meditation, but our emotions haven’t signed up. So our engagement is with the surface of things.

Superficiality also means taking the means for the ends. Perhaps we take up meditation for straightforward reasons to do with wanting to be calmer and kinder, but if we make a little progress we can get excited, and imagine that it will make us more attractive and advance our career, or subtly flatter the sense that we are special and better than others. In the history of religions this tendency to make spiritual practices into props for the ego is very evident.

The antidote to superficiality is commitment: developing the capacity to engage with the whole of ourselves and see through our engagement. It also means staying faithful to our truest motivations and aspirations. The image of the Buddha leaving behind his comforts and heading into the unknown for the sake of what he believed to be most true and valuable captures the quality of commitment. He wasn’t interested in having a role, not even that of a holy man. His search was for liberation.

Breaking these fetters of habit, vagueness and superficiality and developing the qualities of creativity, clarity and commitment may sound daunting, but it can be a gradual process. It can be painful to give things up, to go forth, but it is also exhilarating. With each step in the direction of these qualities we enter just a little more into the realm of the Buddha, and discover a little more fully just how strange it is, and just how wonderful. And as we do so, step by step we will follow the Siddhartha into that great forest.

Picture the scene. Chanda turned the horses, shaking his head, and rode away. Siddhartha turned to look at the path leading before him into the forest. The trees loomed, and their soaring branches looked to him like arms opening to greet him. The cool, green light within the woods seemed a refuge. And the whisper of the wind in the leaves seemed to call him to a new life away from the world.

He was no longer a prince, no longer a husband; he was nobody, and he had nothing. It was the greatest adventure he had ever known.
January 20th 2005