This blog hosts an archive of my writing. You can find new writing, including my Thought for the Day broadcasts on my Wise Attention blog (www.WiseAttention.org). Use the sidebar links to find out about my new biography of the Buddha and my mindfulness teaching work, including telephone coaching

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

Prajnaparamita Puja

Composed by Vishvapani

1. Worship

Om namo bhagavatyai aryaprajñaparamitayai
Om namo bhagavatyai aryaprajñaparamitayai
Om namo bhagavatyai aryaprajñaparamitayai

Bright queen of the sky,
Radiant in glory,
Brilliant you shine
Like the sun at its height.
And far spread your beams
Through infinite space.
Piercing the gloom
Like dawn's gentle rays.

O bringer of vision
To those who are lost,
And stumble in darkness
In the thick night;
O beacon of wisdom,
Dispeller of darkness,
Destroyer of craving -
Illumine my life.

mantra: om ah dhih hum svah

2. Salutation

Gold is your body
Like ripening corn;
Blue are your eyes,
Gazing far inward;
And dark is your hair
As it falls by your side.
Jewels adorn you
And silks flow upon you.
You are seated serene,
Poised in Samadhi,
Perfectly still
In the infinite sky.

3. Confession

Om svabhava suddha sarvadharmah svabhava suddho ham
Om svabhava suddha sarvadharmah svabhava suddho ham
Om svabhava suddha sarvadharmah svabhava suddho ham

Mother of Buddhas
And all of the wisdoms,
Knower of essence,
And bearer of jñana,
Sunyata's emblem:
Please hear me confess.

When I have been unskillful with my body
I have forgotten you;
When I have been unskillful with my speech
I have forgotten you;
When I have been unskillful with my mind
I have forgotten you;
In many ways, at many times, in many places,
I have forgotten you.

I confess all my failings,
My weakness, my blindness
O hear my confessions
And grant me your blessing!

4. Entreaty

Om namo bhagavatyai arya prajñaparamitayai
Om namo bhagavatyai arya prajñaparamitayai
Om namo bhagavatyai arya prajñaparamitayai

O silent one, wise one
O knower of secrets,
Whisper to me
The sound before silence.
Enter my heart
With the wisdom of dhih.
May dhih fill my heart.
May dhih fill my speech.
May dhih fill my mind.
Oh, wide is my heart,
Please grant me your teaching!

Recitation of Heart Sutra

5. Completion

O, great Lady Prajñaparamita,
May I rest in your beauty.
Suffuse me, O bright one,
With you golden light.
May dhih pervade me,
Transforming defilements.
May it shine through me
With the warmth of compassion.
Now, and at all times.
May your secret light
Illumine my mind.
May it guide me to the truth.

mantra: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

6. Concluding Mantras

om mani padme hum
om a ra pa ca na dhih
om vajrapani hum
om tare tutare ture swaha
om amideva hrih
om muni muni maha muni shakyamuni svaha
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
om santi santi santi

Pilgrimage to Auschwitz

When I announced I was going to do a retreat at Auschwitz, I met many responses. Some people were shocked, as if uttering ‘Auschwitz’, was an intrusion or an assault. It is a harsh sound, which I, too, soon started to avoid. A look of pain crossed my father’s face when I told him, as if I had touched a wound. ‘What good can come of it? What will you do with that experience?’ One Buddhist friend asked, ‘It is bound to be traumatic, but what is the value of trauma? And what effect will it have on your state of mind?’ Jewish friends said, ‘I couldn’t go myself. I couldn’t bear it.’ But others were fascinated by the idea. Many people turned out to have family connections with Jews or Germans and felt fear, guilt or fascination with the Holocaust. For some it was a living presence in their lives, as it has been in mine: not a historical event; not a moral conundrum; not a metaphor for personal suffering, but a part of the world. A shadow. A possibility.

When I heard about the retreat my response was instant: I wanted to go. This was the third retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau organised by the Zen Peacemakers’ Order (zpo) and led by Roshi Bernie Glassman. I had met Glassman the previous year and liked him. As a Buddhist from a Jewish background I felt intrigued by his freedom in mixing the two traditions. While I have left Judaism behind, I have never stopped feeling a sense of Jewishness – a cultural and historical association rather than a religious one. My Jewishness seems to manifest whether I like it or not, in the friends I make, my sense of humour, and my way of expressing myself. I have never known what to do with that connection, but in the us a movement has started, inspired by Glassman and others, of Jewish Buddhists exploring their identities. I was also attracted by Glassman’s philosophy of ‘bearing witness’, which means facing the truth, and seeing one’s response to it without any desire to fix things. That seemed the right way – the only way – to approach Auschwitz.

Then there was my family connection with the Holocaust. Shortly before leaving I visited my father and we took out the photograph album of his childhood in Berlin. The more questions I asked about Fritz, his father, and Sarah, his grandmother, the quieter he grew. What had happened to Fritz? My father only knew that he had been deported to Minsk in the Ukraine, and that the letters had stopped. Sarah could have gone to Palestine but she chose to stay, and in the end was deported to the Warsaw ghetto. And then? ‘Who knows. She was 70.’ My father left Germany in March 1939 aged 10, travelling alone to England under the kindertransport scheme. His scars are plain to see, but I wonder how they have been passed on to me. How I have been affected by this family history, by growing up with the knowledge that the world could contain such cruelty?
In the weeks before the retreat I read some of the extraordinary literature that has grown up around the Holocaust. After reading the accounts by Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi I would dream about concentration camps, as if my mind needed to replay in unconsciousness what it was being told by the books. I felt I was not large enough to contain this truth: the systematic murder of millions of people by dedicated state machinery. I lacked the imagination or the depth to encompass it. Going to a concentration camp was an extension of this encounter; and the retreat, I hoped, would be a chance to work it through.

As people gathered at the hotel in Krakow on a clear November day, I saw there would be another dimension to the retreat: the other people, and all the complexities of being with 150 strangers. More than half of those attending were Americans; around the same proportion were Jews, and most were Buddhists, of many denominations and with various overlaps between these groups.

On the first evening a bunch of us visited a restaurant in Kazimiertz, the old Jewish quarter and I talked to Jinny. Her father had been in Auschwitz, but he had never spoken about it, and he exerted a tyrannical discipline over the family. When he did mention the camps it was as a basis for emotional blackmail. ‘Why do you need new shoes? When I was in the camps we would have done anything for shoes like you are throwing away!’ Now she runs an organisation that brings together the children of survivors and of ss officers. In her terms I qualified, as she called my father ‘a survivor’. I’d never thought of him that way.

Over the next few days I met many people with similar stories. There was Eva, who had left on the kindertransport, like my father, but she had travelled on to the us where she had become a literature professor. She was now finding the courage to explore the fate of the family she left behind. Early on I made friends with Rod, a Theravadin Buddhist from Manchester, and also Jewish – a kind, quiet man who felt drawn to attend but confused about his reasons for doing so. I also got to know Nancy Baker, a philosopher and Zen teacher from New York, who spoke of her near-death experience as a child, after she was thrown through the car window, and who has worked with dying people for many years. For her, coming to Auschwitz was a further encounter with death.

Many of those on the retreat were from Zen groups connected with Roshi Maezumi, Bernie Glassman’s teacher, and some came each year. Soon I felt like a stranger at a class reunion, a party where everyone knew everyone except for me. In the restaurant Jinny was talking to Heinz, a German Zen teacher, and they swapped tales about last year’s retreat. ‘It’s funny to see you looking happy and relaxed in a restaurant,’ she said. ‘For five days last year you looked like you wanted to commit suicide!’

On the first day of the retreat we visited the Jewish areas of Krakow. A guide described how the Nazis had gradually increased the restrictions on the Jews. After the laws banning them from working came the yellow stars, and then transfers to the ghetto, where a few streets housed 15,000 people in incredible squalor. Finally the ghetto was cleared and they were deported to Auschwitz. At every stage the inhabitants retained a vestige of optimism, and even believed the Germans when they were told that they were being sent to a new life in the Ukraine. Things seemed so bad that people thought they could not get worse. Few had the courage or the insight to realise just how bad they actually were.

The sense of being trapped by a vast, insuperable power was my overwhelming impression from the Holocaust accounts I had read. On my first day in Poland I read Fragments by Benjamin Wilkomirski, an evocation of childhood memories of the camps, which gave me fresh nightmares. After the war Wilkomirski believed the outside world was, in fact, the camp, but disguised. It is a peculiar, infectious mentality and on the journey to Oswicien (the town the Germans renamed Auschwitz) I found myself jumping at words like ‘transport’ and ‘Reichsbaum’. It was as if all the hidden, mysterious forces that make the world function, and on which we depend without awareness or comprehension, were turned hostile and malevolent. Later I read that Wilkomirski’s memories were most likely fantasies, and he had never been in a camp at all. But the book retained its hallucinatory effect. The bus travelled on through a thick fog, past increasingly bleak landscapes, weather-fended buildings and straggly pine forest. I dozed most of the way, then woke with a jolt and a rush of anxiety, the severe brick buildings looming outside the window: ‘This is Auschwitz’.

We were assigned rooms in a flurry of confusion and then assembled in small groups. Frank Ostaseski, the group leader, established an atmosphere of openness and warmth: ‘Speak from the heart’, he said, ‘speak spontaneously’. He is an impressive man who founded a Buddhist hospice in San Francisco. Each morning at 7am we met as a group to share our experiences. When my turn came I was moved, even choked, speaking of my family and my motivations for coming.

The next day we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz was the original camp, housed in a converted Austrian barracks, and now maintained as a museum. The displays have the artificiality of any museum, but still they overwhelmed me with a mass of impressions. Spectacles taken from the dead, like a huge pile of insects; human hair in an incredible quantity, all the same colour – shocked white by age, fear and chemicals; a standing cell in the punishment block where four people were squashed together, upright for days on end; the famous sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.

We gathered at the Execution Wall. The square in front of the wall is a place of unutterable bleakness, surrounded by sheer walls, their windows blanked out – a prison inside a prison. One woman buckled at the knees, tears streaming down her face; and Rabbi Don Singer led Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. At first I bridled at this, with my old resistance to Judaism, but as the singing continued I realised, to my surprise, that I knew the words and I joined in, moved by their melancholy beauty.

Birkenau was the concentration camp of my imagination, the one I had been dreaming about for weeks, the one I had pictured from films, documentaries and photographs. When the Nazis decided on the Final Solution of the ‘Jewish problem’ in 1942 they chose Oswicien as its centrepiece, and two miles from the original camp they constructed Birkenau. It was both a work camp and a death camp. While Auschwitz housed 20,000, Birkenau eventually contained three times that number.
Rows of barracks stretched beyond the barbed wire fence, and the railway tracks stretched ahead. I was unprepared for its vastness, or the desolation this brought; for the camp’s oppressive orderliness: the barbarous symmetry; the hideous symbolism of the rails leading through the camp to the gas chambers; the barbed wire taut and implacable; the wretchedness of the barracks. Yet the occupants were the lucky ones, saved from immediate extermination to form a vast slave army and worked to death for the sake of the German economy.

As I walked beside the tracks I recalled the pictures and books I had read, and tried to open myself to what had happened here. This is where the trains stopped and the selections took place – right for labour, left for death. This is where they walked, the condemned, thinking they had been chosen for light work. And this is where they died, where the tracks end at the gas chambers, which now lie in ruins. One and a half million people, in an endless stream. A huge factory of death. But even standing on the very spot of their deaths I could not encompass such suffering. People around me cried severally, each sparked by a specific detail – or a different point in the accumulation of details. By the end of the afternoon I felt numb.
In the evening we met as one large group and Eve Marko of the zpo stood in for Bernie Glassman, who had not arrived. She spoke movingly about the Peacemaker precepts. The first is ‘Not Knowing’, staying open to the reality of the situation, free from preconceptions. She said we all had a question in coming here, whether that was ‘How could people do this to other people?’ Or ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Stay with that question,’ she said, ‘and don’t try to answer it too quickly. That question is also the question of your life, the mystery at the heart of you.’

It had been a long day, and Eve was exhausted. She asked Rabbi Singer to sing from the Psalms. Then, in an ecumenical gesture, he asked two Christian nuns to join him. They seemed rather on show, so they got some others to stand up. Then someone said, ‘Come on! Everybody join in!’ and suddenly the whole mass of people was on its feet, dancing in a huge circle around the auditorium. I left. It wasn’t possible to stay without joining in, and others left, too. Only Rod stayed sitting in the middle, crying quietly and oblivious to what was happening. Eva came out in tears. ‘I joined in because everyone else was having such a good time and I didn’t want to spoil it.’ In past years a sense of celebration had mysteriously emerged from the contemplation of the darkness in Auschwitz. Now people seemed to be trying to recreate that transcendence of suffering, but it felt to me like an evasion, an escape that inadvertently became a descent into schmaltz.

The next day we set up our meditation cushions in a ring around the tracks at Birkenau. This was the focus for the next three days. We sat in a circle, buttressed against the Polish winter by layers of clothes. Some of the time – not enough for me – we just sat quietly, absorbing the atmosphere. Each day we chanted names of people who had died from a book that lists 60,000, a mere fraction of the victims. But chanting names personalised the statistics: ‘Stephan Kulczyk, Joseph Kulda, Wladislaw Kulejwski’. Each one seemed for a moment to stand before us. Sometimes the same name was read again and again: ‘Max Cohen, Max Cohen, Max Cohen’.

One day as we recited names I heard, ‘Bloom, Bloom, Bloomberg, Bloomenbaum.’ My heart skipped a beat as the reader approached my family’s name: ‘Blumenfeldt, Blumenfeldt’. I could not make out the first names. Could Fritz have been there? When the readings ended I jumped up to find the reader. She had gone, but I explained what I wanted to the people who had been next to her. My knees weakened and tears came.

Later I wandered through the camp sitting in the ruins of huts, in the barracks, by the gas chambers. The buildings have hardly changed, and the former inhabitants seemed close by. Birkenau is an awesome product of massive energy and powerful intelligence; testimony to the human capacity for methodical, premeditated sadism. Forgiveness seemed a distant idea – premature, even impertinent. How could I forgive on behalf of the dead? In any case, what I felt was not hatred as much as sadness and bewilderment.

Each of us, it seemed, was struggling to make sense of our experience. One man described asking a German on the retreat if he could imagine having been a guard. The German replied that he could well imagine that. ‘So if we were both back there. I think you would have shot me.’ ‘Most probably, yes.’ Another wondered how he would have acted if he had been in the camp. ‘Would I have been a kapo (a prisoner organising camp affairs for the Germans)? Would I have learnt how to survive?’ Another Jewish man described walking through Auschwitz with two non-Jewish friends thinking, ‘If this was back then, you’d be all right, and he’d be all right, but I’d be in deep shit!’ We are all troubled by the ignorance of the people who went to the gas chambers thinking they were taking a shower. ‘Why didn’t someone yell out: “You are going to your deaths!”?’

Auschwitz was a spiritual test. People talked about the moral issues it raised, or what it told one about human nature. But for me asking ‘How could people do this?’ seemed an abstraction. I wanted simply to witness the suffering that had taken place in the camp. Sometimes, as I sat, I was confronted with images of that pain, and felt a raw, visceral sympathy. I wanted to stay with that rawness, without evading or interpreting it. But my mind would slip off into its usual preoccupations, or be attracted or irritated by others on the retreat. When a German man said to me, ‘Being here reminds me that I have a concentration camp inside myself,’ I felt insulted, even angry. ‘He may have some emotional blocks,’ I thought, ‘But how can you equate the two? Is Auschwitz for him just a psychological metaphor?’

The next day I expressed my frustrations to my group. ‘I feel critical of the ways we make sense of our experience: of the tendency to psychologise, as if the significance of Auschwitz is that it puts you in touch with your personal griefs; or to dramatise, making stories out of our responses, with moments of pathos and irony to provide appropriate light and shade; and of the desire to move beyond horror into love and joy. I just want to stay with the reality of what happened. But I can’t; it keeps slipping away; I can’t maintain that state for long.’ Frank said, ‘Be mindful in all of your actions. If you are walking, walk more slowly – halve the pace. And have a sense of continuity, the flow of experience. Savour each moment in the short time we have here.’

Meditating in the grounds I experimented with different practices. Before leaving Britain I had taken up the Vajrasattva practice, invoking a Buddha whose healing radiance blesses and purifies all beings. The mantra of Vajrasattva is a potent invocation, but at Birkenau the sounds seemed empty. I reverted to simpler practices – radiating love, or just sitting with my experience. Sometimes in meditation I had a sense of a vast, brooding, unquiet spirit, or a distant moan. I saw images of writhing bodies. One day as I meditated I felt that roots might grow down from my body, deep into the earth, and that I could not be overwhelmed by Birkenau’s horror. That evening I was filled with exhilaration and energy. Spending my time meditating and reflecting, seeking to understand myself, and to gain a sympathetic understanding of others, I was doing what I most want to do with my life. Tantric yogis in India would live in cremation grounds, surrounded by the remnants of corpses and the spirits of the dead, and there they would confront their deepest fears. Birkenau is a modern cremation ground in the most literal sense.

As the retreat drew to an end, I spoke to others about their experience. Nancy Baker told me it had helped her to resolve issues she had been struggling with for years. ‘I felt I came into contact with a bottomless well of tears, and I was overwhelmed by a compassionate weeping, without knowing why. This seemed to wash me clean of whatever aversion I have to death. I feel I have come away as a bigger container for suffering.’

Frank Ostaseski drew on his hospice experience. ‘In my work I look at death and I believe that to be fully alive means to be prepared to see death. It is the same with evil. I don’t believe in ‘the Hitler within’, but I can be cruel and critical, and unchecked these tendencies could lead to evil. One way of bringing awareness to that is to look at evil outside – it helps us to see what is good and whole and makes us face ourselves very frankly. This is a raw place, and it needs to be kept raw, not tidied up or made comfortable. There are places of great inspiration in the world, but here we see the wound, and that helps to make us more whole.’

The most moving part of each day for me was reciting the Kaddish. It seemed to possess a profound resonance that the Sanskrit chants lacked here. Standing by the gas chambers, we chanted in Hebrew, and read the verses in many languages. The words of the Kaddish continued to echo when I returned to Britain. ‘Oseh shalom bim’romav, hu ya’se shalom, alenu v’alkol Yisrael, v’imru amen.’ (The one who has given a universe of peace gives peace to us, to all that is Israel, to all humanity. And say, yes. Amen.) We lit candles for the dead. ‘Fourteen thousand a day,’ Rabbi Singer said. ‘A vast stream of humanity, men, women and children, all jostled together. And they knew. Some at least knew what was happening. “What’s that coming out of the chimney”, one woman asked. “That’s us,” came the reply.’

Bernie Glassman arrived late, coming straight from a solitary retreat he had been on for the seven months since his wife’s death. He did not take a lead, but when he spoke on the retreat’s penultimate night he drew many strands together. He quoted the advice of his friend, the Jewish Cabbala teacher Zalman Schachter, about the retreat: ‘Go for the souls, not for your own transformation’. That crystallised what I wanted to do myself,: to remember and to grieve. Primo Levi writes that the ss guards taunted the prisoners by saying that not only would they be killed, but that all evidence of their fates would be obliterated. And, if by some chance, word of the camps got out, it would not be believed. That threat of oblivion was the worst humiliation. One thing I could do was bear witness to the Holocaust through my silent vigil

© Vishvapani, 2006

This article is also published in the book, Challenging Times

Shakespeare’s Tragic Imaginings

An essay on Shakespearean Comedy and Tragedy

The editors of the 1623 Folio, in which most of Shakespeare’s plays were first published together, divided them into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. The ten plays included among the tragedies, in rough order of composition, are Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens; the four great tragedies - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth - and then Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The Folio’s method of dividing them has so influenced subsequent views of the plays that it is easy to forget that it was an interpretation of the relationships between them that was based on the conventions of classical drama. In many cases the categorisation does not tell us much about the play. The range of genres that Shakespeare actually used and the difficulty of distinguishing them is better suggested by Polonius’ famous description of the players in Hamlet:

‘the best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, or tragical-historical-pastoral...‘

Although in his earliest plays Shakespeare followed the generic conventions of classical models, he gradually learned how to mix the genres, introducing comic elements into tragedies and sadness into comedy.

Why was Shakespeare not content simply to operate within inherited conventions? The answer lies in the way genre determines the subject matter of a play and limits the range of ways that subject matter can be explored within the conventions of plot, characterisation within a genre. Oscar Wilde wittily said that Hamlet’s description of art ‘holding a mirror up to nature’ is intended by Shakespeare to show that Hamlet really has gone mad. Art, as a Renaissance playgoer would have understood, does not reflect external realities, it creates its own, and writing within a genre means accepting a set of rules about the nature of the reality that can be created. A work of art is a world in itself, that strives for internal consistency and characters can only operate within the terms of that world. A character in a comedy inhabits a comedic world; a character in a tragedy inhabits a tragic one, and it is absurd to imagine a character being transposed from one to the other.

The simplest definition of dramatic comedy, for example, might follow another Wildean witticism - Lady Bracknell’s definition of fiction in Wilde’s pastiche of Shakespeare’s comic forms, The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘The good end happily and the bad end unhappily. That’s why it is called fiction.’ In creating a character in a play written according to such a formula the writer would be constrained by the need not to bring the attitude underlying it into question, and would be forced to tailor their characterisation accordingly. This would impose limits on the range of experience that it was possible to portray in such a context - and this might indeed be said of characters in early comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing, or A Comedy of Errors.

As Shakespeare developed, however, he explored an increasing broad, and deep range of experience and he developed ways of expanding the possibilities of comedy and tragedy so that they could accommodate this expanded range of experience. The happy endings of the later comedies are profoundly qualified by the deep and unresolved ambiguities in the plays. Jokes after all are usually at another person’s expense, and happy endings imply unhappy beginnings and middles. In the later comedies we are unable to forget the perspective of the character who are the butt of our laughter, or to ignore the sufferings that precede the final resolution. The unhappy endings of tragedies also possess a greatly expanded significance that take the plays far beyond the bare outlines of what makes a play a tragedy - that it depicts the suffering and fall of a great man.

One way Shakespeare was able to allow the plays to outgrow their schematic foundations was in the development of his characterisation. It is surely these characters, who are so compelling and have provesd so real to audiences and readers for four centuries, and who have the unprecedented quality of changing in the course of the plays, that mark out what is truly distinctive in these plays. Shakespeare’s genius was to seize upon a characteristic of drama that helped in the creation of autonomous characters - the absence of an authorial voice. All we have in the plays are the words and actions of individual characters. Shakespeare never speaks in his own voice, we are not told by him how to interpret what the characters say and none of his characters, not even Hamlet or Prospero, can be entirely seen as a self portrait. Shakespeare exploited this in learning to create characters who possessed greater and greater powers of introspection and interpreted their roles for themselves. The Merchant of Venice, marks a crucial stage in this development in Shakespeare’s characterisation. The Folio editors categorised it as a comedy, presumably because the two lovers at the play’s centre survive the difficulties the plot throws up and marry at the end. However, Shylock, the play’s Jewish villain-victim, is himself a complex character who articulates a quite different interpretation of what happens. It is therefore possible to look at the play’s events from his perspective, in which case it appears as a tragedy

An interest in exploring the protagonist’s experience was crucial from the outset of Shakespeare’s career as a writer of tragedy. In Titus Andronicus Titus loses wealth, position and status and witnesses the sufferings of his family that culminate in the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia. This all happens in the first half of the play, and does not make convincing drama, but it seems that Shakespeare is interested in something other than telling a believable story. In the manner of God heaping sufferings on Job, it seems that Shakespeare wants to place Titus under the greatest imaginable strain and then see how he responds. Or rather, as Shakespeare is the author of Titus’ character as well as of his torments, he wishes to test his own ability to encompass such suffering, to articulate it, and to explore its implications.

In writing tragedy, therefore, it seems that Shakespeare was seeking a way to explore human experience, by creating circumstances that would take that experience to its limits. Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello pass through some form or other of madness, and each is driven by internal and external compulsion to extreme action and this affords a unique perspective on each of them and the worlds they inhabit. Titus’ circumstances are comparably extreme, but his experience is none the less limited, because he is limited. The difference in the later figures is their complex, and diverse minds, and the consequent expansion of their capacity for emotion and reflection. Their ‘tragic’ situations mean that the potentialities of those minds are explored and articulated to the fullest degree imaginable.

Each of these characters possesses, to a greatly expanded degree, the quality of self-awareness that stops Shylock from being a straightforward comic stage villain. Each is able to consider his experience, in particular through soliloquy. These famous speeches are moments at which, by definition, nothing is happening in an external sense, and yet they are the centre of the plays providing their most vivid language. They represent an unprecedented depiction of human thought process and an examination of human psychology.

Each of the great tragedies takes one into a distinct world that is not simply the world of historical and empirical realties. It is a world in which action and thoughts resonate with psychological, ethical, indeed symbolic meanings. The soliloquies are dramatic poems describing intense processes of image-thinking. To understand the thoughts of Hamlet or Macbeth in their soliloquies we must attend to their metaphors in their own terms, seeing the images those metaphors create. These image-thoughts are concerned with the great themes of time, loss, death, impermanence, desire, duty conscience, and so on, that pervade the Tragedies. Their intensity compels one to consider these themes in the light of the images.

Macbeth stricken by conscience while contemplating Duncan’s murder does not speak abstractly about right and wrong. He imagines an apocalyptic future in which knowledge of his crime is spread by the trumpets of angels and by:

‘pity like a naked new-born babe
striding the blast...’

Hamlet, mortified by the unseemly haste of his mother’s re-marriage wishes viscerally that:

‘ this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...’

Othello is a somewhat lesser imaginer than either of these, more constrained by the conventionality of his metaphors. And yet, tormented by jealousy, his description of his perceived dishonour has a comparable intensity:

‘alas to make me
The fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow and moving finger at.’

Lear does not have many soliloquies, but once he has withdrawn into the solitude of madness, all of his speeches have this quality of visionary metaphor. His denunciation of the libidinous selfishness of his daughters becomes an eschatological vision:

‘Down from the waist
They’re centaurs, though women all above,
But to the girdle do the god’s inherit
Below is all the fiend’s. There’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulfurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption...’

Such metaphors (and not only those of the soliloquies) induct one into a vision of existence in which the literal setting is perceived symbolically as a cosmological battle-field where Shakespeare’s universal themes can be fully unfolded.
Another dimension is added to the plays’ symbolic character as, especially in Macbeth and King Lear, the literal settings themselves take on a symbolic force. Shakespeare’s geographical and historical settings always have a profound influence on the kind of experience the plays contain. Thus the Roman world of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus offers a setting where political and social questions can be considered. The fantasised settings of Ilyria and Bohemia are the appropriate location for the liberating possibilities of romance and pastoral. By setting King Lear in prehistoric Britain, Shakespeare found an imaginative space in which it was possible to explore primal themes of humanity and inhumanity outside the conceptual frameworks of Christian ethics or historical societies. This is epitomised by the blasted heath to which Lear is exiled, that comes to represent a primal wilderness, emptied out of all social forms and meanings, that offers a resting place from which those forms can be reviewed. Macbeth is set on the cusp of the pre-historic and the historic and depicts a world that contains both Christian values and pagan alternatives and whose entire character changes depending on their relative ascendancy. The supernatural is a reality in Macbeth’s Scotland in ways that are not possible in plays set in Shakespeare’s own time.

In these plays the whole drama becomes a giant metaphor, or at least a metaphorical canvas that expresses and contains the conflicts that are focused on the experience of the hero. This is less the case in Othello, set in a modern world, albeit on the geographical frontier between Christian civilization and its enemies. Othello is a domestic tragedy that gains much of its strength from its translation of Shakespeare’s exploration of violence and evil to a familiar setting.

Hamlet is set in a court, an imaginative space in which its hero’s hyper-sophisticated and perpetually modern mind might exist, and yet in which it cannot have free rein. The reverberations of Macbeth’s tragedy are externalised in the chaos his world is swept up in. The reverberations of Hamlet’s tragedy have as much force, but the more naturalistic setting means that they are turned inwards, and this emphasises their origin in the imagination. ‘Denmark’s a prison’. Hamlet tells the courtier Rosencrantz, who has been sent, along with his friend Guildenstern, to find out his intentions. ‘Then is the world one,’ Rosencrantz replies, seeking to deflect the force of Hamlet’s metaphor. But that metaphor actually gains force from Rosencrantz’ parry. Hamlet’s world is, indeed, a prison in the same way that Blake’s London is filled with the sound of ‘mind-forged manacles’. The world a prison?

‘Hamlet: A goodly one in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my Lord.’

Indeed not, and by now Rosencrantz can no longer keep up with the game. Thinking in terms of Hamlet’s metaphor would mean submitting to the vision of life it entails. But there is no escape for Rosencrantz back into the literal because Hamlet knows that such literalism is merely a metaphor for a lack of imagination.

‘Hamlet: Why then ‘tis not so to you. There’s no thing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me ‘tis a prison.’

Unable to cope with Hamlet’s image, Rosencrantz can only protest that if Hamlet’s mind feels trapped in a prison, it must be that the mind is a too big, rather than that the world is too small. He hopes to deny the imaginative necessity of Hamlet’s metaphor, by asserting that the mind can itself be seen in the metaphor’s terms.

‘Rosencrantz: Why then your ambition makes it one; ‘tis too narrow for your mind.’

What he has forgotten is the imaginative priority of Hamlet’s vision. His view of Denmark as a prison is not a whimsical fancy. Hamlet is compelled to view it in that way, because that way of viewing it is more true. Denmark is indeed more like a prison than it is like liberty. Hamlet cannot determine what he imagines, and the imagination cannot offer any consoling solipsistic alternatives to this implacable image:

‘Hamlet: Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, that sees the events of Hamlet from the viewpoint of the courtiers seeks to establish their imaginative perplexity as a norm against that the rest of the play should be measured. This is an attempt to read the play as a Becketian irony rather than a Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet himself is wiser than Stoppard or Becket, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern and when he tells them that the mind makes the difference between tragedy and travesty also implies that the deepest perspective will be found in the deepest mind. This depth is what Hamlet searches for, what he sometimes speaks from, and is the only norm that the play provides. However illusive this quality of consciousness may be, it none the less underlies the sense that the play reveals the significance of the events it describes. This quality is itself an argument against the Becketian meaninglessness of the world of Stoppard’s play. This is why Hamlet is a tragedy and his Tragedy.

If we wish to apprehend the significance of Hamlet we must firstly attempt the difficult task of opening ourselves to the compelling yet vertiginous perspectives that are revealed by its hero. And if we wish to gain an alternative perspective on Hamlet himself we must conduct a similar process of engagement with Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius - indeed, all of the other characters, who possess their own, though lesser subjectivities.

Shakespearean Tragedy remains the crucial imaginative test for any reader, critic, actor, director or theatergoer. The point is not so much the unhappy endings of the protagonists; so much as the intensity that is created by their sufferings. On the basis of this intensity the imaginative significance of those sufferings is revealed through the heroes’ perception and by the context of the play. The test is of one’s ability to apprehend that significance - and it is a test that one inevitably fails.

Hamlet’s mind, like the mind revealed in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello, is not only too big for Denmark, it is too big for us.
One way that Shakespeare and especially King Lear, is a masterpiece of parallel plotting, in which the protagonists experience is balanced and tested against the experience of others. Lear’s experience is counterpointed with Gloucester’s, underscored by Kent, the Fool and Poor Tom, and mirrored in Edgar’s conflict with Edmund. Lear has a dominating, centripetal presence, and yet the experience of the other characters, even the most minor, is not wholly absorbed into his. Towards the end of the play a soldier is dispatched to murder Cordelia in prison. This is surely a ‘small part’ for an actor, and yet his response intimates a world of experience:

‘I cannot draw a cart
Nor eat dried oats. If it be man’s work, I’ll do it.’

However without the depth of the central characters, all of this perspectivising would leave us with epic rather than tragedy - vast stories told on vast canvasses. We would have something akin to the emphasis in Brecht’s epics on the social context within that individual struggles are enacted. Brecht’s Coriolanus may even be an improvement of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but this is precisely because of the limitations of Shakespeare’s protagonist, ‘a character without an inside’, in the words of one critic. A Brechtian Macbeth would be a mere shadow because Shakespeare’s play is so profoundly concerned with the hero’s subjective experience.

In seeking to identify the distinctive genius of these plays one may, therefore, look to the tension between the breadth created by the multiplication of perspectives and the depth created by the protagonists’ huge capacity for experience. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello each charts the suffering and eventual demise of a central protagonist. This is largely what gives them a more defined focus and there fore a greater intensity than the love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra that have two central characters. Each of the protagonists of the great plays undergoes a journey that makes possible an enlarged understanding of human experience, and any reading of the plays that hopes to learn from that enlarged understanding must seek to follow those journeys. It must explore the imaginative world that the plays create through exploring their suffering.

© Vishvapani, 2006

Buddhism and the Arts: http://web.mac.com/vishvapani/iWeb/writingonbuddhism/Arts.html