Transgood

My favorite bit of the Abhidhamma is the first paragraph: Phenomena that are skilful, phenomena that are unskilfull, phenomena that are undesignated.. Actually, this seemingly innocuous phrase emerged from the debates in ancient India about the nature of the Dhamma: can we describe everything as dyads—as pairs of opposites or complements—or do we need to acknowledge a “third”. The Theravadins opted to include the “third”, here said to be things that are “undesignated”, that is, not describable as either good or bad.

This is good. Dyads get all rigid and crusty. They become dogmas; literally black and white. So here, as often in Buddhism, we meet the mysterious “third”, somehow not quite fitting in to the normal scheme of things.

This is not merely a problem of categorization. The existence of a “leftover” is essential for Awakening: Nibbana is among those things that are “undesignated”. It is beyond good and evil, and its existence signifies that an escape from the duality is possible.

The same is true on more mundane levels, such as gender. Everywhere we go, we are subtly conditioned to think of gender as binary; signs on bathrooms, clothes, idioms like “he/she”, and so on, with all the connotations and stereotypes that go along with these.

Yet this, like all dyads, undersells the truth. Gender is far more complex than just two. There are gay people, whose sexual orientation does not agree with the stereotype. There are transsexual people, who identify with a gender other than that assigned at birth, and who may seek to change their gender via surgery. There are intersex people, who have physical attributes that are not readily assignable as either male or female. There are asexual people, who simply have no sexual interest. And I am sure there are many other variations. And of course, all of these things may interact, and change, and be fluid and uncertain.

But what is certain is that these people are all, you know, people. They have jobs and loves and losses and lives, just like anyone else. But they have something that many others don’t: they have to endure a constant discrimination, an exclusion and marginalization that pervades every aspect of life.

Some people

I am a very privileged person. I’m white, male, middle class, from a developed country. I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed for being who I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live your whole life being told you’re different, weird, a freak. But I imagine it’s not very nice. So I have to listen to what others say to know what discrimination feels like.

It’s even worse when you come to religion. Here we are, approaching the realm of the spiritual, a place we come to because we believe in something better; because we want to be lifted up. Yet we meet, here again, the same dreary, boring discrimination we’ve found elsewhere; except now it comes from God, or from the Buddha, or from Allah. Terrific. That’s just so helpful.

Why is it that religions seem to be the bastion of the most repressive forms of discrimination? I think it comes down to order. Recall the anthropology of Levi Strauss; he talked about how tribes negotiate ambiguous dualities through such things as the kinship systems. Who can we have sex with? This is one of the basic questions that cultures have to answer, as soon as they create structures larger than an extended family group.

Culture arises from this imperative; negotiation of sexual partners is one of the key concerns of all ancient mythology. And “third gender” people don’t fit neatly into this either/or narrative. They become defined as “other” by culture; notice how animals don’t have this kind of discrimination. In more developed cultures, there is a mythic narrative that explicitly defines the acceptable roles of male and female; this is sorted out, for example, in Genesis.

How that happens depends on the culture. It is, of course, entirely possible to include the “third” as part of how humanity is “in the beginning”, and some cultures in fact do this. In India, traditionally at least, there has been a greater tendency to be inclusive of diverse sexualities, and people of third genders have often been ascribed a special sacred role. These days, with the rise of a more narrow-minded Hindutva mentality, such ideas are becoming displaced, under the influence of the more rigid and dogmatic monotheistic religions.

Religions have inherited the role of sustaining this kind of order. Notice how it goes: first there is a statistical generalization (most people fit into a cisgender male or female role); then there is a normative assertion (cisgender masculinity and femininity are the only acceptable forms of gender and sexuality). That normative assertion is then forever in battle with reality. Listening to Catholic and Anglican bishops insist that there is and can only ever be one form of marriage, I was left wondering whether these good gentlemen had ever met an actual human being.

But religions should be doing much more than telling us what is right and wrong; in fact ethics is really tangential to religion. The real purpose of a true religious or spiritual path is to point to a greater or a higher sense of meaning; a value that changes all values. For Buddhists, this is Nibbana; for Christians, God, and so on. So it is inherent in the very nature of the spiritual path that there must be a “third”, beyond good and evil.

And to point this out, to embody it in human culture, has been one of the traditional roles of third gender persons, whether in ancient Greece, China, or India. Living on the edges, they are a reminder of the limitations of our cultural norms. They show us that dyads are never perfect.

In modern times, this dynamic is playing out in new ways. We no longer wish to assign people special roles, whether for good or bad, based on a sacred text; instead we want to empower people to find themselves, to grow and live in the best way that they can. And third gender people, by speaking out and letting us know of their lives and their sufferings, reveal for us some of the myriad ways we are bound by culture and convention, limiting the expression of our humanity. This is not just a theory or an ancient sacred ideal; it is a powerful force that has changed, and is changing, our world for the better.

It is sad but true: we usually have to suffer before we start to question. I hope our world is moving, slowly and uncertainly, towards a more inclusive ethic, one that values all humans—and non-humans. It will take time. One thing is sure: this will not be driven by those, like me, who have much. It will be driven by those who suffer. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to all those courageous people who do not fit neatly into the categories that our cultures have decided on, who speak out and who change things for the better.

Australian police on domestic violence

In the Guardian this morning, there is an important message from Australia’s police chiefs on domestic violence. It is encouraging to see attention drawn to this actual issue, where people every day are hurt and traumatized, instead of the bogeymen of terrorism or asylum seekers. It could be a lot better: none of the police chiefs are women. But still, good on them for having a say.

Those who have read my blog since the days of the bhikkhuni ordination may remember that I drew the connection between women’s ordination and domestic violence. The logic is simple: when religious leaders treat women as lesser and other, this message filters down in coarser forms and becomes a justification, implicit or explicit, for violence against women. Thus when the monks of the Wat Pa Pong circles make rules saying that nuns cannot speak before a monk, that they must follow behind and so on, they are deliberately and consciously acting to reinforce a social norm that creates a culture of violence.

This process is inherent in how we live our lives as Buddhist monastics. We expect that our behaviour, more than our words, will provide an example of the best kind of moral life. When we disempower women, exclude them, and deny them their basic human rights, such as their right to practice their religion in accordance with their conscience, we send a powerful message to our community. If the monks treat women as less, that confirms that women have bad kamma and they cannot escape their lot. Sometimes monks will even argue this explicitly; a common position in the Theravadin Sangha is that when girls get captured and sent for sex slavery, there is nothing that can be done, as it is their kamma.

The police chiefs who I quote below know all too well the results of this kind of denial of responsibility. It is not just monks who behave in this way; when men are in positions of power, respect, and authority, they become isolated from the consequences of their sexism. The police are not: they see it every day.

They regard it as the moral responsibility of men of influence to strongly send a positive message and change the culture. This is very telling. If sportsmen, businessmen, or husbands have a moral responsibility to change the culture around discrimination against women, what are we to say of monks? Are not monks supposed to be far greater examples of moral behavior than footy players? Is it not our job, much more than others, to set a clear and consistent message and example, and to not rest until the culture of discrimination against women, and the violence that inevitably accompanies that, is ended forever?

Commissioner Ken Lay

… we perceive women differently than men and by differently, I mean we perceive them as less valuable.

In order to stop a problem we have to tackle the cause. Even though it’s only a small number of men who perpetrate violence against women, all men have the power to help prevent violence.

We all have a circle of influence around us, whether it’s a whole organisation, the local footy club, or simply the family around the dinner table. We have enormous capacity to lead by example, and show other men how to champion change.

Commissioner Darren Hine

But it’s only through a cultural shift, where we all influence a change in attitude and behaviour, that there will be a significant and lasting impact on family violence.

It starts with society’s “influencers”: sportsmen, businessmen, actors and other personalities are standing up to condemn violence against women and children. And it continues at footy games, BBQs, cricket matches, school, college, university, at work, the pub; we are all in a position to make a positive influence when we see unacceptable behaviour or attitudes.

We can assist in turning young boys into respectful young men. We can have a quiet word with the young man or mate that the way he talks about girls is disrespectful and inappropriate.

We should consider our own behaviours and attitudes, be strong role models for our children, families, teammates and friends.

We are all responsible for shifting social norms that blame, excuse, minimise and justify violence against women and their children.

Commissioner John McRoberts

However, effective laws are only one of the tools required to combat domestic violence. True and lasting progress will only be made when community attitudes, specifically male attitudes, change.…

It involves a three-pronged strategy of enforcement, engagement and empowerment that when combined have been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of domestic and family violence and hold perpetrators to account.

Addressing this issue is going to require lasting generational change. Lead by example. Challenge others. Own the change.

On the radiant mind

The following is a comment I wrote some time ago in the discussion thread on this article. I’ve extracted it and reposted here, with a couple of minor changes.


To understand the famous passage on the “radiant mind” we will have to go into some details and background, so hold on. Here’s the Pali:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.

The sutta appears in the middle of a long list of other short suttas, all of which deal with some aspect of mental development, eg. metta and so on. These texts are obviously artificial in a sense: they have been divided up from longer, more coherent discourses to fit the “Ones” format. Thus these two “suttas” are really one sutta; and the same goes for the two previous suttas (not quoted here), which are just abstracts from the present text.

The overall context of this part of the Suttas is samadhi: in fact, probably the reason these texts have been artificially “processed” to fit in this section is because the idea of “one” fits well with samadhi as “one-pointedness of mind”. This doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that we should expect texts here to deal mainly with samadhi.

A literal translation is:

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is defiled by transient defilements. An unlearned ordinary person does not understand that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “An unlearned ordinary person does not have mental development.”

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is freed from transient defilements. A learned noble disciple person understands that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “A learned noble disciple has mental development.”

The syntax of the sutta is somewhat obscure, in Pali as in English: while there are no grammatical difficulties, it is not entirely clear what the sense of the text is. This is already a red flag: as a rule, one should never rely for crucial explanations on a text that appears only once, and which is unclear. Surely in a crucial matter the Buddha would have stated it many times and made it clear what he was talking about. As a rule, when faced with an obscure passage, we look to more clear examples to help us understand.

To start with, then, let’s look at other Sutta passages that use the same word “pabhassara”. Here I will ignore the fact that this word is merely a synonym for many other terms such as abha, pariyodata, obhasa, and so on, that are frequently used in the context of samadhi. A quick search of the uses of pabhassara reveals this:

  • Majjhima 93 Assalayana: the “radiance” of a fire
  • Samyutta 6.5: The “radiance” of Brahma
  • Samyutta 46.31–32: The “radiance” of gold, compared to the “radiance” of the mind when it has right samadhi (i.e. jhana).
  • Samyutta 51.22: the Buddha’s body in samadhi is lighter and “more radiant”, like hot metal.
  • Anguttara 3.101: Similar to SN 46.31 above, except here the word pabhassara is only directly used in the simile when referring to gold; the text goes on to speak of samadhi, but doesn’t use pabhassara. However,
  • Anguttara 3.102: Here pabhassara is used of samadhi, in the same stock phrase as above, as well as in the “gold” simile.
  • Anguttara 5.23: “Gold” and “samadhi” as above.
  • Sutta Nipata 46: “Radiant” gold jewellery.

So pabhassara is used in an ordinary language sense of the “radiance” of a fire or gold; in a “religious” sense of the light of Brahma; and in a Dhamma sense of the radiance of the mind in samadhi. The sense of the simile of gold, which is the most common context, is that just as gold has impurities and the smith will gradually work them out, resulting in pure, radiant gold, so too the meditator eliminates the defilements (upakkilesa = nivarana = 5 hindrances) and thereby leads the mind to samadhi. This all hangs together very straightforwardly. Nowhere is there any suggestion that it has anything to do with Nibbana.

These passages, especially the recurring comparison of gold with samadhi, are clear and well-defined. They are proper teachings, not just cut-up slivers with no parallels, as in the more famous pabhassara citta passage. This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them.

Returning to our passage, the “radiant” mind is said to be either defiled or freed from defilements. While the overall context is cittabhavana, i.e. samadhi, and is obviously meant to be the same as the more common gold/samadhi passage, there is a crucial difference. That is, in the gold/samadhi passages, the gold (and the mind) is said to be “not radiant” when it is defiled; and “radiant” when the defilements are removed. But the texts under discussion say exactly the opposite.

There is a clear contradiction here, and as always, one can approach contradictions in various ways. Perhaps the two can be harmonized: the radiance of the mind is potentially there, even if not apparent. Fine, but that is not really how the Buddha talked about things. We should always prefer a simpler, more grounded explanation, not one that necessitates revising the whole of the Buddha’s teachings based on one dubious passage. Given that the text has obviously suffered editorial changes, I suspect that the problems arose due to these.

The beginning of the Sutta has the Buddha (presumably, although it doesn’t actually say so), saying, “This mind is radiant…” The particle “idam”, “this”, functions to limit and specific: This mind, not “the mind” (as in Thanissaro’s translation). As well as the gold/samadhi passages, we might compare to the Upakkilesa Sutta, where the Buddha speaks of how he meditated, then light arose, but because of “defilements” (upakkilesa, the same word as our sutta), the light vanished. The word for light is different (obhasa), but is from the same root with the same basic meaning.

This is the normal way the Buddha talked about the mind. It is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. Our passage, which is unique, without parallels in any early Suttas, syntactically awkward, clearly the subject of editing, can be read as suggesting a different take on things, that the mind is somehow “radiant” even when covered by defilements. Or it can be read in line with the other, more clear suttas.

In either case, there is no suggestion here that the “radiant mind” be connected with Nibbana. Quite the opposite: the whole point of the sutta is that it can be defiled, so it cannot be Nibbana.

Faith-based engagement with climate deal for 2015 and beyond

Here is a report from an interfaith perspective from the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

By Nigel Crawhall, Interfaith Liaison Committee

Bonn, 22 October 2014

Faith-based organisations and networks have been steadily increasing their engagement in climate advocacy work. As the UNFCCC Parties negotiate the 2015 agreement, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’I and other faith movements are careful watching the process. An interfaith caucus process has been steadily emerging since COP14, with some groupings such as the World Council of Churches having been involved since before the original treaty was even drafted.

As each element of the climate crisis strikes, it is the churches, mosques and temples at the frontline of relief services, helping to bury the dead and console the grieving. People typically turn to the places of worship for safety, support and emergency services. All of the faith networks report that their budgetary expenditures are soaring and they feel a duty to become more involved in climate crisis prevention, mitigation and adaptation. This however, needs to be understood in a broader agenda of justice, peace and a meaningful quality of life for both rich and poor.

The overall concern of the faith-based organisations is that the UNFCCC process has shifted from the core mission of the United Nations, the upholding of the ethical principle of human rights and ensuring global governance to promote peace, security and now the attention to sustainable development. The once evident value-based work of the United Nations has morphed into a type of competitive self-interest where those who are the perpetrators of harmful climate impacts show no remorse or ownership, and those who have once been on the weak end of the global economy, but are emerging as powerful economies and emitters, cling to the history rather than face up to their current and future duties.

For FBOs, the challenge is how to get the ethical and moral questions back at the heart of the negotiations.

As the Roman Catholic delegate at the caucus meeting at ADP 2-6 noted, it is like the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. Cain in a fit of rage kills his own brother Abel. God who has seen all and knows what is in heart, asks Cain what has happened.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

It is precisely this question which the Parties to the Convention most wish to avoid, and like Cain, behave that if they deny it, avoid it, table it and create an ad hoc working group, this somehow absolves them from the consequences and the responsibility.

In Buddhism, the term is ‘hiri ottappa’, which means moral dread or moral shame. If the perpetrator of a harmful act, and we can think of rapists, murders, child-abusers, do not confront themselves about the unwholesome origin of their actions, and seek atonement for their negative karmic deads, they can never benefit from release, liberation and ultimate nibbana.

In Lima, the Peruvian Inter-religious Council will be the interfaith host for religious and spiritual constituencies. They will facilitate the interfaith caucus, hold interfaith solidarity events, work with the #fastfortheclimate movement, and assist with a two day conference on religious duty and climate change.

Thursday 23 October will be a key day for discussing the INDCs and with it the future of multilateralism and human compassionate action.

It is also the start of Diwali, when a billion Hindus. Diwali is the festival of light and represents the victory of hope over despair and light over dark. As Lydia Mogano from the We Have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice network reported in the caucus meeting:

“In New York we looked for one word to motivate the faith movement. We saw all the people protesting and uniting and chose the word ‘hope’. Now in Bonn, watching the negotiations, I think our word will need to be ‘courage’.”

The Peruvian link is here: http://cop20.religionesporlapaz.org/en/

The most recent Holy See contribution is here: http://www.news.va/en/news/vatican-to-un-summit-climate-change-is-man-made-an

International Buddhist statement on climate change: http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/dharma-teachers-statement-on-climate-change/


Dr. Nigel Crawhall
Co-Chair of TILCEPA, IUCN
CEESP – WCPA Strategic Direction / Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity & Protected Areas

IUCN Focal point on Resolution 009/12 on faith, climate and the environment.

6th World Parks Congress home page: http://www.worldparkscongress.org/

Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism

In 2002, the Buddhist academic Paul Williams published a book in which he detailed how and why he decided he could not longer be a Buddhist, and instead became Catholic. I was recently forwarded one of his articles by Ven. Thich Quang Ba, a senior monk in Australia, who told us that his articles are being used by the Vietnamese Catholic community to evangelize Buddhists, and asked for someone to write up a response. So, not being one to pass up a challenge, here it is. This article is not responding to Williams’s book, which I haven’t read, but to his article, On converting from Buddhism to Catholicism – One convert’s story. This article is published on the site whyimcatholic.com, a site that exists purely to celebrate people converting to Catholicism.

Let me make some things clear to start with. I think it’s great that Williams has found a spiritual path that he finds satisfying, after years in which, as he now admits, he was never really a Buddhist. And I also think it’s great that he takes the time to develop a critique of Buddhism. There should be more of this. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, and we need thoughtful and experienced people to discuss the similarities and differences between religious and spiritual approaches, just as the Buddha did so often.

But here’s the thing: Williams’ critique is a mass of error. If we were hoping for an intelligent and meaningful critique of Buddhism from a Catholic point of view, this isn’t it.

Why so? The essence of his critique is this. Buddhism is hopeless (because of rebirth), while Christianity offers hope. Therefore Christianity is right, and it is rational to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, and so on.

This doesn’t even approach the form of a rational argument. It is wish fulfilment, nothing more. He wants to live in a world where everything will be okay in the future, and he concludes that this must be the world we live in. And that somehow, the arcane teachings of an institution that harks back to a messianic Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago are a source, apparently the only source, of hope. It is one of the worst theologies I’ve ever heard. It should be an embarrassment to anyone interested to develop a relevant modern Christianity.

If you want to see someone who does modern theology well, check out the readings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. There are plenty of interesting, reflective Christians like Spong; and one of the hallmarks of the genuine Christian traditions that I admire is that they are not content with simplistic rationalizations. There is plenty in the Christian traditions to be ashamed of: the witchhunts, the genocide, the millenia of persecution, the burning of heretics; it goes on and on. Yet in that, without denying or avoiding it, some can discern the struggle of ordinary, and extraordinary, people to discover and maintain some sense of the divine, even within our messed up world. And there is something real and authentic about that, something that we Buddhists could use more of.

Buddhist hope

But let’s consider Williams’ central problem, this question of hope. I raised this yesterday in a discussion group with some young Buddhists from the KM group here in Perth. I wanted to see whether my understanding of these things was just my own, or whether it reflected a wider understanding within the Buddhist community. And, as I kind of expected, pretty much all the things I had thought were brought out in the discussion. These things are not complicated.

Buddhists don’t talk much about hope, because hope is based on the future, and is therefore delusional. We don’t know what the future holds, so to base our emotional well being on something we don’t know, and can never know, is to invite disappointment.

To argue that hope is based on what is unknown is not just my argument. It was used by Paul, whose Bible teachings on hope are cited by Williams.

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?

For Buddhists, this could never be acceptable. Our main concern is to be grounded in reality, in what we can see. We could never be satisfied with a teaching whose essential principles were not merely unknown, but unknowable.

This is why we cultivate contentment. Contentment is simply being happy with what is, here and now. It is based on the reality of the present, not some imagined future. If we learn to be content now, we can carry that with us wherever we go. According to Paul, however, we hope precisely because we do not know something. This is a doctrine that elevates permanent ignorance to a virtue.

Hope is not merely delusional, it is rooted in aversion. Why do we have the need for hope? Because the present is bad. This, this place I am in, these people I am with, this mind that I have: all of these are somehow wrong, painful, unbearable. Rather than dealing with this reality, hope tells us that in some fantasy land of the future, everything will be okay.

Contentment, on the other hand, is based on acceptance and love. We don’t try to push reality away. We don’t try to avoid the pains and sorrows of life. We accept, and are content. It’s okay. This is why Buddhism is a path for grown-ups. We are not looking for someone to fix our problems for us. We are looking to develop a mature, wise connection with reality.

That is not to say that having a positive outlook for the future is impossible. Of course, we still do that, both in secular things and in spiritual. We study now so we can get a job later. Or we go to Dhamma classes now so we can meditate with more understanding later. Our world still happens in time, and we deal with that as any normal person does.

The difference is that as Buddhists, we don’t try to turn this ordinary process into some great spiritual principle. Sure, you have hope. If you are a good person, make good kamma, then you’ll have a good rebirth. Terrific! And if you practice Dhamma deeply and realize the four noble truths, then you will enjoy the bliss of Nibbana. Even better! There’s plenty to be hopeful about in Buddhist philosophy and practice. But that’s not ultimately important. We don’t make a big deal about it, because it’s all uncertain. Much better to focus on the here and now, and develop contentment with whatever is.

So it’s by no means correct to say that Buddhism is hopeless, if we understand it in this limited sense. It is only “hopeless” in the sense that we do not base our spiritual practice on the “hope” of some unknown and unknowable divine intervention at some point in the future.

Williams’ argument is, I think, based on a distortion of language. Normally I wouldn’t be too harsh on someone for doing this; it’s quite normal, and most of us do it all the time. But he studied and taught Madhyamaka philosophy for many years, so he should know better.

The distortion is in the words “hope” and “hopeless”. In the English language, the word “hope” feels good. And the word “hopelessness” feels bad: it means “despair”. Now, there is a sense, as I discussed above, where we could say that Buddhism is “hopeless”. But that kind of hopelessness has nothing to do with “despair”. On the contrary, it has to do with an emotional maturity that finds happiness in reality, not in fantasy. We don’t lack hope because we are looking for it and can’t find it; we have outgrown the need for it.

This kind of linguistic distortion, incidentally, is not new to Williams. We find it already in the early texts, where the Buddha is similarly accused of various kinds of negativity, similar to hopelessness, and responds with a nuanced linguistic analysis of the exact implications of the terms used.

Reason and emotion

Williams claims his position is “rational”. Yet this seems to be a purely theoretical reason, an inference from principles of theology, without any consideration of the reality of peoples’ lives. If you spend some time with actual living Buddhists you would know that we are no more hopeless than anyone else. In fact, Buddhist practices do exactly what Buddhists have been saying for millenia: they lead to peace, to contentment, and to happiness.

It seems to me that lack of contentment is driving Williams’ argument. Why else would he feel the need to persuade others of his religion by attacking his former religion?

For every Williams there are literally millions of former Christians, like myself, who have abandoned the faith they were brought up in and have found peace in the Buddha’s path. But Buddhists don’t get into the whole evangelizing thing, because we are content. We’re happy to be Buddhists, and happy to share our Dhamma with people who are interested; but we’re also happy that people should follow their own way.

This tolerance is not a new age idea, as we find it in the Buddha’s discourses themselves. Just yesterday, as it happens, I was editing the Udumbarika-sīhanada Sutta (DN 25), where the Buddha says this to a monk from another religious tradition:

Maybe, Nigrodha, you will think: ‘The Samaṇa Gotama has said this from a desire to get pupils’; but you are not thus to explain my words. Let your teacher remain your teacher. …

Nigrodha, I speak thus, neither because I wish to gain pupils, nor because I wish to you to leave your teaching, nor because I wish you to give up your way of life, nor because I wish to confirm you in bad principles, or detach you from good principles.

But, O Nigrodha, there are bad things that have not been abandoned, corrupting, entailing rebirth, bringing suffering, resulting in suffering, making for birth, decay and death in the future, and it is for abandoning these that I teach the Dhamma. And if you practice in accordance, the things that corrupt shall be put away, the things that make for purity shall grow and flourish, and each one of you shall attain to and abide in the understanding and the realization of full and abounding insight in this very life.

Buddhists are not interested in conversion. We don’t care whether you say you’re a Buddhist or not. We just want you to be happy. We are not so desperate, so emotionally fragile and needy, that we have to go around making everyone in the world believe the same things that we believe in. If you want to learn and practice Dhamma, great! If you’re happy to be doing something else, then be happy. We’ll be here if you need us.

It sometimes happens that people who approach religion through the intellect will overlook their underlying emotional and spiritual needs. In truth, we come to religion not because of reason, but because it calls to our higher emotions and intuition. We feel a heart-connection with a way, a path, or a community. Why different people feel this connection in different ways is difficult to know; perhaps it is because of past lives.

Reason is what we use afterwards to justify our beliefs and communicate them to others; as Williams says, “I convinced myself that it was rational to believe in God”.

If we do not address our emotional needs, they can lay fallow, untouched by years of philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such; sometimes we develop different aspects of the path at different times. But there is something wrong when we take our own, highly unusual personal experience, and turn that into a misleading universal argument.

No Buddhist in a traditional Buddhist culture has this problem. Traditional Buddhists approach the Dhamma first via the heart, by developing the faith, the contentment, the joy of participating in the Dhamma. Only much later, if ever, do they turn to a rational investigation into the teachings.

This is another area where I think Williams’ writings are disingenuous. He presents his article as if it were a personal journey, and uses the standard rhetorical technique of gaining emotional connection with his audience by telling his life story; a cheap trick that politicians use all the time. Yet he slides easily from “personal journey” to blithe, sweeping statements about “Buddhism” and “Christianity”. These are not the methods of a philosopher or scholar, which is how he presents himself. They are the methods of an evangelist.

Rebirth and the cockroach

Williams’ main argument rests on his analysis of rebirth. He doesn’t argue, as the secularists do, that rebirth is factually incorrect since there is no evidence for it. He can’t do that, since, obviously, Christian belief involves many things for which there is much less evidence than rebirth. Instead, he argues that what is reborn cannot be “me”. He says that Buddhists are correct to say that what is reborn is not-self, since whatever is reborn has only a limited relation to who we are in this life. Yet the implication of this, for him, is that he, the person who is Paul Williams, will disappear. In this sense the teaching of rebirth is hopeless: there is no hope for him as a person.

This is just such a wrong-headed argument, I don’t know where to start. But let me just say it: the fact that you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true. The world doesn’t exist in order to serve your emotional needs. If it really is the case that rebirth is real, then the role of religion is to help us learn to deal with it.

This underlines a further fallacy in his argument. Hope is not something that exists out there in the universe. The world is neither hopeful, nor hopeless. Nor, for that matter, is an abstract social construct like “Buddhism” or “Christianity” the kind of thing that can be either hopeful or hopeless.

Rather, hope is a way of responding to the world. Buddhism teaches us that we can train our emotions and learn to respond in healthy or unhealthy ways. If you think that hope is a healthy way of looking at the world, then you can use Buddhist or Christian teachings and techniques to develop that. Great! But hope is not just given to you. Like all emotions, it is a conditioned response.

Williams asks us to imagine being a cockroach, arguing that this is what Buddhists say we can end up as. What connection is there between a cockroach and us? What is it like to be a cockroach? He argues that if we were reborn as a cockroach, there is no meaningful sense in which we can say “we” still exist, and so we have for all intents and purposes ceased to be.

Once more, he exhibits a seemingly wilful blindness to the many Buddhist teachings that address exactly this issue. To start with, let me say that, while it is true that in theory Buddhist teachings seems to say that we might be reborn as a cockroach, in most cases when these things are discussed the form of rebirth is much closer to that of humanity. So he has chosen an extreme example, not a representative one, to illustrate his case.

But is a cockroach’s experience so utterly different for ours? Let’s see. Consider the five aggregates, a basic Buddhist teaching whose purpose is to help us understand the nature of experience and identity. The five aggregates are the body, feelings, perception, intentions, and consciousness. We have a body; the cockroach has a body. We experience pleasure and pain; so, I’m guessing, does the cockroach. We have perception; we can distinguish, for example, edible from inedible; and so can a cockroach. We make choices; and so does a cockroach. And we have awareness; and so, albeit minimally, does a cockroach. Like us, also, a roach has sight and other senses, although it uses them differently, with the sense of touch, mediated by fine hairs and antennae, being of prime importance. But these are details. On the whole, the structure of a cockroach’s consciousness, when considered in the terms that are important for Buddhism, is not all that different from ours. It is a matter of degree, not of kind.

To ask us to imagine ourselves as a cockroach is to invite empathy, to consider what it is like to be another kind of sentient being. And this empathy is at the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice. We recognize that even a cockroach is something like us.

At the same time, the opposite is true. I am something like a cockroach, but also something unlike it. And this doesn’t just apply to cockroaches, it even applies to ourselves. I am not all that much like me. If I try to imagine exactly how I felt yesterday, as I was reading Williams’ article, I can’t. I can recall some aspects of it, dimly and uncertainly, but I have lost forever what it it means to be me reading that article at that time. That is just how reality is. The only thing that is clear and evident is the present. So we can imagine, however dimly and distantly, what it is like to be a cockroach, or an alien, or a god, or to be ourselves an hour ago.

On knowing and the unknowable

Consider further the method that we use here, a method that is deeply characteristic of Buddhist practice. We start with ourselves, the here and now, with what we can directly experience. Then, little by little, we infer, to the past and the future, to other people, to other kinds of beings. This is how we can move from what is familiar to what is unfamiliar, without making the kind of giant cognitive leap that Williams asks of us.

This method underlies the Buddhist teaching on not-self, a central pillar of Buddhism that Williams seems to have completely misunderstood. We are changing, here and now. We can’t identify a single thing that remains steady and constant in our experience, yet we cling on to the idea of a constant “self”. The notion of self is purely a concept, a handy term we use for pragmatic purposes, but which doesn’t correspond to any single reality. When we attach to this concept of “self”, mistaking our concepts for reality, we cause suffering.

Buddhist teachings don’t create this suffering by taking your self away; they ease suffering by helping you understand why the universe is not the way you think it is. We know that everything will pass, so we learn to be at peace with that. I will disappear; in fact I am disappearing right now; and I am at peace with that.

But do you know what is really incomprehensible? Where we can really have no knowledge at all? Christian metaphysical ideas such as God, the soul, the trinity, or heaven. Christians are deeply vague and ambiguous when it comes to the salvation that is the basis of their hope. And for good reason. At the heart of the Christian notion of salvation is the idea that “I” will go to “heaven”, forever. Heaven is eternal, and for this reason it is inherently unknowable. This is not just my argument; it is stated explicitly in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4.18:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

But what can that possibly mean? All our experience is impermanent. Consciousness continually changes; this is not just a random detail, it is how consciousness works. There can never be any experience of the eternal, and we can ever infer eternity from our transient consciousness. Everything that “I” have ever been is impermanent. It is not possible to even imagine what a genuinely eternal experience could be like, or how it has any relation whatsoever to me as a conditioned person.

Our experience might seem distant from that of a cockroach; but we are closer, infinitely closer, to a cockroach than we are to an eternal heaven. The experience of being a cockroach is knowable, however slightly; but the experience of eternity is alien, utterly and forever. It is a nice-sounding idea that has no grounding in reality.

Rebirth and Christian belief

Willams argues the following.

If what I have argued here is correct, then it seems to me we are entitled theologically to say that we know rebirth is false. What I mean by this is:

  1. Rebirth is incompatible with Christian belief.
  2. As Christian believers we are entitled to say that we know theologically that Christian belief is true.
  3. Whatever is incompatible with a truth is false.
  4. Hence we are entitled to say as Christian believers that we know theologically that rebirth is false.

This is typical of Wiliams’ use of “reason”. I trust that I don’t need to point out how absurdly circular this is. But what is more interesting is how the argument uses “theological” reasoning to dismiss the teachings of Jesus.

For the Bible, and specifically Jesus, refers to reincarnation in many passages. This was well known to early Christians, some of whom, such as the Church father Origen, argued for a belief in reincarnation.

Why does Williams assert, then, that reincarnation is incompatible with Christian belief? Because, he says, “Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person.” If you are reborn then you have no uniqueness as an individual.

The funny thing, though, is that there’s nothing in the Gospels about this idea of the “infinite value of the person”. Indeed, the very notion of “the person” is far too abstract for the thought-world of early Christianity. It is a Greek idea, which came into Christianity via the early debates about the nature and essence of Jesus, who was the Divinity embodied as a person. It was introduced into Christianity by Tertullian, a Latin philosopher of the 3rd century, along with the notion of the “Trinity”. Thus Williams’ “theology” entails that he rejects rebirth, which is referred to frequently in the Bible, in favor of the doctrine of the unique “person”, which is found nowhere in the Bible.

Williams notes that you can even find some Christians who believe in rebirth. But this is a serious understatement. In fact, surveys, over many countries and several decades, show that roughly a quarter of modern Christians believe in reincarnation, and that many more accept is as a possibility.

Who gets to have hope?

It is perhaps not surprising that Williams chooses a cockroach as his example, for traditionally Christianity has not considered animals as worthy of moral concern. The sphere of Christianity is humans only, since humans possess a “soul”, whereas animals don’t. So there’s no hope for animals. But souls are tricky things, since they don’t exist, and are merely invented by philosophers and theologians. So there are lots of Christians who have argued that women have no soul, or that people of other races are not really human.

It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re hearing this wonderful teaching of “hope”. Christian hope, in it’s normal forms, doesn’t extend to the billions of people who are non-Christians: they go to Limbo (a kind of not unpleasant hell). This includes unbaptized babies, and the countless people who lived before Jesus, as well as all animals and so on. There’s no message of hope for these in the Gospels; the best the Church can do is say that maybe God will have mercy.

Hopeless, too, are those who practice unapproved forms of sexuality, or get divorced, or use contraception, or masturbate, or who are atheists, or agnostics, or who miss Mass on the wrong day (seriously!), and the list goes on. Sure, they can maybe be saved, if they confess, repent, and if God is in a good mood. But if they think that there’s nothing wrong with these things, they commit mortal sin and are doomed. This, of course, includes the vast majority of modern, thoughtful Christians, who don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on these and many other matters, but who prefer to discretely pass over them.

And if you’re a fig tree, you might as well give up now.

The hope of Jesus

When I hear someone saying that “Christianity offers hope”, I don’t believe them. It’s just too vague and general. Give me specifics and we can start to make sense of it. I do the same thing when facing problems in Buddhism: leave aside the platitudes, and look at what the Buddha actually said.

So, let’s see what the Bible says. But we have to narrow it down, and not be guilty of just cherry-picking passages. We’re talking about Christianity, so let’s consider the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. And let’s choose Mark, which, while composed long after his death by people who did not know Jesus, and which though constructed according to an artificial chronology is still the earliest, least filtered, and most reliable of the Gospels.

Mark is a good source for understanding Christian hope, since the entire narrative is set up as an apocalyptic prophesy. The story is meant to prefigure the significance of Jesus’s saving power, a power that is so incredible that not even his closest students had the vaguest notion of what was going on. (Remember this when you meet Christians who are so confident that they know what Jesus was all about: not even those who lived with him understood his message!) Jesus says to his disciples:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

This doesn’t sound all that hopeful. Hope comes in because God will save us. But isn’t it God who created all this in the first place? Actually, the text itself makes that clear:

If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

So we are at the whim of an omnipotent God, who created the world including all its suffering, and doles out pain and death as he sees fit. Hope is for the elect only, others will perish.

I find this to be not hopeful, but terrifying. This fear is no accident. The Bible, in many, many, places is trying its best to be terrifying, and Christian history is full of preachers whose stock in trade was not hope, but terror. Fear is, after all, nothing but the inverse of hope, and any doctrine grounded on hope holds fear in its back pocket. Fear is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of hope.

This is why, when the Western world began to emerge from the spell of Christianity in the 19th century, atheist thinkers such as Freud, Nietchzhe, and Marx documented the deep psychological and social scarring that Christianity had left on the European spirit.

Popular Christianity glosses over this history. The modern Churches have implicitly recognized that the atheist’s criticisms were right, and have changed Christianity, to some degree at least, to get away from this cult of death.

But it is never really gone. Bishop Spong, for example, tells a story of a young, devoted couple in his congregation, who were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter. But they had to watch as she became ill, and, while the entire congregation prayed and prayed, she weakened and died. Of course, the couple were devastated; but as he talked to them, he began to discern something beyond normal loss and grief: anger at God. How can He give us this life, only to snatch it away so cruelly, ignoring the pleas of those who have been so devoted to him?

A realistic approach to the Christian tradition cannot avoid this problem. God is terrifying, and in that way, he is just like life. He doesn’t exist to placate those who can’t get their own lives together. This is why Peter Carnley, the former archbishop of the Australian Anglican community, told his congregation that prayer doesn’t work; God isn’t the kind of being who sits there listening to a cosmic help line.

But what is it like to be saved?

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Here we clearly have an external force, a vaguely imagined savior appearing in some magical vision. The roots of Christianity lie not in the logic and rationality that Williams claims, but in a wild, ecstatic visioning.

There’s little rationality in the Bible. Reason was invented by the Greeks, and it made its way into Christianity as the Greek and Roman philosophers criticized the early Christian communities for their irrational beliefs and practices, such as Jesus’ resurrection in the flesh, the virgin birth, and so on. These criticisms, like those of the 19th century atheists, were obviously correct, and the Christians, while arguing against them, gradually changed their doctrine to accommodate the criticisms, turning a visionary prophetic cult into a coolly theological institution.

But I am getting diverted into historical matters here, and missing the key point: when will Jesus come back? This, surely, is the crucial question in Christian hope.

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Here we have the explicit statement that Jesus will reappear in the lifetime of his followers. Obviously this did not happen. Jesus’ prophecy, the heart of his teaching in the earliest testament to his life, turned out to be empty.

This was a fundamental crisis for the early Christian community: hope was promised, but not delivered. This is not unique to Mark, but was found through all the early Christian texts. (Apologies for quoting Wikipedia.):

Christians of Mark’s time expected Jesus to return as Messiah in their own lifetime—Mark, like the other gospels, attributes the promise to Jesus himself (Mark 9:1 and 13:30), and it is reflected in the letters of Paul, in the epistle of James, in Hebrews, and in Revelation. When return failed, the early Christians revised their understanding. Some acknowledged that the Second Coming had been delayed, but still expected it; others redefined the focus of the promise, the Gospel of John, for example, speaking of “eternal life” as something available in the present; while still others concluded that Jesus would not return at all (2 Peter argues against those who held this view).

To sum up: Christian hope, as taught by Jesus, was that he would return in glory to save his followers, while destroying all other people. This prophecy was false. The Christian tradition responded by developing a symbolic interpretation of Bible passages which were originally meant quite literally. Like countless apocalyptic prophets since then, Jesus’ words were addressing the events of his day, but were overtaken by history.

From a Buddhist point of view, this vacillation is entirely predictable. The problem is not with the specifics of how Jesus taught his followers; it is that the very idea that salvation in the form of a future hope is delusional. Our salvation comes from reality, and reality is always present.

In conclusion

Allow me to restate: I am not writing this article in order to attack Christianity. I am doing it in order to refute the critique of Paul Williams, a critique that, however misguided, has gained traction among evangelical Christians due to his prestige as a former Buddhist academic. Despite the length of this article, I have hardly scratched the surface of the mistakes in Williams’ depiction of Buddhism. For example, I have not even touched on his distortion of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma.

We follow religious paths, for the most part, because they answer to a deep, often unrecognized, emotional need or connection. So when, a couple of years ago, a former Buddhist told me that they had become Christian because they felt a connection with Jesus and his community, I said “Sadhu!”, offered my support, and had a lovely conversation with them and their new pastor.

Conversion is not a problem for Buddhists; suffering is. If someone can ease their suffering by following some religious or spiritual path, then that is the truest practice of Dhamma for them.

But we should not stand by while Buddhism is criticized unfairly and mistakenly. As the Buddha said in the Brahmajala Sutta:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.’

I have benefited greatly from reading, reflecting on, and engaging with Christians and those of many different paths. There is always something to learn, and we should never be so arrogant as to believe that we have all the answers.

Obviously, at the end of the day I can’t accept the basic Christian beliefs. But what I do respect in the Christian tradition is the sense of a real human struggle to connect with the transcendent in the middle of the mundane. If we look at the Bible in this way, we can see, not the divinely revealed word of God, but the words of people through the ages who, each in their very different ways, have found meaning in a mad world.

We are lucky enough to share this mad world with Christians, and with many people of diverse beliefs and practices, and we Buddhists can learn much from their struggles and insights. And I hope that, in the future, I can learn from a more meaningful Christian critique of Buddhism.

Aside

On aliens

Last night I did a talk at the BSWA on “Loving-kindness and aliens”, which will be up on the website soon. By pure chance, I came across this article today, which discusses the issue, how would different religions cope with the discovery of aliens?

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/religion-extraterrestrials-jesus-save-klingons/

Of course Buddhism is mentioned as a religion that is chill with aliens. But it doesn’t really acknowledge the fact that Buddhism, like other Indian religions, has a cosmology that not merely allows aliens, but assumes without question that life, sentient life, is found in countless places throughout the vast universe.

One thing aliens will, I have no doubt, share in common with us: they’ll suffer.

Chinese Agama texts are now on SuttaCentral

At last, after a very long time, you can read the Chinese Agama texts on SuttaCentral. In the past we linked to the texts on the CBETA site, but now you can stay within SuttaCentral, and especially, use our amazing Chinese>English lookup tool, which is available in the sidebar.

Given the vast number of texts involved there are bound to be some errors, so please help out by letting me know if you spot any.

If you have some knowledge of the suttas, and would like to start plunging into the Agama world, I suggest you begin with the Samyuktagama. This, like the Pali Samyutta, has mostly simple doctrinal suttas, which use mostly familiar phrases and expressions.

Start with the first suttas in the collection. You can see that we have translations for the first 34 suttas; these are by Ven Analayo, so they are very accurate. You can read the Chinese texts using the lookup tool alongside the translation. You’d be surprised how quickly things start to make sense! Once you’ve read these 34 suttas you’ll be well on your way to exploring independently.

With the inclusion of these texts, SuttaCentral now has almost all the extant early Buddhist texts. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that the vast majority of the Buddha’s words in their earliest form have been gathered in one place, in one coherent form.

However, we still have some missing pieces:

  • A few Chinese texts are still missing. These are mostly later texts which include small segments that have been identified as parallels with the early texts. In most cases, it wouldn’t be worth it to add these vast texts for the sake of a few parallels, so for the foreseeable future they will remain as external links.
  • Some Sanskrit texts are missing; these are texts that are either not yet published, or not available in digital form. If and when Sanskrit texts become available, we will add them.
  • Tibetan early Buddhist texts. We are looking to add these in the next year.

Given the vast corpus of literature, and the uncertain boundaries of what an early text actually is, it will never be possible to clearly say that a collection of early Buddhist texts is complete. But we are getting pretty close.

In addition to the Chinese texts, we have in recent weeks added sutta translations in Indonesian and Spanish. We hope to greatly expand our coverage of translations in the coming year.

That we could get so far is due to the very hard work and countless hours that have been given by so many workers, many of them volunteers, who have made their work available for others to use. In this way the Buddha’s words continue to be a living force, adapting to new environments.

In particular, the Chinese texts we have added were all typed, formatted, and curated by the amazing CBETA project, mainly based at Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. We have incredible gratitude for the wonderful folk at CBETA, who have created an incredibly careful, detailed digital edition of the vast corpus of Chinese Buddhist texts, and have made it available freely for all.

I hope that in the future people will take the texts on SuttaCentral and do new and amazing things with them, and that they make us out of date as soon as possible!

The Verses of the Senior Monks: an approachable translation of the Theragatha

This article is to introduce a new SuttaCentral English translation of the Theragāthā, the classic Pali collection of verses by early Buddhist monks. The work consists of 1289 verses, collected according to the monk with whom they were traditionally associated. These poems speak from the personal experience of monks living in or near the time of the Buddha. More than any other text we find here a range of voices expressing the fears, inspirations, struggles, and triumphs of the spiritual search.

Read the Theragatha on SuttaCentral

I have chosen to release the text under Creative Commons Zero, which effectively dedicates the translation to the public domain. You are encouraged to do whatever you want with the text. Take it, change it, adapt it, print it, republish it in whatever way you wish. If you find any mistakes, or have any suggestions for the translation, I’d appreciate it if you were to let me know.

It is customary when making a new translation to acknowledge one’s debt to former translators, and to explain the need for a new one—and this case is no different. The Theragāthā has been fully translated into English twice before, both times published by the Pali Text Society. The first translation was by Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids in 1913, and the second by K.R. Norman in 1969. The efforts of the former translators is utterly indispensable, and their work makes each succeeding attempt that much easier. Nevertheless, the limitations of these earlier translations are well known. The Rhys Davids translation employs highly archaic language and poetic styles, as well as being based on a dated sensibility regarding both Pali and Buddhism. Norman’s translation, while exemplary in terms of Indological linguistics, employs what Norman himself described as “a starkness and austerity of words which borders on the ungrammatical”.

Moreover, neither of the former translations is freely available. To my knowledge, this is the first translation of the Theragāthā to be fully available on the internet.

Both of the earlier translations were based on the Pali Text Society’s edition by Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Pischel of 1883. The current translation, by contrast, is based on the Mahāsaṅgīti edition of the Pali canon, as published on SuttaCentral. It numbers 1289 verses as opposed to the 1279 of the PTS editions. The extra verses arise, not from a difference in substance, but from the inclusion of repetitions that were absent from the PTS editions. The first set of extra verses is at verse 1020 and the second at verse 1161. Up to verse 1020, therefore, the numbering is the same in the SuttaCentral and PTS editions.

What is an approachable translation?

My aim was to make a translation that is first and foremost readable, so that this astonishing work of ancient spiritual insight might enjoy the wider audience it so richly deserves.

I’ve been thinking about the standard trope that introduces the prose suttas: a person “approaches” the Buddha to ask a question or hear a teaching. It’s so standard that we usually just pass it by. But it is no small thing to “approach” a spiritual teacher. It takes time, effort, curiosity, and courage; many of those people would have been more than a little nervous.

How, then, would the Buddha respond when approached? Would he have been archaic and obscure? Would he use words in odd, alienating ways? Would you need to have another monk by your side, whispering notes into your ear every second sentence—“He said this; but what he really meant was…”?

I think not. I think that the Buddha would have spoken clearly, kindly, and with no more complication than was necessary. I think that he would have respected the effort that people made to “approach” his teachings, and he would have tried the best he could, given the limitations of language and comprehension, to explain the Dhamma so that people could understand it.

Of course, the Theragāthā is not, with a few small exceptions, attributed to the Buddha; but the basic idea is the same. Most of the verses in the Theragāthā are, like the bulk of the early texts, straightforward and didactic. Though formally cast as verse, their concern is not primarily with poetic style, but with meaning. They employed their literary forms solely in order to create an understanding in the listener, an understanding that leads to the letting go of suffering.

An approachable translation expresses the meaning of the text in simple, friendly, idiomatic English. It should not just be technically correct, it should sound like something someone might actually say.

Which means that it should strive to dispense entirely with the abomination of Buddhist Hybrid English, that obscure dialect of formalisms, technicalities, and Indic idioms that has dominated Buddhist translations, into which English has been coerced by translators who were writing for Indologists, linguists, and Buddhist philosophers. Buddhist Hybrid English is a Death by a Thousand Papercuts; with each obscurity the reader is distanced, taken out of the text, pushed into a mode of acting on the text, rather than being drawn into it.

That is not how those who listened to the Buddha would have experienced it. They were not being annoyed by the grit of dubious diction, nor were they being constantly nagged to check the footnotes. They were drawn inwards and upwards, fully experiencing the transformative power of the Dhamma as it came to life in the words of the Awakened. We cannot hope to recapture this experience fully; but at least we can try to not make things worse than they need to be.

At each step of the way I asked myself, “Would an ordinary person, with little or no understanding of Buddhism, be able to read this and understand what it is actually saying?” To this end, I have favored the simpler word over the more complex; the direct phrasing rather than the oblique; the active voice rather than the passive; the informal rather than the formal; and the explicit rather than the implicit. With this, my first substantive attempt at translating Pali, I feel I am a long way from achieving my goal; but perhaps a few small steps have been made.

This translation

The process of creating the translation was this. In assembling the texts for SuttaCentral, I have been keen to create a complete online set of translations for early Buddhist texts. I find it astonishing that the early Buddhist texts are not all freely available on the internet, and I would like to change that. In 2013 I was approached by Jessica Walton (then Ayya Nibbida), a student of mine, who wanted a project to help learn Pali. I suggested that she work on the Thera/Theri-gāthā, in the hope that we could create a freely available translation.

Of course, this is a terrible job for a student—these are some of the most difficult texts in the Pali canon. But I hoped that it would prove useful, and so it has. I suggested that Jessica use Norman’s translation side by side with the Pali and work on creating a more readable rendering. She did this, mostly working on her own.

When she was happy with that, she passed the project over to me, and when I got the chance I took it up. I then went over the text in detail, modifying virtually every one of Jessica’s lines, while still keeping many of her turns of phrase. Without her work, this translation would not have been completed.

I also referred heavily to Norman’s translation, which enabled me to make sense of the many obscurities of vocabulary and syntax found in the text. Only rarely have I departed from Norman’s linguistic interpretations, and I have adopted his renderings on occasions when I felt I couldn’t do better.

There are, however, many occasions when Norman’s work is limited by his purely linguistic approach. There is no better example of this than Thag 411. The Pali begins uṭṭhehi nisīda, on which Norman notes:

The collocation of “stand up” and “sit down” is strange and clearly one or other of the words is used metaphorically.

He then renders the verse thus:

Stand up, Kātiyāna, pay attention; do not be full of sleep, be awake. May the kinsman of the indolent, king death, not conquer lazy you, as though with a snare.

But to any meditator there is nothing strange about this at all; it just means to get up and meditate. I render the verse:

Get up, Kātiyāna, and sit!
Don’t sleep too much, be wakeful.
Don’t be lazy, and let the kinsman of the heedless,
The king of death, catch you in his trap.

In addition to Norman’s translation, I have consulted translations by Bhikkhu Thanissaro and Bhikkhu Bodhi for a few verses. I have, however, not consulted the Rhys Davids translation at all.

I should also acknowledge as influences in this translation my fellow monks, who I was living with while making this, especially Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Brahmali. Both of these monks have influenced the translation greatly. It is from Ajahn Brahm that I have learned the virtue of plain English; of the kindness of speaking such that people actually understand. For years he has advocated the idea that translations should be based on the meaning of sentences, rather than the literal rendering of words. And with Ajahn Brahmali, who has been working on Vinaya translations at the same time, I have had many illuminating discussions about the meaning of various words and phrases. He said one thing that stuck in my mind: a translation should mean something. Even if you’re not sure what the text means, we can be sure that it had some meaning, so to translate it based purely on lexically correspondences is to not really translate it at all. Say what you think the text means, and if you’re wrong, fine, fix it up later.

About the Theragāthā

I’d like to give a very brief and non-technical introduction to the text. If you are interested in a more detailed technical analysis, you can read Norman’s long introduction, which specially focusses on the metrical styles of the text.

Each of the verses of the Theragāthā is collected under the name of a certain monk. (There is a parallel collection of nuns’ verses, the Therīgāthā, which I hope to translate in the future.) In many cases the verses were composed by, or at least were supposed to be composed by, these monks. Generally speaking I see no reason why the bulk of the verses should not be authentic. However, not all the verses can be ascribed to the monks in question. Sometimes the verses are in a dialogue form; or they may be teaching verses addressed to a monk; or they may be verses about a monk; in some cases they have been added by later redactors. In many cases, the verses are in a vague third person, which leaves it ambiguous whether it was meant to be by the monk or about him. Sometimes, also, verses are repeated, both within the Theragāthā and in other Buddhist texts, so a speaker of a verse is not always its composer. It is best, then, to consider the collection as “Verses associated with the senior monks”.

I have used the term “senior monk” rather than “elder” to render thera for a couple of reasons. First, it will make it easier to distinguish the collection from the Therīgāthā. More importantly, not all the monks here are really “elders” in the sense of being wizened old men. Usually in Sangha usage a thera is simply one who has completed 10 years as a monk, so a monk of thirty years of age, while hardly an “elder”, may be a thera.

As well as being collected according to the name of the associated monk, the texts are organized by number (the aṅguttara principle). That is, the first sets of verses are those where a monk is associated with only one verse; then two, three, and so on. There is, in addition, an occasional connection of subject matter or literary style from one verse to the other; and, rarely, a thin narrative context (eg. Thag 16.1).

The numbering of the collections needs a little attention. The texts may be referenced by three means, all of which are available on SuttaCentral; either by simple verse count, or by chapter and verse, or by the page number of the PTS Pali edition.

The primary system used in SuttaCentral is the chapter and verse, as this collects all the verses associated with a given monk in one place. This chapter and verse system is not used in the PTS editions, but it is used in the Mahāsaṅgīti text on which the translation is based. However this system can be a little confusing—or at least, I was confused by it! From the ones to the fourteens there is no problem. However, there is no set of fifteen verses, so we skip from the fourteens to the sixteens. Here the numbering of the sections goes out of alignment with the number of verses: the fifteenth section (Thag 15.1) consists of a set of sixteen verses. The sixteenth section (Thag 16.1 etc.) then consists of sets of twenty or more verses, and so on.

In terms of dating, the Theragāthā belongs firmly to the corpus of early Buddhist texts. Most of the monks are said to have lived in the time of the Buddha, and there seems no good reason to doubt this. In a minority of cases, due to the content of the text, the vocabulary or metre, or the statements in the commentary, the verses appear to date from as late as the time of king Ashoka. Norman suggests a period of composition of almost 300 years; however, if we adopt, as it seems we should, the “median chronology” that places the death of the Buddha not long before 400 BCE, then the period of composition would be closer to 200 years.

As with all Pali texts, the Theragāthā is passed down in the tradition alongside a commentary, in this case written by Dhammapāla approximately 1,000 years after the text itself. As well as providing the normal kinds of linguistic and doctrinal analysis, the Theragāthā commentary gives background stories for the lives of the monks, many of whom we know little about apart from the Theragāthā itself. In some cases, the stories provide context to make sense of the verses, and there seems little doubt that these verses, as is the normal way in Pali, were passed down from the earliest times with some form of narrative context and explanation. Like the Jātakas, the Dhammapada, or the Udāna, the verses formed the emotional and doctrinal kernel of the story. However, in the form that we have it today, the commentary clearly speaks to a set of concerns and ideas that date long after the Theragāthā itself. While the commentary is invaluable in understanding what the meaning of these texts was for the Theravadin tradition, it is probably in only rare cases that it provides genuine historical information about the monks. I have consulted the commentary only in cases where the meaning of the verse was unclear to me.

What is striking to me is just how clear-cut the demarcation of Pali texts really is. The Theragāthā sits firmly on the far side of a dividing line in Pali literature that stems from the time of Ashoka or thereabouts. It is concerned with seclusion, meditation, mindfulness, and above all, liberation. Later texts were concerned with glorifying the Buddha, and especially with encouraging acts of merit for attaining heaven or enlightenment in future lives. Such concerns are notable for their absence from the Theragāthā; when they are present, such as Sela’s verses extolling the Buddha, they remain grounded in human experience, rather than the elaborate fantasies of later days. There is a single exception to this, Thag 1.96 Khaṇḍasumana, which says how after offering a flower he rejoiced in heaven for 800 million years, and then attained nibbana with the leftovers. But this just feels so out of place. Among the countless verses that speak of retreating to solitude, of devotion to jhana, of renouncing everything in the world, such sentiments seem as if from a different world of thought; a different religion even.

The classical Theragāthā verse, as I mention above, is a song of liberation, rejoicing in a simple life lived with nature. Here’s a typical example, from Thag 1.22, the verse of Cittaka:

Crested peacocks with beautiful blue necks
Cry out in Karaṃvī.
Aroused by a cool breeze,
They awaken the sleeper to practice jhāna.

But the verses embrace a wide range of subjects; straightforward doctrinal statements, lamentations of the decline of the Sangha, eulogy of great monks, or simple narrative.

While the texts are mostly direct and clear-hearted, some of the most interesting verses are those that speak from the mind’s contradictions, the longings that accompany a full-blooded commitment to the spiritual life. Nowhere has this very human ambiguity been expressed better than in the extended set of verses by Tālapuṭa (Thag 19.1). Employing an unusually sophisticated poetic style—only exceeded in this regard by Vaṅgīsa, in whose verses we can discern the beginnings of the decadent poetics of later generations—and addressing his recalcitrant mind in an unusual second person, he berates it for its inconstancy:

Oh, when will the winter clouds rain freshly
As I wear my robe in the forest,
Walking the path trodden by the sages?
When will it be? …

For many years you begged me,
“Enough of living in a house for you!”
Why do you not urge me on, mind,
Now I’ve gone forth as an ascetic?

Of all the texts in the Pali canon, it is in the verses of these senior monks and nuns that we come closest to the personal experience of living in the time of the Buddha, struggling with, and eventually overcoming, the causes of suffering that are so captivating. I hope that this new translation can help bring these experiences to life for a new audience.

On the passing of Bhante Santitthito

Bhante Santitthito at Santi Monastery

Dear friends,

This is to let you know that one of our dear Sangha friends in Sydney, Bhante Santitthito, has passed away.

Bhante Santi has been a friend and mentor of mine for the past ten years or so, since I arrived in Sydney. He was one of those monks who lives quietly and simply, and who inspires by their presence as much as anything else. I remember him for his warmth, and his big, big heart.

I don’t know too much about his history—so please feel free to correct me or to add your own stories of him—but he was a German monk, who ordained in Thailand over 40 years ago. He was a student in the tradition of Ajahn Buddhadasa and Luang Por Paññananda. When I was in Thailand he was living at Wat U Mong, a secluded monastery on the outskirts of Chieng Mai.

Wat U Mong, Chieng Mai, where Bhante Santitthtito stayed for many years

But I didn’t meet him until later, when I came to Australia in 2003. At that time he was living with the Lao Sangha at Wat Buddhalavarn on the outskirts of Sydney, where he stayed until his death.

Bhante Santi was not someone to get hung up on petty differences. He had a big, philosophical, mind, and would always be looking to what drew people together. His Dhamma, while firmly rooted in the Theravadin traditions within which he practiced, reminded me of universalist flavor of the German Romantic tradition. In his Dhamma talks he would always be challenging us to raise our sights beyond our own little stories and sufferings, and see the grander vision that was so clear to him.

There’s an incident I remember in a book I read as a child; I can’t remember the author or title. There was a family, with children who lived with their mother, and one day they were visited by their aunt from the city. They all busied themselves with preparations for their special guest, cleaning and making everything nice. Then someone said, “Why is it that we do this for a visitor, but we don’t show the same love and respect for our own mother, who looks after us every day?”

Looking back, I feel so much gratitude for Bhante Santi, for his presence and his quiet support for us in all that we did. He visited Santi Monastery many times, and was especially supportive of the nuns. In fact we discussed several times the possibility of building a hut for him there, although events overtook us and it never happened. I wish I had taken more time to let him know that he was indeed special. Times have moved on, and we won’t have another like him.

Bhante was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer, and stayed in his monk’s hut, where he continued to inspire people with his peaceful acceptance of his coming death. He was cared for by the monks and community at the monastery.

Bhante Santitthito passed away in Campbelltown hospital on 29-08-2014 at 4.40am, at the age of 74.

The public is invited to his funeral, which is being organized by Wat Buddhalavarn.

Date: Thursday, 4-9-2014
Time: 2.00pm–4.00pm
Place: Leppington Crematorium, Camden Valley Way, Leppington.

Santitthito