Nature & Spirit

It is in nature that we feel connection. I remember my first spiritual experiences in nature, not in church. Church never had anything of the spirit for me (I was raised Catholic, and went to a Catholic school). But I remember lying on the grass looking at the sky and the sense of wonder at the stars. And I remember the stretch of marsh at the river’s edge, and the mysterious creatures that populate that space.

There is a special quality to the air in such places, and I am reminded that the “spirit” is, in its origin, just this same air, which we draw in, borrow for a time, and let go forth once more.

There is something about nature that escapes the instrumental. We have nothing to do there. Nothing to change or perfect. It is and grows as it always has. We clear it to build our Euclidean structures, but even before they are finished, nature colonizes them: insects and weeds, breaking the formalism of architectural geometry.

Why do we create forest monasteries? I don’t know, unless it has something to do with this connection. We are moved to contemplation, in the face of something so beyond us in time and space.

Yet for all this, we spend much of our lives battling nature. As soon as we see a cockroach, we want to get rid of it. Even the slightest, most harmless intrusion of nature’s apparent chaos prompts a swift response. Nature is an ideal for us, to be approached for a special experience, and otherwise kept at arm’s length.

And it is one of our practical problems that humans live most efficiently apart from nature, in cities. This has been pointed out by James Lovelock: ants solved the problem of high density housing of massive populations long ago. If we care about nature, we would live in massive tower blocks. We don’t need to save nature, just to get out of the way.

But of course, if we do so we cut ourselves off. City living creates alienation from nature. So the practical solution is spiritually deadening.

What to do? I have no answers. I live a twilight life, sometimes in the forest, sometimes in the city, not at home in either. Like the air that sweeps from the city to the forest, from the factory chimney to your lungs, I have no real home. I experience life as a guest, and try not to be intrusive about it.

It takes balance to live in between. To be like the breath, now part of the environment, now part of ourselves. Constantly dissolving the artificial distinctions between “self” and “other”, “artificial” and “natural”, “real” and “fake”.

People are crazy. They still argue about whether this bushfire was due to climate change, or whether that flood was. They monumentally don’t get it: everything is climate change.

Every breath you breathe in has been changed by human activity. It has less oxygen, more carbon dioxide; and it has a cocktail of substances that never existed before humans invented the factory. Every interchange in the vast surface area of your lungs is different because of climate change. Every cell in your body is different because of climate change. Every time you breathe out, you are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. And when you die, your rotting corpse will add even more. Everything, forever, is different.

We can’t go back, and there may be no forward for us. There remains what is, and that is vanishing even as we watch. Our proud dreams of dominion will become nothing but dust. And the air will howl over the dust, but there will be no-one to listen.

The thing is…

I think we’re doomed. No, really. In the good old-fashioned apocalyptic sense. Not in the normal existential sense that death is a natural part of life. In the sense that we have taken this beautiful home and trashed it and soon it will all be gone.

I am talking about climate change. Sure, there are plenty of other sources of apocalypse—water depletion, pollution, peak oil, population—but climate change is the spectre that hangs over them all.

And I have struggled, and am struggling, with how to articulate this. I am, of course, not a scientist; so I want to avoid giving second-hand, inferior accounts of the facts. If you are wondering why I think this is so serious, when the mainstream media coverage hardly mentions the real problems, I cannot recommend a better article that Joe Rohm’s An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. Read it, please. This is one of the few articles I have seen that unflinchingly looks at the actual scientific predictions, and considers the overall impact of runaway climate change. It is a little outdated now; but safe to say, things have not got better.

One of the knowledges the Buddha claimed to possess was that he could see “where all paths lead”. It doesn’t take any special powers to see that the path we are on leads to the end of civilization. We simply cannot survive in any meaningful way a temperature rise of 4 or 6 degrees, together with the myriad of other calamities wreaked by climate change. Civilizations collapse. It is normal. And they collapse because they overuse their resources. The difference is that we are doing it on a global scale.

So what are we to do? I have been involved in speaking out in conventional ways on this for a long time. But politics has failed us. Just recently I was part of an ARRCC interfaith delegation to Canberra where we spoke with Greg Hunt and a range of other politicians. It was depressing, as you might expect. Not a single one of the politicians, so far as I could see, was prepared to face the facts. I spoke to a series of them about this specific issue, saying that the course we are on leads to the end of civilization. Nobody said I was wrong on the facts, or too extreme. They were just unable to process the information. Even those most active on the issues, like Mark Dreyfus for example, simply had no intention to talk about making the kinds of changes that are really needed, like, say, leaving the coal in the ground. Many of those in the Government have simply no interest in or grasp of the basic science. We were told by a sitting member of the Liberal party that there has been no conversation on climate change in the party since 2010.

Our current government has launched what is probably the most single-minded, vicious attack on the environment and science of any Australian government in history. Yet we elected them.

The plain reality is that all of the activism that has been done for decades is a complete failure. No matter how many solar panels we put up, or how efficient our light bulbs become, the carbon in the atmosphere keeps going up, as fast or faster. Now we are at 402 ppm, higher than anytime in the past 800,000 years, at least. And so who cares? Who is actually prepared to change anything?

The IPCC claims that making the necessary changes would be incredibly cheap: the median annual growth of consumption over this century would decline by a mere 0.06%. Yet even this trifling sum is too much. To avoid paying it we have toppled governments and generated a whole new industry of denialism.

I simply don’t think that we will make the necessary changes. Of course, we can: that is not the issue. And perhaps we will. But I am an empiricist. I look at the evidence and try to make a reasonable extrapolation. And to extrapolate a survivable future, we have to assume a massive change in behaviour and values, and there is simply no evidence of this.

To forestall objections, I am not suggesting that we should do nothing. On the contrary, we should do much more. But I just don’t see any reason to think it will really make any difference, except that we get to make some good kamma. Which is reason enough, but is not the feelgood message that a good activist should be sending. So I’m not very interested in conventional activism, although I still do it. I think that we need to step back and look at the big picture, to realign our values.

In future articles I will go into details more. But here I want to just broach the basic issue. Regardless of what we think is the most likely outcome, there is at least a distinct possibility that we are headed towards the global collapse of civilization in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime. We need to find a way to talk about this, to accept it as a reality. To ask: “What are our values, our lives, if this is where we are headed?”

And these are, at their heart, spiritual questions. I hope that we can have a sane conversation about this. And I hope that we can begin to find acceptance.

Just one final point: I will not be tolerating denialists on this blog. You will be moderated. You are most welcome to exercise your freedom of speech here, here, or even here.

Aside

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

I’m proud to announce that the short book that Ven Brahmali and myself have finished, called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts, is out now and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

The book is essentially a collection of short articles that gather much of what we know about the historical background of Early Buddhism into one place. We believe that the debate on the authenticity of the texts in academic circles has been badly skewed by an unscientific emphasis on extreme scepticism, and it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Anyway, enjoy!

Hi again

Long time no see. My apologies to all readers if they feel like they have been stranded. Or really, not “feel like”, actually been stranded.

There is no very good reason for my absence, except that I have been focussing on other things. Specifically, I have been finishing a major project for SuttaCentral: a digital edition of I.B. Horner’s translation of the Pali Vinaya. As work on that continued, I really, really, wanted to get it done, and done well, and for that I have let other aspects of my digital life slip (unread emails: 325 and counting…)

Anyway, that is done now. Yesterday I finally got it together and sent it around to our team. So I am turning attention to a variety of other things that I have put on the backburner, including this blog. I will be playing around with new themes, in both form and content.

There is, of course, more to it than that. Part of the issue has been that I have been struggling with expression: I am not sure how to say what I think is most meaningful to say. I haven’t solved this, but I am willing to start trying.

For all those who have left comments, thanks, I will try to get around to answering them in the next little while, your patience is appreciated!

Loving-kindness meditation: a field study

A couple of years ago Beatrice Alba and I discussed the fact that there were many academic studies of mindfulness meditation, but few of metta. Although simply complaining about the situation is usually a pleasant enough experience, for some reason we decided to actually do something about it. Go figure!

So for two metta retreats we handed out forms and got people to fill them in, according to a scheme that Beatrice worked out. She wrote an analysis of the findings, and it’s now been published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism. Congrats to Beatrice for putting in the work and helping put our knowledge of metta meditation on a more scientific footing.

Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, so those of you without institutional affiliation will have to pay the ludicrous sum of $37 to download the pdf file. Or, if you don’t feel like enriching the pockets of a multinational corporation that clears some $150 million in profit every year from the ideas and work of others, you could contact me.

The gist of the study: metta meditation is good. You knew that! But now it’s peer-reviewed, so it must be true.

The date of the Buddha’s birth

The last couple of days I’ve received a whole bunch of emails announcing a breakthrough in dating the Buddha. An international team of archeologists has dug beneath the previously excavated remains at the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, where they found the remnants of a wooden structure, which was dated to the 6th century BCE. Breathless reports in the New York Times and elsewhere said that this is the first time we can fix a concrete date to the Buddha’s life.

Okay, so great, new findings are always welcome But what did they find, exactly? I haven’t had the chance to read the peer-reviewed article yet. But the topic was posted on the academic discussion forum H-Buddhism, where Jonathon Silk had the following to say:

what has been found is wood beneath the Asokan layer. There is *no* indication that the wood is connected with the Buddha in any way shape or form. … And in fact, except for a single–I would say incautious–sentence, the article basically says this… the traditional spot rebuilt by Asoka had earlier a wooden structure upon it. What that structure may have been, and whether it could conceivably have had any connection with the Buddha–no evidence at all!

Sorry about that. Truth can be dull, can’t it? The fuss did raise the following interesting response from Achim Bayer. It discusses the prestige in which archeology seems to be regarded, which avid readers will recognize is an issue I have whinged about before. Good to see this is being addressed directly.

Another of the issues involved is that archeology, dealing with material things, seems to be considered “science”, while the study of history as a whole is just “humanities” (at least in the anglophone world) and thus less reliable.

These were my experiences when dealing with the “Lama Wearing Trousers” last year.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/recently-discovered-meteorite-buddha-with-swastika-likely-a-fake-a-862919.html

I have now organized a panel by the title “Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at the IABS 2014 in Vienna – to which everyone interested in such methodological questions is warmly invited.

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

Once upon a time in a South American country (apologies for lack of details! I plead memory.) there were a lot of children getting sick with an illness that was preventable through immunisation (see above, re: details). The government, working with health organisations, came to the people with an immunisation program. But the people had homes to clean, meals to cook, jobs to do, and lives to live, so they were not interested. The government tried and tried, but only a few came for the program.

Then they sat back and thought, “How do we win the hearts of the people?” So they went to the Church. This being a Catholic country, there was a somewhat effective organisational structure. They met with the Bishops and other leaders and demonstrated the scientific value of the program. They asked the priests to say to their congregations, “Immunisation is as important as baptism”. And they did.

And the people started taking their children to be immunised. And the lives of millions of young children were saved.

This was one of the stories we heard on the second day of the Religions for Peace conference. It’s a beautiful tale, and it illustrates a crucial point: that religions, in much of the world, can have a powerful effect for good on the lives of the people. They retain a sense of moral authority that, for much of the world’s population, has never rested in government or in science. In the experience of all too many people, governments are reliably corrupt and brutal; and all they have seen of science is the poison in the river and the darkening of the skies. But the church has always been there; it has witnessed their birth, their growth, their marriage, and the death of their relatives. Churches are intertwined in the fabric of people’s lives like no other institution.

The question for much of the second day was, how do we shift from values to action? This played out in multiple spheres, and we could get an amazing sense for how suffering is truly universal. Delegates from Nigeria, Columbia, Myanmar, and many other countries spoke. Each time, while the details varied, we heard the same questions, the same underlying humanity. What people want is, for the most part, quite simple. Food, water, health care, a place to live, safety, education. We heard again and again of how these things were entirely doable. No-one is pushing any utopian visions. Just the basics. Yet the basics seem ever further out of reach.

In the previous post I quoted from the conference handbook some of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, including a reduction in global poverty. These blog posts are written quickly, and I didn’t check my facts: I should have. In one of the discussions on the second day, a delegate from South Africa talked about these, and said that the reports they had been hearing from governments all too often had no resemblance to what was happening on the ground. Her experience was not of decreasing, but of increasing poverty, and especially of increasing inequality.

So for every story of inspiration, we heard another of despair. The First Peoples from South America spoke of the interconnectedness of all creatures; from Kentucky we heard of vivid orange water flowing down from destroyed mountains into people’s taps; from Myanmar we heard of a Muslim leader and a Buddhist monk going to a torched village and rebuilding the school and health centre together; and from Senegal we saw laughing children living in chronically flooded villages, being taken with their priest to dry land, where they were taught how to plant trees.

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was—predictably!—powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-to-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet, as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

The lunch break on this day was intended as a space for the religions to gather and discuss among themselves. So we had a Buddhism section. Of course, since this is Buddhism, there was supposed to be a moderator, but they were nowhere to be seen. So after some casual chat, a few of us got up and had a short session. We heard about interfaith work in Hong Kong, which has been effective in the past several decades in maintaining harmony. I spoke of our concerns regarding increasing violence in our region between Buddhists and Muslims. A representative from the European Buddhist Union said that, while interfaith was essential, we needed to heal the rifts between the various Buddhist traditions.

Our final session discussed actions that we could take as religions to respond to our various challenges, including climate change. Some good ideas were floated; but I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed. For all the experience, enthusiasm and noble intentions, it seemed like so very little we could do. Skip a meal? I’ve been doing that for 20 years (as do thousands of other Buddhist monastics): I can’t see that it’s made a scrap of difference to the environment. The changes that are needed are so huge, and the responses so tiny.

And I had a growing sense that they seem to miss the point. For me, the potency of religion lies not in its social effectiveness, but in its depth. It points to the causes; but all we spoke of were symptoms. Underlying all this is greed, hatred, and delusion. The reason people are so obsessed with getting and having, with identifying as “consumers”, is because they are lacking something. What are they lacking? That is masked, hidden beneath delusion. And this delusion is actively fostered by the consumption industries. All advertisements say one thing: you are inadequate. To begin any kind of meaningful response, we need to start with the causes. We need to fill that space.

This is where religions should be the experts. But the sad truth is that we are not. Religions for the most part deal with semblances no less unreal than those of advertising. The semblance of holiness; the semblance of the sacred; the semblance of profundity. This semblance is the essence of all ritual, and of all religious doctrine. It is not an expression of meaning, but a substitute for it. It is the ashes of depth.

To re-awaken meaning we need to step out of the way. To have the guts to ask the hard questions, and let silence be an answer.

Religion for Peace Global Assembly, first day: some reflections

The 9th World Assembly of the global interfaith network Religions for Peace got properly underway on 20/11/2013. I say properly, because there were some pre-Assembly events that I didn’t attend. I’m here as a representative of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO), of which I am a member on behalf of the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils. The theme of this year’s conference is “Welcoming the Other”.

I’ve been very kindly and warmly received in Vienna, firstly by some members of the local Buddhist community, who took me on my first ever tour of catacombs; an experience that was enlivened by the breezy humour of the tour guide, who took obvious delight in discussing of the plagues and wars that have populated the catacombs; and, even better, the growing pollution of rotting corpses that required the catacombs be emptied. Down there, among the piles of bones, the mummified corpses of long-dead bishops, and the distorted gargoyles of horror, I could not help but feel that I had discovered the unconscious of Freud’s Vienna.

My accommodations have been no less intriguing, with an equally easygoing acceptance of light and dark. I’m at the famous Capuchin Monastery, right in the heart of Vienna. There’s a lovely small community of Franciscan friars here, about 12 or so. Mostly they don’t speak much English, but there’s a couple of Indian monks who are quite fluent. But language doesn’t matter so much when the people are so warm and friendly. There’s plenty of smiles and laughter over breakfast, and a manifest feeling of contentment. The monks live very simply, especially considering the heritage of the monastery: some bread and cheese for breakfast; clean, basic accommodation; and a regular program of service for prayer. They very kindly invited me to take part in their services, but I declined, as I will mostly be away at the conference.

Perhaps it’s easier to be light of heart when you have under your feet the desiccated corpses of kings. This monastery is most famous as the resting place of the Hapsburgs, the rulers of the mighty Austrian Empire for 500 years. Now they have gone the way of all kings, succumbed to the one monarch none could overcome: Lord Death. They’ve been entombed in increasingly elaborate sacrophogi of tin; gorgeous figures, grinning skulls, angels and swords adorn them. Once rulers of the wide earth, now they are the objects of school excursions, with earnest teachers and bored, uncomprehending children more interested in making click-clack noise in the echoing corridors with their stone floors.

If any of the monks were dubious about the sudden arrival of this strange and very large Australian Buddhist monk, here to attend an event sponsored by the Saudis, they didn’t show it. But they were, so I was told, pleased to see that in the daily paper there was a message from Pope Frances, giving his blessing for our conference. So that’s all right, then.

As for the conference itself, it is held in the Vienna Hilton, and many of the attendees stayed there. The main organisers of the event are Religions for Peace, but the co-sponsors are the Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This centre was established here in Vienna as a world interfaith hub. Obviously, this raises some interesting questions. Saudi Arabia was one of 15 nations identified by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as being a “Country of Particular Concern”. The report found that:

During the reporting period, systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. More than 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non-Muslim places of worship; uses in its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice. There have been numerous arrests and detentions of Shi’a Muslim dissidents, partly as a result of increasing protests and demonstrations related to 2011 uprisings in the region, and Ismaili Shi’a Muslims continue to suffer repression on account of their religious identity. Members of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) continue to commit abuses, although their public presence has diminished slightly and the number of reported incidents of abuse has decreased in some parts of the country. In addition, the government continues to be involved in supporting activities globally that promote an extremist ideology, and in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.

The report acknowledges the interfaith work done internationally by the King, while noting that since it began in 2006 it has not been reflected in any meaningful improvements in his own country.

So, we all know this: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive counties when it comes to religion and related matters. So what are they doing taking centre stage in the world interfaith space? Is this nothing more than a hypocritical attempt to whitewash their international reputation while avoiding the real problems? Or is it a genuine attempt to move towards openness, setting an example internationally for much-needed reforms at home? I don’t know, and it would seem that Religions for Peace is committed, for the time being anyway, to furthering a partnership. They’re smart people, with no illusions, and so I don’t dismiss it out of hand. At the same time, the Saudis have buckets and buckets of money, and that is the most basic corrupting influence on all genuine spiritual movements.

In fact the Saudi presence at the Religions for Peace conference is muted. This stands in contrast with the pre-conference event organised by Kaiciid, which some reports say was dominated by ostentatious displays of wealth, and platitudes by Saudi princes on how they will have to take the lead on interfaith.

There was none of this at the actual RfP conference. There has been a nicely representative mix of speakers, plenty of women taking part; perhaps a slight under representation of East Asian religions, which was acknowledged.

In the opening session, the delegates were asked to accept the new nominated committees. And a remarkable thing happened. The floor was invited to make suggestions, and one suggestion was: that the committee include a young person. And, astonishingly, the panel said, “Fine, let the Youth Group nominate their own representative.” Then there was another committee to elect, and the panel said, “Well, we’ll probably want a young person for that as well.” Then someone said, “But shouldn’t we have two young people on each committee, male and female”; and this was accepted just as readily. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an accepting and meaningful display of genuine democracy in action. That, more than anything, gave me hope.

The speeches themselves were for the most part unremarkable, and I felt that far too much time was taken with matters of too little substance. A great speech should be either informative or inspirational, and these were for the most part neither.

Pale Blue dotHaving said which, the presentations touched on some important matters. For me perhaps the most memorable was a speech by a Japanese delegate, who reflected along the lines of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot. He noted that Voyager 1, which took the famous photo of earth, has now left our solar system. All around, for as far as we can see, space is cold, dark, and lifeless; the only place we can live is here. And we have disrespected and exploited our tiny precious planet, using up everything we can get our hands on: all for what, exactly?

One of the major themes, which was the focus of the excellent speech by RfP’s Secretary-General, Dr. William F. Vendley. He spoke about the challenges and development of interfaith in the decades since RfP’s inception; but the defining focus of his speech was the idea of a “rising tide” of hostility. He argued that since the previous conference in 2006 we have seen ever greater intolerance and religious divisiveness. He offered some troubling statistics: 3/4 of the world now live in countries with high levels of restriction on religion, with the percentage of countries with such high levels of intolerance rising for 29% in 2007 to 40% in 2011.

Worrying as this is, I was not convinced. In the same period we have seen great and meaningful progress, for example in the acceptance of same sex marriage, or the role of women in religious life. It seems to me that these trends are not separate. Our times are not characterised by a greater repression in religious matters, but a greater polarisation. The good get better, while the worse get worse; and the gulf between the two, which once we could hide beneath the formalities of ritual and custom, has become so vast as to paralyse, quite literally: think of the US government shut-down, the horrific morasses in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, climate change reform, or, within my own tradition, the continuing failure by some monks to accept bhikkhunis. In all these cases, and many more, we see an ideological gulf that has religion as a driving force.

And the source of the polarisation, underlying all these, is change. Accelerating, chaotic, destablizing change. Change that uproots everything, trashes all that is of value, and casually devastates family, faith, and culture in its blithe indifference. Modernity is experienced by all too many people as a waking nightmare: children continue to die in their millions due to entirely preventable causes. Those with the money and technology to make a difference waste it on guns and geegaws, obsessed with accumulating more and more. Why do we continue to be surprised that people cling so desperately, so irrationally, to an imagined past?

There was an unexpected contribution from one of the Islamic leaders. There had been some confusion earlier on the subject of circumsicision, whether it referred to male or female. Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who in good cheer and self-deprecating style, informed us that as the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently “Grand Mufti at large”, he had the authority to issue fatwas for all of us. And so he did, two of them. One, that female gential mutilation was wrong, that it contadicted Islamic principles, and that it should be banned everywhere; and two, that all Muslims should work for interfaith harmony. Those are my kind of fatwas!

The final session of the day was a commission on “Human Development that Respects the Earth”. This was far more satisfying than the plenary sessions; we had spilt into four different sessions, so there was much greater participation, and many interesting voices. An emerging theme was the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, for which the deadline is approaching in 2015. These have been partially successful, with a global reduction of extreme poverty by half (yay!), improved access to drinking water for 2 billion people, gains in the fight against malaria and TB, and more. Areas noted as needing improvement are the environment, HIV, maternal and child survival, and education.

But for me the most urgent presentation came from Dr. Nigel Crawhall, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, who spoke on global warming; in fact he had just come from the discussions at Warsaw. (I chatted with him after the presentation; it tuns out he’s a Buddhist from South Africa, who’s connected with the community of my friend and sometime bloggist Thanissara.) It was fascinating to hear of the energy that is in this space at the moment; the desperation of the activists, the despair showing even in leaders like Christiana Figueres; and the glazed denial of the technocrats. Every time I get in a conversation with knowledgeable people on this topic, I hear numbers that are just unbelievable. But you hear them so many times, from such reliable sources, that they start to become normal. Like, for example, the UN report that predicted numbers of displaced people by 2020 at 250 million. Or the prediction that the oceans will be fished out by 2030.

The coming century will, I believe, see the end of our civilisation in any recognizable form. I simply can’t see any other outcome, given the dogged commitment to inaction on the part of everyone who matters. At last, Christiana Figueres has started to go beyond the polite fiction that having a little tax or sponsor some solar cells will save us. It won’t. The only thing that really counts is that we leave the coal in the ground. If we don’t do that, we’re finished. And, as crucial as all the other issues that we discussed are, none of it really matters if our environment collapses. None of us will have education, or health care, or reliable food and water, or jobs.

It is no longer a question of whether climate change is real. Nor is it a question that it it will go over the long-cherished limit of 2°C. Nor is it a question that this will be catastrophic. The only questions are how bad will it be, and what can we do to minimise it. The latest IPCC report suggests that we may well see a 4.5°C rise this century; I think this is too conservative; analysts not committed to the IPCC’s consensus approach frequently speak of 6°C this century, and this is by no means the maximum. And of course, that’s just this century: it keeps going up for a long time.

What can we do? I don’t know. For a long time I have wanted to write more on this subject, but it is so big and so overwhelming that I have not known how to start. But here’s one idea: go to a monastery and stay in a cave. It may turn out to be a useful survival skill.

Nigel said that the message they had received from the UN was that politics had failed. Decades of negotiations have led nowhere. Figures at the highest levels are now looking to religion for a solution. Despite all of the problems that religions have faced, and continue to struggle with, it is still the case that religions speak to the people in a way that no other can. And we have the potential, at least, to speak with a moral authority, to draw a line in the sand. One speaker spoke of the “madness, the madness!” of our world, in that we have allowed economics to triumph over life. For all the distortions of their tiny parochial moralities, their embarassing obsessions with controlling sex and women, at the heart of all religions there is the respect for life. And in that, perhaps, we may find hope.

The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to attend the American Academy of Religions annual conference. As has become the norm, there was hardly anything in the two days, with hundreds of presentations, that discussed Early Buddhism, or indeed anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. There were a couple of papers, but these dealt with extremely minor issues in an almost apologetic way, as if the very idea that we could talk about the Buddha was embarassing; and it was notable that they were given by European scholars.

We’ve just been sent the latest round of topics, and this time, I can’t find a single mention of anything at all to do with Early Buddhism. Perhaps it might be squeezed in under one of the other headings, although I kind of doubt it. Here’s the list of sessions organized by the AAR Buddhism Section itself:

A23-105 Buddhism Section and Japanese Religions Group
Theme: Committed Scholars: Buddhist Studies and Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

A23-205 Buddhism Section and Confucian Traditions Group
Theme: Collaborative Arenas: The Seventeenth-Century Intersection of Buddhist-Confucian Philosophizing, Politicizing, and Publishing

A24-105 Buddhism Section
Theme: Millennialism, Eschatology, and the Latter Day of the Dharma

A24-311 Buddhism Section and Religion in Southeast Asia Group
Theme: Material Culture, Politics, and Religion in Burmese and Tibetan Buddhisms

A25-103 Buddhism Section
Theme: Buddhist Masculinities: Rhetorics and Representations

A25-211 Buddhism Section Quadsponsorship
Theme: Self-Immolations in the Tibetan Buddhist World

A26-106 Buddhism Section
Theme: Vision, Text, and Image in Buddhism

There’s a long list of other miscellaneous sessions that are of potential interest to people doing Buddhist studies. These include the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies on Deep Listening and Spiritual Care; Seen and Unseen: Revelation through Science Fiction (which I would totally attend!); Urban Buddhism in Modernizing Asia, 1850–1950; and so on.

There is nothing at all that mentions anything in the first 500 years of Buddhism.

How on earth has this happened? How has an entire academic discipline so completely lost the plot? How is it possible that we can even begin to speak about “Buddhism” while studiously avoiding paying any attention whatsoever to the Buddha?

It seems to me there are a number of influences we can identify.

  • The pragmatic tendency of American philosophy, as opposed to the classical, pure-knowledge approach of Europe;
  • The prevalent influence of Sino-Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism in America, as opposed to the colonial experience of England, which exposed it to the Indic cultures (but Germany is also a major player in early Buddhist studies);
  • Trends in academic approaches, specifically postmodernism, with its distrust of overarching narratives (except, of course, the overarching narrative of postmodernism!), and focus on the local, diverse, and specific;
  • The jobification of education, which prioritizes fields with immediate financial opportunities, and marginalizes disciplines such as early Buddhism, which require long disciplined study in obscure languages with little prospect of employment;

There are, of course, more specific things, such as the influence of particular academics.

One thing that I have suspected, but am not sure about is funding. I know that most universities struggle to get funding, and that the more obscure humanities are the worst hit. In Australia, universities sometimes make up their funding by support from Buddhist institutions. In some cases this is unproblematic: the funding is supplied without any attempt to influence the academic priorities. In other cases, especially when Dhammakaya is concerned, there has been serious concerns regarding academic objectivity, which has resulted in their funding being rejected by at least one major Australian university. I wonder whether American universities receive funding from Chinese/Japanese/Tibetan sources, and whether this influences the direction of their studies?

Within the academic communities, of course, the putative reason for the neglect of Early Buddhism is because of none of the above, but because the attempts to study early Buddhism have failed, and the entire field is discredited. This is exemplified by a remark in a recent essay by Steven Collins:

It is my view that, given the complete impossibility of knowing what ‘early’ Buddhism was, the practice of offering speculative pictures of it inevitably casts all subsequent Theravada history in a pejorative light, which is a bad thing.

I find this quote to be very revealing. Knowing anything about early Buddhism is “completely impossible”. This is despite the existence of, perhaps, 10 million words of text, as well as the substantial archeological finds of Ashoka and the like. Most of this text has never been translated or studied in modern academia. Frankly I think it just seems too hard, so rather than getting on with the job, it’s easier just to issue some ex-cathedra proclamation that it’s all useless.

All the attempts to make a description based on this vast volume of textual and ther evidence are dismissed by Collins as “speculative”. This is a standard form of denialist rhetoric. There is no attempt to meaningfully distinguish between valid and invalid forms of inference, no discussion of what can be known with greater or lesser degrees of certainty; the entire field is just dismissed outright.

And most astonishingly of all, Collins claims that the attempt to understand Early Buddhism is immoral, because it makes later forms of Buddhism look bad. Indeed it does: the Buddha was the greatest spiritual leader of humanity, and Buddhist cultures have struggled to live up to his ideals. This is common sense, and is accepted as axiomatic by all Buddhist traditions.

The very notion of a Buddhist culture is defined by this dynamic, by the idealization of a certain way of seeing the “Buddha”, in a more or less historical sense, as an exemplar for how to live life here and now. The tension between the ideal and the reality is the crucial source of energy that has fuelled the creation of “Buddhist” cultures. And we can’t understand this without a sense of the historical situation of Early Buddhism.

It’s not impossible to understand Early Buddhism; in fact, it’s not that hard. What’s impossible is understanding any later form of Buddhism while ignoring its origins.

One of the things that really strikes me about the list of topics at the AAR is how old-fashioned it is. It seems to be stuck in some 1980s postmodernist timewarp. Surely we have moved on? The defining feature of culture in the past couple of decades has been the spectacular revolution in digital technologies. This is probably the most radical and important shift in human culture since the invention of writing; possibly, in fact, since the invention of language itself. Yet there is nothing in the AAR conference that explicitly adresses digital culture and the many, many issues relevant to Buddhism that it raises. Among many other questions, our evolving capacities to deal with natural language processing (NLP) gives us the potential for unprecedented forms of analysis and insight into early Buddhist texts. Yet as far as I know there is nothing being done in this field in Buddhist academia.

Rather than expanding our potential for knowledge, too many academics have become stuck like a broken record telling us that we can’t know anything. This nihilistic, destructive dogma has way outlived any purpose it may once have had.

I’m back; with some sad news for sutta-lovers

I’ve been away on retreat for the past couple of weeks. I’m just catching up on things and will find some time for blogging in the next little while, I hope.

Meanwhile, I just noticed what is a sad day for the web: John Bullitt has announced he will retire from Access to Insight. He has built this site, mostly on his own so I understand, for 20 years, and it has always been the default home for Sutta translations on the web. Now he’s retiring and the site will not be developed further. It will remain solely as a static record, but no additions will be made.

I still remember the first day I saw the internet. It was at my sister’s office, here.

She showed me this thing called the “internet”. I asked if we could find any Buddhist suttas, and we immediately came across Access to Insight, and found some suttas there. I was blown away to think that the Buddha’s words could be found anywhere, by anyone!

I don’t know how many people have visited the site, or had the same experience. But it must be millions by now. It shows what an amazing thing can be done by the vision and energy of someone who truly loves the Dhamma. Congratulations to John for his remarkable achievement.