Optimism will destroy us all

No, seriously.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – what are these but the triumph of good ol’ American optimism over common sense, or indeed, any kind of sense at all? Global financial crisis – caused by the incredible unthinking belief that Capitalism can solve anything, a belief sold to you by the ones who benefit. And global warming; it’s either not happening (because I can’t bring myself to think something so negative) or if it is, technology will fix it. Or at least, we can build a shelter to survive in. Yeah!

It’s not a new thing. Positive thinking, as a recent critique has shown, has a long history, especially in America. How can it be that we have all fallen for it? Are we simply too happy, and therefore, gullible? All the “science” and psychology has gone to telling us what we wanted to know: happiness is good. Are Buddhists to blame for buying into the “happiness” paradigm. I’m guilty of it myself! Maybe I should go and mope for a while about how I’ve helped end civilization.

Buddhism has been successfully marketed as a ‘positive’ psychology. In this it is, of course, precisely in line with the modern developments in Christianity, as promoted by the right wing evangelists. Historically, Christianity was often an extremely negative psychology, which relied on reducing the individual to a worm in the sight of God, so he could be exposed to the saving grace of Christ, or more to the point, the Church. Such negativism came under scathing criticism in the latter days of the Church, and in implicit acknowledgement of the accuracy of the critique, modern Christianity has largely abandoned the guilt-sodden, sin-obsessed ways of the past. But the happy-clappy services of the modern evangelists are no ancient tradition, stemming no further back than post-Puritan America.

Buddhism tells people that they are responsible for their own suffering – so hey! Why worry about social conditions, poverty, or discrimination… This is, of course, counteracted by the strong emphasis on compassion in modern Buddhism, but we can’t deny that the narcissistic ‘me and my happiness’ forces are present, and powerful.

In point of fact, however, real Buddhism is strikingly balanced; for every positive there’s a negative. My favorite Dhammapada verse:

What is laughter, what is joy, when the world is ever burning?

Shrouded by darkness, would you not seek the light?

Whenever we idealize happiness, we alienate a sad person. Yes, Buddhist meditation texts speak often of happiness, but they also acknowledge the ‘spiritual depression’ (nirāmisa domanassa) that arises as one contemplates the wondrous dhamma that one has not yet attained.

For those who feel lost and alone in the sea of smiling faces, there are plenty of depressing Buddhist suttas for consolation.

Art is terrific to bring you down from those fakely happy feelings. Try a really, really sad song, or a story about a deal with the devil that goes wrong in the worst way, or (and i owe this recommendation to my friend Giles) a relentlessly bleak post-apocalyptic film.

If none of these work, there’s always that daily horror movie right there on your TV – the 6.30 news.

Let me know your favorite tips for getting in touch with the depressing truth.

Buddhist numerology

It doesn’t take long to notice that there are a lot of numbers in Buddhism. Four of this, eight of that, seven of the other. Some of the major Buddhist scriptures, such as the Aṅguttara/Ekottara are actually organized according to numerical sequence. Which raises the question: what do these numbers mean? Are they merely a way of organizing information, or is there more to it?

Let me start off with a general observation. Buddhism is a religion of the Axial Age. That period of time is characterized by a turning away from the older mythic or symbolic ways of thought to our more familiar rational, linear thought. Axial Age religions and philosophies have, therefore, a twofold or ‘Janus-faced’ character: from ‘behind’ they look back to the age of magic and myth; in ‘front’ they look towards reason and compassion. It is in their insistence on reason that they appeal to the modern consciousness; and in their preservation of the symbolic they appeal to the subconscious.

The ‘conscious’ relates to numbers as pure rationality; the very definition of abstract, perfect logic. But our ‘unconscious’ takes a great interest in numerology, the ‘hidden’ meanings and implications of numbers. Such discourse would never make it into the Academe, except as an object of curiosity, but it probably has more real-world followers than ‘proper’ theoretical mathematics.

When, with our modern bias, we see numbers used in the Buddhist texts, our initial assumption is to see them purely as counting devices, devoid of meaning. It soon becomes obvious, however, that many numbers cannot be taken literally. As is well known, ‘500’ means ‘hundreds’, for example. In other cases numbers are given as if they were literal measurements, when they in fact relate to mythical sea creatures or Mount Meru. So it’s clear that there is at least some non-rational use of numbers in the texts.

How far down does this go? If the inflated size of a sea monster can clearly not be taken as literal, what are we to make of the equally vast numbers given to cosmological periods, the life span in various realms, and so on, details that are not so readily falsifiable? Or if the number ‘seven’ is found in many symbolic contexts, are we to infer that, say, the ‘seven lives’ of a stream enterer is equally symbolic?

Our modern number system derives from two main sources. Our basic counting system is base 10, which is derived from the widespread practice of counting on the fingers. We still teach children this way: one ‘apple’ = 1 ‘finger’. The fingers are the literal basis on which the metaphor of number is constructed.

It is a major leap of abstraction to take the ‘apple’ and the ‘finger’ out and just have pure number. Even as adults most of us need some physical aids to help with any more than very basic calculations. This base 10 system is inherently practical. It deals with the here & now. It would find use in, for example, building, where the sizes of building are measured using parts of the body; or in trade, where a quick and ready means of counting or weighing items is needed. Our most ancient writings from Sumer consist largely of bills of trade, endless lists of camels and goats and grain being transported and sold from here to there.

The other source is far more exalted: the sky. The months of the year are 12 which almost (but not quite) relates to the approx. 360 days of the year. Astronomical numbering systems tend to be in base 12, or  as in Sumer, base 60. We have abolished the base 60 system for everything, except in how we measure time. Our clocks still rotate in cycles of 12 and 60, mimicking the heavens and reminding us of the earliest inspiration for our science and our sense of wonder.

Let’s have a look at some of the basic numbers used in early Buddhist texts, and their basic symbolic connotations. This is something I’ve noticed here and there over the years, but have done no systematic study. So this is just a few random suggestions.

One – eka: This is the number of the original cosmic unity. It is the most characteristic number of the Vedas: ‘That 1 Thing’, which lies before all. 1 represents a spiritual union, a healing and return from this fractured world. 1 is used in Buddhism in exactly the same way, except that the healing union is not metaphysical, but psychological: jhana.

Two – dve: Like most of the numbers, the Indo European root still shows in the similarity between the English and Pali. (In other numbers, where the Pali and English appear quite different, think of the Latinate forms, e.g ‘penta’ =  ‘pañca’.) 2 is what happens when one falls apart. It is division, diversity, dichotomy. The original primordial Being splits into 2 beings, which simultaneously desire and oppose one another. Day/night, male/female, left/right; the world of binaries and oppositions comes into being. 2 always yearns for the lost 1.

Three – tayo: 3 represents the integration of the Divine (1) and the profane (2). Religions are full of trinities, and like the Christian trinity, the basic meaning is always finding some way to express or manifest the relation between the pristine, longed-for unity with the reality of worldly diversity. In the Chinese Ying-yang symbol (which is, incidentally, found in Rome centuries before China) the yin-yang duality is encompassed within the circle that is the original 1. The 3 Vedas (and later the Tipitaka) are the voice of the 1 Truth as it speaks and manifests in the world. In the Pali Abhidhamma, the primary triad is ‘good, bad, undeclared’, where the ‘undeclared’ (or ‘undefined’) constitutes all that does not lie within the worldly duality – including Nibbana.

Four – cattāro: The literal basis of this is the 4 directions, and hence ‘4’ carries the connotation of ‘completion’, encompassing’, perfection and balance. It is in this sense that the ‘4 noble truths’ are like an ‘elephant’s footprint’ that can encompass all other footprints; or that the ‘4 assemblies’ constitute the perfect, balanced, and complete sasana. It is the most characteristic number in Buddhist texts. As well as being the most common in its own right, it is also common in its ‘strengthened’ forms: 8 (4 directions and 4 intermediate directions), 10 (the same, plus ‘above and below’, c.f. the basic passage on the 4 brahmaviharas.), and so on. These numbers sometimes appear in elaborate interlocking, almost geometric, sets, most strikingly in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, with its ‘4’ noble truths, ‘8-fold’ path, and ’12’ aspects of penetration to the truths.

Five – pañca: In Pali this is still strongly rooted in the ‘hand’. The basic mechanism of the hand is that it divides into 1 (thumb) + 4 (fingers), rather than 2 + 3. So in, say, the 5 indriyas, wisdom is said to be the peak, held up by and securing the other 4, like the rafters holding up a ridge pole. or in the 5 khandhas, viññāṇa is singled out (not rūpa!), and the other 4 are said to be established up against viññāṇa. This is why the khandhas are almost always said to be ‘upādānakkhandhas’, ‘grasping-aggregates’. Like the hand grasps with the thumb opposing the four fingers, the khandhas grasp with vinnana (the knowing) in opposition to the other 4 (the known). While the later traditions tried to place ‘grasping’ in one of the 4 khandhas (saṅkhāra), for the Suttas the grasping is the act of what the hand does as a whole.

Six – cha: I’m not so sure of the metaphorical basis or symbolism of 6, but perhaps it derives from the astronomical cycle, and this might be related to the common description of the 6 sense fields as ‘the All.’

Seven – satta: This is the primary number of magic, especially life and death magic. It relates to two cosmic phenomena: the lunar cycles (and hence menstrual cycles); and the number of visible planets (5 = sun and moon). In both of these there is a sense of a cycle and a return, but also a death and rebirth. The moon dies each month, the sun each night; women’s fertility governs life and death; the wandering planets are an erratic curiosity compared with the static nobility of the stars. 7 is found all through myth and ritual, there being too many examples to even begin to cite them. But the general idea, as in the 7 days of Genesis, is ‘the entire cycle of birth and death’. 7 appears in this sense repeatedly in the Buddha’s mythology: taking 7 steps after his birth, Maya’s death 7 seven days, and so on. It carries on into folk Buddhist belief, where the soul crosses over after 7 (or 49) days. Some cases are not so clear: the 7 lives of the stream enterer is presented as literal, but it carries similar connotations of crossing over the cycle of birth and death.

I’ll stop there. The higher numbers are usually felt as combinations or enhancements of the basic ones, so there’s no need to spell them out. there is, to my knowledge, little written on this topic, but there are a few notes on the number entries in the PTS Pali Dictionary.

In any case, I think it’s clear that numbers have a symbolic dimension in Buddhist texts. In ignoring this we are keeping ourselves blind to one layer of the richness of meaning these texts have to offer us. Given that the Buddhist tradition, to my knowledge, does not itself offer the keys to understanding these matters, it’s important to understand how numbers are used in various traditions, especially axial age traditions.

While numbers started out as concrete, and these concrete bases can still be discerned in the Pali texts, they have already moved very far towards abstraction. It is this very ‘emptiness’ of number that offers such an invitingly blank canvas for the projection of dreams. Like all fundamental symbols, they convey a range of meaning that is always vague and hard to define, but which speaks in some way to fundamental questions of existence.

Number is part of the universal language of symbolism. The spectrum of connotations of numbers is similar across different cultures, but as always, what is actually said in this shared language may be quite different. For example, the symbolism of ‘One’ is shared between Buddhism and Vedism, but while the Vedas yearn to return to the One, Buddhists seek to let go of the One so as to realize the only truly Buddhist number – zero.

My new sanghati

I thought I’d let you know an exciting bit of information – I got a new saṅghāti yesterday!

The sanghati is the ‘outer robe’, the third of the three robes of bhikkhu. The other two are the lower robe, like a sarong (in Pali, antaravāsaka) and the upper robe (uttarasaṅga), which is the main robe you’ll see monks and nuns wearing.

Bhikkhunis have an extra two robes. They have a ‘bathing cloth’, which is used mainly for bathing outdoors. And also the somewhat mysterious ‘saṅkacchika’, which is a cloth that covers the breasts. Some regard this as a ‘vest’, but I’ve never seen a woman wearing a vest in ancient Indian artwork. Women in ancient India usually went topless, but it seems a simple cloth was sometimes tied across the breasts. See, for example, the woman on the right in this ancient fresco from Sri Lanka, or this Indian sculpture (pg. 96).

The sanghati is double-layered, and is used to provide extra warmth and protection. Often, the sanghati is hardly used, although in some strict Vinaya traditions they will wear the sanghati outside the uttarasanga when in the village, or just when on alms-round. Otherwise it’s used like a cloak for warmth, or as a bed sheet. In Thailand, the sanghati is used almost entirely for ceremonial purposes: you’ll see the Thai monks when in formal occasions have a folded robe draped over their left shoulder – that’s the sanghati.

I got my sanghati when I was in Bodhinyana, about 13 years ago. It’s been with me ever since. Now, it’s just looking too sad. There comes a point when the cloth just wears out, and patching really doesn’t work any more. Luckily, we had one in our stores that is suitable, so that’s it.

When we’re finished with our old robes, we don’t throw them away. They can have plenty of uses: as a bedsheet, a rag, stuffing for a cushion… Everything is recycled.

Some updates…

I’m off this afternoon to teach an Easter metta retreat. I’ve done this for the past few years, so it’s become a bit of a tradition. It’s at the Brahma Kumaris center in Wilton, about half-way between Santi and Sydney.

We finalized some important events this week. We’re presenting a public talk by Ajahn Brahm. This is at the Roselea Community center in Beecroft. We’ve chosen this venue as it is near to the demographic center of the Buddhist community in Sydney. Most of Ajahn Brahm’s talks previously have been in the center of Sydney, and many people have been unable to get to them. Make a note of this talk in your diaries, and tell your friends – it’s going to be a great occasion. Like all Santi’s Dhamma talks, it is of course free.

The second event is the philosophy night, which has become a semi-annual event. In previous years we have held an inter-faith dialogue. For this year, we decided on a change of pace, and it will be a dialogue on happiness with a psychiatrist, Dr Eng-kong Tan, and a philosopher, Dr Caroline West. This will be another unique opportunity, so make sure you note it in your diary. This event, like previous philosophy nights, is a charity fundraiser. So we’re charging $20/$10 on the door. All proceeds will go for the Buddhist Library’s Project Cambodia. I have known this project for several years now, and I know that 100% of donations goes directly to those who are in most need.

For updates on these and other Sydney events, see the Santi Sydney blog.

A recent Siladhara ordination

On March 28th there was a siladhara ordination at Amaravati, the first since the Perth bhikkhuni ordination of October 2009. Two female anagarikas made the commitment to go forth out of faith in the Triple Gem. Of course, the joy with which I would like to greet this news is clouded by the circumstances which the Amaravati circle of Sangha has created for women monastics.

This was starkly highlighted in the ceremony, when, to the surprise of everyone present, including the candidates, Ajahn Sumedho read out the Five Points at the end of the procedure. The new nuns were asked to agree to abide by these rules.

How the new nuns felt about this we can only imagine. Was there joy? Was there inspiration? Did they feel, in their hearts, that they would uphold these rules like a beautiful young man or woman would wear a garland of flowers? Or was there confusion, doubt, trepidation?

The Five Points are, in several respects, similar to the traditional 8 garudhammas. But in the Pali ordination procedure for bhikkhunis, the 8 garudhammas are not mentioned in the ordination ceremony. Nor are they recited in the patimokkha. In fact, as I believe the historical situation makes clear, the garudhammas were imposed by the monks on the nuns, for exactly the same reasons as the Five Points: to control the nuns.

So in the Amaravati circle, those rules or principles from the Vinaya or elsewhere that can be used to subordinate women are emphasized and insisted on, while those principles that lead to fairness and compassion are sidelined and marginalized.

In his public talks criticizing the nuns, Ajahn Sumedho has strongly stated that as renunciates we have no rights. Some people may take this as a profound statement on letting go, but for me it was a scary opening into totalitarianism.

Ajahn Sumedho calls these the five ‘points of clarification’. And that is very true. His creation and subsequent insistence on the Five Points make it abundantly clear that when he says we have no rights, he really means it.

Ajahn Sumedho is profoundly attached to his experience as a young monk in north-east Thailand in the 60’s annd 70’s. From his experiences there he has created a form of practice that has become one of the strongest and most relevant forces in modern Buddhism. This is a testament to his own spiritual development as well as to the flexibility and authenticity of the forms he learnt in the north-east Forest Tradition.

And yet this current development shows that there is a fundamental inability to move on from that. Certain things may change or adjust in certain ways, but some things are rock solid immovable. In this debate on the role of women, Ajahn Sumedho reveals that, for him, his experiences as a young monk in Thailand override the Dhamma-Vinaya, and they override the noblest expressions of human ethics as widely accepted in the world.

There are many who, like Ajahn Sumedho, criticize the bhikkhuni movement because it is seen as a western or modern inspired movement for ‘equal rights’, rather than from a Buddhist perspective of seeking liberation. This is wrong-headed historically, since of course it is the bhikkhunis, not the siladharas or mae chis, who form part of the Buddha’s original community.

More importantly, it is wrong-headed morally. The Vinaya itself, and the traditional interpreters of the Vinaya, clearly acknowledge that ethical rules are of two types. There are those that are intrinsically wrong, like killing. And there are those that are simply worldly conventions, such as customs of bowing and respect. The Vinaya is concerned with both of these, and the Buddha constantly responded in a positive way when reasonable criticisms were made, especially by lay people.

The doctrine of rights was formed and is sustained by one overriding consideration: to prevent the powerless from being exploited by the powerful. Those in power will always be tempted to abuse that power, and limits need to be set on this. That is what human rights are. If you want to see where religion goes when those in power are considered above the constraints of conventional morality, just look at what is happening in the Roman church today.

So when modern society, including countries like Thailand, decide to adopt the principle that men and women should be treated equally, this is in response to the very apparent situation that men have power, and women suffer because of this. Balance is needed. And this dynamic is just as apparent in the Sangha as outside it.

The widespread agreement and adoption by peoples all over the world of similar charters of human rights shows that, when it comes to the important things, the noblest values of humanity are pretty much the same wherever you are.

This is what humanity wants: a world of fairness, balance, and equality. It is a dream, a vision for the future that we dare long for, despite all our human failings. And, as humans who happen to follow the Buddhist path, we would love to look up to our monastic Sangha, to see them as exemplars of where we should be heading.

When the storm over bhikkhuni ordination broke in late 2009, it did not take long for the voices of the people to make themselves heard. Compare what happened when two quite different petitions were made.

The petition in support of bhikkhunis and against the five points was initiated, developed, and carried through by lay people. Nearly 3000 names were collected. It was delivered in a respectful manner to a key meeting of the senior Sangha, calling for dialogue and a movement towards positive change. It was summarily ignored. As we see now, Ajahn Sumedho is leading his Sangha in a way directly opposite to what the people wanted.

The petition to have Ajahn Brahm expelled was initiated by monks, who telephoned from Thailand to agitate the Perth Thai community. It was not a call for dialogue or positive change, but for an exertion of power. While doing this in secret, they publicly denied having any influence over the Perth lay community. A very few of the Thai lay supporters tried to gather signatures, but it was a failure. The result was that the Thai community of Perth, of their own volition, decided to hold a fund-raiser to show their support for Ajahn Brahm, which was a great success.

If all this is true, then why on earth does anyone still want to take siladhara ordination? For me the answer is obvious: charisma. Ajahn Sumedho positively oozes charisma, and the Thai Forest Tradition in general has it in spades, especially for those who experience it through the idealized lens of its western interpreters. In the west, we still feel the loss of meaning and spiritual authenticity, and look to the traditions of genuine Buddhism to fill that hole in us.

Charisma is itself neutral. It is pre-moral and non-rational. It is a power, an energy, and I think it is similar, or identical to what anthropologists call ‘mana‘. (It seems this was the original meaning of the Indic ‘brahman‘.) It is that spark of magic, that mesmerizing something special. And like any energy, it polarizes and moves things. If it is used well, it has great benefits. But it is always open to abuse. Those who come under its sway are as if entranced; reason, doubt, and criticism are suspended.

This is why those with charisma must be contained within a social framework that limits their power and protects the rights of those who follow them. Those limits include, crucially, the right of dissent.

But see what has happened to that right. When a siladhara put her name to the bhikkhuni petition, she found later that monks had placed the petition on her door, with her name circled in red. This is bullying and intimidation, and yet there was no disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators.

In a climate like this, there is little wonder that, to my knowledge, not a single senior Ajahn from the WPP tradition has publicly expressed opposition to the Five Points. I do not believe for one moment that they all support them: in fact, I know that many of them will feel very uncomfortable about the situation. And yet they cannot speak out.

Similarly, this blog and other websites from Santi and the BSWA have been blocked in the Amaravati circle of monasteries. In addition, the free distribution books by Bhikkhu Bodhi on bhikkhuni ordination have, in some monasteries, not been made available to the public. Does this censorship remind you of anyone?

I have heard that my blog has been criticized by members of the Amaravati Sangha for being inaccurate, which is perhaps the justification for censorship. But as you all know, every post is open for comments. I read every comment and respond to everything I can. In the few cases when inaccuracies have been pointed out, I have corrected them within minutes. I have been contacted by three Ajahns from WPP complaining about things I have said, and claiming I had made mistakes. In all three cases, the Ajahns had not actually read what I said properly, and misquoted or misrepresented me. When I pointed this out, I never heard back from them.

No doubt, having written so much on this issue, there are some things that should be improved, some things said in the heat of the moment that would have been better if more carefully considered. But this does not justify the Amaravati censorship policy. That is merely an expression of a power structure based on fear and ignorance.

The modern opposition to bhikkhuni ordination is no ancient Buddhist tradition. It can be traced no earlier, so far as I am aware, than the abhorrent 1928 ruling against bhikkhuni in Thailand, made by monks who thought it reasonable to arrest nuns and throw them in jail for ordaining. (This was not a crime, since the 1928 ruling was subsequent to this episode).

That 1928 ruling is the ultimate authority on which WPP bases its opposition to bhikkhuni ordination. There has been no acknowledgement of this fact, nor any attempt to morally or legally question such an obviously unjust rule.

Moreover, there has been no acknowledgement of another inconvenient fact: the 1928 rule forbids a monk from giving the going forth to women. It does not distinguish between various forms of going forth. So in giving the going forth to women, Ajahn Sumedho has clearly and directly violated this rule. Ajahn Brahm did not break this rule, however, since he did not act as preceptor.

This, of course, merely confirms what we knew already. WPP’s insistence that they are merely following the Thai law, which was the fundamental basis of all their official statements on the matter, is a smokescreen. The real issue is treating women as equals. Ajahn Sumedho and the Amaravati circle can continue ‘within the fold’ as long as they treat women as second class.

The tragedy in all this is that is calls into question the very idea of a Western Sangha. It is painfully obvious that any spiritual tradition that cannot deal with women on a fair and equal basis has no future. For a long time, Buddhists in the west have moved towards a lay-oriented Buddhism, where women have a strong and positive role. At Santi and in Perth, as well as many other places, we are trying to show that adherence to traditional Vinaya does not mean the perpetuation of medieval morality. I keep on hoping that we are right.