Help raise funds for children’s cancer ward in Sri Lanka

A message from our friends. Please help if you can!

I’m writing to you all with a humble request to help some poor cancer children in Sri Lanka. A group of people who are personally known to me are raising funds to build a pediatric cancer ward in the Jafna General/teaching hospital in Sri Lanka. It’s carried out by MAS Holdings who was my employer when in Sri Lanka and they’re collecting money all across the nation and reaching out to everyone with a warm kind heart to help in this worthy cause.

MAS holdings has embarked on an initiative to walk from Dondra in the south to Point Pedro in the north from 01st to 27th July, spanning 670km. Titled “Trail – a journey by the living, for life”, their aim is to raise US$ 2mn to develop a Pediatric Cancer Ward at the Jafna Teaching Hospital and help those who have little or no access to cancer treatment facilities as there is only one cancer hospital for the whole country and that’s in the Colombo district.

Please see the attached website and links on You tube as to the progress they are making and I think it’s a very noble deed to give a second chance in life to these suffering children. Take a moment to read more about Trail and the Colours of Courage Trust and how you can help by visiting the websites/link and

Please I ask you all to be generous and donate any amount to this fund raiser to build a pediatric cancer ward in the northern part of Sri Lanka. This project is on only until July 27nd 2011 donations can be made through credit cards by clicking the below link or pasting it on the browser, for payments of any amount in USD. There are no minumum amounts required, any contribution is welcome and greatly appreciated.

Its a very meritorious act of metta to help the sick, suffering and the poor to relive their pain and make them stronger and well. And helping them live a normal life again.

It’s our duty as able citizens to do our part and help raise money for it, and help by passing this message on to all friends and family with a warm and generous heart…..

Appreciate your support in this regard.


White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes

Finally, it’s ready to publish. This is the book I’ve been working on in the background for several years now: White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes. Now you can get it through Santipada: you can buy it from Lulu in paperback, or download the pdf file for free – I recommend get both versions. I hope to make it available in a variety of other formats, but don’t hold your breath.

White Bones is a massive project, 200 000 words. It’s been a labor of love for me, and I’ve lavished much time and effort to making it just right.

For the rest of the rains retreat, I will be visiting this blog rarely if ever, so this can be something to tide you over till next time. I’d like to engage in a conversation with you about the issues involved in the book. I’m thinking of doing something of a study course with it after the vassa – maybe a chapter per week, with excerpts and discussion.

The book is designed to be read slowly and reflectively. I took my stylistic inspiration from some of the early 20th century writers on mythology, especially James Frazer. I love the way he sets out a simple problem, and then in the course of systematically pursuing the matter at hand, he surveys a vast range of material, all while keeping the original point in mind. Mythology has this wandering, meandering quality, taking everything in as it somehow, despite all appearances, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Nuns and Rape: some links and a message

A Facebook ’cause’ page has now been set up. You don’t need to be on Facebook to access it. Thanks to Matt Frazer for this.

Some new articles:

Debate grows in Nepal about gangraped nun

Assaulted Nun May Be Expelled From Order

Several sources have claimed that bus drivers have gone on strike due to this. It is unclear whether their strike is to demand the release of the drivers accused of the rape, or the release of the impounded bus.

Here are some links for people to contact. Thanks, Ayya Adhi.

‎”Nepal Gov. Offices to CC (Carbon Copy) in your e-mail:”Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation

Ministry of Information & Communication

Ministry of Law and Justice

Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare”

You can also contact Avaaz and ask them to take up the issue.

Also, some writing from Ayya Tathaaloka (from the Alliance For Bhikkhunis Face Book Page) re. this issue:

Sometimes cultural traditions may differ, even gravely, from what the Buddha taught.

Many of the Buddha’s great disciples had been married before they entered monastic life, including the Buddha himself, and his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, credited with founding the Bhikkhuni Sangha. According to Buddhist canonical texts, one of the Buddha’s two foremost women monastic disciples, Khema Theri, a great teacher and leader of the Sangha, was also married before she entered into Buddhist monastic life. There are numerous other examples in the Buddhist texts.

Of course, if a monastic commits an intentional and grave sexual misconduct, they are no longer a monastic. However, Vinaya offers many protections for both women and men from both false accusation of sexual impropriety and from there being circumstances that might provoke others to behave improperly towards a male or female member of the monastic community. Due to no fault of their own lust, if the monastic is raped, they are considered blameless. In both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Parajika One, the Vinaya mentions several instances of this happening — to both men and women — and affirms that the monastics are blameless. This is affirmed in the Mulasarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka and Pali-text Vinayas.

In the case of a woman, even if a child is born, the bhikkhuni is not to laicized (unless it is her wish to disrobe), but rather the monastic community is to provide her with a bhikkhuni companion to support her and help her raise the child, *without* her having to leave monastic life. Then, as a great exception, even with child, she may live the monastic life.

The Buddha was very kind, compassionate and understanding, meanwhile upholding and exemplifying an excellent discipline. But these days many people, even those who are ordained Buddhist monastics, do not know this discipline well. And in places where there is no longer a Bhikkhuni Sangha, the sparse 8 or 10-precept nuns’ discipline can sometimes provide meager protection and guidance for such renunciate women.

I pray that knowledge and right practice of the Buddha’s teaching of both Dhamma and Vinaya may rise and increase once again in our Buddhist monastic communities, along with all of the fruits and benefits that come together.

With compassion and metta

Ayya Tathaaloka

Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).

In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.


The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5


Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8


Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.

1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

11/11/11 Meditation Flashmob

From Sam:

Come one, come all! We’ll be hitting off the first Sydney Meditation Flash Mob on the 11/11/11 – In a nutshell, it’s people meeting together in a public place to meditate and promote peace, harmony, mutuality and the benefits of meditative practice.

Tell your Mum, Friends, Grandmother, Boss, whoever!!! We’re aiming for 1000 people.

Shouldn’t that be 1111 people? Anyway, be there!

Secular Buddhism discussion

So it’s over now, thanks so much to Winton and Lizzie for agreeing to take part; thanks to the Buddhist Library and Paget for hosting us; and thanks to all those who helped – and not forgetting you all, who helped stimulate the conversation.

The night was, in my ever so humble, an excellent dialogue, one of the few occasions where we really managed to actually pursue some important matters and have a real exchange of ideas, rather than simply stating our positions.

For myself, I learned that this idea of ‘enlightenment’ as a process, rather than a completed state, is central to the secular Buddhist perspective. I had heard the idea before, but didn’t realize how significant it was.

The second thing I learned was a better grasp of why they call themselves ‘Buddhists’. Often the Secular Buddhist crowd are criticized because they don’t fit some externally defined set of criteria for being Buddhist. But in our secular world, belonging to a religion is basically what you write on the census form. If I say I’m a Buddhist, that’s what I am. So Secular Buddhists feel a sense of identity that makes them want to call themselves Buddhist.

These two points are useful for me to help understand where Secular Buddhists are coming from. In addition, it’s starting to dig down to something more interesting. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened’. It is a past participle, denoting a completed or perfected state. The finality of the Buddha’s Awakening is fundamental to the whole Buddhist literature and is, for example, a major theme of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. To say ‘the Buddha is not Awakened’ is an oxymoron.

Now we could leap up and down and say, ‘But that’s just irrational.’ And maybe it is. But how many people choose their religion for rational reasons? I certainly didn’t. And the vast majority of people believe in a religion because that’s what their parents believe. If the Secular Buddhist position really is irrational, then this is not a criticism, it is an acknowledgement that forces other than reason are at play. And so: what might those forces be?

Faces of metta

Here’s a lovely group photo from the recent metta retreat in Perth. If anyone from the retreat is reading, “Hi!”, and don’t forget to do your part 3. (They know what I mean…)

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.

This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.

Secular Buddhism – some more bits

The discussion of secular Buddhism is to be continued in meatspace (otherwise known euphemistically as ‘the real world’). We’ve organized an event at the Buddhist Library in Camperdown, with the pleasant coincidence that it is on Bastille Day. I’ll be discussing the notion of secular Buddhism with Winton Higgins, an academic and Buddhist teacher who has been associated with the secular Buddhism circles in Sydney (Here’s an article giving Winton’s reflections on secular Buddhism in Australia). Moderator is Lizzie Turnbull (I can’t find a bio to directly link for her, but if you go here and scroll down you’ll find her biodata.)

Hopefully we can find some more light and less heat; and in the process raise some funds for the Buddhist Library’s Cambodia Project, a wonderful charity on which we can all agree!

Meanwhile, here are some more inquiries from a previous comment by Geoff.

If I may repost some queries as I am very keen on your feedback!

To quote some of your earlier comments on this post:

“The ‘Pali’ uses science, as understood in its day, whenever this is appropriate: cosmology, psychology, evolution, physics, biology, and so on, all are found in the early suttas, and all are based, more or less, on existing scientific assumptions.”

“And the point that people keep skating around is, some of those assumptions are wrong. There are no creatures thousands of miles long in the oceans, being heated does not make a substance lighter, there have not been civilizations speaking Pali and at the same cultural level as 500 BCE Magadha for millions of years”.

Might we also add the Buddha retracing his past lives which would mean seeing himself at one stage as a primitve mammal, a fish (or even earlier as a single cell organism), as present day evolutionary theory would suggest? How would the Buddha have conceived that? (Not to mention, eons of past universes expanding and contracting.) How literally should we interpret this facet of the night of his enlightenment?

Furthermore, if we are to take this literally, how much time would have been required for the Buddha to have recollected his ‘manifold past lives’? That is, for the Buddha to have gone into the detail that he did, “There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life“ over “many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion.” ?

Do we know how many “eons of cosmic contraction & expansion” the Buddha experienced? Wouldn’t this have taken him many eons to recollect?

Could you please clarify?

Re the first point, I agree: it’s really just taking further the point I made earlier, that conditions have actually been very different in the past, in ways that the Buddhist accounts of past lives simply do not reflect. Let’s be clear about this: until the development of modern sciences of archaeology, genetics, astronomy, and so on, we really had no way of knowing much of what had happened in the past, apart from dim memories passed down in myths, or for the more recent past, some scant and ideologized histories. When the Buddhist accounts of past lives were taught, for the most part those speaking and listening to them took them to be actual accounts of the past. They did not conceive them as ‘myth’ in contrast with ‘history’, because there was no notion of ‘history’ as we understand it. The past was the realm of the imagination, populated by the impossible and the improbable, and no more reliable that the memories of childhood.

There seems to be no problem like this today: accounts of past lives quite happily tell of places and times that are very different than our own. Presumably there is a cultural influence at play here, although as usual I find myself feeling the need to sound the anti-reductionist foghorn: just because something is influenced by culture does not mean that it doesn’t exist!

Remember the basic distinction I have insisted on all along: between the direct, formal, central statements of doctrine that can be plausibly attributed to the Buddha in the authentic early Suttas, and the stories, narratives, parables, and so on that are used to illustrate or jazz up a point. Of course, the vast majority of the Buddha’s supposed ‘past life’ experiences belong to the latter category; and perhaps all of them should be included there. Even if we confine ourselves to the Jatakas found within the four Nikaya, many of them are quite impossible: the Mahasudassana Sutta, the Ghatikara Sutta (set in the time of another Buddha in the far ancient past before homo sapiens had evolved, yet still having a similar level of technology and culture to 500BCE Magadha), or the Anguttara Sutta – whose name I can’t remember – that says Siddhattha was a teacher in the past when the lifespan was 60 000 years.

Regarding the second point you made, I don’t think this is really an issue. To start with, though, notice that this is derived from a central doctrinal passage, and can’t be lightly dismissed as a mere parable. However, I don’t find it to be implausible that the Buddha could recollect such a vast span of time. How does memory work, anyway? We don’t really know, but we do know that astonishing feats of memory are possible. This recollection expresses the workings of perhaps the greatest mind in human history, and describe an experience that is the outcome of the most profound levels of samadhi. The mind simply works differently there, time does not work in the same way. I don’t think we can really compare in any straightforward way to our everyday experience.

And a further query if you don’t mind…..

In your response to Glenn Wallis earlier in this post you say:

”The notion that Buddhist discourse on other realms is metaphysical is in fact an unwarranted intrusion of Western dualism. (Here, ‘metaphysics’ is used in its traditional sense as ‘the “science” that studied “being as such” or “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change.”) Such matters are inherently unknowable, whereas all Buddhist truth claims are knowable, and may in fact be known by the practice of the Buddhist path. This is completely different than the situation in, say, Christianity, where the omniscience of God, or the fact that he created the Universe, may never be known by any existing or imaginable form of knowledge.”

But didn’t the Buddha attain a breadth (if not depth) of knowledge that no arahant (and therefore potentially the rest of us) has achieved? (I am confident I have heard you say this in one of your talks.) For example, has any arahant achieved the breadth (and depth) the Buddha achieved with the Three Knowledges on the night of his awakening?

Even if an arahant has achieved this, what is it that distinguishes the Buddha from an arahant? Whatever that is, isn’t that unachievable and therefore unknowable to the rest of us?

Could you please clarify this for me?
Much appreciate your time

Actually the Suttas don’t really say that the knowledge of the Buddha is inherently greater than that of arahants, although it certainly seems to be the case from a number of stories and situations. In any case, this is simply a matter of degree.

Stephen Hawkings knows things that I don’t. And I presume that, even if I were to devote my life to understanding physics, there would still be things that he knew that I wouldn’t. People are different in the mental capacities. This doesn’t mean that the difference is unbridgeable. I can know less than someone, but still I can ask, discuss, learn. I can appreciate that what they know is of the same order as the things I know, and that they have learnt them in the same way I have learnt the things I know, only they’ve done it better. So we can bridge the gap by inference, if by nothing else.

Remember, empiricism as I understand it, and as presented in the Suttas, does not mean ‘direct experience only’. (This is a fallacy commonly found among certain modern meditation teachers, but clearly against the Suttas and the entire Buddhist tradition, in India at least.) It means ‘direct experience’ (paccakkha) and ‘inference’ (anumāna). What inference is exactly is hard to pin down. Practically, it means that we stay relatively close to experience. If I have never drunk wine, I will have hardly any idea what it tastes like. But if I have drunk wine regularly for many years, I may never have had a Chateaux de Chateaux (which I hear is very passable), but I will have a pretty good idea what it will taste like.

Similarly, if I have recollected, say 3 or 4 past lives, it is not such a big leap to 30 or 40, or 300 or 400 lives. The basic fact of the thing is more or less the same.

This contrasts with what I have characterized as ‘metaphysical’ claims. The difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity. The Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years. The difference between that and our ordinary experience of time is very great, but not outside the capacities of inference. After all, geology and astrophysics claim to tell us what happened billions of years ago, relying on inference from fairly sketchy data.

Most religious doctrines, however, speak of eternity. God, the soul, the atman, heaven, or whatever lasts not for mere billions of years, but literally forever. It is not possible, and never will be possible, to infer from the data available in this temporal world to ‘eternity’. Any claim to ‘know’ this eternity is a claim to know something that is utterly and absolutely outside any experience of consciousness.

I hope that helps to clarify, please keep the questions coming. And I’ll see you on Thursday!