How Buddhist traditions are transforming – and being transformed – through their relation with Western psychology.

The following paper was written for the upcoming Buddhism & Australia Conference to be held in Perth in Feb 2-4. Hope to see you there!

Abstract:

Modern Buddhism and psychology have been mutually influencing each other since their formation in the late 19th century. This underlies the most creative and important innovation for both Buddhism and psychotherapy in the 20th century: the mainstreaming and secularization of meditation. The future will see a similar process of creative critique and integration, as more aspects of Buddhism find their way into modern life and thought. This process should not be seen as a danger to Buddhism; on the contrary, it will be the wellsprings of the continued vitality of the Buddhist traditions, as they reflect and examine themselves in the light of new and emerging understandings.

Article:

Psychology is an academic discipline and therapeutic practice that emerged in the cracks made by religion as it disintegrated in the West. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everything from mystical experience, to the belief in an afterlife, to sexual neurosis, to possession by spirits was unceremoniously stripped from religion and taken over by the psychologists; to the extent that Sigmund Freud was able to comment, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

Little wonder that religious people are often defensive when psychology is in the air, with its secularism and its scepticism. But there is a countercurrent to this seemingly inevitable process. William James is reported to have said to a Buddhist monk who came to one of his lectures: “Take my chair. Yours is the psychology everyone will be studying 25 years from now.”

This event is regularly quoted in Buddhist circles as a sign that Buddhist psychology is the direction that western psychology is headed. But notice also that the opposite is true: the Buddhist monk (who some say was Anagarika Dharmapala) was interested enough in western psychology that he wanted to hear what James had to say.

Psychology and Buddhism have much to offer each other, when they are willing to listen and understand with humility. Psychology offers a detailed understanding of psychological development and the formation and nature of mental illness that is far more detailed than anything found in Buddhism. And Buddhism offers contemplative techniques that have been repeatedly proven to be uniquely effective, not only in relieving symptoms of mental illness, but in expanding consciousness to heights unsuspected by Freud.

As the anecdote of James shows, the intersection between Buddhist and psychology, while it has taken flight in the past few decades, is much deeper than that. These two disciplines have been in a symbiotic relationship since the dawn of the modern era. Buddhist ideas were very much current in European intellectual circles in the days of Freud. And new western ideas were very much current in Buddhist lands, many of which were colonies, and all of which were forging new “modernist” forms of Buddhism that enabled their ancient faith to find a new lease of life in this new and dangerous world. Much of what we consider today to be “traditional Buddhism” was in fact invented in the early 20th century, as Buddhists responded to western critiques by developing rational, psychologized versions of ancient Buddhist practices.

The best known of these innovations is the so-called “vipassana” meditation movement. This emerged from a secularization of Buddhist practice. Stripped of ritual and superstition, meditation was henceforth to be a purely inner process of mindful awareness. In this way, the influence of modernity performed a great service for Buddhism, prompting an unprecedented re-invigoration of meditation, a practice that had previously been mostly ignored, or marginalized to the mystical experiences of dubious quasi-shamanic wild monks. This enabled meditation to flourish in “value-free”, secular contexts; to be widely adopted by other faiths; to be implemented in prisons, hospitals, and the like; and to be studied using the quantifiable methods of western science.

But there is a nagging feeling: what has been left behind? Is Buddhism to be stripped of its riches and left as a bland devotional cult while the cutting-edge is adopted by the secularists? Is a meditation technique, divorced of its context of ethics and philosophy, able to deliver the same transformation? While the vipassana movement has, without doubt, accomplished an astonishing feat in bringing meditation to the west, the task is still only beginning.

As a former practitioner of vipassana, I can attest first-hand to the fear of emotions that is often taught in that practice. Pleasure, especially, is fearful and to be shunned as a source of attachment. In this I see the unconscious influence of Buddhism’s western critics like Freud, who argued that meditative absorption was a mere infantile regression to the oceanic immersion in the womb. The vipassana schools responded by rejecting pleasure, and rejecting absorption. Whether or not this hypothesis is correct, one thing is clear: such fear has no basis in the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the early scriptures, the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas. There, pleasure is seen as, not an obstacle, but the very key to all deeper meditation experiences.

As the influence of Buddhism on psychology grows, therapists who are Buddhist meditators are becoming increasingly aware of this. The fear of pleasure is becoming more muted, and being disposed altogether. The way of approaching vipassana is shifting, becoming gentler, more accepting of emotions, more appreciative of pleasure. As therapists, they are all to aware of the damaging effects of an excessively intense or severe approach to meditation.

As this process goes on among the psychologists, meditation among Theravadin Buddhists is also changing. Three decades ago, almost no-one was teaching samatha (tranquillity) meditation internationally. Gradually, a few rebels appeared, championing the value of absorption meditation (jhanas), and speaking of the role of pleasure in leading to such deep states. One of the pioneers was the first Australian bhikkhuni, Ayya Khema, and soon after our very own Ajahn Brahm. In the US, Venerable Thanissaro, in Malaysia Bhante Dhammavuddho; and in the late 90s Burma’s Pa Auk Sayadaw emerged as one of the leading meditation teachers in that former bastion of pure vipassana.

It is quite remarkable that this movement towards a greater acceptance of samatha meditation has been happening, in parallel and with mutual influence, in both the Theravada bastion of Burmese monasticism, and in the secularist heartland of American Buddhist psychotherapy. No, they are not doing exactly the same thing, but there is a clear and strong connection.

I suggest that, as we see this connection unfold, we are merely seeing the latest chapter in a book that started at the very latest in the late 19th century, with the mutual influence of modern Buddhism and psychotherapy. This will not be the last.

What will the next chapter read like? If I was to hazard a speculation, I would say it will not be meditation. The integration of meditation in western psychology is already approaching completion. Of course, there is much to be done, but that will in terms of expanding and refining existing models and applications. Essentially, both modern Buddhism and psychotherapy agree on the topic of meditation.

What they substantially disagree on is eschatology: what happens when we die? This is a question that clearly has significant psychological impact. It changes the very orientation and meaning of life. As we have seen in the context of meditation, Buddhists responded to western scientific and sceptical critiques of rebirth by modifying or in some cases rejecting the notion of rebirth; and the rejection of rebirth is a commonplace in psychological Buddhism. Yet the vast majority of people, Buddhist or not, believe in rebirth; and it is a mere unfounded assertion to say that they are deluded by their fear of death. It is just as plausible, given that both Freud and the Buddha spoke of a death-wish, to argue that the secularists reject rebirth because of an unconscious longing for annihilation. Neither of these arguments, however, are useful: they use psychology in the wrong way, to dismiss those who are different rather than to understand them. The test of whether a belief is neurotic or not is whether it is beneficial. Clearly many people find belief in an afterlife to be beneficial, so it is unreasonable to dismiss it as a mere delusion. Psychology itself, as repeatedly emphasized by Jung, cannot make judgements about the truth or otherwise of such claims.

The evidence for rebirth, among psychologists, biologists, and others, is strong and growing stronger. In the next generation, I suspect we will see a major shift in perspective. The annihilationists will gradually fade away as the reality of rebirth becomes harder to deny. At the same time, following the pattern of mutual influence, Buddhist ideas will change; while scientific data appears to confirm certain aspects of Buddhist ideas of rebirth, there is no guarantee that it will confirm every aspect of Buddhist teachings. In fact, it is virtually inevitable that it will not. We need to stop using science merely as a tool to validate Buddhist when it is convenient, and start meaningfully considering what the intersection of Buddhism and science implies. For example, in the findings of Ian Stevenson, there does not appear to be any support for the widely-accepted Buddhist notion that your mind state at the time of death will determine your rebirth. Does this mean we must reassess our notions of rebirth? Or is it merely the incomplete state of the evidence?

Buddhists and psychologists will increasingly come to recognize that questions of ultimate meaning and human destiny are not just theoretical or abstract notions, but among the very core concerns of spiritual or psychological development. Accepting, debating, integrating, and dealing with the implications of these difficult matters will, I believe, be the next frontier in the integration of Buddhism in modernity.

One final comment. There are many who feel that Buddhism is watered down, distorted, or corrupted by its encounter with the west. This is wrong, and frankly such ideas can only be the product of someone who has never spent much time in a Buddhist country. Of course Buddhist is watered down and distorted – has it ever been the case that in any place at any time, there’s a nation of Buddhas just wandering around? Buddhist culture is no more a perfect embodiment of what the Buddha taught than Christian culture really reflects the teachings of the Jewish prophet who told his followers to give away all they possessed and follow him.

A little history teaches us that when Buddhism arrives in a new culture, it finds its way by adapting elements of the old culture, allowing those who are satisfied with tradition forms of animist worship to continue to do so, as long as they give up cruel sacrifices and the like. Bits of Buddhist philosophy make their way among the philosophers, meditation practices are undertaken by a few yogis, devotional cults spring up for the masses, simple ethical teachings are preached, stories and local art forms are adapted to Buddhist forms, and so on. This is all no different in principle from what is happening in the west today.

Of course the Buddhism that is accepted in psychology is not the complete fullness of everything that was taught and realized by the greatest sage who ever lived – how could it be? Of course the psychologists will pick and choose, leaving aside those bits they can’t digest – but maybe can later. Since modern western culture is in many ways quite different than any of the other cultures that Buddhism has taken root in in the past, the details of this process will differ greatly. The conversion narratives of Buddhism in the west do not feature the taming of child-eating goblins. It does feature the transformation of psychotherapy. And this will be something of momentous significance for both psychotherapy and Buddhism.

97 thoughts on “How Buddhist traditions are transforming – and being transformed – through their relation with Western psychology.

  1. The author has obviously only practiced Burmese style vipassana . That’s why he can make the ridiculous comment that “Much of what we consider today to be “traditional Buddhism” was in fact invented in the early 20th century…” Please don’t describe what “we” think so blithely.. …Much of the convert Buddhism practiced in the West IS watered down (and I have lived many years in Asian Buddhist countries). Historically Buddhism has transformed itself as it mixed with new cultures (though the core teachings remained intact). But this was an organic process over centuries. Not over a few decades, and not based on political correctness of the day, or diktats out of conferences by self styled experts….There are American Buddhist teachers who say western psychology and Buddhism are the same, and that the monastic and family life are also essentially identical. They seem to conveniently come to this realization only after they disrobe, get their Psych PhD, and get married. I think both assertions are blatantly self serving and completely misguided….The important issue is not touched on in this paper. The irreconcilable difference between Buddhism and western psychology lies in their differing goals. The psychologist is trying to make Samsara more tolerable for his client. The Buddha is pointing out a path which leaves suffering and Samsara completely behind. [This is not a "false dichotomy", which is the favorite watering down ploy of many western Buddhists teachers.]…But once all this is realized there is no conflict between western psychology and Buddhism. There is a continuum, with psychology at the beginning. You cannot transcend a weak ego, you only end up disintegrating it. I’ve seen several students at meditation centers go over the edge into psychosis because of this unfortunate fact. I’ve also seen many longtime western Buddhist monastics who were still unhappy neurotics after 20+ years in robes. If they had spent the first years in serious therapy to resolve most of their issues and then taken robes, I think they would be miles further down the Buddhist path today….My main point here is that traditional Asian Buddhism (which, believe me, after all these years I definitely don’t naively idealize) has more valuable baby and less cultural bath water than many western Buddhists think.

    • Hi Kip,

      Thanks for the response. You raise a number of important issues, so let me address them as best I can; but not in the same order as you wrote them.

      I agree 100% with what you have said in the last part of your comment, and perhaps my article didn’t make this point clearly enough.

      I would nuance what you said about the ‘false dichotomy': I think the distinction between living comfortably in samsara and escaping from samsara is indeed a false dichotomy (in the sense that they are not fundamentally opposed things) but is a genuine distinction (in that understanding this makes a real difference in how we live our lives). As you said in the end of your comment, without a coherent sense of self one cannot go beyond the ego.

      You are quite right that psychology and Buddhism have different ends, and this is important. We have discussed this at length in previous posts on this blog. In the Buddhism and psychotherapy course that I help teach, I have never heard any of the psychologists claim otherwise. I know plenty of ex-monks who have become psychologists, and all of them have a great respect for Sangha, understand that Buddhism is for liberation, and well understand the limitations of the reach of therapy.

      Perhaps the examples you are referring to should be seen more in terms of their own personal views, rather than as typical of Buddhist psychologists in general. Likewise, there are plenty of bad monks around, but that doesn’t tell me anything about monasticism, except that it isn’t perfect…

      Only a vanishing percentage of traditional Buddhists actually see their their practice as a means to escape samsara in any meaningful sense. Practically, most Buddhists do what they do to go to heaven, and any notion of Awakening is, for all intents and purposes, delayed until an indefinite time in the future. If you ask most Buddhists why they go to the temple, they will say that it makes them happy, or they are making merit, or similar. The motivations are, making allowances for the different cultural assumptions, not all that different from what happens in most meditation centers in the west. what is true, I think, is that new Buddhists tend to have a ‘top-down’ approach, starting with philosophy and meditation, and only gradually incorporating the ideals of generosity and service, which are the very basis of much traditional Buddhism.

      As for self-serving lay teachers, there is no doubt some truth in what you say. But this does not distinguish western Buddhism from traditional Buddhism. Once while travelling I stayed overnight at a city monastery in the south of Thailand. The monks spent the day lounging around, chatting, and watching telly. In the evening, pious lay people came, and one of the monks got up very formally on the high Dhamma seat and read a formally composed Dhamma talk. The talk was all about dana, how much merit there was in giving to the Sangha, and so on, couched in high-faluting, near-incomprehensible Thai. Self-serving? The very definition of. At how many monasteries around Thailand and other countries is this pattern repeated every day? Perhaps some of our readers from traditional Buddhist countries would like to comment on this?

      The point is that in the west we typically become exposed to the best of the Asian traditions: the Thai forest tradition, the Burmese vipassana and Pa Auk traditions, and so on. These lineages are qute rightly regarded in their own countries as the best or among the best examples of genuine Buddhist practice. We ignore the vast swathes of ordinary Buddhism, which covers the whole spectrum from excellent to evil.

      You say that traditionally Buddhism spread organically, not by ‘political correctness of the day or diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts…’ I respectfully disagree. The Buddhist Councils had an incalculable influence on the formation of Buddhism – defining the canon, rejecting heretical doctrines, judging acceptable conduct – and what are these if not ‘diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts’? And as for ‘political correctness’, the pivotal event in spreading Buddhism through India and beyond was the conversion of Ashoka. His brand of Buddhist-inspired ‘political correctness’ would, no doubt, have been seen by diehards as a watering-down of the teachings. Like the modern psychologists, he does not speak of enlightenment, but of reducing suffering and acting compassionately in this world. And yet without him it is likely that Buddhism would long ago have disappeared like so many other Indian religious movements.

      Did the conversion process in traditional cultures take centuries? Sometimes, but not always, if the histories are to be believed. Sri Lanka is the classic example of a nation that adopted Buddhism swiftly and completely, following the arrival of Ashoka’s son Mahinda. And while the ideologized history of the chronicles has a clear enough propaganda intent, the archeological evidence seems to bear this out. Similarly, with the ascension of Ashoka, Buddhism spread very rapidly in many areas of India. The stories regularly depict whole cities and countries becoming Buddhists at one stroke, usually following the example of their king. Again, propaganda at work. But these things do happen. In Timor, for example, centuries of missionary activity left a population that was still majority animist. After the ruling Indonesian government declared that all citizens must subscribe to one of the five accepted religions, virtually the entire population became Christian. Tibet is another example of a country that became Buddhist following its king, who took on himself the right to decide which of competing schools should prevail. Thailand and Burma, likewise, adopted Buddhism due to state influence. One could well argue that the political dimensions of these conversion meant that the religions were adopted much quicker than the west.

      At the very least, the very common stories of widespread, rapid conversion to Buddhism tell us that the Buddhist of old though this was a good thing. It is better if people become Buddhists quickly and give up their cruel sacrifices and ignorant superstitions. It seems to me self-evident that the same thing is true today. It is better, much better, that mindfulness meditation has been adopted, tried, adapted, and applied successfully in a multitude of secular environments, so that many people can benefit. It’s good that this has happened quickly, and we haven’t had to wait for generations more until the benefits of meditation could be experienced.

      This is in fact a parallel, not a difference, between the traditional modes of spreading Buddhism and the current situation. In both cases you have a gradual, disorganized, movement, spread primarily by the middle-class, and initially following the openings made by trade and geopolitical realities, which is counterbalanced by a centralizing tendency, centering, filtering, standardizing. These opposing centrifugal and centripetal forces shaped Buddhism in the past, and in different ways they are shaping Buddhism today.

      And finally to your opening. I have not just practiced Burmese vipassana – I even say in the post that I am a ‘former’ practitioner. In any case, Burmese vipassana by any standards forms a large large part of what we consider to be traditional Buddhism. And yes, by ‘we’ i mean you and I and most everyone that is reading this comment. But I only chose the vipssana movement by way of example. Here’s a few others.

      In the 19th century, King Mongkut initiated a serious of reforms of Thai Buddhism, spurred by his encounter with western ideas and methods. This involved a focus on the Pali canon, reform of discipline, rejection of superstition, (then) modern educational techniques, and so on. This movement has come to characterize the Thai Sangha, especially those aspects of it you are likely to encounter in the west. A further consequence of this reform was the Thai forest tradition, formed in Mongkut’s reform Dhammayut order.

      In Sri Lanka, the late 19th century saw the first westerners take refuge (Blavatsky and Olcott), and a resurgent nationalist pride in Buddhism. Again, western educational models were adopted (many of the well-educated Sri Lankans I know were taught at the schools established by Olcott), and the rationalist, anti-superstitious, text-based Buddhist modernism was developed (the Bible of which is Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught). The rationalized meditation system of Burmese vipassana was enthusiastically adopted from the 1950s on.

      In the early 20th century a number of teachers in China, Taiwan, and Japan began to question the emphasis of Buddhism on rituals and superstitions: a Chinese saying has it that ‘Buddhism is only good for the dead’. Ven Taixu and his follwers such as Ying Shun and Hsin Yun developed a form of practical, applied Buddhism usually known as ‘Humanistic Buddhism‘. This underlies international movements such as Fo Guang Shan and Tzu Chi, and has heavily influenced just about every contemporary form of East Asian Buddhism. Another Taiwanese reformer was Master Sheng Yen, who taught a ethical and meditative system. In a talk I saw him give shortly before his death in Sydney, there was virtually nothing that would not have come straight from a forest tradition teacher: refuges, precepts, anapanasati, impermanence.

      The Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhism was in turn influential on a Vietnamese reform-minded monk who you might have heard of: Thich Nath Hahn.

      Turning to Japan, what we know as ‘Zen’ was influenced to an incalculable degree by DT Suzuki. His was a heavily reconstructed teaching, which conveyed a highly idealized version of what Zen is. I would recommend Robert Buswell’s ‘The Zen Monastic Experience’ for the striking contrasts between Zen as practiced in a (relatively) traditional setting and how it is often conceived. (Remembering, in case you want to use this prove how western Zen has degenerated from its Asian roots, that Buswell was staying at the best-regarded crack meditation monastery in all Korea, and what he experienced is not the norm for the vast majority of Korean Buddhists. Also, it should be remembered that he practiced in the Jogye Order, which, though relatively traditional compared to the secularized Zen of the west, is itself a reform movement started in 1955. Its goals are a classic formulation of modernist Buddhism: “training and education; sutra translation into Korean from Chinese characters; and propagation”. Like many other modernist movements, it emerged from the rejection of colonialism, although in this case it was Japanese rather than western occupation.)

      I won’t talk about Tibetan Buddhism here, as I think I’ve made my point, but the same basic pattern applies.

      So yes, the vast majority of what we experience as traditional Buddhism is in fact the product of modernist reforms. I would go further, and say that just as it is virtually impossible to find a corner of the globe that modernity leaves untouched, it is virtually impossible to find any Buddhism that has not at least been tinged by modernism. Of course, there is a great deal of variation in the manner and degree to which modernist reforms have taken place.

      Let me make myself clear: by describing Buddhism as modernist, I am trying to draw attention to the ways Buddhism has in fact changed and adapted. I don’t mean to imply any particular judgement as to whether the changes are better or not. In fact I think that, like any complex change, some things are better, some not so much. The point is that instead of idealizing a pristine, unchanged ‘traditional’ Buddhism in contrast with degenerate ‘modern’ or ‘western’ Buddhism, we need to realize that we are part of the Buddhist tradition, and that we are dialoguing with and changing the tradition just as every generation has done before us. By studying the ways such changes have happened in the past, we can perhaps engage more effectively in the present.

    • Greetings,
      Rereading our exchange I spot an important discrepancy that I did not notice before. I had stated that Buddhism “evolved organically over centuries”. You took issue with that statement and illustrated your point with the “conversion process” of various countries. Yes, many of those were sudden, such as Tibet and Sri Lanka. But that didn’t alter the Buddhism that was transmitted. In fact, what was transmitted in both cases was preserved very carefully and respectfully in the form it was received. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the US Buddhist scene. What I hinted at in my original post I would like to state explicitly: I think Jack Kornfield and his ilk are Mara’s tools, and their attempts to fit Buddhism to their personal lifestyles and promulgate that as American Buddhism is a spiritual catastrophe
      Sincerely,
      Kip McKay.

    • Hi Kip,

      Well, I can’t really comment as to jack Kornfield &co, as i don’t know much about them.

      As to whether Buddhism was altered as it was transmitted, I think that is fairly clear that there were major alterations in Buddhism as it went to China. The piecemeal nature of the transmission, the assimilation within the already powerful Chinese spiritual/philosophical context, the emergence of new, distinctively Chinese schools of Pure Land and Chan, and the testament of Chinese writers such as Yi Jing, who explicitly contrast the Chinese monastics with the (better and purer) Sangha of India, all add to the picture of a distinctively new and changed form of Buddhism. And this happened, not after a pristine Indic form of Buddhism was established, but in the process of establishing it.

      This, of course, was a gradual process, and we were speaking of a sudden one. But I am not convinced that the case is all that different. In the case of Sri Lanka, of course, Buddhism manifested in a country that was peopled by Indo-Aryans, culturally, linguistically, and in other ways not all that different from the context in which the Buddha taught. So there was less need for change or adaptation. Nevertheless, I think we can see a changing process there, specifically that in Sri Lanka, as a relatively defined island, a nationalistic and defensive form of Buddhism arose, as seen in the Mahavamsa, for which I can’t find any parallels on the mainland. Okay, fair enough, the Mahavamsa is much later. But I think the nationalistic emphasis should be traced much earlier, at least from the time of Dutthagamini, although the absence of contemporary sources makes this hard to know for sure.

      As for Tibet, I am no expert, but do we not see a process of adopting Buddhism as a ‘state’ religion at quite an early stage? This process, so far as I know, has no precedent in India, which always had multiple religious traditions. There is also the question of the relation between Buddhism and Bon, the specific philosophical orientation that dominated Tibetan Buddhism (which was only one of several perspectives in India), the physical factors of isolation, climate, and so on, that spurred the construction of large monasteries and the dropping of the pindapata tradition, the emergence of local Tibetan charismatic teachers with their own characteristic take on the teachings, and so on.

      In all of these cases, and this is well documented in the post-Ashokan texts, the movement of Buddhism into a new area invariably involved the confrontation with the local spirits, taming them, and assimilating their cult within the confines of the monastery.

      These are just a few examples of the changes that come to mind, no doubt there are many more.

      I don’t want to argue that the changes that are occurring in American Buddhism are the same, or of the same magnitude, as changes in the historical transmission. I do want to argue that Buddhism will always find its expression in a way that is relevant to its particular context. Obviously, if that context is more radically different from the original context, then the changes will be greater.

      I have my concerns about changes that are happening today, just as I have my concerns about the changes that have happened in the past. But as someone who is in the same position of having to live and teach and connect through Dhamma practice in a context that is radically different than the Buddha’s, I have a lot of sympathy for those who are trying to make it work in their context.

      I find it is much more useful to discuss specifics. For example, in my own tradition, I think the emphasis on contentment, Vinaya, and meditation is great. But there are problems, too: the disparaging of studying suttas, which means that you essentially place the teacher higher than the Buddha; and the discrimination against women. If you are so worried about some of the trends in modern American Buddhism, perhaps you could mention some specific issues and then I could understand where you’re coming from better.

    • I am not too sure who this person is but seroiusly how many Buddhist including Tibetan and Si Lankan don’t fit and use Buddhism for their own personal lifestyles? how many poor Buddhist do you meet these days?

      I like the groups that own there own land and centres and the owners of the centres, their friends and relatives end up being the great “sage” teachers at the centres…what a conincidence.

      How many second hand cars are parked outside your local temple on a “celebration” day? I find it funny reading the suttas etc that say go forth into homelessness, when I was virtually homeless at a temple I got treated like…. just that! a homeless person ie there was certainly nothing of a spiritual journey like it was come back when you are rich and we will be nice to you…go forth into homelessness.. yeah and we will treat you like s—- and or use you to work for the welfare bludging “gurus” we actually do support

      Same with other Tibetan Buddhist groups…it is alright for them to go on the welfare system while they live in their idilic lifestyles but they treat other people who don’t have money like dirt and expect them to work for them?

      Bascially Buddhism it is just a “lifestyle” journey isn’t it not a spiritual journey any more and anyone who doesn’t have “fabulous lifestyle” or who has issues is “excluded,” so while Jack Kornfield may have gone beyond just his own personal lifestyle to thinking he is some sort of Buddha I doubt he is alone in that.

      There are Plenty of Buddhist are out there acting like they are the Buddha, and Sri Lankan and Tibetan included, not just Jack Kornfeild.

      …sorry I am being silly again just ignore my post! :)

      .

    • Hello “Med”,
      I’m sorry you had a bad experience at a meditation center when you were homeless. But it’s unrealistic to expect centers, and monasteries for that matter, to contain only compassionate enlightened beings. Hypocrisy is rife everywhere in Samsara and Buddhist institutions are no exception. To think otherwise is like expecting a hospital to contain no sick people. Buddhas don’t need Buddhism. If you come across authentic Buddhist teachings and one good teacher who manifests them then you are lucky, and that’s all you need to make progress…..I’m afraid you completely missed my issue with Jack Kornfield. It isn’t that he’s not manifesting the teachings. He’s not my teacher and I don’t know and don’t care how he personally behaves. My problem is that he is arguably the most influential Buddhist teacher in the US and is promoting his lifestyle as representing authentic Buddhism. So, when he got his Psych PhD he proclaimed that there was no difference between Western psychology and Buddhism: “false dichotomy”. Then when he got married and had kids he proclaimed that there was no difference between monastic and household life: “false dichotomy” strikes again. This was all quite popular with the Marin hot tub crowd. When his book “Path With a Heart” came out, the joke among serious Buddhist meditators was that it should be titled “Heart with No Path”. As I understand it his split with Joseph Goldstein (who promotes a modern but still authentic Buddhism) involved these issues I’m talking about. And a mutual friend told me that U Pandita (you’ve heard of him?) shares my criticism of Kornfield…In a non-Buddhist society like the US people accept teachings like this at face value, which would be laughed at in a Buddhist country. American ignorance is the other half of the problem….I should also add that if Kornfield started representing his books and teaching as Buddhist influenced Western Psychology I would have no problem with him. His books are actually quite well written.
      Kip
      .

    • And thanks, this comment goes some way towards answering my earlier question about getting specifics.

      However, you say that Jack’s teachings ‘would be laughed at in a Buddhist country’. One of the big problems I have with this kind of criticism is that it seems to assume that people in Buddhist countries somehow know and understand Buddhism. This is very far from the case. You can’t make assumptions from an U Pandita or an Ajahn Chah – there are good reasons why they are famous teachers in the west. Go to any village in Thailand and ask the people there about Buddhism. “What are the four noble truths?” “What do the five precepts actually mean?” I would guess that not one person in a hundred could give you a satisfactory answer to these questions. I was told by a teacher at a Buddhist University in Thailand that he regularly tests his students with questions like, ‘Who was the Buddha’s mother?” “Who was the Buddha’s attendant for the last 25 years of his life”, and many of the monks regularly fail.

      For most people, “Buddhism” means giving dana, going to the temple, doing some chanting, amulets, magic rituals, tattoos, ghosts… The situation may be somewhat better in Burma and Sri Lanka, but it is still a question of degree. I can’t remember how many times I have been told by Thais or Sri Lankans how no-one practices Buddhism properly in their country, and it is only in the west that they have found real Buddhism.

      This is not to criticize the real practitioners in those countries – of course, they are there, and usually it is just that people have not been aware of them.

      I myself don’t know Jack’s teaching very well, and would share most of your concerns. But if he were to give, say, a retreat or seminar in Bangkok, with educated middle-class Thais, I suspect that many of them would love it.

    • “I’m afraid you completely missed my issue with Jack Kornfield “He’s not my teacher and I don’t know and don’t care how he personally behaves. My problem is that he is arguably the most influential Buddhist teacher in the US and is promoting his lifestyle as representing authentic Buddhism. So, when he got his Psych PhD he proclaimed that there was no difference between Western psychology and Buddhism: “false dichotomy”.

      I think although I may not have explained it clearly this is the same point I am making – that lifestyle – whether Jack Kornfield or not is representing authentic Buddhism.

      i am though shocked to hear this guy is so big in America, I had no idea and I recall a teacher I once went to wrote an essay about this and him, disagreeing with him .. but you say he is one if not the biggest “buddhist”? teachers in America.

      I would be interested to hear what Ajahn Sujato says about this and about this issue of no difference between Western psychology and Buddhism especially as some Buddhist tell people to “seek professional help” even though they sometimes avertise as “professional councillors”, and I would also be interested to hear what Ajahn Sujato thinks of him saying there is no difference between the householder life and the monestry?

      Kind Regards

    • Wikipedia describes Mara’s activity as “…distracting humans from practicing the spiritual life by making the mundane alluring…” I admit to hyperbole but I think my grip is firm.

    • Father Gabriel Amorth says that Yoga is the work of the Devil. Do you think that your view and his view are possibly coming from the same place?

    • Peter,

      i think the issue of what Kip Mackay is addressing is very important and shouldn’t be treated sarcastically.

      It is not too say that everyone has to become a monk or nun or join a monestry, or that having more spiritually inclined lifestyle isn’t what people want or isn’t important, but it can lead to alot of psychological problems if people are lead to believe that something is say the Buddha’s teachings (leads to enlightenment?) when it is not or doesn’t.

    • mcd I also believe that my point is is very important and no doubt you believe that you are also making very important points.

    • Peter,

      I don’t know about important I am just trying to clear up some issues with regards to Buddhism I have regarding conflicting teachings I have received.

      On the one hand most teachers expect women to bow and scrape to young girls and just be an empty head servant on the other you are suppose to be some genis academic who has the time to read everythign on the planet.

      I am just trying to work out which is the best way that is all; but then on top of that does it matter because It seems the next Buddha “a girl” has been found and I am just trying to get an answer from Sujato about this, as obviously he must know, and if it is then won’t she just take care of all these issue and we can just sit around bowing and scraping to her…. and we don’t need to read the Suttas anymore or and if it isn’t true isn’t it a big no-no in Buddhism for buddhist to claim spiritual achievements they have not attained.

    • apparently though Bhante Sujato takes everyone seriously on this website and the “girls” except me and that is fine but I would appreciate at least one answer to my questions some time within the next eon.

    • Bhante,

      Thanks for your replies (and those of others). They have been very informative and thought provoking for me (probably more than I’ve let on in my somewhat argumentative posts). Particularly the slippery slope involved in our search for “archaic authority”. Because we don’t have our own inherited family tradition we conversion Buddhists can easily slide down that one. Of course I know what you mean about the surprising lack of Buddhist knowledge among the general population in Buddhist countries. My favorite incident was when a local turned to me on a bus ride in Sri Lanka and asked me my religion. When i replied “Buddhist” he said in a conspiratorial whisper “Me too. And there is only one God and that’s Buddha, right?!!!”….Even with his popularity and influence I’m probably unfairly picking so strongly on JK. The American Buddhist scene would be what it is without him. If I was to subscribe to Tricycle Magazine I would have to also subscribe to a series of anti-depressants. My favorite article there was entitled “Rethinking Karma” in which the author wanted to do away with that part of Buddhist teachings because it could lead to politically incorrect conclusions and was hard for Americans to swallow…..Anyway, I’m living happily in Asia and know that I shouldn’t let this stuff bother me so much……Could I just add one quick question unrelated to this topic? For much of the past 20 years I’ve been very involved in assisting in various ways at a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in India. So I’ve been indirectly involved in the bhikshuni issue. I support ordination if the nuns want it. But It’s always seemed contradictory that nuns would want to gain equality under an ordination that puts them more explicitly under the monks than their novice vows. Do they really want a monk to accompany them whenever they travel,etc.? But a knowledgeable nun told me that “the Sangha can change those vows, so it’s no problem.” Is she correct? Or is this a specifically Tibetan approach, as they aren’t in general very strict in following viniya? I’ve searched for the answer to this in your archives and can’t find it. I thought the last chance to do this was when an upset Annanda missed his chance.
      Take Care,
      Kip

      to swallow.

    • HI Bhikkhu Sujato,

      I saw a video about a Sister Yeshe, a young 25? year oldTibetan Nun called the Lost Buddha … I assumed therefore she has been recognised as the next Buddhat or something. I am sure you would know of her?

      Regards

      mcd

    • To correct my previous comment: I know a yeshe, who is a young Australian bhikkhuni in the Sakya tradition. After trying to live as a mendicant in Sydney for several years, she’s now working with the Dalits in Maharashtra, India. Yeshe is, of course, a very common name in Tibetan Buddhism. She’s not a ‘new Buddha’ or anything like that, just a good person practicing with the Dhamma to help some of the most unfortunate people in the world.

      Here’s a saying I love from this book: “Living Buddhas are a dime a dozen. But a good wooden Buddha is hard to find.”

  2. Dear Sujato,
    Thanks so much for this thoughtful and well-considered statement. I’ve been involved since 1970 with the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy. Although this has been played out largely within a Vajrayana affiliated context (see http://www.tararokpa.org), I agree with your drift and apreciate the scope. Especially regarding the question ‘What happens when we die?” I would be very interested to know what you think of the LBL (life between lives) research?
    All the best,
    Edie

    • So far as I understand it, it seems to be add weight to a growing body of serious research that questions the annihilationist assumptions. There are, as with any difficult areas, difficulties with the research. But it cannot be merely discounted. I heartily recommend Irreducible Mind for a survey of these various forms of research.

  3. Bhante, while I agree that it is a great thing that Buddhist methods and practices are finding their way into psychology, and vice versa, I tend to agree with Kip’s comment that there is a fundamental difference in the goals of Buddhist and psychology practices – I would not go so as far as to say that they are ‘irreconcilable’ as most people will at some stage are likely to reconcile the differences in a useful way which will lead them to development of wisdom.

    I have come across some non-Buddhists who practice Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or some variant of it but they do grapple with the notion of letting go without which mindfulness is unlikely to develop. Therefore, those who might be of the view that Buddhism equals to mindfulness and ignore the rest of the teachings are less likely to be convinced that the Buddhism is the path to peace and happiness.

    • As my reply to Kip hopefully made more clear, I also agree that this is the case – the goals of therapy and Buddhism are different, but not incompatible. Therapy stops earlier along the highway – if that helps someone, then terrific. But if they want to see what lies beyond the next bend… My only problem is when Buddhism becomes reduced to therapy as an ideology, which then has to systematically explain away so much of the Dhamma. And yes, some Buddhist psychologists do this, but I think its unfair to characterize the whole movement this way. And, to restate my main theme once more, the vast majority of Buddhist followers in every Buddhist country for all intents and purposes do the same thing, ignoring the profound teachings and practices, and practicing Buddhism for much more mundane goals. The simple reality, as Ajahn Pasanno said to me once, is that in any society at any time, only a few people are really interested in a genuine spiritual search. One of the great things about Buddhism is how it has so much to offer even those who are not interested to plunge fully into the stream… (yet!)

    • Hi Guptila,

      Sorry, I ignored your last sentence in my previous reply.

      those who might be of the view that Buddhism equals to mindfulness and ignore the rest of the teachings are less likely to be convinced that the Buddhism is the path to peace and happiness

      It’s an interesting point, but for me it once again points out the importance of right view in the sense of a correct theoretical understanding of what you’re doing. Let us imagine two people, with the same condition, being recommended to practice mindfulness. The first is told, ‘Here’s a mindfulness practice which may well be useful for you – it’s an ancient Buddhist technique’. I don’t see how there would be a problem with this. However, the second one is told, ‘Here’s a mindfulness technique which will cure your condition. It is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, the one and only path to Awakening, and by doing this technique you will be able to overcome all your problems’, then I would see some issues looming in the future… Even though they do the same practice, one of these is much more likely to get confused, perhaps disillusioned, perhaps narcissistic.

      But frankly, I don’t see this very often. What I see, in the 60 or so therapists who have done the AABCAP course, is people who are fully aware of the limitations of therapy, and are consciously looking to Buddhism for a higher path.

      Once again, I don’t see this as a fundamental difference between ‘traditional’ and ‘psychological’ forms of Buddhism. Everywhere we see people taking bits and pieces of the Dhamma (or even non-Dhamma) and dressing them up to be the One Real Thing. There are many people who are told, ‘Just recite “Namo Amito Fo” and that’s all you need to get enlightened'; or ‘Don’t bother trying to keep precepts, let the monks keep them for you’ (deadly serious here…), or ‘Here’s a magic amulet that will protect you from bullets’, or ‘Worship this wrathful deity and you’ll get what you want’, or ‘Only our meditation technique really leads to enlightenment’, and so on.

      Are these things commonly found in what is called ‘Buddhism’ in the world? Of course. Are they ‘real’ Buddhism? You decide! But I am constantly meeting Buddhists from traditional backgrounds who have been told these things, have maybe accepted them for a while, but come to question them and look for more. And I see the same process among the therapists…

      I call it, ‘the spiritual path’…

    • Perhaps I did not make myself clear….as I said earlier, I believe that a combination of modern psychology and Buddhism is a great thing (in fact, I myself have immensely benefited from this ‘fusion’) and I have no doubt that the majority of therapists who are using Buddhist methods are genuine, open minded and are doing a great service to advancement of both modern psychology as well as Buddhism.

      The issue I was trying highlight was the impact this may have on the wider community especially those who haven’t come across Buddhism in their lives. There is a potential for these people to view Buddhism in a very simplistic way because of the promotion of mindfulness as a mere technology to overcome their mundane problems. I guess what would be useful is to bring out the core differences between psychology and Buddhism ‘out in the open’ so that it becomes clear about the limitations of both practices when applied to radically different requirements – in one case to cope with daily living and in the other case to look beyond the problems of daily living.

      Perhaps, I have already said too much – time to shut up :-)

    • Not at all, keep speaking – and thanks for the clarification, I agree with you there – and hopefully in clarifying these issues we can do our little bit to make the relation between Buddhism and therapy more fruitful….

  4. Greetings Sujato,

    Thanks for your extensive and thoughtful reply to my comments. Your paper was posted on my FB page by a friend and I commented on it knowing nothing about you or your blog. It obviously struck a nerve on my part and I probably unfairly lumped you together with others who espouse positions you don’t necessarily agree with. Sorry about that. And I had no idea you were a teacher of “Buddhism and Psychotherapy”. I wasn’t trying to break anyone’s rice bowl….I should say I am an American who has studied and attempted to practice spiritual paths for over 40 years, the last 25 as a Buddhist in the Tibetan (Nepal/India/Tibet) and Theravadan (Sri Lanka) traditions. I know very little about the Australian Dharma scene (though I’m a big fan of Ajahn Brahm) and when I used “Western” in my post I probably should have said “American” (whose Dharma scene I am very familiar with)….I agree with what you replied to Guptila, so I don’t think we’re that far apart. I will just clarify some points:

    I said I don’t naively idealize Asian Buddhist practices. I could trump your lazy Thai monks story with tales of Tibetan and Sri Lankan monks actual criminal behavior. According to traditional Buddhism we currently live in a degenerate age, which I believe. At the same time I also believe that whenever we get a human body and an opportunity to practice Dharma, we’re enjoying great good fortune. Too many Buddhists get put off by the bad examples of their fellow students. If you have come across authentic teachings and a good teacher who manifests the teachings then you should rejoice and persevere.

    Yes, you could call the Buddha a “self styled expert”. He certainly was when he proclaimed his own enlightenment. And the Arhants at the Buddhist Councils who repeated his words could also be labeled so. That’s a clever point, but I think you knew it was not people of that caliber that I was referring to. Actually I had in mind a recent conference held in the US which was not attended by any Arhants…..Ashoka did spread Buddhism by diktat but it was the Buddha’s words which he spread not his own…..I stand by my “organic development over centuries” statement. For instance, early Indian Buddhism evolved into Chinese Chan over centuries. Yes, Mahindra introduced Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the population was quickly converted. But I’m not talking about the conversion of individuals. That obviously happens at most over decades since we only live that long! I’m referring to the conversion/evolution of individual Buddhist traditions themselves.

    I shouldn’t have used the word “ridiculous” in reference to your statement that Burmese style vipassana is what we think of as traditional Buddhism. It’s not a good adjective in a friendly discussion. But I said that because I didn’t realize that the “we” you used only referred to people reading your blog. I took it in a more universal sense. I would be happy to give you a dollar for every Buddhist practitioner in Tibet who has even heard of Burmese vipassana (Tibetan Buddhist vipassana is very different). …I am aware of most of the modern Buddhist movements you refer to and am glad of their existence. It means that Buddhism is not a “dead” religion. I would term those which have had a lasting effect as rejuvenations of Buddhism, often correcting deviations from the spirit of the Buddha’s original teachings. And I would compare none of them to the American Politically Correct psychologized New Age versions of Buddhism which I was objecting to in my original comment….I mainly study the Pali cannon and the teachings of Lama Tsong Kapa, and their commentaries. Everyone in their time is a “modernist” and sometimes also a reformer. This includes most of all the Buddha. But the word modern means “relating to the present or recent times”. I can only speak for myself, but to turn your assertion around, I can say that the vast majority of what I experience as traditional Buddhism is traditional Buddhism.

    I’m not referring to other points you replied to as I think we basically agree on them. You are obviously a sincere and knowledgeable Buddhist, and I’m sure a helpful therapist. I’m now retired but most of my working life was in psych. Buddhism and psych are magnets for those who want to both understand the mind and help others. In fact, at the risk of starting another controversy, I think Buddhism is most easily understood by westerners as a mega-therapy. That approach clears away the formidable obstacles involved in the word “religion” (and an argument can be made that Buddhism really isn’t a religion in the dictionary sense of the word). But it should be a therapy based on the traditional goal and teachings of Buddhism, not watered down versions. ……As long as you put psych at the beginning of our spiritual journey I don’t think our differences on this topic are all that fundamental. Happy Trails.

    • Hi Kip,

      Thanks, a very thoughtful and hmble reply, that clears a lot up. Just as you are unfamiliar with Aussie Buddhism, I am unfamiliar with American Buddhism – I’ve never read a book by Jack Kornfield or Joseph Goldstein or Stephen Batchelor! (0ops, no, not quite true: I did read Jacks’s ‘Living Buddhist Masters’ many years ago.) But I have a general idea what is going on. It does seem to me that Aussie Buddhism is to a certain degree more integrated between the ‘traditional’ and ‘secular’ forms of Buddhism compared to the US. Here’s an example: Mitra, the local Buddhist youth network on their website choose to depict themselves with a happy snap of young multicultural Buddhists from many backgrounds, united around an elderly Western monk (Bhante Santitthito). I suspect you won’t find anything similar in the US.

      Similarly, regarding therapy, I’m not a therapist. I help teach the course on Buddhism and Psychotherapy, which was initiated by the Malaysian Buddhist psychiatrist Dr Eng Kong Tan. We run a two year postgrad diploma, with weekend workshops taught by a (usually) monastic Sangha member together with a therapist of some sort, with the Sangha member doing the “Buddhism” bit and the therapist doing the “Psychotherapy”. Each weekend we choose a topic of interest,, like mindfulness, or death and dying, and look at it from both perspectives. This gives us the chance to hear what the different approaches say, and then the discuss and integrate through experiential exercises (lots of meditation!). This approach is good because it doesn’t make any assumptions about whether the two are the same, or different. Each school of Buddhism or therapy is simply presented as is, and connections or differences are pursued through the interaction. We asked the students on the course, roughly 30 per course, why they were there, and almost all of them said they were there mainly to learn about Buddhism, to gain a wider and deeper perspective than offered by their therapeutic framework. The website is here, in case you’re interested.

      It seems to me that this provides a helpful and constructive example of how Buddhism and psychotherapy can work together – I have certainly benefited a lot from working on the course. I am as concerned as you are about some of the things that I have heard from teachers in the US – eg., that a stream-enterer often still needs therapy. Ahh, no, they don’t. But I don’t see this as intrinsic to the field. While there is much to be regretted, I do feel that things are gradually moving in a better direction.

      And I do agree that every generation of Buddhists is in their own time, ‘modern’, and in that sense we are merely part of a tradition. So to contrast ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ is not really valid, but it’s hard to avoid.

      Just to be clear, though, when I refer to ‘modernist’ Buddhism, I don’t mean ‘modern’ in this general sense, but more specifically to the reforms of Buddhism in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, as Buddhist cultures creatively responded to the threats of colonialism and rapid technological and cultural change. Late 20th century Buddhism is perhaps too close to be so easily characterized, but it might be called postmodern Buddhism. I wonder what it is we’re doing now…

  5. Bhante,

    Greetings. Hope you are well.

    In your reply to Kip you make some interesting points about the interaction of politics in the formation of Buddhism. To quote you:

    “You say that traditionally Buddhism spread organically, not by ‘political correctness of the day or diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts…’ I respectfully disagree. The Buddhist Councils had an incalculable influence on the formation of Buddhism – defining the canon, rejecting heretical doctrines, judging acceptable conduct – and what are these if not ‘diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts’? And as for ‘political correctness’, the pivotal event in spreading Buddhism through India and beyond was the conversion of Ashoka….”

    My question is: might we take this one step further and consider the influence of , for example, the early Buddhist Councils on the formation of the Suttas themselves and our understanding of the Buddha?

    I would be interested in your thoughts on Glenn Wallis’suggestions for the possible formation of our understanding of the Buddha? Might this be plausible? (from his article “Nostalgia for the Buddha”)

    “The first task of any religious teacher’s followers, whether in Greece, Rome, Arabia, India, or the United States is twofold: to propagate and to preserve the teachings. The decisive importance of the former goal, however, drastically impacts the latter. That is, propagation is a Darwinian struggle of competition and adaptation; and the very engagement in this struggle shapes the form of the preservation. Spreading the teachings required that Gotama’s followers successfully contend with fierce competition from several quarters. The most crucial—and ruthless—struggle centered on patronage. Without the support of the leading figures in society, a community had no chance of survival. Patronage involved not only financial and material support, but social prestige. The latter was particularly important for a community such as Gotama’s, which challenged the orthodoxy of the day. There was also the struggle with rival teachers and hostile sects, who made claims—and held out promises—for their teachings that were different from, and more attractive than, Gotama’s. Buddhist literature is full of evidence of such struggles. The literature also reveals the extraordinary internal tensions that arose from the need to maintain unity and morale. Soon enough, moreover, Gotama’s community had to meet these enormous challenges bereft of its charismatic teacher.

    A common strategy, then as now, in this struggle for recognition is to cast the teacher’s sayings, discourses, dialogues, lectures, random utterances, and so on, as “sacred” or “religious” literature. I call a text “religious” if it or its proponents claim for the work’s origin and contents some special quality, possessed by the originator, that is fundamentally non-natural, and hence, categorically unavailable to the common person.

    As far as I know, there is no cult of Mozart. We see him as a musical genius, yes. But no one seriously claims that his music was divinely inspired, that is, that it derived from anything but human capacities. If we do speak of Mozart’s achievement in religious terms (it is transcendent, sacred, holy, revelatory, otherworldly, etc.), we do so figuratively, poetically, in an attempt to match language to a breathtaking natural achievement.

    I contend that Gotama’s followers (and perhaps Gotama himself) made a conscious decision to cast his teachings in overtly religious terms. Such an alteration—from secular, naturalistic, and commonsensical to sectarian, supernatural, and super-sensual—required that the teachings’ custodians combine the central teachings with particular adornments. These adornments—frames, conceits, rhetorical structures, supernatural interlocutors, awe-inspiring miracles, extra-sensory perception—tip off the reader or hearer to the uncanny, even daemonic, power of the teachings. At the very least, such adornments demand attention, inspire confidence, and make a compelling case. Only in this manner could Gotama’s community win the patronage necessary for prospering.”

    • Hi Geoff,

      Yes, I don’t have any problem with what Glenn is saying here. Clearly all these things are used to evoke a sense of awe and authority. This much has been obvious since the first generations of Buddhist scholars in the 19th century. There’s a fascinating perspective on the notion of archaic authority in Julian Jaynes’ ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. At the very least we can say that the need for archaic authority is a fundamental part of human psychology, one that is at the basis of all religious institutions. Of course, it should go without saying that Glenn Wallis is searching for archaic authority of his own, in his re-imagined Buddha fashioned in his own image according to his own methods…

      The point is not that this is right or wrong, but that it is part of how our minds operate. There are good reasons for this: it means we don’t abandon the wisdom of the past. The apparatus of archaic authority has made human culture possible, as we do not have to learn everything from scratch every generation.

      It’s interesting to see how this is happening now we the cult of Ajahn Chah. Over the years, since I first arrived at Wat Nanachat, I have seen the gradual progression as this adopts all the canonical requisites of a devotional cult. Building a stupa, attendance of royalty, making statues, relics (including digging up Ajahn Chah’s toilet in search of relics – yes, it’s a thing), institution of periodical celebrations, the increasing canonization of the literature (formerly cheap and hand-made, now in deluxe hardcover editions). All the standard ways of keeping memory alive, which have been used countless times in human culture, with surprisingly little variation.

      A few years ago, we had a person suffering from schizophrenia here at Santi. In one of his acts of ‘divine’ madness, he took most of the relics from our shrine and threw them in the forest. Our shrine was desecrated, but our bush was sanctified; and his act of destruction, wiping out one source of archaic authority, opened a space for something new…

  6. Bhante

    Thanks for your interesting reply.

    But if I may clarify….

    So in considering any difference between Glenn Wallis’ and your interpretation of the Pali Canon, are you saying that it basically comes down to differing perspectives on “archaic authority”?

    You say Glenn is “searching for archaic authority of his own, in his re-imagined Buddha fashioned in his own image according to his own methods”. In your case might you be (primarily?) adopting archaic authority from the anonymous compilers of the Pali Canon, who had themselves “imagined Buddha fashioned in (their) image according to (their) own methods”?

    Thanks

    Geoff

    • Hi Geoff,

      Um, I wasn’t saying anything about the differnce between Glenn’s and my interpretation of the Pali canon. I was trying to say that everyone, including Glenn, seeks for archaic authorization in their own way, and that this is, in and of itself, natural, neither good nor bad. But your point is a valid one: yes, the compilers of the Pali canon (and other scriptures) were themselves seeking archaic authority from their imagined Buddha. In fact a good deal of the focus in Buddhist literature has been to construct the texts so as to maximise authority. I have discussed this at length in White Bones Red Rot and other places. The interesting thing about the earliest scriptures is that they are seeking archaic authority from the Buddha, while the Buddha himself rejected archaic authority. There’s a delicate dance going on here…

  7. Hallo Sujato

    I am an annihilationist but now I have to rethink my stance if it is not a unconscious death-wish. That said, I am clearly very interested in what you are saying about rebirth and its revival. You say „the evidence for rebirth, among psychologists, biologists, and others, is strong and growing stronger.“ Can you please mention other sources for this opinion than Ian Stevenson.

    Thanks, Matthias

    • Ha! Well, I just hope you don’t act out your death wish anytime soon. Actually, I think we all have these underlying tendencies.

      As for evidence, there are many strands, and I don’t feel confident to pull them together right now. But a great start is the book ‘Irreducible Mind‘. I started reading it at Bodhinyana a few months ago, and we were just donated a copy for Santi a couple of days ago. (Thanks, Alex!) It is a truly awesome work, and I think it deserves to be read by anyone seriously questioning the materialistic paradigm.

  8. Bhante

    To quote you:

    “I was trying to say that everyone, including Glenn (Wallis), seeks for archaic authorization in their own way, and that this is, in and of itself, natural, neither good nor bad….. the interesting thing about the earliest scriptures is that they are seeking archaic authority from the Buddha, while the Buddha himself rejected archaic authority.”

    So where does that leave us? Should we try to reject “archaic authority” (like the Buddha) or is it unavoidable that we seek it? (To quote you in your previous reply: “at the very least we can say that the need for archaic authority is a fundamental part of human psychology, one that is at the basis of all religious institutions.”)

    If it’s unavoidable, what reasons are there for choosing say, your form of archaic authority over Glenn Wallis’?

    Thanks

    Geoff

    • I’m not sure that it’s unavoidable completely, although it’s certainly almost universal. Take the case of the Buddha: he clearly rejected many of the beliefs of his time, and expressly repudiated the authority of the Vedas. Yet he was equally obviously influenced by what was going on around him and what had come before. I think the point is that we acknowledge what is happening and reflect on it, so we become more aware of the ways we are conditioned to seek authority, whether it be by making academic footnotes, quoting some revered master, or insisting on a hallowed tradition.

      It’s not a matter of choosing one form of authority over another. It’s about understanding the way that we arrive at our opinions and ideas. Use your common sense. If someone says, ‘The Pali Canon says xyz’, then check and see if that’s what it says. If it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong there.

      If it does, you can ask, ‘And so what does that mean?’ If the answer is that the Pali Canon is the unimpeachable ultimate source of all authority and everyone who says different is a fool, then you might suspect a little dogmatism going on. If the answer is, ‘The Pali Canon is likely to contain many authentic teachings of the Buddha’, that is more reasonable. You can then go on to say, ‘Well why should I listen to what this Buddha person has to say anyway?’ And so it goes. There’s no silver bullet that can make up your mind for you. Find out for yourself, and don’t be so worried about what this or that person says.

  9. Hallo

    Thanks for your taking time to reply. I certainly do not have a „death wish“ and I am not so sure what to think about the death-drive so I am not going to die anytime soon – as far as it is within my ability to steer around any obstacles in the course of my Lust for Life. Thanks also for the hint to the book.

    Just one more question. I cannot find a good definition of “archaic authority” on the web. Could you please give one?

    Thanks, Matthias

  10. Bhante

    Thanks for your comments.

    To quote you:
    “If the answer is, ‘The Pali Canon is likely to contain many authentic teachings of the Buddha’, that is more reasonable. You can then go on to say, ‘Well why should I listen to what this Buddha person has to say anyway?’ And so it goes. There’s no silver bullet that can make up your mind for you. Find out for yourself, and don’t be so worried about what this or that person says.”

    I don’t think I am being unduly concerned about what others say, although I think it is sensible to acknowledge there are others who are much more knowledgeable of Buddhism than me.

    However the problem for me remains the basic question – what are “authentic teachings of the Buddha”? We can accept that the Suttas in the Pali Canon are not transcripts of tape-recorded talks by the Buddha (and his close supporters). If that is the case, what may have been inserted in these talks that may reflect more the concerns of the compilers eg to propagate and to preserve the teachings (as Glenn Wallis plausibly refers to in the article I quoted earlier)?

    Unless I misunderstand you, you seem to accept this in your reply to me: “Yes, I don’t have any problem with what Glenn is saying here. Clearly all these things are used to evoke a sense of awe and authority. This much has been obvious since the first generations of Buddhist scholars in the 19th century.”

    So what does this mean? For example, perhaps our understanding of rebirth from the Pali Canon has been influenced by the compilers of the Canon and may not actually reflect what the Buddha said. (Of course even if we could determine what the Buddha actually did say doesn’t necessary make it true – but that’s another issue.)

    I know you have studied the Pali Canon over many years and believe you have determined what are the authentic teachings. But of course there remains issues such as related to the four hundred years between the Buddha’s death and the written recordings of the teachings. How can we know what has been inserted into the teachings during this period? We know how often people are taken “out of context” when they are quoted, why mightn’t this have applied to the Buddha (at least to some extent)?

    Cheers

    Geoff

  11. Hi Geoff,

    You are surely right, we cannot expect that the early texts record the Buddha’s words as literally as if they had been recorded. (Although if they had been, we would surely be arguing about what he ‘really meant to say…’). Although we cannot assert absolutely that anything was spoken by the Buddha, we can make some meaningful inferences. For example, some principles that are central for me is to look at those teachings which are said to have been spoken by the Buddha himself (rather than background or narrative), that are repeated very often (reducing the chance of accidental misinformation), are placed in central doctrinal contexts (the four noble truths, etc.), which the texts themselves claim to be important, and which are consistently presented across all Nikaya/Agamas and Vinayas. Generally speaking, it is these kinds of teachings that I accept as most likely to be the Buddha’s words. This is a very useful set of criteria, as even this much, though vague and imperfect, can help us to weed out a very large number of theories and ideas about what the Buddha taught.

    cheers

    Bhante S

    • To paraphrase an earlier comment of yours, Bhante, from a Dhamma talk, “…this might very well be a sort an Ananda-ism, for all we know with regard to the actual words of The Tathagata”.
      I’m moved to lateral musings after hearing your Dhamma talk on Vesak some time ago. Stripped of the “Bells and Smells” as Bhante Khemavaro put it with regard to an all too human penchant for adding layers often having NOTHING to do with The Tathagata. The Buddha in our realm; human, frail esp. towards the end of his long life.
      That being said, isn’t it our OWN cultural proclivities, needing for particular processes and sequential orders, that somehow points to “A ONE” that, for all intent and purpose, create the empasse? And that it may be good enough to opine that perhaps what has come down to us is pretty much what the Buddha said, in the round, but thru Ananda? Even Sariputra? Ananda was The Buddhas attendant for a goodly 25 yrs, yes? Sariputra, as close to a concomitant evangelical as could be accommodated, conceptually, for the benefit of those who would otherwise not know of Buddhism. Couldn’t these two men have been trusted, by The Tathagata, in his life, to speak? As The Tathagata would surely have known who to allow, according to their abilities, to do so? So why not those closest to him? The final arbiter being, of course, The Tathagata.

    • Dear Orlando,

      I must say I agree with you. Meaning is always created in a community; even at the Buddha’s talks, different listeners would have “heard” different things and practiced differently. The mere existence of the Buddhist texts is eloquent testament to the literary and memory skills of the early Sangha. It is one thing to acknowledge, as we must, the influence of editors and redactors; it is quite another to assume that the entire corpus of texts was created ex nihilo by a nameless committee of propagandists…

    • Too right, Bhante. I mean, the trajectory for codification of The Buddhas teachings would seem to almost lend itself to a level of fidelity not enjoyed by other “Historical” faiths.By the time of the Council of Nicaea its own syncretic trajectory had been assured. And thru disparate authorships in such blatant cases as the hypothetical Q document of New Testament fame, for example, not to mention “lost books” found gleaning the occasional variant, made any kind of chance for distillation to anything harkening to original nearing non sequitur.
      Anyhow, hope one day to lay my carpentry skills at your disposal. Lol.

      Yours in The Dhamma, Orlando

    • Hi MedMob

      The book is titled “The Essence of Jung’s Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism- Western and Eastern Paths to the Heart” by Radmila Moacanin

      It’s a pretty good Primer for someone(me)who’s awareness of the relationship btwn Buddhism and Western Psychotherapies had been a mere nod to the fact for so long.
      I just ordered “The Irreducible Mind” by Edward Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly; on a mention from Bhante to another. Which for me is saying something ’cause I was pretty adamant about closing the Amazon.com flood gates at least until April. lol. So much for absolutes.
      Cheers, O.M.

  12. Bhante

    You earlier recommended the book Irreducible Mind. When you say it’s research questions “annihilationist assumptions”, are you saying it is suggesting the mind can operate independently of the brain?

    If this is the case, I am baffled how this is possible. Brain damage obviously can impact a person’s memory, speech and thought processes (among other physical effects). If a person’s brain has been sufficiently damaged, it won’t function at all ie they are dead.

    How is it possible that memory and / or thought processes for example, can continue to operate?

    Thanks

    Geoff

    • Sure, the brain influences the mind. Damage the brain, and the mind is (at least most of the time) damaged. This doesn’t mean to say that the mind is necessarily dependent on the brain, though.

      Try this for example. Go get a screwdriver. Got it? Turn over your computer, and take off the back cover. Remove the hard drive. Get a hammer, and smash it. Done? Good. Where’s your data? Damaged, right?

      But does that mean that all data all the time is dependent on a hard drive? Of course not – we know that there are many different ways of storing data.

      In the same way, the kind of mind-thing that we are familiar with is called a brain, and we see damage to the brain causing damage to the mind. It is theoretically possible that this is the only form of mind-thing possible, but science, as we know it, can’t prove that – all science can do is make inferences from evidence. And, as a book like Irreducible Mind persuasively argues, mainstream science has hitherto ignored much of the relevant evidence, so its inferences are not valid. Anyway, if you’re interested, get a copy and have a read!

    • Ajahn Sujato

      On the subject of rebirth… I something get a sense of a close relative around me at times, but then I also think that this person may have been reborn as the kid of another close relative due to the childs mannerisms.

      How would this be possible or would it even be possible.

      That is is it at all possible for part of a persons mindstream to go to a sort of formless realm while the rest of their karma has gone into a body?

      Regards
      mcd

    • I’m sorry, but I’m not clear exactly what the situation you describe is. But in general, kamma is part of a”mindstream”; in fact, kamma is precisely the energy that drives consciousness. So no, according to Buddhist ideas, it is not possible for a mindstream to go one way and kamma another.

    • What are the implications for life saving transplantation surgery in arguing that mind is beyond brain. As I understand it the ideal scenario for most transplantation surgery is having a heat beating but brain dead donor.

      Do you think that possibly one day we will see the arguments that mind can exist without brain as being from the dark ages when religius thought still tried to overly impinge or will it be the reverse scanario whose implications are possibly more horific?

    • Yes, there’s an interesting dilemma here. If mind is not brain – which personally I think is obvious, but that’s just me – then when is a person dead? I suspect that this will turn out to be, like so many other insoluble moral dilemmas, a boundary issue, one that affects a few special cases but not the majority. Why? Because, regardless of whether the brain and mind have any necessary link, we know that in human life they have a very close relationship. Brain activity might not be necessary for consciousness, but in the vast majority of cases that we know, it does accompany consciousness. So brain death can still remain the criterion for practical purposes.

      Irreducible Mind argues for an “interface” theory of the brain: the brain does not give rise to consciousness, but it acts as an interface or connection between consciousness and the body. If this model were correct, then when the brain is dead the links between this consciousness and this body are severed, so organ donorship should not be a problem.

    • Ajhan Sujato,

      OK ..I am not sure how to put it really because I don’t really understand it myself.. but I’ll try another way.

      Could some of a person’s mindstream be reborn into another body but some parts of it, say an older life before that present life go somewhere else ie into another realm.

      For example, someone dies and their kamma in this life is say average and they are then therefore reborn into an average life somewhere else, but because they did some good in the life before that, or even in their last life but only in some particular way, could that part of their mindstream go another way ie to a pure realm, a very high rebirth or maybe near to the area where they did the higher good.

      Does that make sense?

      No ok…does one persons mindstream although it might contain lots of previous lives aways go to another body; why don’t the different lives dependant on their kamma splinter off into different bodies.

    • I wonder If people with intellectual disabilities all have a working brain no different from most peoples? If they do then it must must be their conscious which is effected what else could it be?.

    • In addition to my post (5th down in this set of posts I think) I will give you another example that tibetan monk Venerable Yeshe the head of the FPMT group.

      This is obviously not the person I was referring to but they say he has been reborn as a boy in Spain but all his information is still around as if he still exists; it is sorta like his conscious is still around in the cosmos although at the same time they say he has been reborn as a boy in Spain.

      Now I have probably just confused the issue more so but that is very roughly and generally an example of what I am asking; can the conscious or informatin of a person still be around in the ??? cosmos (I don’t know what the right work is there) even though they have been reborn somewhere else.

  13. Bhante

    If I may put to you another query following my previous one…

    You seem to object to those who make “annihilationist assumptions”. But isn’t the ultimate Buddhist goal of Nibbana a form of annihilation? How is Nibbana different from “annihilationist assumptions”?

    Perhaps the Buddha was an annihilationist but he (and / or the compilers of the Canons) thought this would be too unpalatable in his teachings and so the concept of rebirth was inserted as intermediate stages leading to the end goal of Nibbana (annihilation)? Is this plausible?

    Cheers

    Geoff

  14. Bhante

    Again thanks for your response.

    To quote you above:

    “It is theoretically possible that this is the only form of mind-thing possible, but science, as we know it, can’t prove that – all science can do is make inferences from evidence.”

    I think Ted Meissner gives a good response to this in his critique of B.Alan Wallace:

    “…. it is the very nature of science to be tentative and corrective. In the case McLean v. Arkansas in 1981, science witnesses helped the court with defining science as having the following traits:

    1. It is guided by natural law
    2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law
    3. It is testable against the empirical world
    4. Its conclusions are tentative
    5. It is falsifiable

    That is part of its great value, to remove that which is shown to be not true or non-contributory. Secular practice is the same. If there is no value shown, remove it. The Dalai Lama agrees in his book The World In A Single Atom with his statement, “.. if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

    Of course, this is something of a logical trick, as proving a negative is problematic. As Bertrand Russell demonstrated with this analogy in 1952, “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

    This is every bit as true for claims our own Buddhism makes, including those claims some of us hold most dear.”

    Bhante, I am sure many scientists would be interested in Irreducible Mind if it provided relevant evidence. Why wouldn’t they? But haven’t you committed yourself to believing in, for example, rebirth because you see it as an essential teaching of the Buddha and nothing will sway you from this? If so, doesn’t this make Buddhism another faith based religion?

    Cheers

    Geoff

    • Hi Geoff,

      If there were no evidence for rebirth, or solid evidence against it, what would i do? Well, i would probably give up being a Buddhist, disrobe, and try to live a nice life, taking a few tips from Buddhism like meditation and harmlessness and so on. But this is not the case: there is, on the contrary, plenty of evidence for rebirth, so wondering about hypotheticals is not going to get us anywhere.

      In any case, speculating about people’s “real” motivations is pretty much a waste of time. This is not about me and why I do what I do. It is about what the nature of our life is, and how we should respond to it.

      The Buddha was making similar, and even stronger, epistemological arguments 2500 years ago, and everything I have learnt about him suggests that when he claimed to have seen and verified the truth of rebirth for himself, this is something worth taking seriously.

    • Venerable Bhikkhu Sujato: If there were no evidence for rebirth, or solid evidence against it, what would i do? Well, i would probably give up being a Buddhist, disrobe, and try to live a nice life, taking a few tips from Buddhism like meditation and harmlessness and so on.

      Is a nice life without an ascetic lifestyle even possible for a thinking person? The Buddha didn’t have any evidence for rebirth when he first started his quest. There were even complete nihilists walking around in his time. A thinking (and sensitive) human being sees this whole mass of suffering (the vulgarity of everything eating eachother etc..) and must admit that there is something seriously wrong with existence as a whole. Rebirth or no rebirth, living without suffering and the constant fear of death can only really be achieved with an ascetic lifestyle. Well, atleast if we want to face it honestly and not seek salvation in drugs and alcohol. Schopenhauer for example did not believe in life after death. He did claim that the mind was nothing other than brain activity. Yet for him asceticism was the only real way to deny the will to live. The blind will that causes all this misery.

      If rebirth is true, humanity (other than The Buddha) clearly has no knowledge of it. If we don’t remember our past lives (and we generally don’t), we are not bothered by them. Not taking away the karmic fruitation of past lives that we will attribute to just plain old bad luck. The only life that presents a problem is our current one. What i’m saying is that if rebirth is the truth, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the buddhist path is more valid (than it would be if there was one life). Because again, we can only directly suffer in our current lives. This makes the buddhist path just as important for one or many lifes. This now is the life we are and have.

      Also some people are just natural born buddhists and are not attracted to the cheap tricks life has to offer. My own views regarding rebirth; i admire the blessed one so much that i can say to myself “the buddha could definately have been right about repirth, but i haven’t witnessed it for myself”

      I just don’t know but the path works either way.

      (on a side note: When is king yama going to experience some bad karmic fruitation for the cruel punishment he inflicts on beings of the hell realms?)

      The Buddha was making similar, and even stronger, epistemological arguments 2500 years ago, and everything I have learnt about him suggests that when he claimed to have seen and verified the truth of rebirth for himself, this is something worth taking seriously.

    • Hi Bhante
      “If there were no evidence for rebirth, or solid evidence against it, what would i do? Well, i would probably give up being a Buddhist, disrobe, and try to live a nice life” Are you sure?
      I personally haven’t seen anthing that could be taken as “evidence” for rebirth, but if there is such evidence it hasn’t been around for the last 2500 years or so and still people have been following the teaching of the Buddha without the need for evidence.

    • Geoff and Peter,

      As Bhante says “If there were no evidence for rebirth, or solid evidence against it, what would i do? Well, i would probably give up being a Buddhist, disrobe, and try to live a nice life”

      If I didn’t believe in rebirth I would not follow Buddhism either; I found solid proof of rebirth in such people as the Dalai Lama; the way they verify is rebirth is fairly thorough (I think there is a movie on it) and it seems like the only logical and intelligent explanation of why we are born into certain lives.

      Why waste the only life you supposedly have worrying about rebirth if you are convinced you don’t believe in it? Why not do something positive instead … like looking after sick animals or volunteering with a charity or something?

      If after years of following Buddhism rebirth doesn’t work for you then why should you try to believe in it; most people in the West don’t anyway…so just “live a nice life” ie, don’t lie, steal, kill etc and “be happy.”

      Personally I know very few people who believe in rebirth!

  15. Bhante

    Thanks again for your reply.

    You say “this is not about me and why I do what I do. It is about what the nature of our life is, and how we should respond to it. “

    But Bhante we don’t just learn about life in a vacuum. Don’t we learn from others? I am interested in your views because I have a general interest in Buddhism and you have been studying it full time for about twenty years. So it is about you in that sense. I’m interested at how you have formulated your views, going from a self-confessed atheist to a devout Buddhist and whether I should follow a similar path.

    ******

    When you say there is plenty of evidence for rebirth – I take it you would be including Ian Stevenson’s research?

    To quote you:

    1. sujato / Jul 18 2011 5:10 pm

    Hi Geoff,
    Stevenson’s work has ‘too many holes’ – ha! With all due respect, the seriousness, methodology, and almost obsessive care with which Stevenson has painstakingly assembled his evidence and addressed his critics over decades leaves Batchelor’s historical work in the shade.

    I thought you might be interested in Ted Meissner’s views (aka The Secular Buddhist) on Ian Stevenson for an alternative take, when I asked his views back in August this year :

    “Ian Stevenson’s book! As I’ve said elsewhere, these are cases even he acknowledged in his introduction were not evidence. They are stories. They are interesting, inspiring, cool as all get out. So are a lot of stories that may not be factually accurate, like Muhammad’s winged horse, loaves to fishes, or swallowing the ocean. Even Stevenson himself titled the book with the words “Suggestive of Reincarnation” — he did not say “Proving Reincarnation”. He was also a long time believer who did not have any kind of controls on his “studies”, some of which were done as interviews years after such events were reported to have happened. The fact is, and yes there is documented evidence, that memory is fallible and changes over time. What one says years after an event may not be an accurate retelling — how big was that fish Uncle Joe caught years ago? Like that!

    Here’s an alternate and natural explanation: first, quite unintentional cold reading. Children making statements that adults put meaning into that may not be reflective of fact. The child says something interesting, the adult reads into it (as we see people do when John Edwards “speaks” to the dead). They may not even be aware this is what’s happening, as is the case with Facilitated Communication. Another aspect to this is the creation of false memories, as recounted in many scientifically controlled studies, that require a mere suggestion of the possibility, and a little bit of encouragement. How much more effective the creation of such memories under the conditions of meditative states!

    Again, we’re not saying these are not convincing thoughts that arise, or that they are intentionally false. They *are* very realistic, they are totally without artifice, having had such thoughts arise in a quite convincing fashion in my own meditation. That doesn’t make them real, and this is a perfectly natural explanation for past life “memories.” I have an upcoming interview with Elizabeth Loftus on this very topic.

    Also bear in mind that it is not very realistic to expect the brain to be a tape recorder. It isn’t. People who can’t remember their own childhood — or do, but incorrectly — are somehow remembering previous lives with much greater clarity? Using what as a storage medium after death? What is the evidence for the mechanism of that storage? In the natural world a damaged brain does not function normally, a truly dead one (not one that has an old wive’s tale about having been clinically dead for hours, but the person miraculously came back) does not function at all.”

    So I am interested when you say: “everything I have learnt about (the Buddha) suggests that when he claimed to have seen and verified the truth of rebirth for himself, this is something worth taking seriously.”

    But that doesn’t necessarily make it true of course.

    Cheers

    Geoff

  16. PS Bhante, do you think Ted Meissner makes any valid points re Ian Stevenson above?

    Also further queries if I may….

    You say above there is “plenty of evidence for rebirth” – would you also say there is “plenty of evidence for the karmic effects on rebirth”, given that this is also a central part of the Buddha’s teaching? If so can you please provide examples?

    Also, to quote you: “everything I have learnt about him (the Buddha) suggests that when he claimed to have seen and verified the truth of rebirth for himself, this is something worth taking seriously.”

    When you say: “this is something worth taking seriously”, is this another way of saying “I have faith that what the Buddha says is true”?

    Much appreciated

    Geoff

  17. Bhante

    To quote you above:

    “Sure, the brain influences the mind. Damage the brain, and the mind is (at least most of the time) damaged.”

    Then in reply to Peter you say:

    “If mind is not brain – which personally I think is obvious, but that’s just me – then when is a person dead?”

    My question: why is this obvious (a no brainer)?

    Cheers

    Geoff

  18. mcd

    I am interested in your comments.

    You say: “Why waste the only life you supposedly have worrying about rebirth if you are convinced you don’t believe in it? Why not do something positive instead … like looking after sick animals or volunteering with a charity or something?”

    mcd, I think you might misunderstand my questions to Bhante. I remain open minded in my views on rebirth and I would like to hear how Bhante arrives at his views. Bhante claims he has arrived at his views not by faith but because there is “plenty of evidence”. I am just enquiring what that evidence is when I have heard strong counter arguments.

    I may end up believing in rebirth, I don’t know.

    Incidentally, as far as doing something positive, I am about to go off to donate some blood, as I do on a regular basis. I also work for a non- profit welfare organisation, helping the disadvantaged find sustainable employment.

    Cheers

    Geoff

    • Geoff,

      What about the Dalai Lama don’t you think he is proof of rebirth, he had to undergo various tests to prove he was the reincarnation of the last Dalai Lama. ( was that shown in that film Seven Years in Tibet..can’t remember).

      Although I don’t get too much into Tibetan Buddhism anymore they seem to use rebirth as the very basis of how they live their lives…it is like a natural law to them, they can even apparently decide where and who they want to be reborn as or something.

      mcd

    • I don’t think His Holiness believes in rebirth himself on the basis of the stories about him choosing the implements of his predecessor as a four-year-old. He says he has no memory of his past lives. I think he believes in rebirth because it is part of a coherent world view. In this case of rebirth, too, if there is doubt, there is virtually no downside to behaving as if it were true and considerable downside to assuming the reverse.

    • Hi DK,

      I think the Dalai Lama can be very humble.

      Possibly this is true, but I find it hard to believe if the Dalai Lama if he is as Holy as he is suppose to be, and reincarnated numerous times, that he would have no memory of this at all. Lots of people less holy than the Dalai Lama have memories of past lives.

      I am sure he would have said that but do you think it may have been because in the Vinaya or when taking vows doesn’t it say that ordained people are not allowed to talk about their past lives?

      I am not sure of that have you heard of that rule?

    • …anyway from what I can understand of Ajahn Sujato’s piece on time if it doesn’t really exist as we think it does; then maybe rebirth doesn’t exist in such a big way… I mean like even if we are reborn we just join up with where we left off anyway sort of and start all over again anyway, but in another body?

      ..like one big groundhog day @_@

    • Ajahn Sujato and Geoff,

      I would also be interested in hearing what was the aspect of the Buddha’s teachings that convinced AS of rebirth.

      Like in a couple of sentences (as I am sure he has stated it numerous times on this blog but I am too short of time an dlazy to go and reread everything) what exactly it was that convinced him rebirth exists?

      ie was it anything apart from the monastic teachings and training just making sense for him or was it a pivotal moment or experience that really resonated with him, you know what exactly was it?

      For me it was just after reading the teachings that no other philosophy seemed to completely explain everything so concisely, why there are animals, why some people are born the way they are, why people born in different familys can look so different but be so alike or vicsa versa, why some people that seem so bad have such good lives and some peole who are so good have such bad lives or bad luck.

      But I agree I would like to hear what it was that really convinced Ajahn Sujato that rebirth is true.

      Regard

      mcd

  19. Mcd

    You say: “but I agree I would like to hear what it was that really convinced Ajahn Sujato that rebirth is true”

    It would interesting to hear from Bhante again but I thought you might be interested in a quote from him taken from this blog 17/3/10 addressed to me:

    .”…And so, even though it meant changing my own long-held beliefs, I came to accept the teachings on rebirth.

    I can still remember very vividly when this happened. It was Christmas morning, 1992, outside a Church in a leper colony south of Chieng Mai. Suddenly, for no reason I can explain, these beliefs that had seemed so strange to me just came home. I felt a sense of ‘largeness’, of a place within an unfathomably vast whole. Since then, it has always seemed the most reasonable way of understanding our place in the scheme of things.”

    I didn’t ask him at the time but I would like to know why this should necessarily be a Buddhist experience? The way Bhante describes this sounds as if it could be any religious experience eg Christian, Hindu or even a non-religious experience

    Cheers

    Geoff

  20. Hi Geoff,

    True, it is not clear exactly how it relates to rebirth but possibly seeing lepers and trying to work out how people end up with these conditions was why as maybe past life karma was the only answer.

    I know having worked with people with serious issues (apart from myself ha ha) the only logical explanation can be that it is caused by a past life mistakes because often in this life the same people with unfortunate rebirths can be kinder, nicer than even a Buddhist.

    It does seem hypocritical though that the same people who deny all evidence of rebirth and see it as non scientific accept that bad luck is why we are all born differently, where is the scientific evidence to support bad luck?

    Where is the scientific evidence that proves rebirth does not exist, I haven’t seen any.

    I mean how many people have you seen with great lives, born rich, in good families etc plummet down to the depths of despair, poverty even jail etc.

    I think what is important is what you make of this life then hopefully there will be no rebirth.

  21. Bhante

    re your earlier remark:

    “And, as a book like Irreducible Mind persuasively argues, mainstream science has hitherto ignored much of the relevant evidence, so its inferences are not valid. Anyway, if you’re interested, get a copy and have a read!”

    I intended to take up your suggestion on purchasing Irreducible Mind but at 832 pages and a cost of $99.95 I was hesitant. I became a little more hesitant when I read the following review from which I have lifted some excerpts (Sebastian Dieguez The Soul of the Gaps – review of Irreducible Mind – the Skeptic 15,1, 2009):

    I’d be interested in your response to this review..….

    “People trying to study the biological basis of consciousness are currently involved in many debates that range from the methodological to the metaphysical, and one can find a lot of books out there on these issues. Do we know how consciousness emerges out of a group of connected neurons? Do we have a firm grasp on how and why it evolved? Is there even an agreement as to what consciousness is? No, there are many things we don’t know yet, and this is the reason why cognitive neuroscience and its related fields are so interesting. But in Irreducible Mind (IM) you won’t find any sense of this awe. (The authors) Kelly, et at. simply assume that researchers are on the wrong tracks and should adopt a radically new approach.”

    “The reader is warned from the onset that the reality of paranormal phenomena (psi) is taken for granted in IM. For those not convinced, Kelly, et al. direct you to the references listed in the appendix, where all the evidence can be found. This, of course, is really begging the question, since psi clearly is not an established phenomenon, and the convenient phrase “see the Appendix” that recurs incessantly throughout the book really translates as “we realize that what we just wrote sounds crazy, but there are some books that say it’s true, and we chose to believe them.”

    “Here’s a typical passage from this book: “Most challenging of all to mainstream views is the substantial body of evidence that has accumulated suggesting that autobiographical, semantic, and procedural (skill) memories sometimes survive bodily death. If this is the case, memory in living persons presumably exists at least in part outside the brain and body as conventionally understood” (35). And this suggests “the need for a radical reconceptualization of human memory” (ibid). This impatient plea for an immediate and gigantic paradigm shift is in fact the leitmotiv of IM. Apparently, one astounding piece of evidence for such an epistemological earthquake comes from Near Death Experience (NDE) research. Here is the argument: “The central challenge of NDEs lies in asking how these complex states of consciousness, including vivid mentations, sensory perceptions, and memory, can occur under conditions in which current neurophysiological models of the production of mind by brain deem such states impossible” (421). Note here that NDEs are not said to occur during a flat EEG, but merely under general brain states that are somehow deemed unable to underlie mental states or at least to allow their recall. It strikes me as an interesting use of logic to say that since a disordered brain cannot generate experiences of tunnels and lights, then no brain activity at all must be responsible.”

    “There is a very remarkable difference between the treatment of “mainstream” cognitive science and that of the “rogue” phenomena (eg reincarnation, distant healing, mystical experiences, near death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions etc). There would be nothing left in this book if Kelly et al. would apply equal standards of scrutiny to both. They simply rant relentlessly about the limits of the former, while swallowing indiscriminately all of the later.”

    “The book is painstakingly redundant, astoundingly arrogant in its claims and intents, utterly humorless,contains no figures, boxes or tables whatsoever, and what’s more, is unaffordable to its targeted audience.”

    “It is written by a group of researchers mostly associated by their belief in the paranormal and their involvement in a New-Age Californian think-tank called the Esalen Center for Theory and Research.”

    *****

    Bhante, this is an interesting contrast to you saying (in your reply to Peter 20/12) : “If mind is not brain – which personally I think is obvious, but that’s just me – then when is a person dead?”

    Again, I’m baffled why you find this ‘obvious’? Do you mean ‘obvious’ in the same way we might if we
    say: “It is obvious that if you drink a bottle of whiskey you will be intoxicated”?

    Cheers

    Geoff

  22. Thought I can chip in with my “views” no the topic. Bhante can correct me if i am misquoting anything. I cant see any place where Buddha taught that consciousness was a permanent or enduring entity. Even transmigration of consciousness is condenmed by him in the MahaTanha Sankhaya sutta. anatarabhava(intermediate existence) is strongly denounced in Theravada and having read Bhikkhu Bodhis opinion on it online, I dont find satisfactory evidence for the case from the passages quoted. The only place which could cause a doubt would be where Buddha talks about how conception takes place. Leaving out Suttas like the Assalayana sutta which are debates with Brahmins and hence to be read in that context, Maha Nidana Sutta is the unambigious statment of this phenomenon.
    Quote:

  23. Sorry, got posted before I could complete.
    Quote from Mahanidana:
    “Were cognition not to ‘descend’ into the mothers womb, would name-and-form become constituted therein?”

    Here is the brilliant note to that passage by TW Rhys Davids in his “Dialogues of the Buddha”:

    ” The animistic implication adhereing to this term (okkanissatha) would of course have no significance for buddhist doctrine. Accordingly, it is, in the commentary, paraphased as follows – ‘having entered, so to speak,…’. The contradictory term, Vokkanissatha,’become extinct’, rendered by Warren ‘go away again’ is paraphrased nirujjhissatha, and only signifies that the advent is in some way annualled. There is no conception of cognition, as a unity, descending from outside into the womb like a ball into a bag. At Samyutta V 283, we are told of happiness descending on a man and at Mil 299 of drowsiness descending into or onto a man. So Okkantikaa piiti is a standing expression for a particular sort of joy. In each of these cases the bliss, or drowsiness, or joy is supposed to develop from within; and so also here of cognition”

    I am inclined to agree with this observation and dont feel there is a need to accept travel or migration of consciousness of any sort. This would make the book and arguments based on it needless…

    • Indeed- how could we say there is “no soul” if we say there is something that leaves the body and enters / proliferates into another one… of course shcolarly/theological detail would refine the concepts to a level where we say the two are different, but essentially, that is what an average Abrahamic believer believes- that something leaves the body and goes somewhere else, (usually to Heaven or Hell or stuck in between) and Buddhists say – no, no soul, yet also acknowledges these realms and the possibility of sentient existence migrating from this one to them or getting stuck in between and adds the possibility that it can happen within human realm which Abrahamic faiths abandoned for the most part.

      The average practitioner (Buddhist or Abrahamic) usually does not get down deep into the details and good teachings of Western Buddhism occasionally disagree with one another, making it more of a challenge to get it right as a student.

      Although psychologically, fundamentally – it’s really important – I remember to put it down – aside – and just focus on cause and effect. What I think speak act carries on, pays forward, contributes to the collective impact of peace or a healthy planet earth – affecting my little garden plot, and the big one, for at least a generation to come (if we look at current rate of consumpton and pollution – many generations and beyond)…………………….and therefore I must always do my best.

      Lisa

  24. I might as well add that, knowing what we know of the brain and how memory is stored in the brain, I find it extremely difficult to accept that Buddha could recollect his past existences. I cannot believe consciousness can carry memory and Buddha doesnt seem to have mentioned so specifically. I am speculating that the only way Buddha could have known of past lives directly was literally seeing the past since it also exists…Sarvastivada I guess..How exactly I am not sure. Buddha atleast included Buddha cinta under acintita or imponderables!

  25. I read this yesterday:

    “if you weighted a dying person, watched as life left, and then weighted the body that just housed life, it would weigh the same.

    What can’t be weighed is what constituted the life, the humanity, the very essence. After life passed out of a body, that body is revealed as only the package that housed the person”. (Wayne Dyer PhD, in For the Love of God, p.29)

    Can’t you just imagine a bunch of scientists weighing a body and deciding ..well it weighted the same before and after so that is it! nothing has happened there is nothign more!. ha ha…anyway..

    Ravi

    I read in the introduction of Bhikku Bodhi’s “A translation of the Majjhima Nikaya”, page 30 the following:

    …because of ignorance..defined as non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths – a person engages in volitional actions or kamma, which may be bodily, verbal, or mental, wholesome or unwholesome. These kammic actions are the formations (sankhara), and they ripen in states of consciousness (vinnana) first as the rebirth-consciousness at the moment of conception and therafter as the passive states of consciusness resulting from kamma that matures in the the course of a lifetime. Along with consciousness there arises mentality-materiality (namarupa), the psycho-physical organism, which is equipped with the sixfold base (salayatana), the five physical sense faculties and a mind as the faculty of the higher congnitive functions…..the links from consciousness through feeling are the products of past kamma..with the next link the kammically active phase of the present life begins”..etc

    I am not sure I totally understand it but it seems to suggest rebirth happens due to consciousness going into the womb and from there on it grows from a persons past kamma – like possibly the conscousness sort of activates the kamma of the next life or something ??

  26. No sorry I think that is the other way around as Sujato says “kamma is part of a”mindstream”; in fact, kamma is precisely the energy that drives consciousness”.

  27. To quote Bhante S on 8Dec11:

    “…But a great start is the book ‘Irreducible Mind‘. I started reading it at Bodhinyana a few months ago, and we were just donated a copy for Santi a couple of days ago. (Thanks, Alex!) It is a truly awesome work, and I think it deserves to be read by anyone seriously questioning the materialistic paradigm.”

    For an interesting and more nuanced alternative take on the “consciousness creates the world” vs “materialistic paradigm” debate:

    Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic By Tom Pepper

    http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/

    cheers

    Geoff

  28. Bhante,

    I’d be very interested in your views on the quote from the preamble to the review of B. Allan Wallace (I mentioned earlier):

    “… all forms of (Buddhism) confuse knowledge of the world with discourses on knowledge of the world (and there is a) reluctance to engage thought in the service not of (Buddhist) tradition’s validation, but of knowledge itself.”

    Cheers

    Geoff

    • Geoff,

      Do you think that in “engaging thought in the service not of (Buddhist) tradition’s validation, but of knowledge itself” could lead to a plagerised form of Buddhism therefore a disintergration of Buddhism as a whole.

      True I believe validating Buddhism while necessary should not mean Buddhism is not useful but then knowledge is not useful without experience or without possibly “confusing it in the world”. Possibly Wallace needs to also take his theory one step further, although I am sure he does but maybe that is just not clear from this one paragraph.

      I would think keeping the Buddha’s teaching as authentic as possible and validating them as such is as important as using them as knowledge that can be of the service of sentient beings.

      I would like to here Bhante’s view as well.

    • ..which by the way Geoff is what I get alot from Bhante Sujato’s teachings is, if I am correct in my understanding, is that the Buddha’s teaching may be endanger of being too watered down and lost- not that it is wrong if it is to communicate them in a way that people understand them but it may be harmful if the whole teachings and/or authentic teachings aren’t lost, kept authenitc and continually validated.

  29. Thanks Bhante – I read through your paper again as you suggested. Just a few points that come to mind…

    >“It is just as plausible, given that both Freud and the Buddha spoke of a death-wish, to argue that the secularists reject rebirth because of an unconscious longing for annihilation.”

    That’s the standard Buddhist view and might apply to Kurt Cobain et al but I prefer Woody Allen’s take: ‘I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

    > “The test of whether a belief is neurotic or not is whether it is beneficial. Clearly many people find belief in an afterlife to be beneficial, so it is unreasonable to dismiss it as a mere delusion.”
    Just because it may serve some beneficial cause doesn’t make it true. What about the well documented “placebo effect”?

    >“The evidence for rebirth, among psychologists, biologists, and others, is strong and growing stronger. In the next generation, I suspect we will see a major shift in perspective. The annihilationists will gradually fade away as the reality of rebirth becomes harder to deny.”

    Where is all this evidence? Talk about a leap in faith!

    >“We need to stop using science merely as a tool to validate Buddhist when it is convenient, and start meaningfully considering what the intersection of Buddhism and science implies. For example, in the findings of Ian Stevenson, there does not appear to be any support for the widely-accepted Buddhist notion that your mind state at the time of death will determine your rebirth. Does this mean we must reassess our notions of rebirth? Or is it merely the incomplete state of the evidence?”

    You already know the answer to this before the evidence has been completed!

    Cheers

    Geoff

  30. Geoff: “That’s the standard Buddhist view and might apply to Kurt Cobain et al but I prefer Woody Allen’s take: ‘I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

    Is there ever sombody?

    Geoff: “Just because it may serve some beneficial cause doesn’t make it true. What about the well documented “placebo effect”?

    It might be well documented but there is no complete picture.

    “Where is all this evidence? Talk about a leap in faith!”

    Not faith but probability, a man that knew so much about the inner workings of the mind and the thorns of existence is likely to know something more. I am talking here about the Buddha. When practiced his teachings work. It is a matter of trust and based on the practice that trust has a strong beacon.

    ”You already know the answer to this before the evidence has been completed!”

    see previous answer.

    with metta,

    gotamist

  31. (Ajahn Sujato correct me if I am wrong but) Ajhan Brahm says that science “doesn’t know” all the answers .

    Scientists can’t prove rebirth exists ….but isn’t the point more that it can’t prove it doesn’t exist?

    Isn’t this more important because they can prove that the big bang theory, god, etc don’t exist etc, but they can’t find answers and don’t know beyond that – then if Buddhism is the only reasonalble answer left after science has investigation all other phenomena and they can’t disprove it, then maybe scientist have no choice but to accept it as the answer.

    “Once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains no matter how improbable must be the truth”
    Sherlock Holms.

    • Hi mcd,

      Well, I think it’s a truism that science doesn’t know all the answers – no scientist would dispute that. Nor are all the ‘answers’ contained in Buddhism.

      The real question is one of epistemology: is scientific method sufficiently successful that we can expect it to answer the so-far unanswered questions? And to that I would say ‘not by itself’, and that in Buddhism (and other contemplative traditions) there are things that can help.

  32. Surely its not Buddha’s teachings that lead to enlightenment…but the state of our deluded mind being recognised and purified. The teachings are just suggestions as to a method that might help in this persuit.

  33. About 30 years after I wrote 2 large papers on personality development, I have realized that they are completely consistent with Buddhism. Indeed, they may well be a contribution to Buddhism, yet they are pure science. Let me know if you are interested and I will send you citations — the papers are online (as are some editorial corrections and a summary).

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