On the passing of Bhante Santitthito

Bhante Santitthito at Santi Monastery

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santitthito

Buddhist Life Stories of Australia

There’s an exciting new project to document the lives of Buddhists in Australia. They’re looking for community support, and have produced a short video.

And here’s some background info.

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are very excited to inform you about the successful launch of the Pozible-Deakin Research My World crowdfunding campaign, Buddhist Life Stories of Australia.

You can view the wonderful campaign video here, which features many of Australia’s prominent Buddhist leaders: http://www.pozible.com/buddhistlifestoriesaustralia.

You can also make contributions to support the project directly on this website. All contributions are tax-deductible and we highly appreciate all pledges large or small. Our goal is to raise $10,000 in 45 days and we are off to a great start already!

We are extremely grateful to all who have offered advice and feedback in the development of this project. We are especially grateful to Venerable Ajahn Brahm, Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan, Venerable Chi Kwang, Venerable Robina Courtin, Venerable Bhante Sujato, Kim Hollow, and Laura Chan, who have all kindly contributed to the video. As you can see in the video, the research team only worked with a basic, minimal script — it is the generous support of Buddhist leaders that have made it such a touching and moving video. And this is what excites us the most about this project: that it is a collaborative process between the research team and the broader Buddhist community.

We envision this present project as the modest first step of a larger, long-term program that will allow us to document more life stories, not only of ordained members of the Sangha but also the lay community. Buddhism in Australia is diverse, vibrant, and multicultural – all sorts of flowers of different shapes and colours. We are so blessed and grateful to be part of this with you.

Please help us spread the word about this campaign among the Buddhist councils and your other networks. And please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any queries or if you wish to explore ways to actively publicise the campaign at your location. We would be most grateful for your assistance.

You can also stay updated about the campaign via Facebook and Twitter

https://www.facebook.com/buddhistlifestoriesaustralia

https://twitter.com/edw_ng

https://twitter.com/AnnaHalafoff

Or use the hashtags #BuddhismOz

Many thanks again for your interest in and support of the Buddhist Life Stories of Australia project.

Very best,
Edwin, Anna and Praveena

Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation and the
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Education
Deakin University
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood VIC 3125
Australia

Mitra Conference 2014

We just finished the Mitra Conference for 2014. Thanks so much to everyone who put it together!

The two days were uplifting and inspiring, and I got the chance to catch up with lots of old friends, and some new ones.

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney Metta Retreat, 8–15 November, 2013

Dear friends,

I’m teaching a metta retreat in Sydney in November. I’ve posted this before, but here’s a reminder. I’d love to see you there! Here’s the details:

Mettā is the unconditional loving-kindness that reaches out to encompass all beings. In mettā meditation, we learn to be free from the shackles of selfishness that constrict our emotional capacity. The practical, step-by-step approach expored in this retreat, goes beyond mere words into a direct experience of boundless, universal love.

Location

Vijayaloka Retreat Centre, Minto Heights.

The Retreat Centre is conveniently located about one hour from the heart of Sydney. It is easily accessible by public transport and provides simple, shared accommodation for approximately 40 people in a beautiful bush setting on the George’s River. Camping facilities available.

For venue details see: http://www.sydneybuddhistcentre.org.au/vijayaloka/

Cost

$295 per sperson.

The teaching is provided without charge and is by donation. The cost covers accommodation, all meals and other logistics. Healthy, home-made vegetarian meals will be provided.

To make a booking or for more information email Deepika at dpkweerakoon@yahoo.com.au or call 040 327 3152.

Download the Metta Retreat Flyer pdf, November 8–15 2013

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selected translations are available on SuttaCentral

So, the time has come. Or at least, a time.

We have just uploaded a wide range of English sutta translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi to SuttaCentral. Not all of them, yet, but all that we are legally permitted to use. They include a substantial selection from each of the three Nikayas that he has translated: the Middle length Discourses, the Connected Discourses, and the Numerical Discourses.

You can read about crossing the flood, or the kinds of persons who have expectations, or how the Buddha got scared in his meditation!

The whole range of translations can be accessed through the relevant nikaya pages here, here, and here, with BB’s translations the first listed in the right hand column.

We give great thanks to Bhikkhu Bodhi, for having created these extraordinary translations, which are the gold standard for accuracy and readability. He has been quietly championing SuttaCentral for some time, and has a great wish to see the Suttas become more widely available. We also thank Wisdom Publications, for working on these texts with Ven Bodhi for so many years, and for kindly releasing these selections under a Creative Commons licence.

If you like the translations, buy the books! (And it wouldn’t hurt to let Wisdom know that you found these teachings via SuttaCentral…)

Do not go to war

The Syrian government has, to all appearances, launched a major gas attack on its own people. It seems the death toll is around 300, with 1000 more suffering severe symptoms of poison gas. This is a monstrosity, and any government that commits such an act has no right to rule.

This act crossed the “red line” that the US has drawn in the sand about intervention in Syria. The attack is inevitable, and only days away. Australia will support the US, as always.

I’m here to say no. Someone has to.

I think it’s likely that the weapons were in fact used by the Syrian government. Maybe we’re just being lied to, like we were with Iraq. But then, the US really wanted to go to war and needed to invent an excuse. Now I don’t think anyone actually wants war. So let’s assume that we’re being told the truth (for once).

The US and allies will decide on a course of action in a few days. This will, in all probability, involve a limited strike with cruise missiles and the like. It’s unlikely that troops will be landed.

So why not go to war?

  • Killing is wrong.
  • Syria has not attacked the US or anyone else, so this action is not self-defense.
  • It will accomplish nothing except killing and destruction. The Syrian government has withstood a long, vicious civil war, and will not be seriously impacted by a few bombs. In fact, fear of an external enemy may have the effect of uniting Syrians.
  • It will breed a new generation of terrorists and haters of the west.
  • The guilty will not suffer. Anonymous workers at the sites attacked will suffer and die.
  • While chemical weapons are abhorrent, they are no more abhorrent than anything else that kills and maims. Over a million people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guns and bombs are the real weapons of mass destruction.
  • There is no strategic outcome. The US is not looking effect regime change, as there is no regime candidate that is remotely acceptable.
  • No-one knows who ordered the gas attack. In the chaos of Syria, it could be a rogue officer or an official policy. The US and allies want to punish without knowing who is guilty.
  • Any attack, even a limited one, will cost billions of dollars, and will send the message, once again, that the world’s most “advanced” nations endorse violence.

So what to do? Just sit there and do nothing? Actually, in some cases that is all we can do. No-one, no country, no army, is omnipotent. A wise person chooses where their action can be used most effectively. Of course, we should condemn the use of chemical weapons. And we should see if anything can be done that is peaceful, that will not result in anyone getting killed, and that has an likelihood of accomplishing something worthwhile. If not, then we simply have to admit that there are limits to our power, and that we are not responsible for things we have no control over. Ultimately, the Syrians will be masters of their own fate.

Less blame, more responsibility

We’ve all heard some pretty terrible things from the mouths of so-called religious teachers, but this is a new low. Sheikh Sharif Hussein, an Islamic preacher and imam, used his platform during Friday prayers at the then Allenby Gardens headquarters on March 22 to call for the death of all Buddhists and Hindus, as well as issuing vile, hate-filled diatribes against the Jews, Australian soldiers, and others. The speech was published in an edited form by the US thinktank, MEMRI TV. Please watch this if you haven’t already. Among other despicable rantings, Hussein said this:

Oh Allah, count the Buddhists and the Hindus one by one. Oh Allah, count them and kill them to the very last one.

He has issued a call for the death of all Buddhists and Hindus. Hate speech does not get any worse than this. It is time for the Islamic community in Australia to stop apologizing for such people, blaming media bias and the West, and start accepting responsibility for the actions of their community.

The Adelaide press has reported the matter, and there have been responses from several community representatives, including the Federation of Australian Buddhist Council through its president, Kim Hollows.

The man is deranged. No surprise there; there are always crazy people in our world. What makes him more than just a loon waving a placard is that he has people backing him, and people listening to him. He has a platform, and that platform is supported by an institutional and community basis. This is why the most disturbing aspect of the event is not that such speech exists—which is disturbing enough—but that it is defended and apologized for by institutions in the Islamic community. The center where he gave the talk, the Islamic Da’wah Centre of South Australia (IDCSA) has, unbelievably, issued an actual defense of the speech. The Islamic society of South Australia has not gone so far, but has avoided making any real condemnation.

Imagine if I were to give a speech in the Dhammaloka Buddhist Center, calling for “Death to all Muslims and Christians!” What would happen? Well, firstly, the audience would not believe their ears. That a spiritual leader could say such a thing is so outside their sphere of comprehension, it would take a few moments to sink in. But when it did sink in, there would be an uproar. People would get up, leave, call out in protest. Quickly, the PA would be shut down and I would be firmly asked to leave the premises, and if I didn’t the police would be called. I would be immediately banned from the place, expelled from membership, and the BSWA would issue a statement condemning my statement and totally dissociating themselves from me and my views.

Well, that is what Hussein did, and none of this happened. The audience sat there, apparently quiet and acquiescent during the talk. No-one called out or protested. He was not cut off, but allowed to continue. The talk was recorded by the IDCSA and published by them on their Youtube channel. (The IDCSA still has a video of Hussein giving a talk at their center. Apparently lacking any irony, the talk is on “forgiveness”. Unfortunately the video is private so we can’t see what Hussein thinks about that highly relevant topic.) Again, presumably without any special comment or discussion in their community, this has been current since March. Their community has done nothing about this, but continues to receive “teachings” from this man. Only when MEMRI.TV published the edited clip did anyone say anything.

Now the IDCSA has issued a response. What exactly do they say? Here’s some points:

IDCSA do not necessarily hold the same views/positions of the video

Not necessarily hold the same views?! So they might possibly hold the same views, but maybe not. Well that clears that up then. It’s good to know that the people running this pillar of society do not necessarily wish death on a couple billion innocent people. As inadequate as these weasel words are, they are only the start. They go on to say:

we believe that the Sheikh’s words were clearly taken out of context and put together in a suggestive manner

Let me state this as plainly as I can: there is no context that can justify a call for the murder of billions of innocent people. To even suggest that this statement could be contextualized is nonsense. The man called for genocide. The only moral response is to condemn it.

But it gets worse. What is the context they allege is lacking?

The sheikh presented in his speech some of the war crimes directed against Muslims around the world, something that was completely ignored in the video. While addressing the mass rape cases in Iraq, the Sheikh was emotional and used strong words in addressing those who committed these crimes.

If you have seen the video, you know that this is simply false. The video, while obviously edited from a longer talk (who wants to listen to more of this stuff?), clearly presents Hussein’s allegations about mass rape and the like. The alleged missing context is right there in the video. This means that the IDCSA has either not watched the video (unlikely), or they are lying. Since they are defending a call to genocide, lying seems a good bet. Do they imagine we are all so stupid?

And the statement goes on:

some media organisations are trying to present this video as hate speech while ignoring the fact that denouncing a criminal act is a social right which falls under the general category of ‘freedom of speech’.

Yes, I know, the irony of fundamentalists relying on the free speech argument. Once again, it seems there is a need to spell out something very simple: denouncing what you think is wrong is not hate speech. Calling for the death of billions of innocents is hate speech.

This is obvious, but underlying it is something deeper. There is, concealed in this statement, a basic misunderstanding of what free speech means in a liberal society. Truly free speech is courageous and open. It does not hide behind closed doors, and resort to blame and hypocrisy when it is criticized.

Free speech happens in connection, in a multitude of voices contending, dissenting, arguing. So it only has meaning if there is someone listening. It is not free speech if you just rant and never listen to other points of view. Really listen, with compassion and understanding.

Free speech always tends towards reason and moderation, which is why fundamentalists cannot meaningfully take part in any broader dialogue in society. They can only imagine themselves as the outsiders, as the oppressed. If they actually listened to a voice of reason, they might learn something. Perhaps they might be able to contribute. Perhaps they might be able to join with the very many Australians who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and who turned out in their hundreds of thousands to peacefully protest the war.

And the statement from the IDCSA continues with more lies:

no part of that clip contain any call towards violence and/or friction between the non-Muslims and Muslims or multicultural communities in Australia. The lectures were delivered in relation to the Burmese Buddhist massacre of the Rohingya minority Muslims

No doubt the massacre of Rohingyas in Burma was one of the reasons the Buddhists got called in here. But the video is quite clearly calling for death to all Buddhists.

I remember a little story from when I was in grade 7 at Aquinas College in Perth. Our teacher, Brother McMahon, taught us all a particular way of ruling a page. He asked that we rule all out pages like that in future. The next day he was checking our homework, and saw that one of the students, James Toop, had not complied. He grabbed Toop, pulled him up to the front of class, and started whacking him with his strap. Toop started crying, and tried to talk, but couldn’t get a word in. When it was finished, he explained that he had been absent because sick the day before. Even while sick, he had called a friend to get the homework, and had done it all, but he didn’t know about the page ruling thing.

Terrible, right? So, we all thought Brother McMahon was a dickhead. But we knew well enough that this didn’t mean that all other teachers were dickheads. In primary school, we had learnt the basic moral lesson that if someone does something wrong, they are to blame for that, not everyone who is similar to them in some way.

But when hate burns like a wildfire, when reason exits and dogma reigns unchallenged, such elementary moral distinctions evaporate. Hussein and the IDCSA exhibit a moral consciousness that is more primitive than that of a primary school child. Thus the fact that some people who are Buddhists in Burma have done some dreadful things provokes a call for the death of all Buddhists (and Hindus and Jews and whoever else).

Finally, the inevitable blaming of media bias:

we would like to bring into question the reliability, independence and veracity of a media organisation like MEMRI TV, which has served as a mouthpiece for islamophobes

The IDCSA conveniently supply some links to back their claims up. I followed the links, and here is what they say.

The first link is to a page of the American radical political scholar Norman Finkelstein. The article says that MEMRI doctored a video interview to give the impression Finkelstein was a holocaust denier. A transcript is given, which shows which parts of the interview were kept and which were deleted. Check for yourself, but I can’t find anything in the deleted portions that would somehow construe Finkelstein as a holocaust denier. In fact, in the portion that was not deleted, he clearly says, “my parents passed through the Nazi holocaust. Every member of their families was exterminated during the war and I felt it was important to accurately represent what happened to them during the Nazi holocaust.”

Next there is an intelligent article in the Guardian, which discusses the political bias of MEMRI. The suggestion is essentially that MEMRI does not represent the full spectrum of political discourse in Arab countries, and should not be relied on as a sole source of information for Arab political discourse. There is no allegation that the videos themselves are untrustworthy; in fact at the bottom of the article they say that in the case in point—an allegation that Saddam Hussein cut the ears off deserters—there was independent confirmation.

Then there is a page on Sourcewatch. While repeating the criticism of biased selection, and various other specific criticisms, this also shows that MEMRI’s videos are widely cited.

The next link points to the Wikipedia page for MEMRI’s founder, Yigal Carmon. I am not sure what this aims to prove. Perhaps the fact that he is a Jew who has criticized jihadi extremists is, in the eyes of the IDCSA, sufficient to prove he cannot be trusted.

Next is a page on Counterpunch, where the author says regarding MEMRI: “Thus I specifically retract my allegation that the organization’s translations are questionable, and I apologize for my error.” He repeats the accusation of selective quoting. However, it seems even their critics acknowledge that the translations are correct. (The translation of the talk in Adelaide was independently confirmed by the Adelaide Advertiser.)

Thus of all the sources referred to by the IDCSA, none of them substantially show that MEMRI’s output is inaccurate. For an organization that disseminates information on such a controversial topic, some criticism is to be expected, and no doubt some is warranted. To leap from an accusation of selective quoting to try to argue away the incitement to genocide that was, quite clearly, spoken by Hussein in Adelaide, is utterly disingenuous.

So what is to be done? The shameful truth is that the answer to this is, not much. A principled and meaningful response by the Muslim community simply requires a consistent rejection of this kind of speech.

It seems that Hussein was kicked out of his former base, the Marion Mosque, because of his hate speech. Good on them. The IDCSA should follow this example. And if their leaders do not, the members should call a Special General Meeting, and have the sheikh and his supporters kicked out. This is what any Buddhist community in Australia would do. It is not too much to ask. If they do not do so, they should have their charitable status revoked, and to the fullest extent permissible by law, the SA and Federal Governments should shut them down.

And good on the principled Muslims like Director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding Professor Pal Ahluwalia, who clearly and unambiguously slammed Hussein, saying

“The Sheikh has done his Muslim brothers and sisters no favours by preaching hate. Extremism in all of its forms is the natural enemy of truth – so every time this kind of extreme preaching makes headlines it obscures the reality of the strong, ethical, law-abiding, engaged and contributing Muslim Australians who are our neighbours and work colleagues, our class mates and friends. There are extreme groups across all religions and cultures and there are individuals who advocate violence and aggression for their own agendas. What people must remember is that just as Geert Wilders is not representative of all Dutch people or the Army of God does not speak for all Christians, so the extreme rants of one Sheikh do not reflect the views of all Muslims.”

Sadly, though, this voice is isolated. I have tried to find articulate responses from the more progressive of Australia’s Islamic community, and there is nothing here, here, here , here, or here. Perhaps I have missed things; if so, please let me know in the comments.

It is not hard to be honest. We must simply admit that some things done by people who adhere to our religion are bad. Here’s how to do it. There was a Buddhist mob in Burma a few days ago that attacked a police station and went on a rampage, led by three monks. They alleged that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman. Their response was wrong. They should have supported the rule of law. The monks who led the mob should be disrobed, and criminal charges should be laid against them. In addition, the Burmese Sangha needs to give a clear and consistent message of harmony and understanding of difference.

See? Not that hard. I can do it, and so can the voices of the Islamic community. Bloggers, Imams, teachers, leaders, activists, scholars, humans with a voice: where is there someone who has the guts to stop blaming non-Muslims, and start taking responsibility for the acts of Muslims?

Interfaith forum

Last night I attended an interfaith forum hosted at UWA, and put on by the Uniting Church and others. You can see the details on the website, and hopefully there will be some video of the event up soon. Then you can check out what they had to say themselves; meanwhile I’ll give just a couple of comments below.

The purpose of the event was to raise the tone of political dialogue by seeking direct and meaningful responses from politicians on issues regarded as of urgent importance by religious communities.

Each religious representative was asked to give two questions, which the politicians responded to. The questions covered a broad range of issues, including, as one would expect, climate change and asylum seekers, but also questions such as religious vilification, the homeless, and wealth inequality.

The pollies present were Sen Scott Ludlam for The Greens, and Ms Alannah McTiernan, Labor Party candidate for Perth. The Libs were absent.

Unfortunately there was no chance for dialogue, it was a pretty much straight question-answer affair. Still, this did give the chance to hear some reasonably coherent and rational presentations of the issues.

Here are the two questions I asked.

Question 1

In the past year we have seen multiple incidents of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Nearly every country in our region has been involved: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. On 7th July the most sacred site for Buddhists, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India, was struck by 9 home made bombs. As I write, the culprits have not been identified, but it is suspected that this is a reprisal for the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. And on 4 August a bomb was set off at a Buddhist temple in Jakarta, also apparently reacting to the repression of the Rohingyas. What is your party doing to promote harmony between Buddhism and Islam, quell the sources of sectarian conflict, and in particular, to promote Australia’s successful example of multi-faith cooperation?

To this question Sen Ludlum responded by confirming that Australia had a respected role to play in countries such as Burma, particularly due to our large aid contributions. Ms McTiernan, on the other hand, gave what I thought was a rather astonishing non-answer, which ranged from the lack of European culpability in creating the world’s problems (!) to asserting that I should be asking the religious leaders to look after this issue. Which, considering that I was actually invite to ask questions of Australian politicians, was weird.

Thankfully, this non-answer was entirely different from the response I got from Bob Carr when I asked him the same question a month or so ago. He responded by saying that he was going to Rakhine state to raise the profile of the issue, to assert Australia’s support for Rohingya citizenship, and also emphatically re-asserted his support for the ongoing series of Regional Interfaith Dialogues, which have been sponsored over the past several years by DFAT.

At least by asking the question I hope to put the issue on notice, and to affirm that the Australian Buddhist community is not interested in a partisan slution, but in genuine lasting harmony. I do believe that the Australian Government has a role to play in this, and can do more to highlight the success of our multifaith society. Nevertheless, the important work is to be done at the grass roots, by you and me. Don’t let the dialogue of hate gain traction among your family, friends, and colleagues!

Question 2

For the last several years the Australian Buddhist community, with the leadership of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, has strongly expressed its support for legalization of same-sex marriage. Past months have been a watershed for this issue internationally, with major shifts in both public opinion and legislation in the US and many other countries. What are you and your party doing to finally bring an end to the social and legislative discrimination against persons of diverse sexualities and genders?

In this case both pollies expressed their support for same sex marriage. Obviously the Greens have been pushing the issue for years.

As it happens, it was only a couple of days after I submitted the question that Kevin Rudd announced he would allow a conscience vote if he is reelected. The politicians did offer different opinions on this: Sen Ludlum wondered whether that was a purely cynical move, knowing that such a vote would fail. But Ms McTiernen, interestingly, said that she was very confident that a vote on the issue in the next few months would succeed. Time will tell.

Just one final comment. Something that stuck in my mind was a remark by Sen Ludlum about climate change. He was, incidentally, a very impressive speaker, soft spoken, well informed, with an intelligent and reflective perspective on every question. He remarked, almost in passing, that one of the reasons he stood for re-election was that he was terrified by the prospect of a bunch of climate change denialists getting into power. Australia has introduced a number of meaningful reforms, and these are having an effect: our carbon emissions are down this year. If we were to dismantle this architecture, we would be put back a decade in addressing a problem which will determine the survival and nature of human civilization in the coming centuries. We can’t expect to look after our precious, fragile, limited planet, if our policies are determined by people whose ideology is disconnected from such a plain reality.