Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism

In 2002, the Buddhist academic Paul Williams published a book in which he detailed how and why he decided he could not longer be a Buddhist, and instead became Catholic. I was recently forwarded one of his articles by Ven. Thich Quang Ba, a senior monk in Australia, who told us that his articles are being used by the Vietnamese Catholic community to evangelize Buddhists, and asked for someone to write up a response. So, not being one to pass up a challenge, here it is. This article is not responding to Williams’s book, which I haven’t read, but to his article, On converting from Buddhism to Catholicism – One convert’s story. This article is published on the site whyimcatholic.com, a site that exists purely to celebrate people converting to Catholicism.

Let me make some things clear to start with. I think it’s great that Williams has found a spiritual path that he finds satisfying, after years in which, as he now admits, he was never really a Buddhist. And I also think it’s great that he takes the time to develop a critique of Buddhism. There should be more of this. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, and we need thoughtful and experienced people to discuss the similarities and differences between religious and spiritual approaches, just as the Buddha did so often.

But here’s the thing: Williams’ critique is a mass of error. If we were hoping for an intelligent and meaningful critique of Buddhism from a Catholic point of view, this isn’t it.

Why so? The essence of his critique is this. Buddhism is hopeless (because of rebirth), while Christianity offers hope. Therefore Christianity is right, and it is rational to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, and so on.

This doesn’t even approach the form of a rational argument. It is wish fulfilment, nothing more. He wants to live in a world where everything will be okay in the future, and he concludes that this must be the world we live in. And that somehow, the arcane teachings of an institution that harks back to a messianic Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago are a source, apparently the only source, of hope. It is one of the worst theologies I’ve ever heard. It should be an embarrassment to anyone interested to develop a relevant modern Christianity.

If you want to see someone who does modern theology well, check out the readings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. There are plenty of interesting, reflective Christians like Spong; and one of the hallmarks of the genuine Christian traditions that I admire is that they are not content with simplistic rationalizations. There is plenty in the Christian traditions to be ashamed of: the witchhunts, the genocide, the millenia of persecution, the burning of heretics; it goes on and on. Yet in that, without denying or avoiding it, some can discern the struggle of ordinary, and extraordinary, people to discover and maintain some sense of the divine, even within our messed up world. And there is something real and authentic about that, something that we Buddhists could use more of.

Buddhist hope

But let’s consider Williams’ central problem, this question of hope. I raised this yesterday in a discussion group with some young Buddhists from the KM group here in Perth. I wanted to see whether my understanding of these things was just my own, or whether it reflected a wider understanding within the Buddhist community. And, as I kind of expected, pretty much all the things I had thought were brought out in the discussion. These things are not complicated.

Buddhists don’t talk much about hope, because hope is based on the future, and is therefore delusional. We don’t know what the future holds, so to base our emotional well being on something we don’t know, and can never know, is to invite disappointment.

To argue that hope is based on what is unknown is not just my argument. It was used by Paul, whose Bible teachings on hope are cited by Williams.

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?

For Buddhists, this could never be acceptable. Our main concern is to be grounded in reality, in what we can see. We could never be satisfied with a teaching whose essential principles were not merely unknown, but unknowable.

This is why we cultivate contentment. Contentment is simply being happy with what is, here and now. It is based on the reality of the present, not some imagined future. If we learn to be content now, we can carry that with us wherever we go. According to Paul, however, we hope precisely because we do not know something. This is a doctrine that elevates permanent ignorance to a virtue.

Hope is not merely delusional, it is rooted in aversion. Why do we have the need for hope? Because the present is bad. This, this place I am in, these people I am with, this mind that I have: all of these are somehow wrong, painful, unbearable. Rather than dealing with this reality, hope tells us that in some fantasy land of the future, everything will be okay.

Contentment, on the other hand, is based on acceptance and love. We don’t try to push reality away. We don’t try to avoid the pains and sorrows of life. We accept, and are content. It’s okay. This is why Buddhism is a path for grown-ups. We are not looking for someone to fix our problems for us. We are looking to develop a mature, wise connection with reality.

That is not to say that having a positive outlook for the future is impossible. Of course, we still do that, both in secular things and in spiritual. We study now so we can get a job later. Or we go to Dhamma classes now so we can meditate with more understanding later. Our world still happens in time, and we deal with that as any normal person does.

The difference is that as Buddhists, we don’t try to turn this ordinary process into some great spiritual principle. Sure, you have hope. If you are a good person, make good kamma, then you’ll have a good rebirth. Terrific! And if you practice Dhamma deeply and realize the four noble truths, then you will enjoy the bliss of Nibbana. Even better! There’s plenty to be hopeful about in Buddhist philosophy and practice. But that’s not ultimately important. We don’t make a big deal about it, because it’s all uncertain. Much better to focus on the here and now, and develop contentment with whatever is.

So it’s by no means correct to say that Buddhism is hopeless, if we understand it in this limited sense. It is only “hopeless” in the sense that we do not base our spiritual practice on the “hope” of some unknown and unknowable divine intervention at some point in the future.

Williams’ argument is, I think, based on a distortion of language. Normally I wouldn’t be too harsh on someone for doing this; it’s quite normal, and most of us do it all the time. But he studied and taught Madhyamaka philosophy for many years, so he should know better.

The distortion is in the words “hope” and “hopeless”. In the English language, the word “hope” feels good. And the word “hopelessness” feels bad: it means “despair”. Now, there is a sense, as I discussed above, where we could say that Buddhism is “hopeless”. But that kind of hopelessness has nothing to do with “despair”. On the contrary, it has to do with an emotional maturity that finds happiness in reality, not in fantasy. We don’t lack hope because we are looking for it and can’t find it; we have outgrown the need for it.

This kind of linguistic distortion, incidentally, is not new to Williams. We find it already in the early texts, where the Buddha is similarly accused of various kinds of negativity, similar to hopelessness, and responds with a nuanced linguistic analysis of the exact implications of the terms used.

Reason and emotion

Williams claims his position is “rational”. Yet this seems to be a purely theoretical reason, an inference from principles of theology, without any consideration of the reality of peoples’ lives. If you spend some time with actual living Buddhists you would know that we are no more hopeless than anyone else. In fact, Buddhist practices do exactly what Buddhists have been saying for millenia: they lead to peace, to contentment, and to happiness.

It seems to me that lack of contentment is driving Williams’ argument. Why else would he feel the need to persuade others of his religion by attacking his former religion?

For every Williams there are literally millions of former Christians, like myself, who have abandoned the faith they were brought up in and have found peace in the Buddha’s path. But Buddhists don’t get into the whole evangelizing thing, because we are content. We’re happy to be Buddhists, and happy to share our Dhamma with people who are interested; but we’re also happy that people should follow their own way.

This tolerance is not a new age idea, as we find it in the Buddha’s discourses themselves. Just yesterday, as it happens, I was editing the Udumbarika-sīhanada Sutta (DN 25), where the Buddha says this to a monk from another religious tradition:

Maybe, Nigrodha, you will think: ‘The Samaṇa Gotama has said this from a desire to get pupils’; but you are not thus to explain my words. Let your teacher remain your teacher. …

Nigrodha, I speak thus, neither because I wish to gain pupils, nor because I wish to you to leave your teaching, nor because I wish you to give up your way of life, nor because I wish to confirm you in bad principles, or detach you from good principles.

But, O Nigrodha, there are bad things that have not been abandoned, corrupting, entailing rebirth, bringing suffering, resulting in suffering, making for birth, decay and death in the future, and it is for abandoning these that I teach the Dhamma. And if you practice in accordance, the things that corrupt shall be put away, the things that make for purity shall grow and flourish, and each one of you shall attain to and abide in the understanding and the realization of full and abounding insight in this very life.

Buddhists are not interested in conversion. We don’t care whether you say you’re a Buddhist or not. We just want you to be happy. We are not so desperate, so emotionally fragile and needy, that we have to go around making everyone in the world believe the same things that we believe in. If you want to learn and practice Dhamma, great! If you’re happy to be doing something else, then be happy. We’ll be here if you need us.

It sometimes happens that people who approach religion through the intellect will overlook their underlying emotional and spiritual needs. In truth, we come to religion not because of reason, but because it calls to our higher emotions and intuition. We feel a heart-connection with a way, a path, or a community. Why different people feel this connection in different ways is difficult to know; perhaps it is because of past lives.

Reason is what we use afterwards to justify our beliefs and communicate them to others; as Williams says, “I convinced myself that it was rational to believe in God”.

If we do not address our emotional needs, they can lay fallow, untouched by years of philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such; sometimes we develop different aspects of the path at different times. But there is something wrong when we take our own, highly unusual personal experience, and turn that into a misleading universal argument.

No Buddhist in a traditional Buddhist culture has this problem. Traditional Buddhists approach the Dhamma first via the heart, by developing the faith, the contentment, the joy of participating in the Dhamma. Only much later, if ever, do they turn to a rational investigation into the teachings.

This is another area where I think Williams’ writings are disingenuous. He presents his article as if it were a personal journey, and uses the standard rhetorical technique of gaining emotional connection with his audience by telling his life story; a cheap trick that politicians use all the time. Yet he slides easily from “personal journey” to blithe, sweeping statements about “Buddhism” and “Christianity”. These are not the methods of a philosopher or scholar, which is how he presents himself. They are the methods of an evangelist.

Rebirth and the cockroach

Williams’ main argument rests on his analysis of rebirth. He doesn’t argue, as the secularists do, that rebirth is factually incorrect since there is no evidence for it. He can’t do that, since, obviously, Christian belief involves many things for which there is much less evidence than rebirth. Instead, he argues that what is reborn cannot be “me”. He says that Buddhists are correct to say that what is reborn is not-self, since whatever is reborn has only a limited relation to who we are in this life. Yet the implication of this, for him, is that he, the person who is Paul Williams, will disappear. In this sense the teaching of rebirth is hopeless: there is no hope for him as a person.

This is just such a wrong-headed argument, I don’t know where to start. But let me just say it: the fact that you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true. The world doesn’t exist in order to serve your emotional needs. If it really is the case that rebirth is real, then the role of religion is to help us learn to deal with it.

This underlines a further fallacy in his argument. Hope is not something that exists out there in the universe. The world is neither hopeful, nor hopeless. Nor, for that matter, is an abstract social construct like “Buddhism” or “Christianity” the kind of thing that can be either hopeful or hopeless.

Rather, hope is a way of responding to the world. Buddhism teaches us that we can train our emotions and learn to respond in healthy or unhealthy ways. If you think that hope is a healthy way of looking at the world, then you can use Buddhist or Christian teachings and techniques to develop that. Great! But hope is not just given to you. Like all emotions, it is a conditioned response.

Williams asks us to imagine being a cockroach, arguing that this is what Buddhists say we can end up as. What connection is there between a cockroach and us? What is it like to be a cockroach? He argues that if we were reborn as a cockroach, there is no meaningful sense in which we can say “we” still exist, and so we have for all intents and purposes ceased to be.

Once more, he exhibits a seemingly wilful blindness to the many Buddhist teachings that address exactly this issue. To start with, let me say that, while it is true that in theory Buddhist teachings seems to say that we might be reborn as a cockroach, in most cases when these things are discussed the form of rebirth is much closer to that of humanity. So he has chosen an extreme example, not a representative one, to illustrate his case.

But is a cockroach’s experience so utterly different for ours? Let’s see. Consider the five aggregates, a basic Buddhist teaching whose purpose is to help us understand the nature of experience and identity. The five aggregates are the body, feelings, perception, intentions, and consciousness. We have a body; the cockroach has a body. We experience pleasure and pain; so, I’m guessing, does the cockroach. We have perception; we can distinguish, for example, edible from inedible; and so can a cockroach. We make choices; and so does a cockroach. And we have awareness; and so, albeit minimally, does a cockroach. Like us, also, a roach has sight and other senses, although it uses them differently, with the sense of touch, mediated by fine hairs and antennae, being of prime importance. But these are details. On the whole, the structure of a cockroach’s consciousness, when considered in the terms that are important for Buddhism, is not all that different from ours. It is a matter of degree, not of kind.

To ask us to imagine ourselves as a cockroach is to invite empathy, to consider what it is like to be another kind of sentient being. And this empathy is at the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice. We recognize that even a cockroach is something like us.

At the same time, the opposite is true. I am something like a cockroach, but also something unlike it. And this doesn’t just apply to cockroaches, it even applies to ourselves. I am not all that much like me. If I try to imagine exactly how I felt yesterday, as I was reading Williams’ article, I can’t. I can recall some aspects of it, dimly and uncertainly, but I have lost forever what it it means to be me reading that article at that time. That is just how reality is. The only thing that is clear and evident is the present. So we can imagine, however dimly and distantly, what it is like to be a cockroach, or an alien, or a god, or to be ourselves an hour ago.

On knowing and the unknowable

Consider further the method that we use here, a method that is deeply characteristic of Buddhist practice. We start with ourselves, the here and now, with what we can directly experience. Then, little by little, we infer, to the past and the future, to other people, to other kinds of beings. This is how we can move from what is familiar to what is unfamiliar, without making the kind of giant cognitive leap that Williams asks of us.

This method underlies the Buddhist teaching on not-self, a central pillar of Buddhism that Williams seems to have completely misunderstood. We are changing, here and now. We can’t identify a single thing that remains steady and constant in our experience, yet we cling on to the idea of a constant “self”. The notion of self is purely a concept, a handy term we use for pragmatic purposes, but which doesn’t correspond to any single reality. When we attach to this concept of “self”, mistaking our concepts for reality, we cause suffering.

Buddhist teachings don’t create this suffering by taking your self away; they ease suffering by helping you understand why the universe is not the way you think it is. We know that everything will pass, so we learn to be at peace with that. I will disappear; in fact I am disappearing right now; and I am at peace with that.

But do you know what is really incomprehensible? Where we can really have no knowledge at all? Christian metaphysical ideas such as God, the soul, the trinity, or heaven. Christians are deeply vague and ambiguous when it comes to the salvation that is the basis of their hope. And for good reason. At the heart of the Christian notion of salvation is the idea that “I” will go to “heaven”, forever. Heaven is eternal, and for this reason it is inherently unknowable. This is not just my argument; it is stated explicitly in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4.18:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

But what can that possibly mean? All our experience is impermanent. Consciousness continually changes; this is not just a random detail, it is how consciousness works. There can never be any experience of the eternal, and we can ever infer eternity from our transient consciousness. Everything that “I” have ever been is impermanent. It is not possible to even imagine what a genuinely eternal experience could be like, or how it has any relation whatsoever to me as a conditioned person.

Our experience might seem distant from that of a cockroach; but we are closer, infinitely closer, to a cockroach than we are to an eternal heaven. The experience of being a cockroach is knowable, however slightly; but the experience of eternity is alien, utterly and forever. It is a nice-sounding idea that has no grounding in reality.

Rebirth and Christian belief

Willams argues the following.

If what I have argued here is correct, then it seems to me we are entitled theologically to say that we know rebirth is false. What I mean by this is:

  1. Rebirth is incompatible with Christian belief.
  2. As Christian believers we are entitled to say that we know theologically that Christian belief is true.
  3. Whatever is incompatible with a truth is false.
  4. Hence we are entitled to say as Christian believers that we know theologically that rebirth is false.

This is typical of Wiliams’ use of “reason”. I trust that I don’t need to point out how absurdly circular this is. But what is more interesting is how the argument uses “theological” reasoning to dismiss the teachings of Jesus.

For the Bible, and specifically Jesus, refers to reincarnation in many passages. This was well known to early Christians, some of whom, such as the Church father Origen, argued for a belief in reincarnation.

Why does Williams assert, then, that reincarnation is incompatible with Christian belief? Because, he says, “Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person.” If you are reborn then you have no uniqueness as an individual.

The funny thing, though, is that there’s nothing in the Gospels about this idea of the “infinite value of the person”. Indeed, the very notion of “the person” is far too abstract for the thought-world of early Christianity. It is a Greek idea, which came into Christianity via the early debates about the nature and essence of Jesus, who was the Divinity embodied as a person. It was introduced into Christianity by Tertullian, a Latin philosopher of the 3rd century, along with the notion of the “Trinity”. Thus Williams’ “theology” entails that he rejects rebirth, which is referred to frequently in the Bible, in favor of the doctrine of the unique “person”, which is found nowhere in the Bible.

Williams notes that you can even find some Christians who believe in rebirth. But this is a serious understatement. In fact, surveys, over many countries and several decades, show that roughly a quarter of modern Christians believe in reincarnation, and that many more accept is as a possibility.

Who gets to have hope?

It is perhaps not surprising that Williams chooses a cockroach as his example, for traditionally Christianity has not considered animals as worthy of moral concern. The sphere of Christianity is humans only, since humans possess a “soul”, whereas animals don’t. So there’s no hope for animals. But souls are tricky things, since they don’t exist, and are merely invented by philosophers and theologians. So there are lots of Christians who have argued that women have no soul, or that people of other races are not really human.

It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re hearing this wonderful teaching of “hope”. Christian hope, in it’s normal forms, doesn’t extend to the billions of people who are non-Christians: they go to Limbo (a kind of not unpleasant hell). This includes unbaptized babies, and the countless people who lived before Jesus, as well as all animals and so on. There’s no message of hope for these in the Gospels; the best the Church can do is say that maybe God will have mercy.

Hopeless, too, are those who practice unapproved forms of sexuality, or get divorced, or use contraception, or masturbate, or who are atheists, or agnostics, or who miss Mass on the wrong day (seriously!), and the list goes on. Sure, they can maybe be saved, if they confess, repent, and if God is in a good mood. But if they think that there’s nothing wrong with these things, they commit mortal sin and are doomed. This, of course, includes the vast majority of modern, thoughtful Christians, who don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on these and many other matters, but who prefer to discretely pass over them.

And if you’re a fig tree, you might as well give up now.

The hope of Jesus

When I hear someone saying that “Christianity offers hope”, I don’t believe them. It’s just too vague and general. Give me specifics and we can start to make sense of it. I do the same thing when facing problems in Buddhism: leave aside the platitudes, and look at what the Buddha actually said.

So, let’s see what the Bible says. But we have to narrow it down, and not be guilty of just cherry-picking passages. We’re talking about Christianity, so let’s consider the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. And let’s choose Mark, which, while composed long after his death by people who did not know Jesus, and which though constructed according to an artificial chronology is still the earliest, least filtered, and most reliable of the Gospels.

Mark is a good source for understanding Christian hope, since the entire narrative is set up as an apocalyptic prophesy. The story is meant to prefigure the significance of Jesus’s saving power, a power that is so incredible that not even his closest students had the vaguest notion of what was going on. (Remember this when you meet Christians who are so confident that they know what Jesus was all about: not even those who lived with him understood his message!) Jesus says to his disciples:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

This doesn’t sound all that hopeful. Hope comes in because God will save us. But isn’t it God who created all this in the first place? Actually, the text itself makes that clear:

If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

So we are at the whim of an omnipotent God, who created the world including all its suffering, and doles out pain and death as he sees fit. Hope is for the elect only, others will perish.

I find this to be not hopeful, but terrifying. This fear is no accident. The Bible, in many, many, places is trying its best to be terrifying, and Christian history is full of preachers whose stock in trade was not hope, but terror. Fear is, after all, nothing but the inverse of hope, and any doctrine grounded on hope holds fear in its back pocket. Fear is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of hope.

This is why, when the Western world began to emerge from the spell of Christianity in the 19th century, atheist thinkers such as Freud, Nietchzhe, and Marx documented the deep psychological and social scarring that Christianity had left on the European spirit.

Popular Christianity glosses over this history. The modern Churches have implicitly recognized that the atheist’s criticisms were right, and have changed Christianity, to some degree at least, to get away from this cult of death.

But it is never really gone. Bishop Spong, for example, tells a story of a young, devoted couple in his congregation, who were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter. But they had to watch as she became ill, and, while the entire congregation prayed and prayed, she weakened and died. Of course, the couple were devastated; but as he talked to them, he began to discern something beyond normal loss and grief: anger at God. How can He give us this life, only to snatch it away so cruelly, ignoring the pleas of those who have been so devoted to him?

A realistic approach to the Christian tradition cannot avoid this problem. God is terrifying, and in that way, he is just like life. He doesn’t exist to placate those who can’t get their own lives together. This is why Peter Carnley, the former archbishop of the Australian Anglican community, told his congregation that prayer doesn’t work; God isn’t the kind of being who sits there listening to a cosmic help line.

But what is it like to be saved?

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Here we clearly have an external force, a vaguely imagined savior appearing in some magical vision. The roots of Christianity lie not in the logic and rationality that Williams claims, but in a wild, ecstatic visioning.

There’s little rationality in the Bible. Reason was invented by the Greeks, and it made its way into Christianity as the Greek and Roman philosophers criticized the early Christian communities for their irrational beliefs and practices, such as Jesus’ resurrection in the flesh, the virgin birth, and so on. These criticisms, like those of the 19th century atheists, were obviously correct, and the Christians, while arguing against them, gradually changed their doctrine to accommodate the criticisms, turning a visionary prophetic cult into a coolly theological institution.

But I am getting diverted into historical matters here, and missing the key point: when will Jesus come back? This, surely, is the crucial question in Christian hope.

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Here we have the explicit statement that Jesus will reappear in the lifetime of his followers. Obviously this did not happen. Jesus’ prophecy, the heart of his teaching in the earliest testament to his life, turned out to be empty.

This was a fundamental crisis for the early Christian community: hope was promised, but not delivered. This is not unique to Mark, but was found through all the early Christian texts. (Apologies for quoting Wikipedia.):

Christians of Mark’s time expected Jesus to return as Messiah in their own lifetime—Mark, like the other gospels, attributes the promise to Jesus himself (Mark 9:1 and 13:30), and it is reflected in the letters of Paul, in the epistle of James, in Hebrews, and in Revelation. When return failed, the early Christians revised their understanding. Some acknowledged that the Second Coming had been delayed, but still expected it; others redefined the focus of the promise, the Gospel of John, for example, speaking of “eternal life” as something available in the present; while still others concluded that Jesus would not return at all (2 Peter argues against those who held this view).

To sum up: Christian hope, as taught by Jesus, was that he would return in glory to save his followers, while destroying all other people. This prophecy was false. The Christian tradition responded by developing a symbolic interpretation of Bible passages which were originally meant quite literally. Like countless apocalyptic prophets since then, Jesus’ words were addressing the events of his day, but were overtaken by history.

From a Buddhist point of view, this vacillation is entirely predictable. The problem is not with the specifics of how Jesus taught his followers; it is that the very idea that salvation in the form of a future hope is delusional. Our salvation comes from reality, and reality is always present.

In conclusion

Allow me to restate: I am not writing this article in order to attack Christianity. I am doing it in order to refute the critique of Paul Williams, a critique that, however misguided, has gained traction among evangelical Christians due to his prestige as a former Buddhist academic. Despite the length of this article, I have hardly scratched the surface of the mistakes in Williams’ depiction of Buddhism. For example, I have not even touched on his distortion of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma.

We follow religious paths, for the most part, because they answer to a deep, often unrecognized, emotional need or connection. So when, a couple of years ago, a former Buddhist told me that they had become Christian because they felt a connection with Jesus and his community, I said “Sadhu!”, offered my support, and had a lovely conversation with them and their new pastor.

Conversion is not a problem for Buddhists; suffering is. If someone can ease their suffering by following some religious or spiritual path, then that is the truest practice of Dhamma for them.

But we should not stand by while Buddhism is criticized unfairly and mistakenly. As the Buddha said in the Brahmajala Sutta:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.’

I have benefited greatly from reading, reflecting on, and engaging with Christians and those of many different paths. There is always something to learn, and we should never be so arrogant as to believe that we have all the answers.

Obviously, at the end of the day I can’t accept the basic Christian beliefs. But what I do respect in the Christian tradition is the sense of a real human struggle to connect with the transcendent in the middle of the mundane. If we look at the Bible in this way, we can see, not the divinely revealed word of God, but the words of people through the ages who, each in their very different ways, have found meaning in a mad world.

We are lucky enough to share this mad world with Christians, and with many people of diverse beliefs and practices, and we Buddhists can learn much from their struggles and insights. And I hope that, in the future, I can learn from a more meaningful Christian critique of Buddhism.

Things that won’t save us from global warming: (1) Institutionalized Religion

I would like to put in some kind of order my thoughts on global warming. In the past couple of posts I have expressed my view, which has become quite pessimistic, regarding our chances of surviving or adapting in any healthy way to the challenges we face. As a spiritual practitioner, I am mainly interested to articulate and develop a spiritual response to the situation, so I have avoided discussing the science and other issues. These are usually well covered in plenty of other places.

However what is, I find, less well documented are the reasons why certain approaches may or may not be successful. I think there is a tremendous pressure on scientists and environmentalists to emphasize that the problem is not too bad, and that our solutions are readily to hand. This approach is on the face of it perfectly fine. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be yielding actual results; and perhaps it is merely a façade so that we can live a little more comfortably.

In the next series of posts I’d like to briefly (I hope!) explain my reasons for rejecting various possible kinds of solution. In most of these areas I am far from an expert, so please jump in and correct my misunderstandings! I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

For the first topic, let’s consider institutionalized religion. For all its fading moral compass and dogmatic inertia, religion remains a powerful force in our world. I am neither an apologist for not a cynic regarding institutional religion. Personally I don’t like big institutions of any sort, but I recognize that they do perform many positive roles in society.

Some months ago I had a conversation with an activist who had just come from the Warsaw discussions on climate change. He told me that a senior figure from the UN had told him that they had given up on governments and corporations, and that they were looking to religion to save them. For a secular body like the UN to be looking to religion is a sure sign of their desperation.

There is something to this. Religious bodies and leading figures have done a lot. Many churches and other groups have strong environmental policies. The NSW Uniting Church, for example, has recently decided to divest from fossil fuels. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also called for divestment; and recently our interfaith body ARRCC, together with others, was published in the Guardian calling for Pope Francis to back divestment. (Article here, letter here.)

Buddhism has not been backwards in this either. Many of the most senior religious leaders in Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, have spoken often and powerfully on the environment. The connections between Dhamma and the environment have been explored deeply by such writers as Joanna Macy, and put into practice by such movements as Sarvodaya. Several Buddhist movements such as the One Earth Sangha and EcoBuddhism are working to raise awareness and make changes within the global Buddhist community.

So that’s great. But it hardly scratches the surface. The vast majority of the world’s religious activity goes on unabated, with little or no interest in the environment. The sacrifices continue, the rituals are repeated, the texts are intoned, and the followers believe that they are already doing the best thing they can possibly do. Why divert their precious time from the Absolute to care for a mere mundane, passing concern like the environment?

It is quite possible to employ religious language to justify ignoring the environment: “It is God’s will”, “It is kamma”, “We just get enlightened and leave all this behind”, and so on. This is what Ken Wilber calls the “elevationist” fallacy, the inverse of the reductionist fallacy. Take any problem and view it in light of the Absolute and it goes away. This misuse of religious philosophy is very common in Buddhism. When I was a young monk, I mentioned to one of the seniors that the path to my kuti was muddy, slippery and dangerous. He responded, “What a great chance to develop mindfulness!” No: mindfulness means recognizing the problem and fixing the path. Overcoming the elevationist fallacy is one of the great benefits of studying the Vinaya. The Buddha never does this. He invariable addresses the problem directly before him: fix the path.

Moreover, religions systematically redirect our attention away from such genuine pressing issues as climate change, and towards their own petty, self-interested concerns. Evangelicals are obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and what people do in the bedrooms; Hindus with working off their karma; Buddhists with offering things to monks so they can go to heaven; Muslims with railing against the injustices of the profane world, and so on. These are the mainstream content and direction of religious sermons, which create a climate and a conversation within the community.

It manifests in ways big and small. Monasteries are built to look like the ancient architecture in a far away country, regardless of the different environment and climate. When on alms round, I am regularly given environmentally destructive bottles of drinking water, because the hungry ghosts need something to drink.

We have, of course, seen this in the Buddhist context of women’s ordination. To grant women equal rights, and to recognize the importance of doing this within a religious sphere, is elementary. Any primary school child can tell you that it’s wrong to treat girls as lesser. Yet even this simple ethical change has proven impossible for many members of the Sangha. The Wat Pa Pong Sangha reacted hysterically to the reality of women’s ordination, with petitions, boycotts, delegations, press conferences, and a whole raft of other attempts to undermine ordination for women. The ordination immediately prompted calls for taking Bodhinyana monastery away from Ajahn Brahm, which of course reveals the self-interest underlying the whole problem. Many, perhaps most, of these monks were not sexist before they came to the monastery. They grew up in families with mothers and sisters and female friends. But the corrosive effect of institutional narrow-mindedness slowly erodes the capacity for moral courage and perspective.

Then, of course, you have the massive investment among conservative religious leaders in actively opposing climate change. See, for examples, the deranged opinions of Cardinal Pell quoted at the bottom of the Guardian article I linked to above. In reality, religions are usually aligned with the most conservative elements in society, and routinely betray their transformative promise by undermining positive change.

When was the last time a major social change was driven by religion? Slavery? Apartheid? Women’s lib? Democracy? Overthrow of dictators? Arab spring? No doubt there have been religious figures in all of these movements, but the driving force has been secular-based ethical shifts, with religion playing an ambiguous role at best.

Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good. And while many followers of religions experience this on a personal level, such experience does not manifest in the actions of the religious institutions. In practice religious institutions exist to maintain traditions, support communities, and ameliorate suffering through charitable works. Even seeing these things in the most positive light we can’t expect any movement towards a radical transformation. Religion institutions are simply too invested in the status quo.

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion for Peace Global Assembly, first day: some reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Religion & religiosity

Some interesting news in international religions today. Perhaps the most astonishing event over Christmas was that the Pope chose his Christmas message, the one directed inwards for the officials of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administrative offices at the Vatican, to attack same sex marriage.

Yes, this is the same man who, the week before, gave a special blessing to Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of the House in Uganda’s Parliament, who in an interview with Reuters said that she would ensure that the gaol-the-gays bill (formerly known as the “kill-the-gays bill”) would be passed, as a “Christmas gift” for the Ugandan people.

The Pope’s message repeated the dualistic determinism theory of human nature: we are created man & woman and there can therefore be no other form of marriage. He denies that marriage is about a social construct, but is inherent in human nature. Apparently without irony, the celibate Pope said that as the commitment to traditional family declines, “essential elements of the experience of being human are lost”.

Meanwhile, in unrelated news, people around the world continue to turn away from religion. In striking confirmation of Marx, there is a strong positive correlation between religious belief and poverty, lack of education, and violence. A recent WIN-Gallup meta-study confirms these long term trends.

The study does not cover all countries, and, presumably through accident rather than design, it omits Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia: all of the Theravada countries. Most of what it says about religion, therefore, cannot be extrapolated to Theravada. It is still the case that the phrasing of the questions leave Buddhists out in the cold: are you religious or atheist? All Buddhists are atheists in the sense of not believing in a Creator God. Until those doing the surveys get a better methodology we may never really know how Buddhism fits with these worldwide trends.

The only interesting snippet regarding Buddhism in the survey was that Buddhists rank by far the highest in the answer to the question, “Do you regard yourself as a religious person” 97% of Buddhists agreed with this, as opposed to around 80% for most Christian denominations, 74% for Muslims, and 38% for Jews. Given the problems with the survey as far as Buddhists are concerned, I wouldn’t want to read too much into this, however.

And now, in religions’ baffling inability to cope with women…

A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:

“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”

The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.

It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:

2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.

The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.

We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.

A curiously Christian week

While relations between Buddhists and Christians are not always of the best, I had the chance this past week to have two lovely encounters with quite disparate Christian groups.

On Tuesday, Ajahn Brahm lead a group of us monks up to New Norcia to meet the Benedictine monks there. This has become a regular exchange; they come to Bodhinyana once a year or so, too. We had an interesting discussion. Two texts were chosen, on the theme of suffering and faith. It was fascinating to see how these two topics were central to each of us, while approached from quite different angles.

The idea of ‘blind faith’ came up, and someone made the interesting point that faith must always be, to some degree, blind, otherwise it is knowledge. The point—and here we all agreed—was that faith was valuable, not because it was blind, but because it leads to deeper understanding.

The visit was also interesting to me on a personal level, because my father attended the school at New Norcia run by the monks. We went into the school, now long closed of course, and found his name on the enrolment register for 1954!

Later in the week a few monks went to another Christian event, this time a ceremony for the instalment of a new, female, parish priest for the local Anglican church. Lots of clergy were present, and they very kindly invited us to walk and sit with them through the mass. Front row seats! The service was similar in many ways to the Catholic Mass I remember from my childhood; I found myself automatically coming out with the responses.

It was a warm and happy community, and I was reminded of how central the performance of religion is. When I listened to the words, there were many that were beautiful (“Peace be with you!” — “And also with you.”) and many that I found alien or strange. It seemed as if the most obvious and central of human impulses were mixed with the, to me, completely incomprehensible and wilfully obscure. They talked, for example, of a intimate, loving relationship with God; I have no idea what that means. In the Bible readings, a bizarre prophetic hallucination was followed by Paul’s inspiring words on love.

Yet somehow in the living of the ritual, none of that mattered. It was not about dogma, not even about faith (according to the Bishop) but about love. The very incongruity, the acceptance of such different ideas and inspirations within one house, in some way captures the irrational and arbitrary reality of life better than any coherent worked out doctrine.

Obviously this does not mean that reason and doctrine are unimportant; since they too live in that same house. It is just a reminder to me that we cannot reduce religion, in any of its manifestations, to a set of principles and ideas. The measure of the spirit is not in reason, but in life.

About APRO

I was recently asked to write a little about APRO, and I thought I would share this with you for your interest.

What is APRO?

APRO is the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations. It is the peak of peak bodies for religious organizations in Australia. It was formed in the wake of 9/11, as a positive response to the increasing levels of religious intolerance in the Australian community. Over the past several years, APRO has organized and taken part in a number of events, including interfaith conferences, media training exercises, meetings with government, and so on. The basic purpose it to improve harmony and understanding among the religious traditions in Australia.

APRO is an informal body, which meets irregularly, a couple of times a year. It was originally under the auspices of FECCA. In any case, it is an independent body, with no financial backers to speak of.

The APRO members come from the main peak bodies of Australian religions. You can see the list on their website: http://www.fecca.org.au/aboutus/projects/item/87-australian-partnership-of-religious-organisations-apro

All the people on the APRO panel are wonderful; we get on very nicely, and have never had any conflicts. Everyone is sincerely dedicated to improving religious harmony, and we have never had any problems with people pushing their own agenda

Why is it important for Buddhists to have a representative on it?

As a multi-religious country, it is essential that Australia have a strong and healthy interfaith element. Without it, all the religions operate in their own narrow stream, without learning from each other. King Ashoka said that one never helps one’s own religions by criticizing the religions of others, but one only helps one’s own religion by helping other religions. I believe that the tolerant and diverse religious heritage of India, and East Asia generally, is a tradition of great importance in these times where religion too often becomes the reason for division, not harmony.

The religious culture of Australia is, of course, traditionally dominated by Christianity, but this is changing rapidly. Australia is the only developed country where Buddhism is the second largest religion. It is essential that Buddhists have a seat at the table whenever there are important interfaith forums, such as APRO.

What did you contribute and get out of it?

I have learnt a tremendous amount from my involvement with APRO, too much to summarize here. But if the is one lesson, then it is this: that we always share more in common with other religions than we have differences. We should not be afraid to stand up and make clear what the differences are. For example, several times I have had to remind people that Buddhists don’t believe in God. But don’t let the differences tear us apart.

I think I have been able to contribute something to APRO also. Often Buddhists have quite a different way of seeing things than others do, and I have never been afraid to mention this. At other times, in conferences and the like, I find that what Buddhists can do best is to stay silent. Sometimes we have had a panel of speakers; I opt to sit meditation with everyone for a few minutes; and afterwards people tell me it was the most memorable of all the speeches! Generally it is, I think, true that many of the other religions have better organized and more effective policies of social welfare than we do, and we can learn much from them about this. But the contemplative element is sorely lacking, so this is something we can contribute.

The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.