Are the Buddha’s views permanent?

This post started out as a reply to a question originally raised by Glenn Wallis, and raised to my attention again by Buddhadhamma. Thanks for bringing it up once more. There are a lot of questions raised here, and I try my best, but don’t always get to answer them all. Time moves on, and sometimes I overlook or forget things. So if you have raised a question and I haven’t answered it, please do remind me.

Glenn Wallis’s original question was:

Do you not believe, furthermore, that the Buddha’s–or Gotama’s–views changed over time, even after his “awakening”? Does anicca apply to everything in the universe but the Buddha’s cognition?

If I remember the context rightly, I had asked Glenn whether his views had changed, because in some places he wrote about ‘A Buddhist Manifesto’, while elsewhere he wrote about ‘speculative non-Buddhism’.

Anyway, regardless of the original context, the question is an interesting one, and I’d like to discuss it from a few angles.

Well, now the vassa of 2011 is over. It’s over now, it will be over tomorrow, and it will always be over. The state of “having ended” is, if you like, a permanent state. But that doesn’t mean that my cognition of that state is permanent. Sometimes I think of the ending of the vassa, sometimes I remember it, and sometimes I don’t.

It seems to me that the same applies to Nibbana. At its simplest, this just means the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion. For the Buddha, or any arahant, these have ended. Tomorrow they will still be ended, and they always will be ended. So in this sense Nibbana is “permanent” – although this isn’t quite what we normally mean by the word “permanent”. However, the Buddha doesn’t always think of Nibbana. Sometimes he does, sometimes he thinks or reflects or remembers or is aware of other things. So the Buddha’s cognition is changing – which is to say, for the Buddha or any other arahant, this life is still a conditioned process of the five aggregates.

So to speak of Nibbana as “permanent” in this sense is not problematic, it seems to me. It only becomes problematic when we conceive of Nibbana as some kind of existing “state”: an unconditioned reality or consciousness. But, as I have discussed in earlier posts, I don’t subscribe to such a view.

As to whether the Buddha’s views change, we have to carefully distinguish what we mean here. A “view” is a somewhat abstract notion, and it is not always, or perhaps ever, actually present in consciousness. What is present is a specific thought or idea that is representative of that view.

For example, I am of the view that 2 + 2 = 4. I have held that view for a long time, and will, in all probability hold that view for the rest of my life. It’s possible, I suppose, that something might come along and convince me otherwise, but apart from some exotic context in advanced mathematics or physics, this is so unlikely that we can rule it out. So this view is, for practical purposes, “permanent”.

But this statement needs to be held lightly – hence my pomo “quote marks”. It is not permanent in the sense that it is an existing structure that stays forever without any change. It’s permanent in the much more limited and vague sense of being a pattern that recurs in recognisably similar ways that are reasonably consistent and predictable over time.

Of course, the actual manifestation of the view will change. I know that 4 people will fit in a car that has 2 lots of 2 seats. I know that 2 train tickets of $2 will cost $4. Each time I think of this, the exact thoughts will be different. But the pattern is the same, and it is that pattern of thought and idea and so on that we call a “view”.

This is why some schools of Buddhism argued that “concepts” (pannatti) are permanent or unconditioned. Even the Theravadins, usually so strict in such doctrinal matters, wavered a little on this position, sometimes suggesting that concepts were in some sense not impermanent. The actual manifestation of a concept is of course impermanent, but the concept itself is just an abstraction so it does not really “exist” and so cannot be impermanent.

It is in this sense that I would say the Buddha’s views on important matters of Dhamma are “permanent”. He has arrived at his profound insight into the truth, and the view will only change if the truth turns out to be something other. But, as the Buddha’s insight was actually correct, there is no need to change his view, just as I have no need to change my view that 2 + 2 = 4.

This is not to say that he wouldn’t have changed his views on things that are not intrinsic to the Dhamma. On the contrary, the early texts record him changing his mind many times. Take for example the case when he initially decided not to teach the Dhamma, but was persuaded to change his mind by Brahma. Leaving aside the question of the historicity of that passage, it certainly records that the early Buddhist tradition thought that the Buddha could change his mind. But this was not on a fundamental question of Dhamma. It was on a pragmatic point: will attempts to teach Dhamma actually be effective?

Is this really a change in view? Well, maybe, or maybe not. It really depends on what we are referring to when we speak of views. While this can have a much lighter or more vague sense in everyday language, in the Buddhist context, it usually refers to the fundamental conceptual framework of the Dhamma.

If we look at the Buddha’s actual Dhamma teachings, I can’t see any particular evidence that he changed what he taught over time in any fundamental way. There have been various attempts to show that he did, most famously based on the notion that the Atthakavagga of the Suttanipata represents a specially early strata of the Buddhist literature. But I am not persuaded by those arguments, both because I don’t think the Atthakavagga is any earlier than many of the mainstream prose Suttas, and because I don’t think it teaches a substantially different doctrine.

What is likely to have happened is that the Buddha changed the way he taught. This would be quite appropriate given the rapid change and development of his following over the years. In the early times there was a small group of dedicated, attained followers, while in later years you had many less dedicated, less intelligent followers. In addition the seniors had already learnt the basics thoroughly and wanted more detailed teachings (e.g. the Mahanidana Sutta); and there was increasing specialisation in different areas like Vinaya, systematic analysis (proto-Abhidhamma), or lay teaching. Unfortunately, while it seems almost inevitable that such changes would have happened, the lack of any internal chronology in the Suttas makes it difficult to evaluate just how or when this took place.

So to sum all this up, I think we can speak of the Awakened experience as “permanent” in a at least couple of senses. It is “permanent” in the sense that there is a permanent cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion. And it is “permanent” in the sense that it forms a view of reality that is essentially correct and does not need to change over time.

However, neither of these senses of “permanent” are really what we mean when we speak of permanence. There are plenty of ordinary things around us that are “permanent” in the same sense. This is not a permanence of existent things.

This is a difficult question in Buddhist philosophy, which has been raised and discussed many times over the years. I hope this little post helps makes things a little clearer.

Secular Buddhism discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nibbana is not viññāṇa. Really, it just isn’t.

I’ve just read yet another assertion that tries to slip a ‘cosmic consciousness’ Nibbana into the Suttas. In these kinds of arguments the same mistakes are made again and again, and you should beware of them.

One popular argument is based on the famous passage:

viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ

‘Consciousness non-manifest, infinte, radiant all around.’

This is sometimes said to be a term for Nibbana, although since it is an obscure poetic passage of dubious meaning we should not infer any major conclusions from it.

This obscure passage has been often exalted to the revelation of the highest teachings of Nibbana. One of the arguments one hears is that viññāṇa normally means ‘separative consciousness’, and that this has been revalued to refer to an infinite awareness. This argument is wrong.

The etymology of viññāṇa is invoked to justify this conclusion. ‘Vi’, so the story goes, means ‘separation’, and ‘ñāṇa’ means ‘knowing’, so viññāṇa means ‘separative knowing’ (as opposed to the universal cosmic consciousness of Nibbana.)

But you cannot derive the meaning of a word by adding up a root with a prefix. Words derive meaning from context. This is especially true in the case of words in abstract philosophical use.

In any case, the etymology of viññāṇa does not mean ‘separative consciousness’. The prefix ‘vi’ has many different meanings, which you can check up on in the Pali Text Society’s dictionary. If you don’t want to read the entire entry, the applied meanings it gives are four:

1. expansion, spreading out

2. disturbance, separation, mixing up (opp. saṁ)

3. the reverse of the simple verb, or loss, difference, opposite

4. in intensifying sense

Obviously, there is no requirement to read vi in its separative sense here.

There are many terms formed from the root ‘ñā’ in Pali that all refer to knowing in some way (‘know’ is in fact the English cognate): aññā, ñāṇa, pariññā, paññā, paṭiññā, saññā, and so on. In some cases these words are interchangeable, in some cases usage tells us that they carry different nuances. In no cases can we simply infer the meaning from adding prefix + root.

Given that vi- is probably the second most common prefix in Pali, and has an extremely wide variety of implications – including in some cases not affecting the meaning at all – we can’t say anything meaningful from the etymology.

Even if we did look to the etymology, we can come to all sorts of different conclusions. In some cases, viññāṇa is clearly a synonym of paññā, ‘wisdom’ (e.g. Sutta Nipāta 92-3). Here the implication could be that vi- means ‘intensive’, or ‘clear’ (as it does, say, in vipassanā).

It is true that the Buddha often presented viññāṇa in an analytical way as the consciousness of the six senses. But this tells us nothing about what the word means. He also used plenty of other terms related to the six senses: vedanā, phassa, or saññā, for example. The fact that a word is used in an analytical sense does not mean that the basic meaning of the word is analytical.

On the contrary, what the ‘viññāṇa = Nibbana’ school overlook is that viññāṇa is in fact used very commonly in the sense, not of ‘separative consciousness’, but of ‘infinite consciousness’. This is, of course, in the standard passage on the formless attainments. This samadhi meaning is directly applicable in the case of the so-called ‘Nibbanic consciousness’, as they are both described as ‘infinite’ (anantaṁ).

The Buddhist texts strongly suggest that this idea is pre-Buddhist. And we do indeed find the phrase ‘infinite consciousness’ in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. But more on that later. First let us survey the use of viññāṇa briefly in the oldest Upanishad, the Brihadarannyaka. This probably pre-dates the Buddha by a century or so, and many of its ideas and turns of phrase can be felt in the Suttas.

Viññāṇa is used in the ordinary sense of ‘sense consciousness’:

jihvayā hi rasān vijānāti || BrhUp_3,2.4 ||

For one knows tastes through the tongue.

More commonly it is found as the final of the four terms, ‘seen’, heard’, ‘thought’, ‘cognized’, a set that is frequently found in the Suttas. In this context it is said that ‘how can one cognize the cognizer’, a means of pointing beyond limited sense experience to the true Atman.

kaṃ vijānīyāt yenedaṃ sarvaṃ vijānāti taṃ kena vijānīyāt sa eṣa neti nety ātmā |agṛhyo na hi gṛhyate | aśīryo na hi śīryate |asaṅgo na hi sajyate |asito na vyathate na riṣyati |vijñātāram are kena vijānīyād ity

Through what should one know that owing to which all this is known ? This self is That which has been described as ‘Not this, Not this’. It is imperceptible, for It is never perceived; undecaying, for It never decays; unattached, for It is never attached; unfettered – it never feels pain, and never suffers injury. Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower?
BrhUp_2,4.14
See also BrhUp_3,4.2, BrhUp_2,4.5

The self is defined in terms of viññāṇa.

katama ātmeti — yo ‘yaṃ vijñānamayaḥ prāṇeṣu hṛdy antarjyotiḥ puruṣaḥ

What is the Self? This very person made of viññāṇa, among the breath (life-faculties), the light in the heart.

BrhUp_4,3.7 ||

sa vā ayam ātmā brahma vijñānamayo

This very Self is Brahma, made of viññāṇa… (a long list of other things of which Brahma is formed follows)

BrhUp_4,4.5

yo vijñāne tiṣṭhan vijñānād antaro yaṃ vijñānaṃ na veda yasya vijñānaṃ śarīraṃ yo vijñānam antaro yamayaty eṣa ta ātmāntaryāmy amṛtaḥ || BrhUp_3,7.22 ||

He who inhabits the viññāṇa, but is within it, whom the viññāṇa does not know, whose body is the viññāṇa, and who controls the viññāṇa from within, is the Internal Ruler, your own immortal self.

As in Buddhism, viññāṇa is closely associated with rebirth. In the following passage, the phrase ekībhavati refers to the withdrawal of the sense at the time of death – which is interesting since in Buddhism the same term is used to mean samadhi. Viññāṇa has two meanings here: in the first use it refers to sense-consciousness (because others realize that the dying person no longer hears or responds). Later it refers to the conscious self that takes rebirth.

ekībhavati na vijānātīty āhuḥ | tasya haitasya hṛdayasyāgraṃ pradyotate | tena pradyotenaiṣa ātmā niṣkrāmati | cakṣuṣṭo vā mūrdhno vānyebhyo vā śarīradeśebhyaḥ | tam utkrāmantaṃ prāṇo ‘nūtkrāmati | prāṇam anūtkrāmantaṃ sarve prāṇā anūtkrāmanti | savijñano bhavati | saṃjānam evānvavakrāmati | taṃ vidyākarmaṇī samanvārabhete pūrvaprajñā ca ||

He becomes united; then they say, ‘He does not have viññāṇa’. The top of the heart brightens. Through that brightened top the self departs, either through the eye, or through the head, or through any other part of the body. When it departs, the vital force follows; when the vital force departs, all the organs follow. Then the self has viññāṇa, and goes to the body which is related to that consciousness. It is followed by knowledge, kamma and past experience.
BrhUp_4,4.2

But the most directly applicable passage is the following. Like several of the above it is the teaching of Yājñavalkya, who should be recognized as the father of the teachings of consciousness as the great Brahman. Notice the simile of the lump of salt, also familiar in Buddhism. The passage from which this is taken is full of such parallels, as I discussed in A History of Mindfulness.

evaṃ vā ara idaṃ mahad bhūtam anantam apāraṃ vijñānaghana eva | etebhyo bhūtebhyaḥ samutthāya tāny evānuvinaśyati | na pretya saṃjñāstīty are bravīmi | iti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ || BrhUp_2,4.12 ||

As a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves with (its component) water, and no one is able to pick it up, but from wheresoever one takes it, it tastes salt, even so, my dear, this great, endless, infinite Reality is but sheer mass of viññāṇa. This comes out from these elements, and is destroyed with them. After this it has no more perception (saññā). This is what I say, my dear. So said Yajnavalkya.

Compare with the Buddhist line above. Both describe viññāṇa as ‘infinite’ (anantaṁ). Both use the philosophical term mahābhūta, although in different sense: in the Buddhist context it is a word for the four elements which the state of viññāṇa described goes beyond, whereas here it is the Great Reality itself. The Upanishadic passage describes the infinite consciousness as having disappeared or become non-manifest like salt dissolved in water, just as the Buddhist passage describes viññāṇa as ‘non-manifest’ (anidassana). The Buddhist passage speaks of viññāṇa as ‘radiant’, just as elsewhere the self that is viññāṇa is said to be the ‘light in the heart’.

The parallels are by no means arbitrary. In fact the Buddhist passage appears in a specifically Brahmanical context. The text is the Kevaddha Sutta (Digha Nikaya 11: text here, translation here, parallels here.) A monk wants to find out where the four Great Elements (mahābhūta) end, and goes to Brahma for the answer. Brahma, however, doesn’t know, and he sends the monk back to the Buddha. The Buddha rejects the original question, and tells the monk how it should be reformulated.

The basic idea is clear enough. Brahma’s realm extends as far as jhana, as Buddhists assume that the Brahmanical philosophy was based on jhanic experience (at best). So Brahma doesn’t know what lies beyond this, while the Buddha does.

The problem is that, apparently, what lies beyond is a kind of consciousness. Given the evident connections between this description and the Brahmanical conception of the higher atman as a form of infinite consciousness, the most obvious inference is that it refers to the formless attainments, specifically that of ‘infinite consciousness’, where the ‘four great elements’ don’t find a footing.

It is in the next lines of the verse, which are usually overlooked by the viññāṇa = Nibbana school, that the Buddha’s true position is stated. With the cessation of viññāṇa all this comes to an end. The ‘infinite consciousness’ is merely the temporary escape from the oppression of materiality, but true liberation is the ending of all consciousness.

Kattha āpo ca pathavī,
Tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Kattha dīghañca rassañca,
Aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
Asesaṃ uparujjhatī’ti.

Where does water and earth
fire, air not find a footing?
Where does long and short
Small, gross, fair and ugly,
Where does name and form
Without remainder cease?

Tatra veyyākaraṇaṃ bhavati—
For that the explanation is:

Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ,
Anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ;
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
Tejo vāyo na gādhati.

Viññāṇa non-manifest
Infinite, radiant all-round
There water and earth
fire, air do not find a footing

Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
Aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
Asesaṃ uparujjhati;
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
Etthetaṃ uparujjhatī’”ti.

There does long and short
Small, gross, fair and ugly,
There does name and form
Without remainder cease:
With the cessation of viññāṇa
There this ceases.

The problem is not so much the interpretation of viññāṇa as such, but the syntax of the verses – which is one reason why poetry should not decide doctrine. The Buddha rephrases the original question, but his rephrasing has three question words and two verbs. It may be read as a single complex question, but this assumes that the two verbs mean the same thing (which they don’t: na gādhati means ‘does not find a firm footing’, like a man crossing a ford, while uparujjhati means ‘ceases’) – and that viññāṇa means ‘infinite consciousness of Nibbana’ in the first occurrence and ‘separative sense consciousness’ in the second.

It is simpler and more natural to read the verses as asking two questions, with the verb uparujjhati (ceases) acting as a ‘lamp’ to apply to both the preceding clauses. In that case the syntax of the answer would be expressed thusly:

Water, earth, fire, air do not find a footing in viññāṇa that is non-manifest, infinite, radiant all-round.

(i.e., the four material elements cease temporarily in the formless attainments, which is the highest reach of the Brahmanical teachings – even this much Brahma, being a deity of the form realm, did not know.)

Long and short, small, gross, fair and ugly, name and form cease without remainder with the cessation of viññāṇa. This is where this all ceases.

(i.e., the Buddha’s real teaching is not to temporarily escape materiality, but to reach an ending of suffering. And since all forms of viññāṇa (yaṁ kiñci viññāṇaṁ…) are said countless times to be suffering, even the infinite consciousness has to go.)

In this reading, the reason for the Buddha’s reformulation of the original question becomes clear. The errant monk had asked where the ending of the four elements was – which is of course the formless attainments. But the Buddha said the question was wrongly put, as this would merely lead beyond the form realm of Brahma to the formless realms. The real question is what lies beyond that, with the cessation of consciousness. It is not enough for matter to be transcended, one must also transcend mind as well. If not, one ends up, apart from all the other philosophical problems, with a mind/body dualism.

And one ends up with a description of the Buddhist goal which is not merely indistinguishable from the Brahmanical Higher Self, but is quite evidently the same thing. A description that was meant to critique the inadequate conception of the Brahmanical goal is turned into a description of the Buddhist goal. Meanwhile, the hundreds of times when the Buddha explicitly and definitively refuted this idea (viññāṇaṁ aniccaṁ…) are explained away with a trivial etymological mistake. And so it goes…

Buddhism & the supernatural

You might be forgiven for wondering about whether Buddhism is a religion. After all, there are plenty of people who say that “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion”. When I say plenty, that’s 73,300 on a google for the exact phrase. Personally i think this is just a piece of modernist sloganeering. Buddhism obviously fills most of the same roles in Buddhists’ lives that other religions fulfill, and in every practical sense it is regarded as a religion everywhere. Of course, it’s a different kind of religion than theistic ones, which necessitates rethinking what we mean by a religion.

But if we take this seriously, Buddhism would not fall under the status of a religion for charity purposes in Australia (and many other places). The relevant Australian definition says there is:

… no reason to move away from the decision made by the High Court in the Scientology case, that a religion must have two characteristics: belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and that there is an acceptance of canons of conduct that give effect to that belief by some part of the community. No submission suggested a different definition of religion.

This is curious to me on a number of levels. First up, i wonder whether Buddhism should fall under this definition. In fact, I would say that I definitely think Buddhism does not believe in the supernatural as it is normally understood – a statement which, however, needs some clarification.

The other curious thing is, why on earth does believing in a Supernatural being justify getting special consideration? I am sympathetic to the radical atheist view, which could argue that, since belief in the supernatural is manifestly irrational, money given to believers is rewarding irrationality.

Of course, religious people do good things, such as giving to charities. But that is not the issue here. Secular organizations can give to charities just as well, and the government can award them charitable status for their good works, not because of a belief in the ‘Supernatural’.

This problem could have very practical implications. Buddhist who applied for charitable status might not get it; or, conceivably, Buddhism could be attacked by hostile forces on these legal grounds.

What does ‘Supernatural’ mean? One definition says ‘not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws’, which seems fair enough to me. When people use the word ‘supernatural’, they usually mean things like psychic powers, ghosts, other realms of existence, and so on. It’s obvious that Buddhists believe in these things just as much as any religion.

It’s true that there are a few Buddhists, who we might call ‘naturalist’, who deny the reality of these phenomena. But there are also a minority of Christians or others who would take a similar line.Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully interpret the Buddha’s teachings in a way that excludes rebirth; however, I would not want to say that someone who denies rebirth cannot be a Buddhist.

However, from a legal point of view, if one was a Buddhist who denied the reality of, say, rebirth, or other aspects of Buddhism that are not scientifically verifiable, could one be said to be following a ‘religion’ in this sense?

The problem is, it seems to me, deeper than this. The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.

The Sri Lankan philosopher David Kalupahana has developed this idea in detail. he argues that Buddhism is empirical through and through; that even those aspects of Buddhist belief that seem to invoke the ‘supernatural’ in fact merely involve a refining and extension of ordinary sensory capacities. Thus the ability to see beings in other realms is the ‘Divine Eye’, which results, not from the intervention of a force beyond nature, but from the refinement of the mind through the practice of jhana.

In fact, the translation ‘Divine Eye’ is maybe a bit misleading in this context, as there is no notion of divine intervention. The Pali is dibbacakkhu, where dibba is an adjective related to deva, or deity, hence the rendering. But the root meaning of all these terms, still felt very strongly in the Pali, is to ‘shine’, related to the word ‘day’. So it would perhaps be better to think of this power as ‘clarified vision’ – which is exactly the English ‘clairvoyance’.

So, while many of the things that are called ‘supernatural’ do form a part of regular Buddhist belief, I don’t think the word ‘supernatural’ is an appropriate description of these things from a Buddhist point of view. This is more than a semantic issue, for the very Buddhist critique of the ‘supernatural’ forms an integral part of our soteriology. We may believe in these things, but we don’t regard them as being essential or important for our religious path, precisely because they fall within the realm of birth, ageing, and death; that is, they are natural.

The problem is a historical one: definitions of religion in Western law are not supposed to be philosophically precise, but pragmatically effective. They are supposed to deal with the legacy situation that governments are supposed to offer various kinds of support for religions for the common good, and to deal with upstarts like Scientology, who quite cynically try to leverage this support for their own advantage.

Which brings us to the question: why on earth should governments be interested in giving tax breaks or other support to religions anyway? It seems to me there are two main reasons. From the government’s point of view, the interest is in ‘social cohesion’. Religions help keep the fabric of society together. There is an ancient strain, which, depending on your point of view, might be called either pragmatism or cynicism, which runs back to the Greco-Roman days, where people who don’t really believe in the gods still insist that the cults and the festivals be upheld. This is a perfectly legitimate interest that government has, and if the people in government believe that religion does, on the whole, help keep society harmonious, then it is perfectly rational for even atheists to support religion.

From inside the religion itself, however, while social cohesion would be a valued part of religion’s contribution, it does not capture the critical point. Religions believe that they offer something that has a value that transcends anything found on this mortal coil. The benefits offered by religion are not just charity and social harmony, but an eternity of transcendence. And it is this special value that religionists believe sets them apart from any secular philosophy, not matter how good its social ethics may be.

This assumption of transcendant value is impossible to accommodate within secular discourse. How do you weigh up a saved soul against improved health care? And there is the ticklish problem that most religions understanding of the transcendent excludes followers of other religions… But we should not forget that a majority of the people in government actually believe in some such doctrine as this, whether or not it influence their decisions.

Come back to the root meaning of ‘supernature': literally, ‘above or beyond what is born’. There is only one thing that might fit this description in Buddhism, and that is Nibbana. Nibbana is quite literally ‘beyond birth’. It is not ‘supernatural’ in the everyday understanding of the word, but it is supernatural according to the root meaning.

This is still not ideal, and is a stretch of Western theistic ideas into a context where they fit uncomfortably. If this ruling were to be reviewed, i would suggest using a word such as ‘Deathless’, or ‘Unconditioned’, which would suit Nibbana just as it would a theistic God.

It is more problematic to describe Nibbana as a ‘Being, Thing or Principle’. Nevertheless, while philosophically we might quibble, these words are obviously meant to be so general as to encompass just about anything, so in this context I think we could let them pass.

So in the end I think Buddhist scrapes by: it is a religion under Australian law. I understand that this is not the case in some other countries; perhaps some of you have some knowledge of this.