Aside

Introduction to Satipatthana: a meditation retreat with Bhante Sujato

The Satipatthana Sutta, or “The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness” (MN 10, DN22) is perhaps the most influential of all the discourses in the Early Buddhist Texts.

Bhante Sujato has been practicing mindfulness based on this sutta for over 20 years, as part of which he researched and wrote one of the most innovative and comprehensive texts on the subject, A History of Mindfulness. His approach to satipatthana pays full attention to teachings on mindfulness found outside the Satipatthana Sutta, and indeed outside the Pali canon.

This retreat will be your last opportunity to learn and experience these teachings before Bhante leaves on an 18 month retreat. There are only a few places left.

This is way to convergence, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, for realizing the correct method, for the witnessing of nibbana, that is to say, the four kinds of mindfulness meditation.

  • Dates: Friday 10th of July to Saturday 18th of July 2015. (7 days and 8 nights).
  • Venue: Castlecreag Academy, Old Castlecreag Raod, Castlecreag NSW 2749 (1.30 hours from Sydney, in the Penrith Valley).
  • Cost: $440.00 per person. Covers accommodation, facility hire, food cost and other logistics. (Bhante’s time and teachings are freely given).
  • Contact: Deepika Weerakoon, meditateasy@gmail.com.

Copy this

Copyright is a big deal. There’s hardly a single computer user who hasn’t faced the possibility of using or creating content that infringes copyright. And it is a huge deal in the area of Buddhist texts, where many texts are protected under some form of copyright law. I’m going to make a somewhat complex argument here, so let me state my conclusions up front.

I think copyright is a bad idea. I think we would be better off without it. But regardless of whether it has certain applications in some areas, it contradicts fundamental Buddhist principles and should never be applied to Buddhist scriptures.

Why is copyright a bad idea?

The basic premise of copyright is this: that we can ensure creative incomes by legal means. The purpose of copyright is to provide a legal avenue to ensure the rights of original creators are respected. That is to say, a copyright notice is nothing if it is not an implicit legal threat. It says, if you don’t comply, you are a criminal and we will take you to court. The problem is not just that these threats don’t work, it is that they prevent us from even considering more humane and socially-based measures.

When copyright laws evolved over the past few centuries, we lived in a completely different world. Copying took effort, and it could be reasonably contained. But for the past 20 years or so, the combined effort of human ingenuity and industrial output has created billions of machines that can copy incredibly fast, and has put those machines in the hands of most of the people on this planet.

Then you say to everyone, “Please don’t use these machines for copying!” Have you heard what happened in the Garden of Eden? Let me make a huge leap and guess: people copy stuff anyway.

Have a look at how many copyright takedown notices Google gets:

google_takedown

Yep, that’s over a million requests every day. For one company. And see how it’s soared over the past few years, at the same time as the protectors of copyright have pushed hard for creating ever more draconian laws.

There aren’t that many bad people in the world. If the law says that millions of people are criminals, it’s the law that is wrong, not the people. Any law that is broken this often is ill-conceived.

It seems to me that successful laws are of two kinds. You either have laws that govern things that are very exceptional, only a few people do them, and they fall well outside what are considered acceptable; such as murder, theft, and the like. In such cases, you ban the thing and impose substantial penalties. But other kinds of laws govern things that most people do, or might do. It’s not so much a matter of prohibiting things because they are wrong, but managing them in the interests of the public good. I’m thinking of things like speeding tickets, or building regulations, or non-smoking zones. In such cases we try to nudge people towards a better behavior. You tweak them, making them more stringent, together with an education component, and gradually build a social expectation of acceptable behavior.

The problem with copyright law is that it tries to apply the absolutism which is appropriate for the first kind of law to something that should be managed by the second kind of law. You can’t just make people stop copying things they like. It’s never going to happen. Maybe you could make them modify their behavior, but until you give them a way of doing that it is a losing battle.

Copyright law, it is often believed, may be justified by reference to the economic reality. But if that’s the case, why do the proponents of copyright resort to falsified data to justify their positions? There are, on the other hand, multiple accounts by authors and formal studies that show that publishing books freely on the internet dramatically increases usage and has little effect on book sales.

The intended purpose of copyright is not to protect corporations, but to protect the work of creators. But here’s the thing. Before I was a monk, I was an original creator. I was a songwriter; and I lived among creative artists. For 6 or 7 years pretty much all my friends were writers, poets, actors, musicians, painters, or dancers. And I can’t recall a single time when copyright law was actually relevant to anyone. True, I made a small amount from song royalties, but it never affected our lives all that much.

And anyway, even if you, as a struggling artist, became aware of a copyright violation, what could you do about it? Take a publisher or record company to court? Good luck with that. What you’d do, if anything, is contact the alleged violator, and if they didn’t do as you asked, you’d grumble about it. You don’t need a legal system for that.

Copyright becomes relevant when you step up into the realm of corporate sponsored art. You sign a contract, giving the copyright ownership to a company. For us it was a record company, otherwise it might be a book publisher, a movie studio or whatever. Then they own the copyright, and you get a small percentage (in our case, about 10%—so much for protecting the rights of creative artists.) If there is a copyright violation, the company goes to court, because they can afford to.

Now, in some cases this can be justified. For example, it’s really expensive to make a movie. You need companies to provide the financing and bear the risk. But this is a purely contingent fact, and it changes depending on technology. In the past, for example, a publishing company was needed to produce books. Gradually, technology has eaten away at the specialist services that publishers can offer. Typesetting, proofreading, design, marketing, printing, distribution: all these can now be done easily by individual authors, who can then keep full copyright control over their works. On Amazon, nearly 50% of creator revenue for genre titles is now from self-published books. So the fact that producing some kinds of creative work requires large companies and legal protection does not mean that such protection is necessary everywhere.

The notion that copyright exists to protect creators withers when you consider the devastating impact that the radical expansion of copyright has had on works whose creators have died. Here’s some background on this, from Professor James Boyle of Duke Law School:

Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn’t want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you “fixed” the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture — from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials — was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic. Copyright went from covering very little culture, and only covering it for a 28 year period during which it was commercially available, to covering all of culture, regardless of whether it was available — often for over a century. Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up — with no benefit to anyone — and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder — and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate — with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed — although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access.

That this extension of copyright is useless and harmful is not just the opinion of a few radicals. In 2002 a team of 19 economists, including 4 Nobel laureates, submitted an analysis to the US Congress on the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, where they concluded that, “Taken as a whole, the authors believe that it is highly unlikely that the economic benefits from copyright extension under the CTEA outweigh the additional costs.” And yet, it is still with us.

Here’s a stunning graphic that shows just how deep a hole in our culture copyright law has dug. It’s from a paper titled “How Copyright Keeps Works Disappeared”, by Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois College of Law. This graphic shows how books published before the magic public-domain date of 1923 are far more available than those published after. Essentially, publishers make texts available for a decade or two, and then they languish unread until they enter public domain.

The proof is in the pudding. Empirical studies show that creative workers earn an average of around half the median wage, and what income there is is extremely unequal and uncertain. In a survey of 25,000 authors in the UK and Germany, authors Martin Kretschmer and Philip Hardwick of the Bournemouth University Business School wrote that, if the aim of copyright law is to provide reasonable renumeration for writers, “This study shows quite conclusively that current copyright law has empirically failed to meet these aims.” They added, “After this study, copyright policy cannot remain the same.” And yet not only has there been no reform, things continue to get worse, as in the top secret deals being forged in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If the law doesn’t really protect creative artists, then who does it protect? Copyright law is an instrument of capitalism, and like all instruments of capitalism, it aims to make the rich richer. Who is making all the fuss about copyright? Farmers in Kenya? Street cleaners in Manila? Bus drivers in Brazil? No, it’s the owners of massive, wealthy corporations.

The practical result of copyright, I allege, is to take money out of the hands of creative artists and their fans, and concentrate it in the hands of the rich, who control the means of production. Think about it: why was copyright law created in the past 300 years or so? Isn’t that the time when the printing press became used? A printing press allows mass copying of writing, but it does so at considerable expense, in terms of the physical machinery and space, but also in terms of time and experience, and carefully learned craftsmanship. When the laws were created, this served a purpose, as the capital—printing presses, distribution networks, and the like—was necessary to propagate work. So a class of company, known as “publishers”, was created to deal with these things and enable the printing and distribution of books. But now, the measurable effect of copyright law is to prevent people from accessing content. And the reason for this is straightforward: the whole idea is based on a state of technology that simply doesn’t exist any more.

Profit arises from the demand for a good whose supply is limited. In the 20th century, the supply of intellectual content was limited, and so it was a valuable commodity. Now it’s not, despite the efforts of content providers to keep it so. Information is the cheapest thing in the world; much cheaper than water. The economic thinking that underlies copyright law is deeply disconnected from the real world.

I have looked for demographic data on the economic effects of copyright law and haven’t been able to find anything, so allow me to make an unsubstantiated hypothesis. If anyone knows of some information, please let me know. But here is my thesis: the flow of money from copyright is, on the whole, from the poor to the rich; from the colored to the white; from the female to the male; from the underdeveloped countries to the developed; and from the young to the old. Prove me wrong!

If we are to retain any form of copyright law, we should develop it like the second kind of law I mentioned above, in a gradual and pragmatic way, together with an education process.

One model would be to make copyright law more like patent law. It would be opt-in, so a creator would have to make an application for copyright, which spelled out the reasons for applying copyright in this instance. If the application was successful, a percentage of earnings, say 10%, would go to the regulatory body, thus providing funding for it. This would ensure that copyright is only applied for substantive works, and works where the creator genuinely expects that they will lose more than 10% of their earnings by copying. The copyright would apply for a reasonable period, say 20 years, as is the case with patents.

As long as humans have existed, they have created. The first signs of human creative activity are nearly 100,000 years old. Creativity is an expression of the human spirit: it doesn’t belong to capitalism. No matter what you do, people will create. People all over the world are creating, writing, painting, playing music, and they couldn’t care less about copyright. Copyright law is not about fostering creativity. It is about keeping alive an economic order based on 20th century technology, which ensures that a small circle of the rich get the bulk of the economic gain from creative activity.

What about Buddhism?

You’d think that it wouldn’t need stating, but evidently it does: Buddhism is about letting go, copyright is about holding on.

Even if we can accept a case for certain forms of copyright in certain spheres of life, how should that apply to Buddhism? After all, Buddhism not merely survived, but flourished for thousands of years before copyright came on the picture. Perhaps some historical perspective is in order.

The first question, which can be dealt with swiftly, is whether copying is stealing under the Buddhist precepts. The answer is no. Stealing in Buddhism requires that the owner be deprived of something. Copying is not taking. You could argue that the creator is indirectly deprived of income, but that is irrelevant. There are plenty of ways to indirectly deprive someone of income; I could set up a rival business, for example. I might even do that out of malice, to deliberately harm you. That may not be a nice thing to do, it might even be illegal, but it has nothing to do with stealing. Of course, breaking copyright is against the law, which is a separate matter; but it is not breaking precepts.

Incidentally, many monastics, like most people in developing countries, use pirated software all the time. If copying was stealing, they’d risk falling into an expulsion offence. However, even though there is no expulsion offence for using the software, it is still often illegal. This is one of the many reasons why monastics should use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), such as Linux. This also highlights one of the often-overlooked details of copyright history. Software is an unusual industry in that extensive copying has existed as long as the industry has. People have been using millions of pirated copies of Windows and other software as long as they have been around. Yet software companies are thriving, and making record profits.

For the Buddhist tradition, as indeed for most ancient traditions, there is no notion of intellectual property. People borrowed and copied all the time. Buddhist texts are full of cases where monks or nuns are quoting verbatim passages from the Buddha or others, and there is never an issue of ownership. That’s because the Dhamma is not about ownership. It’s about helping people let go of suffering.

The Dhamma was felt to be, if anyone’s, the Buddha’s. The Buddha encouraged his students to teach the Dhamma in their own language; so that, from the earliest days, the Dhamma existed in multiple translated forms, all of which were considered to be the words of the Buddha. When the texts were later translated into Chinese and Tibetan, they continued this tradition, regarding these texts as “the word of the Buddha” in exactly the same sense as the “original” scriptures (which were themselves translations from one Indic dialect to another).

However, in modern times agreements such as the Berne convention ruled that translations should be considered to be original creations. I think this is a mistake. I’ve done original writing, and I’ve done translations, and they are very different kinds of things. You can, for example, get a computer to do translation, albeit poorly, but no computer can write a meaningful original article.

Be that as it may, it is clearly contrary to the entire Buddhist tradition. And needless to say, no-one thought to consult Buddhists about this. It was a law made in Europe by some rich white men, who were not even thinking that their acts might affect an ancient spiritual tradition from the East. Yet this law has been adopted by many Buddhists who use it to control how translations are made. No longer are Buddhist scriptures regarded as the “word of the Buddha”, but as the property of individuals, or more likely, of corporations. This tendency is found mostly among western translators; Asian translators mostly stick closer to the original spirit, although they sometimes use restrictive licences of various forms.

Not only are translations regarded as owned by individuals, even the original texts are frequently subject to copyright claims. You’d think that a millenia old text would be pretty firmly in the Public Domain, but apparently many publishers of original texts don’t think so. Going beyond the extremely broad scope of copyright law, they publish licences with their texts, sometimes “releasing” them under various Creative Commons licences. But you can only licence something that you own, and you can’t just go around claiming to own something that you don’t. To make such a claim is, or it should be, illegal. (Since copyright law is written almost entirely to protect the interests of content providers, it is not clear to what extent such a claim is fact illegal. But the principle is clear enough.)

The basic justification for copyright is that if we don’t copyright things, creators won’t get compensation, and the work will not be done. This is a dubious argument in the creative industries generally, since not only, as we have seen, is there no real evidence that copyright ensures a decent living for artists, but because artists are not motivated primarily by money.

This is even more applicable to Buddhism. No-one translates Buddhist texts for money; which is a very good thing, because if you did, you’ll be pretty disappointed. We—the monastics, academics, institutions, or private individuals—who do the work of translation do it out of love. There are vast quantities of translations that have been done and simply put out there, with no attempt at getting recompense. And even in the minority of cases where works are published commercially, the translators, and the many assistants who made these works possible, typically don’t get any income from them. Given this, it seems to me that the best way to produce high quality translations is to make our work freely available, so it can be copied, adapted, and improved. If funding is needed, for example, if someone wants to take time off work to complete a translation, we should rely on the Buddhist culture of dana, which has supported the maintaining and spreading of the texts for so long.

When I suggest that we shouldn’t use copyright on our texts, people say, but how do you stop them being misused? I just don’t get what the problem is. Does anyone really think that there are hordes of malicious people waiting out there to do awful things with Buddhist texts?

If, by some remote chance, someone does do something malicious with my work, such as, say, passing it off as their own, I’ll contact them and ask them to stop. If they don’t, I’ll rely on the power of peer pressure. I’ll write about it, and let people know that there’s a scam afoot. The perps will fade away soon enough. I’d never take someone to court for anything like that, so why issue an empty threat?

To me, it seems that this concern betrays a deeper misunderstanding of what copyright law is all about.

Copyright is not something that you can claim or not claim. It exists by law because you made a creative work. By operating under copyright law you are saying that anyone who violates this law is a criminal, and is potentially subject to very large punishments.

What I am suggesting is that this should not be a legal matter. We should dedicate our works to the Public Domain, via Creative Commons Zero or similar. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily support and encourage anyone to do anything they like with your work. It means that whatever someone does, you will not treat them as a criminal. If you don’t like what they do, contact them and ask them politely to stop. If you would like to issue some guidelines for use, do so. You can ask people to give proper attribution, or to not change anything, or to not use for commercial purposes. But you don’t have to make a legal issue out of these things.

I used to go along with the norm, thinking that it was the right thing to do. So I published my works under restrictive Creative Commons licences. But as I’ve learned more and my understanding of copyright has improved, now I don’t claim anything. I think if someone wants to do something with my work, great. Alexander Duncan of Chroniker Press took my Theragatha translation and made a nice printed edition: it’s terrific, buy one if you like! Markus Echterhoff of DhammaTime just made some modifications to my Open Sanskrit font, itself derived from Open Sans. Cool, download and use it.

Which brings me back around to something I alluded to earlier. Rather than relying on copyright, we should adapt the millenia-old means of negotiating usage of materials based on social interactions. And this is, once again, an area where technology has completely changed the situation. Creators can stay in touch with their audience to a degree that has not been possible since publishing was invented.

Copyright law is just bad psychology. The people who want your things are your fans. When you invoke copyright law, you are treating your fans like criminals. How do you think that’s going to work out?

The relationship between the creator and their audience is the single, irreducible fact of all public creative activity. You need a creator, and you need an audience. What you don’t need is a middle man. By making a faceless company the middle man, you distance the creator from their audience. When a fan copies a work, they don’t think they are harming the creator. They think of it as avoiding paying “the man”. If the natural creative relationship between artist and audience is restored, there will be a greater degree of respect and mutual support. This is proven by such innovations as Kickstarter, which shows that people are quite happy to pay for creative works, especially if they feel a sense of connection with the creator.

What I am suggesting is that innovative models like Kickstarter, or its Buddhist version dana.io, give us an example of how a new relationship between creator and audience can be forged. Lulu.com, the print on demand service, is another example. Rather than signing over the ownership of your work to Lulu, you retain ownership, and use whatever licence you like. Lulu is more like a contractor. You pay them for various services, basic ones like printing and distribution, and optionally for things like design and marketing. But they never own your work: you do.

Most people don’t realize it, but the internet runs on dana. Most of the servers that power the internet run on Linux, which is Free and Open Source Software. It was created, developed, and is still maintained by people who donate their work to the public good. Linux doesn’t just power the internet, it also underlies Android, and a whole range of other applications, from computers embedded in various devices, to the world’s fastest supercomputers. Why do you think the very best computer scientists in the world use Linux for their most performance-critical work? Because it’s better, obviously. Generosity is not just a nice idea, it creates better outcomes. Why? Because people do better work when you engage their positive nature than if you assume they are selfish.

Another innovative example is the TeX typesetting program developed by Donald Knuth. He released the software for free, as quality typesetting is a public good, everyone should be able to do it. And he made money by putting the detailed instructions in a book, the TeXbook, which was of course typeset in TeX. But he went further, by offering a reward for anyone who found a bug in his program. In this way he not only improved his work, he engaged a community of clever people who wanted to work with him.

There’s lots of other examples to be found. In all these cases, people found effective ways to use a fundamental principle of Buddhist psychology: that people work best when they are encouraged to do good. If you penalize them for doing something harmless, they just get annoyed.

I’ll finish this off with a quote from the author Neil Gaiman, which is a summary of his keynote for the London Book Fair 2013.

Mammals spend an awful lot of energy on infants, on children, they spend nine months of our lives gestating, and then they get two decades of attention from us, because we’re putting all of our attention into this one thing we want to grow. Dandelions on the other hand will have thousands of seeds and they let them go where they like, they don’t really care. They will let go of 1,000 seeds, and 100 of them will sprout.

… the whole point of a digital frontier right now is that it’s a frontier, all the old rules are falling apart. Anyone who tells you they know what’s coming, what things will be like in 10 years’ time, is simply lying to you. None of the experts know—nobody knows, which is great.

When the rules are gone you can make up your own rules. You can fail, you can fail more interestingly, you can try things, and you can succeed in ways nobody would have thought of, because you’re pushing through a door marked no entrance, you’re walking in through it. You can do all of that stuff but you just have to become a dandelion, be willing for things to fail, throw things out there, try things, and see what sticks.

And, by the way, I fixed a spelling mistake in that quote. One dandelion just became a little more beautiful.

Exploring Meaning – multi-faith climate change workshop

To get to the heart of the matter

In an atmosphere of equality, take the opportunity to explore what climate change means to us from the heart. Hear from faith leaders, an aboriginal elder and a climate scientist to understand what it means to them.

Prof. Lesley Hughes, Donna Jacobs Sife, Frances Bodkin and Bhante Sujato will speak to the meaning of climate change from the backgrounds of science, Judaism, Buddhism & Aboriginal culture. We will co-create the exploration of what it means to our selves, to others, and what diverse perspectives emerge through the journey.

ALL WELCOME

Book your free ticket here

6pm : Samosas, bananas and winter warming beverages served

📅 Thu, Jun 18 2015 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM

@ Mitchell Theatre, 280 Pitt Street Sydney NSW 2000, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Graeme Lyall has passed on

Dear friends,

On Vesak day, May 3 2015 at 3.40pm, Graeme Lyall passed away. Those familiar with Buddhism in Australia will know of Graeme’s unsurpssed service to Buddhism in this country and internationally. He was the senior Buddhist in the whole country, having been part of the original Buddhist Society of NSW from its inception in 1953.

I won’t give you a history of his life, but will share with you some of my memories of him as a man.

Graeme reminded me of the Monkey character from the classic show: his nature is irrepressible! He was an august and respected figure, but in the true Australian spirit never let that become pomposity or conceit. He laughed and joked all the time, and his humor always had a point to it.

Graeme was a man after my own heart, in that he was not afraid to speak his mind. If you think Buddhists are often too quiet in the face of events that need to be spoken of, you haven’t read Graeme’s amazing website. The domain seems to have lapsed recently and is now run by a different group. But you can still see snapshots on the Internet Archive; here’s the most recent:

http://web.archive.org/web/20141216234234/http://buddhismaustralia.org/

I met him for the last time a few months ago, and as always he was in fine spirits, and speaking of his work as a prison chaplain. Not for him the lazy retirement of the dignitary. He went straight to those most in need, and gave them his heart.

And he was still growing in his own heart. I was very privileged to see a little moment a few years ago that spoke so much to me. I don’t want to give any personal details, but there had been some disagreement between Graeme and someone else involved in the Buddhist scene. They ran into each other at a ceremony I was at, and when they saw each other there was a moment of recognition: and then a big hug! To me that’s a sign of a real practitioner. Not to be perfect, but to forgive and to move on.

While Graeme was deeply non-sectarian in his approach to Dhamma, he had a strong connection with the Chinese Pure Land tradition, and was a close student of Master Chin Kung. A number of years ago, when he was very ill, he laughed with me that he would be soon in the Pure Land. He was delighted at the prospect!

Wherever he is now, I have no doubt at all that he’s happy. He devoted his life to sharing the joy of the Dhamma, and I know that he would just want you to be happy as well. So let’s make his life meaningful by staying happy. And if anyone has some thoughts or memories of Graeme you’d like to share, please leave them below.

SuttaCentral now has donations

SuttaCentral is now accepting donations.

Donate to SuttaCentral

In the past we did not set up a donations facility, as we had enough funds for our limited needs. Now, however, we are employing a full time developer, in addition to several other ongoing costs, such as typing the texts in several languages. So we have set this up to guarantee our future stability.

The work behind the scenes has been mainly done by Deepika, who has set up the SuttaCentral Development Trust. Details are on our Donations page.

The facility has been set up using the secure modern payment system, Stripe.

If you think SuttaCentral is amazing, now you can help us make it even better.

9 day Sutta Retreat at Jhana Grove with Bhantes Sujato & Brahmali

This is a residential retreat organized by the Buddhist Fellowship. Ven Brahmali and myself will be presenting DN16 Mahaparinibbana Sutta, with time for discussions and meditations.

It’s Vesak season, so we’ll take the chance to spend some time with the Buddha as he slowly makes his way towards his final passing. It’s one of the most moving and powerful texts in all of Buddhism.

Friday, 24 April 2015 at 17:00—Sunday, 3 May 2015 at 11:00 (AWST)

Bookings are being organized through the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore, who proposed and organized the retreat. You can email Eng Chin at:

engchin.ho@buddhistfellowship.org

Translating the Four Nikayas

Dear blog-friends, my apologies for abandoning you for the past several weeks, or is it months now? I have, as you may have suspected, been occupied with other things, primarily with doing work for SuttaCentral.

One of the reasons for my focus on SuttaCentral is that I am planning on taking an extended break in order to translate Pali suttas.

Since it’s mainly concerning SuttaCentral, I’ve put the main post on our Discourse forum, where you can read all about it and voice your comments:

Read about my translation project.

Buddhist-flavored crowdfunding: dana.io

A little while ago I came across this site, which is made of pure awesome:

https://dana.io/

Basically it’s a kickstarter built on Buddhist principles. It’s wonderful to see a progressive Buddhist contribution that, instead of whining about modernity or going all commercial, sees that some aspects of modern life are actually pretty amazing and 100% in line with Buddhist principles.

And one example of that is the whole idea of crowdfunding, which provides a means, based on generosity, to complement to usual commercial ways of raising funds. It’s a brilliant, subversive idea, and ripe for a Buddhist slant.

Dana.io takes the whole idea of dana even further; you don’t have a set percentage to pay the site for their services, you choose what to give them. And their profits are put back into the community. There’s a heap of little details like this that show that the site has a really good handle on both the Buddhist principles and on how to apply them on the modern web.

One of the founders is Alan Clements, an ex-monk and Buddhist teacher, and the depth of experience shows in the site. It has been carefully put together from every angle, from design to philosophy. It goes without saying that the site, like the Dhamma as a whole, is not just for “Buddhists”, but opens up the fundamentals of Buddhist practices for everyone.

So when you’ve got a project to get started, consider dana.io!

Why we can be certain that God doesn’t exist

A couple of months ago I wrote a rebuttal of Paul Williams’ critique of Buddhism. That got me thinking about theology a little; always bearing in mind the Hindu saying that one who loves God will get enlightened in seven lifetimes, but one who hates God will get enlightened in three!

I was reminded of something in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago, and there was something that had niggled me about it. Of course, there are many things that one might take issue with in that book, but one thing struck me: even though he launched the most virulent attack possible on God, he said that we can be almost certain that God doesn’t exist. It seems to me on reflection that he is being too wimpy: in fact, we can, and should, be completely certain that God doesn’t exist.


TL;DR: The concept of God, in any recognizable form, involves not one, but a cascading series of impossibilities, incoherencies, and contradictions, any one of which is sufficient to dismiss the notion out of hand, but which taken together render the likelihood of God’s existence to be practically zero. Moreoever, there is precisely no evidence in favor of God existing. The only rational conclusion is that God does not exist.


Certainty

Dawkins, of course, is being a good scientist, and operating within the conservative epistemological framework of modern science, according to which it is not possible to arrive at definite truth about anything. This is all fine and good, but it is not really how things work.

The reality is that we accept many things all the time as being certain. It is certain that today is Monday. It is certain that I am sitting on the floor. It is certain that I am breathing air. Sure, we might do a solipsistic fantasy where we doubt these things for philosophical purposes, but for any pragmatic purpose, these things are certain.

Another way of looking at it is to think of certainty’s opposite, doubt. “Question everything!”: so goes the slogan. Sounds great, but it is completely impossible. If you really questioned everything, you’d never get anything done. I’ll get a glass of water. But is there water? Is there a glass? Am I me? How do I go? And if we really questioned everything, we would not find wisdom, we would be paralyzed and unable to understand anything.

In this way, the standard of “question everything”, or its correlate, “nothing is certain”, becomes just another metaphysical absolute. It becomes an unassailable doctrine; and of course, it begs the question: can we doubt the idea that everything should be doubted?

What science, and Buddhism, actually operate on is far more pragmatic. Truth is approached in a reasonable way, contingently accepting most things as true, and identifying just one thing, or a set of things, as the object of inquiry. How we choose those things is largely based on what matters: for science, to have an improved understanding of the physical world; for Buddhism, to escape from suffering.

So we have a pragmatic approach to truth, and we question things when it appears that questioning is going to be useful. Of course, we don’t know until later whether it actually is useful, but we make our best guess, based on what we have previously learned, and then we see the results.

Rather than saying that everything should be doubted all the time, then, we would be better off saying that anything should be open to be doubted, if by doubting or questioning it we may gain some benefit.

Defining God

In such discussions, it is customary for theists to say that we really can’t say what God is. This is apparently meant to be an argument in favor of the existence of God, but all it does is to affirm that the concept is ultimately meaningless. I will come back to the meaninglessness of God later on, but for now, I want to refute this idea as it stands.

The concept of God is not so vague that we can’t talk about it. While it can never be 100% pinned down, that is not the point. In fact, pretty much any concept, if pushed too hard, will break down and be impossible to define.

What is relevant is whether there are enough qualities that are commonly accepted to be part of the understanding of God in order that we can have a sensible conversation about it. And of course, there are. God is eternal, he is morally perfect, he is omniscient, omnipotent, infinite in extent, and he created the world. Pretty much any monotheistic theology will accept these and other similar claims about their God. If they reject these, we are probably in the sphere of the pagan small-g gods, to which my argument does not apply. However, any understanding of God that works within these and similar basic qualities will fall squarely within the “impossible”.

Why is God impossible?

If we take at all seriously any of these claims, it becomes immediately apparent that they are simply nonsense.

What could it possibly mean to say that an entity is omnipotent, for example? He can literally do anything: save a bird’s life, raise a man from the dead, start a universe, or shift the orbit of an electron in a hydrogen atom floating in the Horse-Head Nebula.

This is just ridiculous. It has no correlate to anything that we know of the universe. There is nothing in science, nothing in experience, nothing anywhere that gives the slightest credence to this idea.

It violates, in fact, every observable fact about the universe. Everything we have seen, every physical reality that you or I have ever experienced or will experience, operates according to certain well-understood principles. And these things are always limited. Stuff falls down. Energy flows to an equilibrium. Push something and it pushes back. And so on and so on. Every single observation that anyone has ever made of the universe is of this kind.

Sure, there are plenty of details that need working out, and plenty of areas where our knowledge is inadequate. But the only way to extend our knowledge to to start with what we have actually observed and understood, and to work out from there. You can’t just pull out of your hat a kind of thing that is utterly different from every other kind of thing and assert that it is worthy of serious consideration.

And what of omniscience? To know literally everything that is happening now, and in the past and future? Nice idea, but it contradicts everything that we know about how consciousness works. As the Buddha pointed out ad infinitum, consciousness works according to conditions. Those conditions are, like all conditions, limited, impermanent, temporal, and localized.

As I have argued earlier in discussing the “infinite consciousness” ideas that sully much Buddhist mysticism, the notion of a consciousness that has not evolved, that is not embedded in time, that has no relation to the actual consciousness that you and I experience every day of our lives, is nonsense on a stick. You can’t just take away all of the conditions that make consciousness possible and say, a-ha! That’s a consciousness! Omniscience is deeply impossible.

Eternity? Same thing. No one has never experienced anything eternal. It is, in fact, quite impossible to do so. You can’t use a limited impermanent consciousness to experience an infinite period of time, any more than you can take a limited ruler or measuring tape and measure an infinite distance. Even the existence of the past and the future is dodgy enough, much less the notion of eternity.

Impermanence is not merely an arbitrary thing that happens to consciousness: it is how consciousness works. Change is how consciousness learns and grows and becomes. In deep meditation, sure, this process is radically arrested, which is why with limited insight, and the power of attachment to self, it is easy to mistake such states for eternal. But they are not, they are merely dependent on subtle conditions. This was one of the chief insights of the Buddha.

Hopefully I don’t need to continue. The point is simple enough: every quality that is commonly attributed to God is simply a baseless assertion, which contradicts everything that we know about the world as it is, and for which there is no evidence.

Not only is there no evidence currently, it is not possible for there to be any evidence. How could one ever prove that God was omnipotent? What possible means of knowing could there be that could establish this? None whatsoever.

But the impossibility of God goes deeper than this, for not only is every quality of God impossible individually, they are also impossible taken collectively. The most powerful argument here is the argument from evil. God knows all, so he knows not only every bad thing that is done, but how to avoid it. He is all powerful, so he can prevent every evil without harmful side effects. And he is morally perfect, so he will always do the right thing. Yet there is much evil in the world, evil that even a morally imperfect person of limited knowledge and power can eliminate. How is it that God allows this evil to persist?

The theists have been back and forth on this argument for centuries, but I won’t go into all the defences here, and why they don’t work. Suffice to say, the argument from evil is highly robust, and more than that, it is spiritually important as it goes to the heart of why we engage in spiritual practice: the problem of suffering. Any doctrine that aims to address suffering, and does so while leaving such a gaping hole in its heart, is grounded only in the irrational.

The argument from evil is only one of many arguments that philosophers have developed over the years to show that God cannot exist. When we start to take seriously the claims that are intrinsic to the notion of God, the impossibilities cascade one after the other, multiplying the improbability, which was already at vanishing point with the first quality of God.

In addition, there are many other considerations that we could bring to bear. Take, for example, the criteria of usefulness, which is one of the basic standards that any scientific proposal must satisfy. If it was the case that God created the world, surely he would leave some fingerprints somewhere? Surely this fact would be the primary datum underlying any successful physical theory? Surely it would be the single most important fact about the world? Yet those who do science know that not only is the God hypothesis utterly useless in explaining any physical phenomenon whatsoever, it has a positively pernicious influence, which has frequently held back science.

The most pertinent example of this today is of course the ridiculous creationist doctrine in the US and elsewhere. I refuse to dignify it with the term “intelligent design” since what it depicts is neither intelligent nor designed. It is the doctrine that God created the world, and that this explains how all the different animals and plants came to be. Yet this silly dogma has added precisely nothing to our understanding of biology. Nothing, after hundreds of years and countless proponents. It is an utterly barren and useless hypothesis for understanding anything about the world.

Once more, we could continue in this vein indefinitely. There is literally no end to the nonsense that can be argued and justified based on the single mistaken assumption that God exists. So much so that I propose the following: any subject whatsoever, if investigated rationally, disproves the existence of God.

What could be more impossible than God?

Here I’d like to propose a sliding scale of impossibility. We’ll start with things that we can all agree don’t exist, and see how weird we can get before encountering something less likely to exist than God.

How about Unicorns? They don’t exist, right? Even hardened scientsist are agreed on this, I would presume. Yet they are not all that improbable. Basically, a horse with a nice horn; we’ll leave aside the more magical varieties here. They might have existed, but evolution didn’t happen to take that particular step. Now, given the size of the universe, could we not argue that Unicorns probably exist on some world? Sure, why not? But let’s rephrase our tenet: that Unicorns don’t exist on earth. This works just as well for us.

Now, there is still some chance that we might be wrong. After all, new species, including some sizeable mammals, are still being discovered. And Unicorns don’t violate any known laws of science. So they are not completely impossible, but still, so unlikely that no-one gives their existence any serious thought. Yet they are far, far more likely to exist than God.

Next, take Santa Claus. With his flying sled, reindeers with shiny red noses, workshop on the North Pole, and his astonishing ability to visit all the homes of children all around the world on one night (excepting of course the poor and the homeless), he is far less likely to exist than a Unicorn. He violates multiple laws of physics. Moreover, like God, the fact that lots of people believe in him is easily understandable as a wish-fulfilment. We can trace the cultural, historical, psychological, and commercial forces that have led to the cultural phenomenon of Santa Claus, and there is no need to invoke a supernatural explanation.

So he’s impossible, he doesn’t exist: and yet he is still much more likely to exist than God. Flying through the air on a sled is pretty much impossible, but hey, maybe there is some super-advanced technology that might make it happen. And who knows what advances plastic surgery might bring to the burgeoning field of reindeer nose enhancement? Getting to every home on a single night: well, not so easy to explain. But a ton easier than explaining the ability to literally do anything whatsoever. That is far more impossible, if not infinitely more impossible. So God is many, many orders of magnitude less likely to exist than Santa.

Okay, so how about something a little less fanciful? Is it possible, for example, that 2+2=5? (We can rephrase this in ontological terms, if you like: what is the probability that there exists a true statement that “2+2=5”?) Surely there is no-one, not even the most skeptical scientist, who would treat this as possible.

Now, mathematical statements are true or false by definition. Once we know the terms of the problem, we can derive the result that 2+2=4, and it never equals 5. We can do this in pure mathematics, and if we like, we can confirm by empirical observation, as has been done countless thousands of times.

But the history of science is full of examples of apparently self-evident axioms turning out to be anything but. A classic example is the Euclidean “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points”. Self-evident, provable by theorem, and confirmed by countless tests: yet still wrong. Einstein showed that the shortest distance between two points is in fact a curve, due to the influence of gravity.

It is this kind of example that leads to the idea that everything should be questioned. Yet Euclid’s theorem served perfectly well for thousands of years, as indeed it still does today, except when calculating spaceship trajectories and the like. It only became useful to question it when certain theoretical developments forced a new approach, which was subsequently confirmed by observation.

So it is possible that “2+2=5” might turn out to be correct. Perhaps our notion of a number is faulty. Perhaps we are living in a tiny pocket of a much larger Universe where a different mathematics applies. Of course, incredibly unlikely, but still more likely than that God exists.

To make 2+2=5 we would have to revolutionize our understanding of numbers and their relations. This would lead to some changes in our culture, just like changing the idea about straight lines led to some changes, such as improvements in astronomy and understanding of the cosmos. But the existence of God would require an even bigger, wholesale rejection of everything we have ever seen and learned about the Universe. No law of physics, no conception of time and space, no moral principles, no history, no nothing would escape revision. To conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than the statement “2+2=5”.

Okay, so what is less likely than this? What about something that is just plain meaningless? There’s Chomsky’s classic “green ideas sleep furiously”; a sentence that is grammatical but meaningless. Can we say of this that it is true or false? In other words, can we make an ontological statement of the form: there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”? Well, it would seem unlikely, and the philosophers would mostly say no. But for our purposes, perhaps it is still relevant. Such a statement, unlike 2+2=5, is not even wrong. It simply doesn’t have enough semantic clarity to be the kind of thing that might exist. If anything, then, we could say that it is less likely to exist.

Yet it is still not entirely out of the question. The statement, like the statement 2+2=5, depends on meaning, and meaning is a slippery beast. There have been multiple attempts to create a linguistic context where “green ideas sleep furiously” is in fact meaningful. Whether these are successful or not, it is still the case that the statement might be made meaningful. And if it is meaningful, it might be true.

As with the previous example, if we were to find a way in which this statement were to be made meaningful and even true, it would involve some revision in our understanding, in this case, of linguistics, and possibly in the nature of colors, ideas, sleep, or furiosity.

Yet this would be far less of a revolution than if we discovered that God exists. To work it out would require no more than some rational philosophy, whereas to apprehend the reality of an existent God requires an entirely new way of knowing the world, one that has no relation to anything that anyone has ever experienced. Once more we conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than that there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”.

I’m reaching here. I’m finding it hard to come up with things that are less probable than this. Maybe someone can help me out! But I suspect that the point has been made.

God doesn’t exist. If we are to use the word “certain” of anything, it is this. The existence of God is not merely unlikely, but of such monumental improbability that the word “impossible” doesn’t do it justice. We simply don’t have language that fully captures the degree of improbability of God. The normal things that we call “impossible” are infinitely more likely to be true than that God exists.

But why?

If this argument is correct, then we might wonder why so many people believe in something so improbable? There are plenty of intelligent, sensitive, and sincere theists: if it is really so obvious, how have they missed it?

I don’t want to get too much into the psychology of religion here, but I will return briefly to the question of meaning. It was an axiom of the logical positivists that metaphysical statements, such as “God exists” are, in a profound sense, meaningless. They constitute a use of language which, while outwardly following the normal grammar and syntax of language, has no content.

I think there is something to this idea; but it is not something that happens incidentally. God must be understood in a way that is beyond the reach of reason and evidence, despite the efforts of countless theologians to the contrary. As soon as God comes within the sway of ordinary evidence, of logic, or of meaning, he enters the profane world; he becomes sullied by the world and withdraws from it it in fear. This is a fundamental drive of the religious impulse; it moves towards the irrational. And there, as a symbol or a feeling or an impression, God has a genuine place.

It is the meaninglessness of the concept of God, the utterness of its impossibility, that makes it such a fertile and powerful idea; that allows it, in fact, to become the focus of meaning for so many people. It is precisely God’s lack of linguistic meaning that endows him with a surplus of spiritual meaning.

This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.

The problem is that God is a confused bearer of this meaning. Some things are not rational because they go beyond reason; but other things are not rational because they fall beneath reason. So while God can raise some people to a higher spiritual realization, he is just as likely to drag his followers beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality. The reason for this is not hard to find: God has evolved from the brutal warrior deity of a primitive tribal people, and he still keeps alive many of his traits from the bad old days. While some enlightened believers find a way to get past that, the old ways are still there, and can be backed up by countless passages from scripture.

If we are interested in moving beyond reason, there is no need to invoke a set of theistic beliefs; the Buddha showed this 2500 years ago. The important thing is the expansion of consciousness, and for this God is irrelevant. In recent surveys, many theists agree that atheists are just as likely to be good people, and sometimes they even say that religion does more harm than good. We need a framework for genuine spiritual development which inspires, as God sometimes does, a movement towards greater compassion and wisdom, while avoiding the brutality, the sexism, and the ignorance that God all too often draws in his wake.