Just a war

There’s a long tradition of religions delivering judgments on what can be considered a ‘Just War‘. Recently I was at a interfaith gathering at Camden High School. They brought us there because there is a proposed Muslim school, and the local community, which is fairly old-fashioned and not very ethnically diverse, were concerned. One of the questions we were asked, along with the inevitable questions about the role of women, was about war. Since religion is seen as a driving force in many conflicts, what is our real position? Each of the panelists, from Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant backgrounds, had some definition of a ‘just war’. I decided to stick to my (metaphor) guns and just say no: there is no Buddhist concept of a just war.

This is certainly true as far as the early Suttas go. Obviously Buddhist States have gone to war, probably no less often than others, and frequently with each other. Presumably there is a long tradition of justification of war from a Buddhist perspective in these countries. But I’d like to sidestep that and consider why it is that the Buddha himself never made any declarations on such a crucial matter.

It seems to me that the very notion of a just war is immoral and indefensible, and I suspect that this is why the Buddha never pronounced on it. The aim of just war theorists is, of course, to limit the damage that war causes. It can be justified from a pragmatic perspective. I doubt, however, whether it actually achieves this goal, and suspect it does the opposite.

Just war theory is developed in comfortable offices and studies, by learned men steeped in their religious and philosophical traditions. They have the leisure to sit and quietly contemplate the metaphysical and ethical ‘issues’. And they choose to spend their time thinking of the ways that war can be justified.

So at the end of the day you come up with a list of criteria. The current 4 essential criteria as suggested by the Catechism of the Catholic Church are:

* the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
* all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
* there must be serious prospects of success;
* the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

This sounds all very worthy and reasonable. But a minute’s reflection shows that these criteria are essentially meaningless.

‘The damage must be lasting, grave, and certain’ – these are simply subjective descriptions of an incident. The perception of ‘lastingness’ or ‘gravity’ is developed in a culture through ideology, media, and governments. Some cultures think that flushing a sacred text down a toilet is a matter of grave concern, whereas for Ajahn Brahm the only problem is that you have to call the plumber!

‘All other means are ineffective’ – but how can you ever know this? There’s always another way. If you want a 100% effective tool against oppressive regimes, try patience: no matter how awful a dictator or aggressor is, they only last for so long and no more. I’m not suggesting that patience is always, or even often, a good tool against oppression, I’m simply pointing out how arbitrary this condition is.

‘There must be serious prospects of success’ – how do you define success? Is this as defined by the women, the dead, the maimed? Or is it success as defined by the top-hats, who get to get on with business as usual?

‘The use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated’ – again, how on earth do you evaluate this? Do you compare life against life? The moral equation is simply too complex and uncertain to have any meaning. I find it difficult to accept that war, at any time and under any circumstances, leads to a better outcome.

What I am concerned with here is the use to which such statements are put. Effectively, i think they act as a blueprint for war. Any government, if it has any concern for how it morally appears, can take such a list, give it to their spin doctors, and come back saying, “See, this is a just war according to your own criteria. Now you go and tell your people that this is a just war. We need your help to accomplish our Just Cause.”

Some years ago I saw a stunning documentary, The Fog of War, which was essentially a series of interviews with Robert McNamara. The metaphor of the title conveys the uncertainty and confusion that reigns in any war. Society is disrupted, fear is everywhere, each side is spinning facts furiously; the complexity is just so great that it’s impossible to come to clear decisions. In such a context, the neat ethical abstractions of the just war theorists come apart. They assume that decision makers can have a clear knowledge and understanding of events, and this is just what they don’t have.

I understand that just war theory addresses genuine ethical issues. It may be one thing for Jesus or the Buddha to say ‘turn the other cheek’; but what if the person being attacked is not you, but the people around you? What if non-violence becomes an opportunity for even greater oppression?

I don’t have answers for these questions, and it would be ridiculous for me, a middle-class white man in a safe country, to pretend I did. But I do think that it is ethically imperative for religious people, philosophers, and people in positions of ethical leadership, to put their energies into creating peace rather than justifying war.


A Sacred Lotus

Check out the latest article on bhikkhunis in the Bangkok Post. This one’s by Nissara Horayangura, who is now a samaneri herself. The article is on Susan Pembroke, the founder of the Alliance for Bhikkhunis.

An ozzie saint

I’m sure most of you have heard that the Roman Church has finally declared they will canonize Mary MacKillop, who will become the first officially recognized Australian saint.

It’s great that such an honor has gone to a woman who genuinely worked hard all her life for the welfare of others. And the minor detail that she was excommunicated for alleged insubordination just adds relevance to the mix. The Church realized its mistake and undid the excommunication (is this “de-excommunicate” or “re-communicate”?), but the episode starkly shows the battles that reformers undergo when they try to extend the comfortable boundaries of religious conventions. Adelaide people still remember how she was supported by local Jewish and Anglican benefactors during her period of excommunication, an example of Adelaide’s proud history of social harmony.

Mongkut & Dhammayut

Here’s an interesting account of Thai Buddhist history, focusing on the reforms by Phra Mongkut in the mid-19th century.

The author, Phra Anil Sakya (Sugandha), is a Nepalese bhikkhu who was the secretary for the Sangharaja in Thailand, and is now holding an academic post. He notes that Mongkut himself used the term ‘dhammayut’ to mean one who is practicing correctly in accord with the Buddha himself, whose teachings are to be studied through a critical and close examination of the texts, clearly distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic. His son, Phra Vajiraṇāṇa, praised one of the leading figures in the early Dhammayut, saying, ‘Somdet Phra Vanarat likes changing, a true nature of Dhammayut Order.’

Fundamentalism & pornography

We’ve been having some discussion about fundamentalism. As a member of a religious order, it is a problem of great concern for me. I genuinely believe that humanity’s religious heritage is its finest flower, yet it seems to fall so easily to the depths.

In the last few days I’ve also been thinking about pornography. Not, one might imagine, the most usual topic for a celibate monk to engage, except, of course, to morally condemn. My own experience is limited; but I was once a teenage boy. ‘Nuff said.

This train of thought was stimulated a few weeks ago, when I did a gig on happiness with a local philosopher, Caroline West. I did a little background research, and one of her most accessible articles online happened to be on “Pornography and Censorship” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s an excellent article, do yourself a favor.

She starts with the famous quote by Justice Stewart: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” I feel kind of the same about fundamentalism. And I wonder whether the similarities might go deeper.

The use of “porn” as a derogatory adjective has spread beyond its use for sexually explicit material. A recent Guardian review, for example, called the movie 2012 “disaster porn”. I wonder whether such an unconscious extension of the word might not reveal something of the associations of the word that more formal approaches might miss.

I haven’t seen the film, so this is just speculative. But I think what it’s getting at is that the depiction of disaster is so explicit that the mechanics of the thing overwhelm the rest of what makes a good film – story, character, theme, and so on.

Good art is always integrative. It shows human activities, choices, and feelings, and puts it in a nuanced, complex context that enhances a sense of fullness and humanity.

Pornography, on the other hand, is reductive and dis-integrative. Rather than depicting sex as a part of life, in the midst of relationship, emotion, human developments, successes, dangers, and failings, it focuses on the mere mechanics: genitals in motion. Sexual desire always spins around and moves towards this; having sex is a key desired outcome of any intimate relationship. But in pornography this becomes the only thing. People, and especially women, become nothing more than life support for sex organs. Relationship, emotion, consequences, are all stripped away to create a dissociative fantasy.

It might seem as if there’s nothing in common between pornography and fundamentalism. After all, fundamentalists are always arch-moralizers, intent on telling everybody else what they should do. But there are some similarities even on the surface. Both groups are obsessed with sex. Christian & Islamic fundamentalists spend inordinate effort railing against homosexuality, promiscuity, pre-marital sex, or indeed anything that doesn’t fit their own tiny imagined version of human possibility. Buddhists opposed to bhikkhuni ordination are likewise caught up on the shape of genital organs as the defining factor in ordained life.

But it seems to me that there are more, err, fundamental similarities. Just as pornography strips away all complexity and nuance to focus obsessively on the one object of desire, fundamentalism does the same thing to religion.

Fundamentalists ignore context, history, nuance. They imagine an eternal, changeless religion that is dissociated from anything that has actually happened in the real world.

In real human relationships, sex is an intense, central part of a far more complex situation. Porn strips that away and focuses on the sheer physical locus of desire.

In genuine spirituality, too, the central beliefs of a devotee function in a complex nuanced way in relation to the devotee’s entire life.

The fundamentalist shares with many more typical devotees a belief in naive, literal doctrinal assertions, like ‘the Bible is the word of God’, or ‘the Tipitaka was spoken in its entireity by the Buddha’. But for most people these beliefs form a background part of a complex, changing relationship with their spiritual tradition. A fundamentalist focuses obsessively on these unprovable and implausible doctrinal assertions, as a pornographer focuses obsessively on ‘genitals in motion’.

Just as pornography depicts the highest happiness as a mechanical stimulus of physical parts, with no genuine human involvement, fundamentalism sees the spiritual life as the conformity with a set of defined beliefs, with no genuine concern for the well being of people. While true practitioners practice their religion because it makes themselves and others genuinely happy, fundamentalists want to prove they are happy so that they can convert others to their beliefs. It is immaterial to fundamentalism whether people are reasonable, sane, or happy, as long as they subscribe to the right set of beliefs.

I have mentioned many times that I have no answer to the problem, that I believe fundamentalism to be extremely dangerous, and yet I have despaired at being able to seriously communicate with fundamentalists. In the wake of the recent scandal with Pastor Rory, who was hauled up by the Singapore authorities for criticizing Buddhism, Ven. Dhammika has said that he thinks interfaith dialogue is of little use in dealing with fundamentalism. I would agree, the fundamentalists just don’t show. That doesn’t mean interfaith work is no use; there are plenty of other good reasons for doing it. We just shouldn’t expect to have any direct impact on the fundamentalists.

Dhammika suggests using government-sponsored initiatives to reward healthy spiritual groups. This is a fine idea, but it will not solve the problem. Fundamentalists thrive in seeing themselves as the ‘other’, a persecuted minority under siege from the secular encroachments of modernity. They would love nothing more than to ‘prove’ how disadvantaged they are by the way the government only supports other groups. Martyrdom does wonders for a religion’s popularity.

The other day we had an Australian Religious Response to Climate Change meeting. We all felt a little depressed after the debacle at Copenhagen, and the ascension of prominent skeptic Tony Abbott to opposition leader. We discussed holding a faith and climate change forum in Canberra and inviting the PM and Mr. Abbott. But I was worried about this: why should we give the skeptics a platform, as if they were presenting an actual reasonable interpretation of the science? It’s like allowing the Creationists to teach their myths next to Darwin in the science class.

As I was pondering these things, it occurred to me that the Buddha laid down a specific punishment for the incorrigible Channa. Called the brahmadaṇḍa, it is effectively the silent treatment. Whatever he says, ignore him.

This cuts to the heart of a genuine human need to be heard. We need to express ourselves, to believe that what we think and feel is worthy of others’ attention and response. I think we just shouldn’t talk to the fundamentalists. If anyone is engaging in ‘religious pornography’, trying to force on you their own narrow-minded, uncompassionate, literal dogmas, don’t grant them the dignity of a reasonable response.

Some time ago I posted a powerful statement by Bishop Spong where he said much the same thing: he was not going to waste his time talking to bigots and fundamentalists as if they were reasonable human beings. There’s simply not enough time in our short lives.

If we adopt this policy, not as a mark of failure or uncertainty, not as a lack of compassion but as an expression of it, we will free our own minds and time for positive work. And as the example of Channa shows, it can be an effective policy. Channa was so mortified he apologized, asked to be taught, and became an arahant.

A couple of days ago I was sent a file called How_to_convert_Buddhist_to_Christianity, which is a lesson for Christian children, evidently from Singapore, on how to convert their Buddhist friends. There’s no need to detail the breathtaking stupidity, error, hypocrisy, and arrogance in this approach. I would agree with Richard Dawkins that inculcating children with this rubbish is a form of child abuse which may well be more damaging than physical abuse. Even their own children are not treated as real humans in need of genuine spiritual sustenance from their chosen religion, but as tools in a propaganda war. Their children’s “Buddhist friends” are no more than targets for conversion.

Mums and dads: tell your kids not to put up with this! Show them this document and explain why it is wrong. If anyone comes to your kids with this kind of propaganda, ask your kids to just say no. Don’t engage. Don’t respond as if this were a genuine way of relating between people of different faiths. Explain to your children that this is not a respectful way of relating to people of different faiths. Peddlers of fundamentalism to schoolchildren should be treated like peddlers of drugs or pornography. Write a letter, send it to the school board, and cc as many people as possible: the teacher, headmaster, Department of Education, local Churches, media…

It is not easy to tell the difference between a fundamentalist conversion attempt and a genuine dialogue. Just as in the article I’ve uploaded, the fundamentalist will always hide their true motives under the guise of dialogue. They practice this and train themselves.

It’s crucial that parents don’t just tell their kids about the wrong kind of dialogue. Children must be shown the right kind. If your children go to a Sunday school or other Buddhist class, find out where there’s a local open-minded mosque, church, temple, or synagogue. Take the Buddhist kids there, talk with the priest or whoever, and, if possible, with other children. Encourage them to ask, find out, and learn about each others’ religions, and see what this can do to improve their own practice.

Fundamentalism is to religion what pornography is to relationship. As long as it does not cause clear and immediate harm, it should be tolerated within its legal boundaries. But, just as a pornography has no place in a discussion on genuine human relationships, fundamentalism has no place in a genuine dialogue on spirituality.

Saccavadi’s story

The following is a little piece by the Burmese ex-bhikkhuni Saccavadi that was circulated some time ago; I republish it here for those who are not familiar with her story. She was one of the most promising monastics of her generation, and regularly topped the State-sponsored Sangha exams in Myanmar. This is what happened when she returned to Myanmar as a bhikkhuni.

In 1981, the Burmese government formed an organization called the State Sangha Nayaka Council, (hereafter referred to as the SSNC). The council consists of 47 elder monks whose duties include helping to resolve disputes within the monastic community as well as serving as interpreters of the ancient Buddhist Pali canon. When the SSNC was formed, the council officially gave the name ‘thilashin’ to all female monastics which unfortunately can denote an inferior status compared to the word ‘novice’ or ‘monk’ given to the male monastics. A thilashin is restricted to taking 8 precepts which prevents her from becoming a bhikkhuni (a female monk) with the accompanying 311 precepts originally handed down by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is important to note that the term ‘thilashin’, along with the inferior status associated with the name, cannot be found in the Buddhist Pali canon. According to the Buddhist Pali canon, the Buddha ordained both male and female monks.

I would like to relate my own experience in dealing with the SSNC. In 1986, in Burma, when I was 21 years old, I ordained as a thilashin. 12 years later, in late 1998, I moved to Sri Lanka in order to immerse myself in the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and to study critical analysis in Buddhist literature at the University. I was surprised to learn that there were bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka who were wearing the same color robes as the bhikkhus. These bhikkhunis, like their male counterparts the bhikkhus, did not handle money, did not cook for themselves and survived solely on the offerings of the lay community.

I had been a thilashin for 16 years and became eager to ordain as a bhikkhuni after having learned of the existence of the community of female Buddhist monks. I consulted about this with the bhikkhus at the Burmese temple located in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. I was told that women can never be bhikkhunis. The bhikkhus at the temple also lodged a complaint regarding my intention to ordain as a bhikkhuni to the SSNC. In 2003, despite the written objections from the SSNC in Burma, I proceeded with my ordination in Sri Lanka, and donned the robes of a bhikkhuni.

In early 2005 I had became aware that my father, who resided in Burma, had become gravely ill. I wanted to visit with him and flew to Burma. The SSNC had learned of my visit and opened a formal investigation regarding my ordination.

In the end, the SSNC decided that it was a crime for a female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni. Their decision was made based upon what I felt was a biased interpretation of the Pali canon. On May 27, 2005 I was brought before the 47 monks of the SSNC. The monks presented me with a document that had four requests written upon it. The first request was to bow three times to the council of monks of the SSNC. The second request was to remove my bhikkhuni’s robes and replace them with the robes of thilashin. The third request was to sign the document admitting that I was foolish and wrong. The fourth request was to read these admissions aloud.

I bowed to the monks three times. As for the second request I stepped behind a privacy screen and removed my robes and put on clothes of a lay person. Regarding the third request I relented and signed the document given to me. But as for the fourth request I could not bring myself to abide. In the end I refused to read aloud the written passages asking forgiveness of the monks but instead I addressed the lay people in the audience. I said to the lay people:

‘Please forgive me if I have abused your support. I have accepted your alms-food not as a beggar but as a female monastic who has tried to follow the noble teaching of the Buddha.’

Again the council requested me to read aloud the admission of guilt exactly as it was written on the document given to me. Again I refused. At that point the council informed me I would be sentenced to five years in prison. I was immediately taken into custody and eventually sent to the general prison of Yangon. All of these events transpired one month after my father’s death.

Once in prison, I was confronted with many challenges that included corrupt police, threats of rape, and horrible living conditions. Thoughts of suicide were eventually replaced with a renewed energy and resolve to work for a more compassionate interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism in regards to female monastics. No beds, no blankets or pillows were given to the prisoners and due to the over crowed conditions we were forced to sleep on the floor laying on one side next to one another. Mosquitoes, bed-bugs, and rats were a daily nuisance. Sanitation was almost non existent. Leaking roofs meant the prisoners were often wet. Urine and feces overflowed the toilets on to the floor. Soon I realized prison was a place where prisoners would often face an early death.

In the end I was released after having served 76 days. My early release was due to my plight being publicized by the BBC and the RFA (Radio Free Asia) along with the help of family members, some of whom had a military background. I was given another chance to meet the four requests of the SSNC. I performed the four requests including reading aloud my admission of guilt. No longer welcome in Burma I was driven to the airport and put on a plane headed to Sri Lanka where upon arrival I put on my bhikkhuni’s robes and moved back into the monastery to continue my Buddhist practice which included working towards my doctorate at the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali & Buddhist Studies, at the University of Kelaniya.

I would like to say that my experience of being a thilashin for 16 years and a bhikkhuni for 5 years has overall been a positive one. I have had the honor of having great teachers in my life, both male and female. The majority of monks I have known have been essentially good people and many of them support women ordaining as bhikkhunis.

In conclusion it is my strong opinion that Burma should have a democratic style of government and that there should be a separation of church and State with a guarantee of religious freedom for both males and females. Burma suffers from a very high poverty and unemployment rate. Corruption is common. I feel that in order for Burma to live in peace and prosperity that the military government and the democratically elected President, Miss Aung Sang Su Kyi, who is presently under house arrest, should work together in reconciliation with the best interests of the country in mind. Help from the international communities in whatever capacity they can offer should be welcomed.

Following her release, Bhikkhuni Saccavādī returned to Sri Lanka. Later she went to the USA, where she stayed with her friend, Bhikkhuni Guṇasārī, at time of writing the only other Burmese bhikkhuni. Suffering from her traumatic experiences, she disrobed in February 2008.

The sense of calm acceptance that emerges from this little essay, together with her gentle praise of the kindness of monks, is, in my experience, typical of the spirit of those women who have persevered in their bhikkhuni vocation. I might add that I have found Burmese monks who live overseas to be quietly supportive of bhikkhunis. It is not an ethnic thing, it is an ideology.

Matichon on the land grab

The Thai daily newspaper Matichon (11-2-2010) has reported an official response to the request by Wat Pa Pong to have Ajahn Brahm expelled from Bodhinyana monastery and the land turned over to WPP.

The articles says that the Thai National Office of Buddhism has written to WPP, saying that it would be difficult to take the property, as it rests with the decision of the lay committee (BSWA), who are very supportive of Ajahn Brahm.

It seems the Thai officials want to continue to stay out of the affair, and are simply using a legal pretext rather than making a stand on principle. This is a common technique in Thai politics. It’s good that the official managers of Thai Buddhism have an understanding of the law. The Walters of WPP are simply intent on grabbing what they can and continuing their malicious persecution of Ajahn Brahm. There are more machinations afoot behind the scenes, and I will post about these when i have some more definite information.

Some religion news…

The Church of England is holding its General Synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a presidential address in which he continues to try to keep his religion together, with the result that he gets flack from both the progressives and the fundamentalists. He addresses most of the usual issues on which conventional religion is foundering: ordained women, homosexuality, and a strong opposition to the notion that the Church should follow secular human rights. The synod has been widely reported in the English press.

Williams is a nuanced, highly spiritual, and intelligent man, struggling to cope with an impossible situation. The problem is that the fundamentalist agenda – anti-gay, anti-human rights, anti-equality – is more or less the default setting of most religions. If you say change will only happen if the fundamentalists are happy, they’ve won – forever. They can can simply continue to say, ‘We’re not happy with this change’, and the liberals, for whom being reasonable to unreasonable people is the highest precept, will wring their hands in agony and never ever do anything.

The Archbishop calls eloquently for all participants in the debate to treat each other as persons with ‘3 dimensions’:

“Seeing something in three dimensions is seeing that I can’t see everything at once: what’s in front of me is not just the surface I see in this particular moment. So seeing in three dimensions requires us to take time with what we see. It may help us look more critically at solutions that seek to do much all at once; and perhaps to search for structures that will keep open the ability to learn from each other.”

Which is of course wonderful as a mode of dialogue; but it founders like a magnificent Titanic against the reality of the fundamentalist mind – it’s simply not three dimensional. From Savitri Hensman in the Guardian:

But on the same day that Archbishop Williams was addressing Synod, Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of the Church of Uganda was issuing a statement that underlined the strong refusal of some hardliners to listen to fellow-Anglicans, scholars or indeed God. International Anglican gatherings have repeatedly endorsed the importance of human rights for all and “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality” drawing on scientific research as well as the Bible. This was in keeping not only with Anglican traditions but also Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbour as oneself. On 9 February, however, Archbishop Orombi proclaimed support for most of the principles behind a draconian anti-homosexuality bill, while urging “proportionality” in sentencing and confidentiality for clergy and counsellors. This would criminalise not only lesbians and gays but also those seeking to promote mutual listening and sharing of knowledge on sexuality.

While liberals like Rowan Williams call ever more plaintively for us to recognize the humanity in each other, fundamentalists are busy getting dehumanizing bills passed through parliament. I wonder which will be most effective?

A major statement from Anglicans opposed to women’s ordination protests that they are not ‘anti-woman’, but simply that they do not ‘agree that women should have the overall leadership of a church’. Someone needs to explain to them that sexism is precisely not being ‘anti-woman’, but being ‘pro – women in their place’, i.e. underneath men. The all-too-familiar rhetoric has it that women are no less valuable than men, but they have a separate role (which just happens to be a lesser role). The Church should not bow to the pressure of society and make women equal – where have I heard that before?

Meanwhile, a teacher in the US has been sacked for teaching Creationism – and possibly worse – in school. And a Singaporean pastor has made a humble apology following his silly attempts to ridicule Buddhism in public. The matter is reported on the Buddhist Channel, which also posts the original talks – this is in rather poor taste, since Pastor Tan has apologized and asked for the videos to be no longer circulated.


Further to our discussions of modernism and so on, here‘s a classic example of post-modern academic thought on Buddhism, Robert H. Sharf’s “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” While I think his major thesis is overblown, there’s no doubt he makes many interesting and pertinent observations about how modern Theravada meditation has developed.

For the next week, we’re holding a Vinaya seminar here at Santi for the Australian Sangha Association. i won’t have a lot of free time, so don’t worry if it’s a bit quiet for a while. Meanwhile, what do you think of Sharf’s ideas?


We’ve had a few comments on fundamentalism, so I thought it would be useful to start a thread on it, kicking off with a few of my thoughts.

I think fundamentalism is best understood as a dysfunctional post-modernism – which probably requires a bit of explanation.

Fundamentalism is not a genuine following of the earliest forms of a religion, although it claims to be. if that we true, then it would take an active interest in historical inquiry so as to find out more clearly what that earliest form of religion really was. But in fact the opposite is true; fundamentalists everywhere are fanatically opposed to genuine historical inquiry.

Fundamentalism, rather, is a reaction to modernism. It stems from a fear of the changes and innovations that modern life has brought about. This ranges from the perceived (or projected) materialism, secularism, equality and human rights, and especially any divergent or critical approach to religious texts. Ideologically, it stems from the growing importance of text-critical methods of studying scripture. Such a method in Europe underlay the Protestant rebellion, which was essentially about the power of the Roman See. In validating and encouraging individual readings of the Bible, the protestants set the scene for the great diversity of Christianities we see today.

But such change and innovation is very threatening, especially to those who are emotionally insecure. There is a strong wish to retreat to the hallowed certainties. Science, facts, and reason are simply too difficult, and offer truths too partial and uncertain. The more things change, the more there is a need to cling to an imagined vision of the past.

Ironically, the individual, text-centered vision of Protestantism that enabled the fundamentalisms also proved to be its biggest threat. Bible reading not only freed people from the Roman Church, it threatened to free them from a literal belief in ‘fundamental’ dogmas. The first tract on ‘fundamentalism’ asserted the absolute truth of certain dogmas, such as the virgin birth, which are not very well supported by the Bible.

Hence the origin of fundamentalism, whether in its religious or political dimensions. It has a vision that is intrinsically anti-factual and anti-reason. Since it is not tied down to any actual institutional links with the past, it is free to use the media of modernity, propagating itself through TV, internet, or pop songs, and often leaves traditional religions flat-footed and floundering. Yet the messages it sends through those media are profoundly reactionary, denying the values and truths of modernity even as it, with blithe, unreflective hypocrisy, uses modern technology for its own ends.

Since it is anti-historical, the vision of the past that fundamentalism sells is sheer fantasy. It never happened, and never could happen. There is no point in trying to argue on the basis of reason, as they have ideologically rejected reason in order to construct their beliefs. Fundamentalists only pretend to use reason for the same purpose as they use everything else: to convince the whole world to adopt the same set of beliefs that they have. If we find an individual who is on a crusade to make everyone believe the same things he does, because a divine voice told him to, we would consider him mad, a psychopathic narcissist. If we find a group of people who do the same thing we call them a religion, and give them tax-exempt status.

So fundamentalism is a post-modernism, since it is a reaction to modernism. But it is a dysfunctional post-modernism, because rather than critiquing the worst of modernism, adopting the best, and moving on to new directions, it pretends to reject all modernism, while in fact adopting it where it is useful. The best thing one can say about fundamentalism is that, while it usually denies evolution, that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from it. It will survive or not depending on whether it’s able to adapt to its environment. The inherently anti-intelligence bias of fundamentalisms gives some hope that eventually they’ll just become too ridiculous; and delusion will find another form to manifest in…

As far as Buddhism, WPP, and fundamentalism goes, well, it’s somewhat different to the situation in the West, so inferences should be made with caution. The forest tradition, for all its claims to be ‘original Buddhism’, is a typical modernist institution. It was founded following the development of western-influenced text-critical readings of Buddhist scriptures, and the new-found status and authority of the Pali canon that this inspired in 19th century Thailand. The forest tradition was a practical instantiation of these text-critical readings, just as, say, the state of Israel was a practical instantiation of reading the Hebrew scripture literally.

While the forest tradition was one of many healthy responses to the challenges of modernity, it has proven far less successful in adapting to our post-modern age. One thing the forest tradition shares in common with fundamentalisms is its anti-intellectual bias. This is, of course, ironic, since it means that most forest tradition monks are not aware that their own tradition was only made possible through text criticism.

This doctrine, which is central to the forest tradition, has its positive and negative sides. In a classic example of the pre/trans fallacy, the ‘no-thought’ teaching both encourages a genuine transcendence to higher levels of awareness, and serves as a political tool to discourage inquiry and reason.

The test of which is actually happening in practice is this: what happens in a situation when meditation cannot solve the problems, but only dialogue, historical research, and reason can? If the culture is genuinely operating at a level of higher awareness, then it can use reason and inquiry when it’s needed. But if it reacts with anger and dismissal to attempts at reason, then we are in the realm of the fundamentalists.

I think it’s pretty obvious which is the case in the context of WPP and bhikkhuni ordinations. This is something that no amount of meditation can ever solve. It is a social and historical question that requires historical research, dialogue, and inquiry. For many years, any attempt at reasoned dialogue has been met only with denial, prohibition, and expulsion. It is clear that the culture of WPP is not capable of reasoned, factual inquiry into this important matter, but reacts with power strikes, just like any fundamentalism would.

This is not to say that some monks within WPP are not speaking from a place of genuine awareness – of course there are. But the culture as a whole usually drifts down to the lowest common denominator. And in that common culture, the anti-intellectual bias has become not a doorway to higher consciousness, but a fear of reason.