Scripture vs. Ethics (again)

Those of you living in NSW may be familiar with the debate that’s cropped up over the past few years regarding teaching ethics in schools. At the moment, primary school students are enrolled in Special Religious Studies (SRE), otherwise known as scripture classes, by default. If they opt out they have a free period. This is usually half to one hour each week.

The St James Ethics center, a secular organization, has proposed that those not attending SRE should take part in an ethics class, which would consist of discussions about relevant ethical issues.

I’ve written about this earlier, and noted that the Sydney Anglicans and some other groups are strongly opposed, while Buddhists are in support. The underlying ideological issue is that the Churches fear the diminishing of their moral authority.

The issue has received quite a lot of press coverage. this article rebuts some of the criticisms made about the proposed ethics classes, while this article looks at the positive and negative aspects of the current SRE classes. The researcher notes that there is currently no independent oversight on what is taught in SRE, and some of the things that go on are truly frightening. I was told by one Sydney Buddhist that her daughter – at a top posh school – was told that if she isn’t a Christian she’ll go to hell. It’s not certain how widespread this is, which underscores another problem with this debate, the lack of empirical evidence. It all seems to be driven by ideology rather than facts.

Last week there was a new turn. As reported by Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Center:

Yesterday morning, the NSW Council of Churches issued a press release, under the name of the Reverend Richard Quadrio that included this statement:

“Meetings have already been held between leaders of the Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist religions to discuss a strategy to oppose this policy in the upcoming election campaign.”

This would seem to suggest that Australia’s healthy interfaith movement had produced a common policy of opposition to secular ethics education. This is not the case: the article reports that the Jewish and Islamic communities had in fact not been consulted after all, and they do not oppose the proposal. The statement was retracted by the NSW Council of Churches. (The NSW Council of Churches is an independent body based in Sydney. They are not affiliated with the National Council of Churches, who do have a genuine interfaith engagement through the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations and other forums.)

In his article, Longstaff expressed uncertainty about the Buddhist position. In fact our position is clear: the Buddhist community supports ethics education in schools. I have discussed the matter on several occasions with community members and leaders, and they have an overwhelmingly supported the ethics teaching proposal. The Buddhist Council of NSW has been involved in various discussions with the St James Center and others where they have made their position clear.

So the NSW Council of Churches press release does not represent the mainstream Buddhist position in NSW. I don’t know where they got their ideas from, and have contacted them to find out – I’ll let you know when I hear back.

In my opinion, teaching ethics from a secular philosophical perspective is essential for we who are to live and make decisions within a secular context. Surely it should be a basic requirement of a secular education system that it teaches children how to understand and deal with ethical questions within that context. All our children will grow up and in their study, work, relationships, and recreation they will encounter and have to confront ethical dilemmas together with people of different faiths.

The only way to do this is to rely, not on metaphysics, but on the common ground of all forms of ethics: compassion and reason. This kind of approach is fundamental to Buddhist ethics, which grounds ethical behavior on the observable benefits of ethics.

I did a little experiment on this with a group of Buddhist supporters from the Sri Lankan community who visited Santi the other day. I asked the kids what was right and wrong, and after a little hesitation we had a great discussion. What was clear was that they already knew what was right and wrong. I didn’t have to tell them; but in some cases I tried to lead them on to reflect a little more about the complexities: “Yes, that’s wrong: but is it always wrong?”

I noticed that in the whole discussion, no-one invoked any particularly Buddhist notions to understand ethics. No-one said, “This is wrong because the Buddha said so”; or “This is right because it’s good kamma”. We negotiated the issues simply by talking about ordinary realities: sadness, helping, harm.

In other words, Buddhist ethics shares much ground with secular ethics and does not fundamentally contradict it. This is not to say that Buddhist ethics are limited to secular ethics. On the contrary, Buddhist ethics take into account dimensions that are ignored by the narrow scope of a purely secular approach. We believe that our acts do not merely create observable results in this life, but also in future lives. Even more important, our ethical conduct is not merely as a basis for living well and not harming, but is the basis for meditation and wisdom, leading all the way to the highest freedom.

This is why there is a role for religious education as well: religion is not just ethics. A profound religious sensibility informs our ethics, deepens them, and provides a sense of meaning that secular ethics cannot approach. This is why we should not think of secular ethics as competition with religion. In fact, we could see it in exactly the opposite terms: if the kids are learning ethics in their secular classes, there’s not so much need to teach that in the religious classes, and we can deepen our focus on the more profound dimensions of our religion. I’d like to see a Buddhist class in school that had more time for meditation and discussions about questions of meaning and identity, issues that are of crucial importance for young people, especially adolescents.

The current situation does not reflect the religious demographic of Australia. Around 90% of the scripture classes are Christian, while Christians make up only around 60% of the population at large. Fair enough, the Christians have been doing this longer than anyone else and are better organized and resourced. But it is clear that Buddhist children do not have the opportunities that Christians do. In many cases, despite the ongoing efforts of the Buddhist Council, we are still not able to find enough teachers of Buddhist SRE to meet the demand.

Buddhists of Sydney, take note! Give the Buddhist Council a call and see if you can help. This is especially important for the English-speaking Buddhists out there. The majority of Buddhist children in Sydney have parents for whom English is a second language, and this is a serious limitation for many of the parents who would like to help with SRE in schools, but don’t have the language skills.

For now, however, an ethics class would provide for the ethical growth of Buddhist and other children in our schools. And that, I think, would be a Very Good Thing.


Letting Go the Hero

I came across this idea in an essay of Jung’s the other day: as a person reaches middle age, they must let go the Hero if they are to grow successfully into their new stage of life. I think we’re familiar with the middle-aged man who is lost in recounting the glories of his youth, unable to move on, until he becomes a tiresome bore.

And I think many of us are also familiar with the refrain, “When I was young monk…” that pops up so regularly in some Dhamma talks. I’ve always had a problem with this; for a start I can’t say it without breaking into a faux-Yorkshire accent.

When I encountered the idea of letting go the Hero it immediately stuck me. I hadn’t thought about things in this way before. I started reflecting on my own experience in the Thai forest tradition, and it helped to make more sense about what I’ve gone through and where I’m going.

First up, who or what is the Hero? The basic idea is that the Hero is the One who overcomes obstacles (the dragon fight) to win a prize (the treasure that is hard to gain) and returns home to re-enter society (the divine wedding). This story is portrayed in countless forms in myth and story, and according to Jungians its prevalence is because the Hero is in fact simply the Self, and the story of the Hero is the story of how each person finds himself (individuation).

Generally, the term Hero can be used for the individual in any stage of life, overcoming any kind of obstacle. But the most characteristic hero stories concern the young man – a warrior, student, or adventurer – who successfully grows from childhood into a mature adult life. And that is the sense that Jung is using here.

Of course, every life is different, and the obstacles we overcome and the successes we gain are all different. This is why there are so many forms of the hero myth. But the basic pattern remains the same. There is a formal consistency in the myth that seems to reflect universal truths about the human, or perhaps especially masculine, psyche.

In this essay I’m trying to express as concisely as I can some insights about the way that gender dynamics have informed the recent conflicts and difficulties over bhikkhuni ordination. Be warned: generalizations and stereotypes follow. While this is unfortunate, I think it is essential in this case, since we are dealing with a largely communal issue. It’s Sangha. There is a culture which has its own typical mindset; teachings are predominantly given to a group of people in general, not to individuals as in psychotherapy; and the dominant culture itself insists on and creates strong gender divisions. As one nun said to me, “I never felt like a woman until I went to the monastery”.

The prize that is hard to gain is always different – a ring, a treasure, a battle, a bride – but at its essence it is always the same: knowledge of ones’ self. This is why the Buddha’s life story is one of the clearest and most perfect examples of the hero myth: the central quest for Awakening is not hidden by a metaphor. This in itself points to the notion that the Buddha’s message, while delivered in a hero myth, goes beyond that and is not merely a mythic truth.

I am digressing here; my point is simply that the hero myth is central to Buddhism, and applies very much to the spiritual quest of monastics. Incidentally – and here’s another digression – the biographies of the forest Ajahns include many of the standard tropes of the hero myth (descent to the underworld, miraculous birth, marvellous childhood, encounter with the gods, and so on) and it would be fascinating to analyse them in detail in this light.

In the heroic, gung-ho warrior society of forest monks, what exactly is the hero’s quest? What are the obstacles? And how do they mesh with the particular needs of the monks?

Now, I’ve been using the masculine forms so far, quite deliberately. The hero myth is itself primarily masculine, and the environment I was immersed in at Wat Nanachat in Thailand was almost exclusively so. So for now I’ll proceed from this point of view, and consider the feminine perspective a little later.

It seems to me that we should exclude the general teachings of Buddhism here. Mindfulness, meditation, and so on are relevant in many different contexts, not just a forest monastery in Thailand. What are those teachings that are highly characteristic of that particular context?

When I thought of this, two things sprang to mind immediately. One concerns the body; the other, the mind.

Regarding the body, the basic message is – subdue it! As young monks, we undertake celibacy, eat one meal a day, and go without sleep once a week. We have just one set of robes, follow a strict discipline and ascetic code. We endure heat, cold, sickness, snakebite. All of which is pretty trivial compared with the real suffering: enduring postures. Sitting for many hours a day on hard floors, often with little or no cushion; it’s natural for Thais, but highly unnatural for westerners, so much so that many of us have ended up in the hospital. In retrospect it seems obvious that such a marked feature of the lifestyle should have significant psychological effects, and these effects would strongly differentiate our experience as westerners unused to such postures. Yet it never occurred to us to discuss this. We just endured.

In regard to the mind, the message is equally straightforward: don’t have any views! Meditation is about being silent, stopping thought. So if you have any views then obviously your meditation is no good, and so why should anyone listen to what you have to say? Of course this is a caricature, but it captures the spirit pretty well. When an idea is brought up, the response often was, “Well, that sounds like a view…”. Opinions and especially learning are considered to be close to or identical with pride; this association is encouraged by the peculiar Thai usage of the Pali diṭṭḥimāna, lit “conceit of views”, which in colloquial use comes to mean just “pride”.

It seems to me that the special emphasis on these two aspects of Dhamma practice are specially targeted at the core demographic of Wat Nanachat: educated western men in their twenties. Much like me.

Ahh, those were the days! For a man in his twenties, his body is still a potent instrument. At the height of his strength and sexual virility, he has yet to see the signs of ageing and decay, yet to experience an illness that he does not quite recover from. And the mind: from maybe fifteen or so, he has learned how to think, how to subject the world to the blinding power of his reason. He is frustrated with those, like his parents for example, who simply don’t get the intricate truths that he unveils. It never occurs to him that maybe they get it all too well; maybe they know that not all wisdom can be reasoned out and that life’s experience teach one a certain humility in the face of uncertainty and wonder.

Or at least, that’s how it was for me. And, I suspect, for a sizeable percentage of those who washed up at Nanachat looking for … something. And ending up in robes.

So, if that’s who you are, then the heroic teachings and lifestyle of Nanachat is the bomb. There’s a huge vitality, energy, and joy that comes from overcoming the body. A vast sense of relief from experiencing for the first time a peaceful mind; from realizing that not every thought is a profound world-shattering event. Let go of the body, disdentify from thoughts, and life suddenly becomes much, much better.

This is really an overwhelming experience. Before this most of us were lost. We didn’t know what life was about, where we were going, or what the point of it all was. For all our intellect and strength, we didn’t know what to do. Now, suddenly, we find who we are. We have real idols to look up to, paragons of virtue and wisdom (and some pretty cool magic tricks, too). We overcome the twin dragons of our attachment to body and views, and discover our True Self (which, of course, we say is “not self”).

I haven’t digressed for a while, so here’s one for you. The archetypal dragon in Indic myth is Vṛtṛa, the cosmic serpent whose defeat by Indra is celebrated in many hymns of the Ṛg Veda. Vṛtṛa had trapped the waters and the cows, condemning the earth to famine until Indra released them, ensuring bounty. But etymologically the root of Vṛtṛa means to bind or constrict; and it is the same as the well-known Pali term nīvaraṇa, as in the five “hindrances”. So when Jung read the ancient dragon myths as a metaphor for psychological realities, he was following a precedent already found in Buddhism…

But the story doesn’t end there. Just when when we thought the drama of the quest was at its height it gets turned up to eleven. At that very point where we discover our own self, we turn around and find ourself placed on an altar and worshipped like a god! We’ve gone from being hobos, backpackers, or itinerant musicians, all of a sudden to being the ethical and spiritual exemplars for a hall full of good people, who bow down to the ground in homage to us. Whoa.

The conscious teaching is that the people are not bowing to you, they are bowing to the robe. The worship of others should not be taken as a sign that we are anything special, but as a reminder of our sacred duty to live up to the honour of wearing the Banner of the Arahants. Like all conscious teachings, this works only partially. If we have really succeeded in subsuming our personal identity within the Sangha, it is fine. But many don’t; and there are two paths of downfall. If we feel like a failure, like we don’t deserve it, then we will become more and more depressed and either hide out from people in a hermitage or the like, or else disrobe. Or if we really do identify with the homage – which is especially likely if we tell ourselves that we don’t – then ego inflation follows “like a shadow that never leaves”.

In reality, of course, all of us have all of these tendencies, and it is a matter of a constant reflection and reminder that can keep the unwholesome at bay and the wholesome in the forefront.

So the training for young monks at Wat Nanachat is especially useful for young men like myself, as it answers specific problems and needs and in doing overcomes meaninglessness and unleashes a tremendous faith and focussed energy. I want to emphasize here that I am not trying to be reductive. I know there is much more to it than this. I am trying to keep it simple by focussing on just a few important things, very narrowly considered.

Like all good things, however, there is a shadow. And it is those of us who are so transfixed by the light who are most blind to the dark. What is the shadow here? It is the inversion of the things I have already considered.

The body: not all young men are infatuated by their bodies. There are some who are confused, shamed, uncertain. There are those who are bewildered by women, fearful of sex. Letting go of the body is not, for these, a much-needed distancing to counterbalance an over-identification, but a validation of their own self-disgust, an over-repulsion from they were already repulsed by.

The mind: not all young men are caught up in their own views and conceits. Some are simply lost in the world. They don’t know what to think, and more importantly, how to think. They have experienced our post-modern world of relativism and moral quicksand and they can’t cope. They need a simple, externally imposed set of values and views that they can accept by way of submission to authority. And, having lost faith that such an authority can be found in the west, they are fascinated by the forest masters as the last vestige of higher truth. They love the idea of letting go of views, because they have never had any. They are happy to stop thinking, because they never really learned how to do so.

In both of these cases, the life and teachings that are so beneficial for many are just the wrong medicine, and the outcome is not good.

When I was writing earlier about the stereotypical “young male” psychology I found myself using “I” and “we”, while just now in speaking of the shadow I automatically shifted to the third person: “they”. When I noticed this it made me uncomfortable; I felt like my language was externalizing and projecting. But of course, all of these tendencies and forces are found within all of us, and how it works out in practice is a matter of balance. My aim in isolating the shadow is not to externalize it and project it on others, but to bring it into the light. I use the first person because that’s how it felt to me, my primary identification. The shadow feels to me like an “other”, so that’s how I talk about it.

Up until now we’ve only been considering the male perspective. How might these things work in feminine experience? The most obvious thing is that the values and struggles so far have been highly masculine in nature, with little emphasis on feminine qualities, which does very much reflect the reality of life at Wat Nanachat as I experienced it. It was acknowledged among the monks that a softer, more metta-oriented approach was emerging at that time (mid-90s) from the English communities, and this was specifically associated with the sīladharā communities. This approach had a certain limited influence on how we went about things.

I don’t want to stress this point too much, as in many ways the monks’ lifestyle did develop what are stereotypically feminine values, such as nursing and looking after each other, even though the orientation was clearly towards the masculine. A discussion of this would lead us too far astray. So rather than look into the question of the overall balance of practice, I’ll stick with the two characteristic teachings that I have used so far.

It seems to me that in regards to the body and to views, women typically have a quite different set of problems.

Body issues for women are often, not the over-identification with one’s physicality, but revulsion, doubt, and image problems. This is a major theme of feminist psychology: the pervasive images of physically perfect women, air-brushed visions constructed for the gaze of men, are an ideal hardly any women (even those in the images!) can actually live up to in reality. As a consequence women are worried, sometimes obsessed with the imperfections of their own bodies, something the advertising, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries thrive on. But these are only the modern expressions of an age-old problem; the Roman myth of Cupid & Psyche revolves around similar issues. More troubling, eating disorders are the outcome of this tendency taken to a pathological extreme. It is a disturbing fact that the history of eating disorders before modern times is, by and large, a history of nuns.

Turning to views, it is another theme of feminist psychology that women still, even in modern societies today, struggle to find their “voice”. The opinions of women are undervalued, disregarded. To express opinions they have to adapt themselves to the male discourse or find themselves ignored. It is not, in modern secular society at least, that they cannot have anything to say, but that what they do say glides past male ears without leaving much of an impression.

It is very striking to me that these issues are virtually the opposite of the monks’. In fact, the mainstream problems of the women seem very similar to the shadow side of the men. In both cases the problems are disgust and confusion about the body, and doubt and a struggle to articulate one’s ideas and views.

This is something I’ve heard from the nuns several times: they have to carry the shadow of the monks. I’ve never fully understood what this entails, but here I seem to be getting a clearer notion. The monks at the conscious level have to work with disidentifying from the body. At the shadow level we have unconscious confusions about our strength and sexuality. These shadow elements are for women not the shadow but the primary conscious struggle; women often express the path as an “embodiment”, a coming into conscious relation with the body and earth.

A similar pattern makes sense in the realm of views. Young western men are used to being listened to, to having their views taken seriously, and are intoxicated with their own ability to work things out rationally. Their practice is to subdue this tendency, experience quiet, and understand that their views are not always the truth. The shadow is the fear of the irrational. Women’s voices are not valorized, so their practice should be a coming-to-voice, a finding of ways to understand and articulate their own vision of the truth. In the masculinist monasteries, however, this is not possible: women’s wisdom is dismissed as “feminism”, which by definition is not worth listening to. There was apparently a book by Simone de Beauvoir at the Nanachat library before I got there: it was burnt. The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice, and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.

In both these cases the nuns are quite literally the monks’ shadows coming to life. They are the very thing the monks have struggled so manfully against, and in their triumph over which their own positive sense of self has been formed. I think this is why monks find it so hard to understand why nuns can’t just let go and submit to the form. That’s what they’ve been doing and it doesn’t work: not because they can’t let go, but because the form is wrong for them.

So what about middle-age? Here I am, 44. The section on ageing in the four noble truths is no longer just a reflection but a reality: the breaking of the teeth, the wrinkling of the skin, the greying of the hair… How do I relate to these two principles now?

Jung gives a lovely image for the development process through life. He compares it to the sun, which rises out of the waters of the unconscious in the morning. In the first half of life, the sun is oriented to the zenith. It is climbing towards ever higher consciousness, illuminating ever more widely and more brightly. And every passing hour is a further revelation of splendour. From noon, however, things change. Each hour signifies a diminishing of light. One is no longer looking up, but down towards the horizon. One is approaching, once more, the darkness of the twilight. But the twilight of the dusk is very different than the twilight of the dawn, which is full of excitement and hope. The dusk is peaceful, full of memory and reflection as one draws into the completion of a life.

So once again: the body. The primary task is no longer the disidentification, but the acceptance. The intoxication with the body in all its pleasures and possibilities has faded. The foolish response is despair and a desperate attempt to hang on and relive the glories of youth. For many people, this is what “not letting go the hero” is. The wise approach is just what the Buddha said when Ānanda pointed out the wrinkles on his back: “So it is, Ānanda! So it is, Ānanda!”

The mind: here too the basic problem is quite different from youth. I’ve been around quite a bit, and have been in discussions with many people of all sorts of values and ideologies. I know very well that my voice is only one among many, and that my views and ideas are often wildly off the mark. And yet: I have to make decisions. I’m responsible. I’m here in the monastery, and in many other contexts, where decisions need to be made. And, sometimes, argued for and insisted upon. In any case there is a decision, whether or not it is my view; and I have to accept responsibility for that. This is, I think, a key difference between middle age and youth. The young can play with ideas and largely escape their consequences – or at least, so they think. This notion of making mature decisions is not something that has been taught in monasteries, to my knowledge.

The stages of life and their importance has not, it seems to me, been considered carefully in Buddhism. Perhaps this is because in the prime story of Buddhism, the Buddha himself seems to transcend such development, reaching a completion of his journey while still a young man. Most of us have a slower and more uncertain path. Such lesser lives as ours are recounted throughout the Jātakas, and these often tell of spiritual progress through the stages of life. We find that the young man is a student, a prince, or a warrior; defeating his dragon he ascends to the mature stage, a teacher, king, or family leader; in the last stage of life he continues his growth, finally becoming a sage, an embodiment of wisdom for all.

I think there are some great examples of monks who have continued their growth through their lives. Two examples that come to mind: Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi. They are both in places in their lives that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet their growth does not come from a rejection of the values of their youth, but grows out of it, assimilating and integrating, while moving towards a wider, deeper, and more powerful vision.

If we have some understanding of this, we’ll be able to better appreciate how what appear to be contradictory or problematic teachings are sometimes simply appropriate for different stages of life. It also reminds me not to get stuck in the past. Whenever I say “When I was a young monk…” the real issue is not my struggle to avoid a Yorkshire accent, but the words themselves: “I was”. What “I was” is not the issue: it’s what I am, and what I can be.

Floods in Vietnam – an appeal

Here’s a call for help for the flood-devastated regions of Vietnam. Ayya Dhammananda, long-term friend of Santi, is organizing relief efforts with her contacts in the local area, where she comes from. So you can be sure all your donations will go direct to the people who need them the most.

Be on the Boat of kindness…


Dear friends,

Dukkhappatta ca niddukkha
Sokappatta ca nissoka
Bhayappatta ca nibbhaya
Hontu sukhi sabbepi panino

The Buddha’s teaching on universal love (Metta & Karuna) resonates in every soul. In many discourses, he recommended us to express our love and care for our fellow human & animals, especially, the deprived beings whether by natural disasters or by social injustice, we should make an effort helping them to rise up from suffering. We spread good-will (mettaṃ mano kammaṃ), say kind words (mettaṃ vāci kammaṃ), and effectively reach out to them (mettaṃ kāya kammaṃ) as the words in Karaniyametta Sutta say: “this unlimited love should spread all over the world without stint or reservation…”

In the last two months there were storms and over rainfall causing many floods in central Vietnam where most of the affected are farmers. Hundreds of people & thousands of animals were killed & many thousand homes were destroyed. All their crops have been destroyed and washed away. They will continue to suffer from food shortage and diseases related to long term floods for many months to come.

Your generosity will help them to rise up from their sorrow & fear in poverty. Ven. Dhammananda is co-ordinating in collecting aids to these victims. You can help them by deposit into this account for the victims of flood.

A/c No: 0491001830361
A/c name: Phạm Thị Minh Hoa
Vietcombank, Hanoi – Viet nam.
Swift code: BFTVVNVX049

Please inform Ven Dhammananda of your donation at this email address: scphaphy[at]gmail[dot]com

Many thanks for your kindness & generosity.

Here are some pictures to show us how they have been enduring during these episodes of natural disasters.

A stay at Santi… and a bad foot…

For all those interested in the inside scoop on a stay at a contemporary forest monastery, have a look at this. Sometime commenter on this blog Dean Crabb has made an extensive writeup of his recent visit. Complete with videos and photos – and a black snake. Very cool.

On a less happy note, another of our commenters, Lisa Karuna, has injured her foot while visiting relatives in Perth, and had to cancel her visit to Santi. She went through Sydney airport in a wheelchair… It reminds me strangely of an occasion I ended up pushing a bhikkhuni in a wheelchair through Sydney airport… Anyway, let’s dedicate our merit for Lisa and a swift recovery!

A condom confusion

Pope Benedict has stirred up another storm of controversy over a few, apparently offhand, remarks on the use of condoms. He made a mild point that use of condoms by gay prostitutes could be seen as a sign of spiritual progress, as it indicated they were thinking of the welfare of others. It’s not entirely clear whether the remarks apply to male/female intercourse as well, and everyone seems agreed that it does not, in itself, constitute a radical break from the received Roman Catholic dogma that opposes all forms of artificial contraception.

There are a few points here that we should take note of from a Buddhist perspective. The first is that for Buddhism, sex is not simply for procreation, but is for both procreation and pleasure. It is universally accepted in Buddhist teachings that people have sex for pleasure, and that this is a normal part of life, except for those few who have taken up the path of celibacy (“nomosexuals”!) There is, accordingly, no basis in Buddhist ethics for making pronouncements on what kinds of sex acts should be allowed or prohibited, or to denigrate different forms of sexuality – gay, bi, and so on – or to insist that contraception is an ethical issue.

The ethical issue, rather, revolves around trust, love, and hurt. As long as what you do is honest and does not harm anyone, it is not an ethical issue. And monastics shouldn’t be poking their noses into people’s bedrooms!

In the case of condoms, we don’t just have celibate religious telling people how to have sex – which just gets weirder the more you think about it – but they are telling people to follow practices that cause untold suffering and death. The death toll from Aids is horrific, and while it may be falling slightly, there are still nearly 2 million dying each year. The deaths themselves only tell a part of the picture; the number of Aids-related orphans is estimated at 16.6 million.

That’s a lot of human beings, and a lot of suffering.

The Roman Church is a powerful and influential body in Africa, where the brunt of Aids-related suffering is borne, and they have a clear and pressing moral duty to help stem this suffering. The current dogma, an insistence on abstinence and restraint, is rejected by secular authorities on the issue as an effective policy. The science is clear: condoms help prevent the spread of HIV.

The most frustrating thing about this unnecessary moral outrage is that it is barely even a legitimate Roman Catholic dogma. There is, of course, nothing specific in the Bible on these issues, and in 1966 a papal commission on birth control voted 30 to 5 that the opposition to birth control be relaxed. They were overruled by Pope Paul VI. It should come as no surprise that most Catholics are too sensible to let these rules actually affect their choices; and yet it is typically in the developing world, where Aids is the greatest threat, that the Church’s opinion will be taken most literally.

In some interesting interviews with African Catholics on this issue, they repeatedly raised the opposition between science and religion: they accept that science justifies the use of condoms, but religion does not. Officially, of course, the Church disagrees, arguing that it has science on its side. But it seems that few are convinced.

From a Buddhist point of view, science should never be seen in opposition to religion. Science provides us with information and perspectives that enable us to make more informed, effective, and ethical decisions. The problem is not the schism between science and religion, but in the manner in which religion is undertaken.

Despite the abundant riches of wisdom, insight, reflection, and spiritual depth within the Catholic tradition, it is still possible for so many intelligent and sincere men (I would guess that women have had no hand in formulating this dogma) to hold to such an obviously harmful teaching. Religion, of whatever form, has the potential to free us and lead us to a deeper and wider life. Yet it does not do so automatically. It is up to us to ensure that our religious sensibilities do not blind us to suffering and lead us towards darkness.

Online Sutta Studies

Great news: Ven Analayo has just announced he will be conducting a series of online Sutta studies through the University of Hamburg. These will benefit from the very thorough study Ven Analayo has been conducting for the past several years into the Majjhima Nikaya/Madhyama Agama on text-critical and comparative lines.

As fate would have it, just a few days ago I was discussing this with a few people and lamenting how Ven Analayo’s work was not more widely available. So now it is! And, thanks to Terrance, we have a link that gives lots of Ven Analayo’s past articles and essays freely available online. Essential reading for those interested in early Buddhism.

The Grand Gulp Theory of American Paranoia

This is the last in my series of American blog posts – until next time, anyway. I thought I’d go out with a bang, or a good title at least. There is a Grand Gulp to be dealt with, but indulge me in a little travel talk first.

After my last post, we left Palm Springs for LA. We weren’t staying in LA, but in keeping with the random theme of this trip I asked Chandra if he’d take us off a random freeway exit so we could at least have a bit of a look at LA. Okay, here’s a random exit – and it just happens to be Sunset Boulevarde. Well, nothing special.

We headed north and stayed in the stunning forest north of Santa Barbara. Our camp was just next to the ocean, and I was able to go for a long walk at sunset – not a soul to be seen.

The next morning we’re off thru the central California coast. I was surprised how remote this land was: north of Santa Barbara, there’s really not much at all. Just endless miles of mountains and glorious sea.

We made it to Santa Cruz just before dark. I managed to achieve one of my goals for the trip: to visit a creepy old cemetery. This one was the Holy Cross, the oldest cemetery in Santa Cruz, with suitably decayed headstones and crypts that were mysteriously empty…

Then we’re on to the Vajrapani Institute near Boulder Creek, where this years’ Western Monastic Gathering was held. We were very warmly welcomed by Ven Tenzin Chogkyi, one of the organizers. Time for a brief hello and catch up with some old friends. The warmth and support in the group was palpable; they had been together all week, so we were pretty much just popping in at the last minute.

The developments regarding bhikkhuni ordination had been discussed before we got there. My sense was that the problems really dissolved away in the face of such shared love and respect.

O, and there was a chipmunk.

We left the next day and went with a few nuns up to Aranyabodhi. This is the new hermitage for bhikkhunis north of San Francisco. We were there with Ayyas Sobhana, Suvijjana, and Adhimutta, who had all spent vassa there with several others. The place is stunning, very wild and rugged – and cold. The nuns have worked hard to get together some basic facilities, but it’s still tough – much tougher than any monks’ monastery I’ve ever stayed at. But the nuns were happy and obviously thriving.

A couple of days in San Francisco, spent with our wonderful new friends Lal, Rassika, and Venus, who were the most gracious hosts. We had the chance to visit a few places: the Bodhi House, which is the city vihara associated with Aranyabodhi – Ayya Tathaaloka is staying there, trying to get her back to work properly – and Aloka, where Ayyas Anandabodhi, Santacitta, and Sumedha have been staying. Much awakening Dhamma discussion! And a visit to Wat Buddhanusorn, to pay respects to Chao Kuhn Maha Prasert, one of the senior Thai bhikkhus in the US. He’s been a stalwart in supporting the bhikkhunis, and it was wonderful to see the ease and respect with which he carries the idea and practice of bhikkhunis. He told me that I should send some of Santi’s bhikkhunis to start a bhikkhuni monastery in Thailand!

And after this all-too-brief summary, suitable for such and all-to-brief trip, here I am at San Francisco airport, wondering if I’ll finish writing this before the boarding call.

O, and the Grand Gulp, yes.

Well, one of the things that I have wondered about is, “why is America so scared?” Does this seem strange to you? The most powerful nation, ever, yet obsessed with security more than any other nation I have seen.

So, there are many reasons for this, but one thing struck me in these few days that I had not noticed before.

It’s just a crude thought, but something like this: America has taken in a huge quantity of human diversity, and substantial bits of America just feel a bit overwhelmed. Like you’ve swallowed a huge gulp of food, and really need a bit of a break before eating anything else.

America has accomplished such a very great deal. Such a vast land, so developed, so many people, such culture and diversity. I love a bit of America-bashing as much as the next person, but I guess I’ve got a new appreciation for what they, as a nation, have achieved. And, with the vitality and sincerity of the Dhamma I have seen here, the story of America is not finished yet…

The Time Has Come — Again

Many of you will have heard of the recent announcement by the ex-Amaravati sisters of Saranaloka, California, that they intend to seek bhikkhuni ordination. A great big sadhu! for making this courageous decision.

I have no doubt this will be for the long term benefit of Ajahns Anandabodhi and Santacitta, as well as the Buddhist community as a whole. It is so wonderful to see these steps, each one seemingly minor, but taken together leading to a broader, more embracing and powerful sense of communion and Sangha for all Buddhists.

The letters were originally published in the comments to an old post, The Time Has Come. They are republished here for convenience.

For those still following the Bhikkhuni debate.
A letter from Sister Ananadabodhi and Sister Santacitta.

Dear Friends in Dhamma,

Warm greetings from Aloka Vihara.
Firstly, we would like to express our gratitude to all who contribute in any way to the beautiful community that has gathered around Aloka Vihara. We very much appreciate this precious opportunity to live and practice here, and the possibilities it brings.

Some of you will know that our nuns’ community at Aloka Vihara has gone through many changes in this first year since our arrival. We would like to share more of where we are in regards to our taking root in this fertile soil of the Bay Area.

We are living in an historic period where the unfolding of full participation and ordination for women is happening in most world religions. Our community is no exception: When we came here for the first time in January 2008, our intention was to look into establishing a training monastery for siladhara. As three sisters who have trained in the UK monasteries for about 18 years, we each felt ready to enter a space of new growth, inwardly and outwardly.

Meanwhile in our own communities in the UK, the response to the international attention on the position of women and the feminine in Buddhism, was to reaffirm a conservative stance. In October of 2009, just shortly before our move to the Bay Area, we as a community of siladhara in the UK, agreed to the ‘Five Points’ in order for siladhara ordination to continue:

Saranaloka Foundation is the first trust that has been established with the specific intention of supporting nuns of the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. Our heartfelt wish in coming here, was to establish a training monastery for nuns within our lineage; an aspiration that was complicated by the imposition of the ‘Five Points’ in August 2009.

Since our arrival here in December of 2009, we recognize more and more the impact on our hearts of those ‘Five Points’ and the vulnerability of the siladhara ordination, which is valid only in the Ajahn Chah / Ajahn Sumedho lineage. The training itself has been of immense value to us on our Path and we are deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to train with the siladhara for so many years. Now, living outside of our larger communities in England, we feel unable to pass on the ‘Five Points’ to other women wishing to live the renunciant life. Our own process is a movement of the heart; responding to the ‘Five Points’ and the conditions which gave rise to them.

The ready availability in the US of bhikkhuni ordination, the ordination given by the Buddha, offers us a new platform for the establishment of a training monastery for women. Taking all these things into consideration, we have come to the decision to move towards taking bhikkhuni ordination to provide a stronger container to pass on to other women. In keeping with the ‘Five Points’ we will take leave of the Ajahn Chah / Ajahn Sumedho lineage in order to later receive full ordination.

We have already informed the elders of our community of this intention and will formally ask forgiveness and take leave of our community in April 2011, when all the nuns and other elders will be gathered at Amaravati. We recognize that this is a huge step and truly want to honor all that we have received over the years.

Having considered this very deeply, we feel the loss and turbulence that such a big step inevitably brings. We experience this within ourselves, and some of you may also feel this in regard to the changes. We want to acknowledge the many questions and inner inquiry our move may stimulate in you, our friends and supporters. The creative tension is very evident.

We feel a strong heart connection with the siladhara community in the UK, wishing that they flourish in their practice. The aspiration towards liberation and providing a sustainable form of training for women samanas is a goal we all share.

We want to acknowledge Ajahn Metta’s presence and input during the initial phase of Aloka Vihara and thank her for all that she has contributed. Ajahn Thitamedha and Sister Sumedha have also spent time with us here and expressed how important it has been for them to experience and take part in the evolution of Aloka Vihara.

This process has sometimes been quite rocky and although at times we would have liked it to have been gentler, we feel it has been similar to ploughing a fertile field, to prepare it for planting. We thank you all for your generous support and interest in our project so far. We continue to be committed to our vision of establishing a training monastery for Theravadan nuns, practicing in the Forest Tradition; a style which is found in all Buddhist schools.

The Forest style of practice emphasizes renunciation, simplicity and meditation as a path of awakening. When the time is ripe, we intend to relocate to a rural setting, more suitable to the Forest style of practice. In the mean time we are very happy to stay at Aloka Vihara with its peaceful presence and close accessibility for our community, the wild ocean and beautiful Golden Gate Park.

We look forward to seeing you at Aloka Vihara, though we recognize that some of you may no longer feel congruent with the unfolding of our vision. We regret any disappointment this may cause and look forward to welcoming all of you as part of our evolving community.

With much gratitude to you all for your support of Aloka Vihara in so many ways.
Many blessings in Dhamma,

Sister Anandabodhi and Sister Santacitta

Aloka Vihara
1632 48th Avenue
San Francisco
CA 94122 USA
Tel 415-6819359

[via thanissara]

A follow on letter from Jill Boone – Board member of Saranaloka.

Dear Friends of Saranaloka,

I am writing to follow up on the recent letter from Ajahn Anandabodhi
and Ajahn Santacitta. The vision of the Saranaloka Foundation is to
support the expansion of possibilities for women in the west to pursue
the dhamma in a monastic form and to deepen their practice for the
benefit of all. The original form of our vision was to support a
women’s monastic community for siladhara in the Ajahn Chah lineage.

Going forward, we will continue to offer support to the siladhara
visiting and teaching in the United States. In addition, after
extensive research, discussion, and thoughtful consideration, the
Board of Directors has decided to expand its vision to support the
Aloka Vihara nuns in their pursuit of bhikkhuni ordination, which is
not possible for siladhara.

The weekly routine at the vihara and the style of practice will remain
the same, and we hope you will continue to visit and support the nuns.

More information about this evolution will be provided on the website
in the coming weeks. In addition we will be communicating directly
with our donors. You are invited to attend supporters’ meetings on
Nov. 28 at 3 pm and Jan. 9 at 1 pm at the Aloka Vihara.

Thank you again for your support of the nuns and the Saranaloka

Jill Boone
Saranaloka Foundation

[via thanissara]