Another retreat over…

Just completed a nine day retreat here at Jhana Grove, down the road from my old home at Bodhinyana Monastery. The retreat was wonderful, it was so nice to see such sincerity and dedication. We all went on a journey, and afterwards nothing is quite the same.

The BSWA is wonderful as ever, such a lovely community. They are able to offer this amazing center for retreats by donation only. The food for 60 retreatants is brought every day by supporters. Quite astonishing, really. The organization has been both professional and kind, and I have nothing but praise for all those who helped make it possible.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

On a more practical note, I see the number of comments on ‘Secular Buddhism’ has continued to climb. I haven’t had the chance to read all 350+ yet (!) But clearly it is a topic demanding greater attention. I will return to it, trying to break down issues into more manageable chunks. If you have raised questions for me that you would still like to see answered, please don’t feel shy to repost your comments in future threads.


The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.

Away on retreat for a while…

For all my dear fellow bloggists, I’ll have to take leave of you for 10 days or so, while I’m teaching a retreat here at Jhana Grove, WA. If I don’t get around to answering all questions or responding to all comments that deserve a response, I hope you’ll forgive me. If you really want me to respond, best ask again when I’m back.

Just a reminder, when you leave comments, WordPress decides automatically what gets included and what doesn’t, and like all automated systems it sometimes makes mistakes. I will get around to check all submitted comments sooner or later, but meanwhile follow the sagely advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide. One tip: if your post includes several links, it is more likely to be held back (because spam often includes links).

A shocking reminder…

A group called TrustLaw has just released a list of the five worst countries to be a woman. The details are distressing, but essential: a sobering reminder of just how much brutality the women of this world endure every day. The fact that Afghanistan tops the list is no surprise, but is especially ironic given how the status of women was regularly trotted out as one of the reasons to go to war.

How can we live in a world that just lets this happen? And how can it be that most of the world’s religions still treat women as lesser beings?

The Autobiography of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana

I just found in the BSWA library a fascinating little book, the English translation of the autobiography of Vajiranana. (Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana. Ed & trans Craig J Reynolds, Ohio University, 1979.)

He was one of the very many sons of King Mongkut, and following on from Mongkut’s modernist tendencies, was perhaps the single greatest reformer in modern Thai Buddhism. His autobiography, one of the first of its kind in Thai literature, is brief, honest, and refreshingly candid, although it only covers the period of his early life, up to the first few years as a monk. The English edition is excellent, with a detailed introduction and very useful notes.

What comes across most strikingly is Vajiranana’s constant effort to balance the Dhamma and his duties and temptations as a prince. He details at length his period of decadence as a young man, with gambling and overspending, although he confesses he was a failure at being a drunkard and was never attracted to women. This period is interesting, although it follows an edifying formula, paralleling Siddhattha’s early life, and has a clear literary purpose in contrasting with his reform as he discovered Buddhism.

What is interesting, though, is that this reform happened not through an encounter with a monk or Buddhist teachings, but through his Scottish teacher, Dr Peter Gowan, who lived “like an Indian rishi” and who, among other things, persuaded Vajiranana to give up smoking. It’s fascinating to see how the east and west were closely intertwined even in those days, as Vajiranana repeatedly says how much he liked European ways, and says again and again that he did things just because they were European, whether good or bad. He makes explicit connections between the Sangha hierarchy and western religious forms, saying that the rank of chao khana is equivalent to the Church of England’s Bishop.

In addition to his encounters with Gowan, and of course with the various monks who he knew, his defining moment of dispassion came when he saw that a table that he had bought, and which he thought was so lovely, was in fact fairly cheaply made, and coming apart. This little observation turned him off materialism forever – a realistic psychological detail.

Vajiranana didn’t seem to have a very positive view of women, and saw one of the benefits of his initial stay in the monastery as a novice in his young teens very much in terms of the traditional process of an initiation into the men’s circle. It was the tradition that young princes would live in the Inner Palace among the Palace women until they ordained as novices around age 14, after which they would not return to the Inner Palace. Vajiranana says (p. 9) that he was happy to be in the monastery as:

‘the talk of women had no wit’… ‘Living at the monastery was beneficial in rapidly making my sensibilities and mannerisms more masculine, although in my subsequent residence there as a novice I tended to acquire less intrepid, feminine mannerisms.’

In his later teens he began to seriously study and reflect on the teachings. He was particularly struck by the Kalama Sutta ‘which taught one not to believe blindly and to depend on one’s own thinking.’ This was in the late 1800s, and he apparently noticed this sutta, which has come to define modernist Buddhism, by himself. Like King Mongkut before him, he took a sceptical attitude towards the miraculous events described in the texts, deciding, for example, that the attack by the army of Mara could not be true. But he says that he lacked the Pali expertise at the time to carefully investigate such cases, merely making up his mind and rejecting what he didn’t like. Only later did he come to realize that such teachings could be interpreted in an allegorical sense. He was not alone in taking such an inquiring attitude, for he remarks that:

After hearing senior monks object to certain passages I learned to make up my own mind, to select those passages which were acceptable to me and to reject, as if sifting out gold from the sand, those which were unacceptable…

Vajiranana refers to his strong temper, and while his autobiography is quite restrained and generous-spirited, he shows a degree of impatience for narrow-minded or overly ritualistic monks. He praises his teacher Brahmamuni, as “he did not have the narrow mindedness typical of a monk who thinks of himself as orthodox.” He writes critically of the dispute in his time between the ‘water’ monks and the ‘land’ monks – those who were ordained in a water sima were considered more pure than those ordained on land. He says, “Pious laywomen of that school fluttered about praising the ‘water monks’ and disparaging the ‘land monks’…”

Throughout, there is precisely no emphasis on any of the higher teachings. No meditation, no deep philosophy, no liberation, no Nibbana. When he mentions the benefits he has received from his Dhamma study, they are all very limited, worldly concerns.

In this regard, the forest tradition has surely made an incalculable contribution, by placing meditation and liberation where they should be, at the heart. Yet in their dismissal of study, the forest tradition has forgotten how much they owe to reformers such as Vajiranana. Without such scholars, there would be no critical study of Buddhist texts, no understanding of how the Pali suttas are the most authentic teachings of the Buddha, and subsequently no understanding of the central role of meditation in liberation. While forest tradition monks rely, usually unconsciously, on the reforms brought about with such effort by Vajiranana and his generation, too many of them have lost the spirit of inquiry that illuminates this period of Thai Buddhist reform. Now, the idea that one can investigate the teachings and make up one’s own mind is regarded as a formal heresy (ditthivipatti). Modern Thai Buddhism was formed on the basis that the Vinaya is the authority, not the opinions of the teachers (acariyavada). For much of the modern forest tradition, sadly, the opinions of the teachers has become all that matters, and recourse to the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha is dismissed out of hand.

Discussion on ‘secular Buddhism’

There’s been some recent activity in the blogosphere on the debate between Stephen Batchelor’s so-called ‘secular Buddhism’ and – I’m not quite sure what to call it – ‘Traditional Buddhism’? ‘Authentic Buddhism’ (that’s very cheeky!) ‘Post-traditional Buddhism‘ – any other suggestions?

Here are some of the main posts. Thanks to Simon for the links. There’ll be more on this later…

Critique of Batchelor by Allan Wallace

Response by Stephen Batchelor

Reflections from an old mutual friend

A further response by Ted Meissner

ARRCC public forum

Following the meetings today, we finished with a public meeting at the Australian Center for Christianity and Culture. Over 100 people are attending, and I’m blogging as the meeting goes.

The forum consists of a paper on an environmental ‘creation theology’ presented by Bishop George Browning, responded to by Mark Dreyfus, Greg Hunt, and Jeanette Lindsay.

Bishop Browning

This environmental challenge is something that we all take part in. All of us will be affected, and each has a voice in how we proceed.

The vast majority of science supports the climate change consensus. Extreme weather events have increased in accord with scientific predictions.

Common to all faiths is that life is relational. Our well-being is that of all nature. If we tyrannize nature we will face revolt.

There are three main new factors that precipitate this crisis: technological capacity to affect the environment; population; increased per capita resource use.

We cannot take it for granted that we will safely reach the end of this century.

This is a moral issue, and we can’t continue to act out of narrow self-interest. There are three main moral aspects: impact on the poor; effect on future generations; how we relate to the created order bears testimony to the inner integrity of humanity itself.

We do not have a moral crisis so much as a crisis of the human vocation. Are we to stand above and decide for nature, or participate as partners?

We question the priority of economic growth above all else, and should look to a post-growth economy. Our gambling debt is highest in the world, yet we are filled with loneliness and mental illness.

A range of strategies is needed: energy efficiency standards, incentives, public investment in renewable energy. A carbon price must be structured to be flexible, and to prevent such escapes as free permits, and so on.

The ecological limits of the earth are not negotiable, and as members of Australia’s faith communities we commit ourselves to do what is right for the future of our created order.

Hon Mark Dreyfus

It is heartening to hear the strong committment by Australia’s religious communities to meet the challenge of climate change.

We also are committed to doing the right thing by the climate and future generations.

Here is a reading from the prayer book of Progressive Judaism.

A shaft of light, a haze of mist, and there again, God’s bow. There we have God’s promise that there will be no more flood. We have left it late to awaken.

The scientists tells us we will see more extreme events that will impact on the most vulnerable of society. Climate has changed already, may increase from between 2 to 5 degrees. Many changes have a high degree of scientific probability.

Govt aims to decouple economic growth from carbon pollution, following California and England.

Intergenerational equity is key, we aim to leave the world a better place. Gillard govt is committed to reducing pollution by a carbon price and improving efficiency. We aim to reduce carbon by 5 up to 25 percent by 2020.

The most disadvantaged will need assistance. Money from the tax will help transition workers and industries affetcted by climate change. There will also be household assistance for those in need.

Moving to a clean energy future is a challenge we must rise to meet. Religious communities will play an important role, and it’s been an honor to address you tonight.

Hon Greg Hunt

Had we been successful last year, the process would have begun to convert coal to gas power station. This is a real world example of what could happen.

I’ve three points to address.

Points of agreement. First, the science. There are good and bad marketing mechanisms, but we passionately agree on the science. Also, we need to act. And we agree on the targets, both carbon reduction and renewable energy. Market mechanisms should be efficient and fair, and not transfer costs overseas.

George’s paper is riddled with the problem of unintended consequences. With carbon tax, companies will move overseas and result in greater total global emissions. Ethical tax is to take steps to leave a better environment.

We have the carbon tax, decided by Nobel prize economists as the least effective mechanism. People don’t cut back electricity usage. US, China, etc. will not adopt this mechanism.

Alternative is to provide incentives for lowest cost buyback of emissions, capturing carbon in soil, etc. Does not result in comparative disadvantage. This is an optimistic message, we can adopt a system that will reduce emissions and can positively influence other countries.

Dr Jeanette Lindsay, Climate change scientist, ANU

George’s paper was fascinating and inspiring.

There is no doubt climate is changing. Discussion of the issue is complicated by distrust of science and complex models.

We have detailed observations of weather for over 100 years. These tell us that global temperatures have been rising, as are ocean temperatures.

There is an increase in extreme weather events – cyclones, floods are more frequent and stronger, in accord with the models.

When system is destabalized by global warming, everything becomes unstable.

Emissions in 2010 were highest on record. Human impact is clear, even the GFC makes a noticeable dip in the carbon levels.

Energy emissions are the greatest impact, but land clearing, deforestation and other things also effect climate.

We shouldn’t forget that we are a part of the system, depend on it, and there are many aspects of sustainibility that must be dealt with.

Summer sea ice in arctic is melting, some experts believe we have already passed a tipping point. Perhaps we will see no summer ice in arctic within the next 2 decades. All aspects are interrelated in cascading ways, not all of which we understand.

Vast majority of scientific community agree we need urgent actions. We may already be on path to reaching 2 degree increase, and further emissions may result in even higher increase. We are incurring an increasing carbon debt, and the pace is accelarating. Ability of land and sea to take up carbon appears to be declining already. Scientific consensus is we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

At 2 degrees, some island states will no longer exist.

We must be flexible, we are learning new things all the time, our knowledge is improving rapidly. We must be able to adapt policy to best respond to changing knowledge so as to best ensure environmental safety in the future.


Q: How frustrated are you, knowing these things, yet we haven’t solved these problems?

GH: The good news is, we have done much already, maybe nearly half of what is needed. I don’t feel frustrated, we agree on action, disagree on mechanism.

GB: VERY! Today I was told there is a division between those who think there is a problem and those who deny it. People are not deciding betwen mechanism, we need to persuade half the population that there is an issue.

GH: Actually, the stats are roughly 70-30 believe in AGW.

Q: What is the science of sequestration?

JL: Green carbon (sequestration in trees, etc.) is an important part. However it is not a long term solution. We are taking carbon from fossil fuels and putting in atmosphere. It is going to continue to accumulate unless we reduce our emissions.

Q: Many of us are frustrated that parties are ‘business as usual’, not taking use of coal seriously enough.

MD: It is an acute crisis, the later we act the harder it is. We must work with the Parliamentary process, in addition to international efforts. We can’t introduce a solution that causes massive disruption, must transition. I share the frustration, but believe we can innovate and lead the world. Most Australians support action, but some leaders are acting irresponsibly. (Applause!) Denying the science is like saying the moon is green or the earth is flat. The debate is on what is to be done. I call on Greg Hunt to ask his party members to stop railing against scientists.

GB: We should appreciate that politicians’ role is to set the goalposts within which we must work. We will follow their leadership

ARRCC meeting with Kelvin Thomson MP

Present: myself, Sister Margaret Hinchey (Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace), Rev Rod Benson (Baptist Union of Australia), Fr. Claude Mostovik (Pacific Calling Partnership), Rev Niall Reid.

We had quite a long chat, and covered quite a bit of ground. Thomson described himself as a ‘disciple of Al Gore’, and was very supportive of real action on climate change.

He criticized the attitude of, ‘We shouldn’t do it if they aren’t’ to justify Australia doing no more than others. He said this was like a rower on a boat saying they won’t pull until the next guy did.

Thomson mentioned that he envisions an Australia with a decentralized power structure, solar PVs on every roof, and regretted the fact that some of the attempts to move in this direction were being rolled back as they were ‘too successful’.

Addressing the Libs’ criticism that the price on carbon would impact the poor, he acknowledged that there was an issue, saying that he had been to visit a constituent, an old lady. Her house was as cold inside as out: she couldn’t afford electricity for heating. But he said that the detailed policy on consumer relief for the carbon tax was close, perhaps weeks away.

Thomson expressed his support for the goal of 0.7% GNI for foreign aid, agreeing with us that this was closely linked to climate change, which will hit the poorest the hardest.

He emphasized that the media battle is key, saying he was disppointed the Australian media persists in promoting denialism as if it were a genuine option, especially since Rupert Murdoch has strongly voiced his acceptance of the climate change consensus and has pledged to make his companies carbon neutral.

I asked him whether he saw any possibility in combining the
incentive-based so-called ‘Direct Action’ of the Libs with the carbon price. He said there were some aspects that might be useful, but as a whole it is a political document not to be taken seriously as a scientific alternative.

On the whole, Thomson agreed whole-heartedly with the moral vision presented by ARRCC, including the notion of interconnectedness, and our responsibility for future generations.

In fact, I’d have to say that all the politicians I met today shared both a recogntion of the urgency of the problem, and the moral conviction that something needs to be done about it. The main division is clearly in terms of means. Having talked with Greg Hunt, and having read the Libs’ ‘Direct Action’ policy, I must admit I find it hard to take it seriously: full of infantile slings at the ‘great big new tax’ and very thin on actually demonstrating that carbon sequestration in the soil is a viable solution. Business as usual, and the public will pay to clean up the mess.

Nevertheless, as we repeated again and again, our purpose in coming here was not to get sidetracked into the details of policy, but to impress on the decision makers here in Canberra of the gravity of the situation, and the shared vision that all of us from such different backgrounds have. We have done our part if we inspire them to take the right path, rather than the convenient one.