Things that won’t save us from global warming: (1) Institutionalized Religion

I would like to put in some kind of order my thoughts on global warming. In the past couple of posts I have expressed my view, which has become quite pessimistic, regarding our chances of surviving or adapting in any healthy way to the challenges we face. As a spiritual practitioner, I am mainly interested to articulate and develop a spiritual response to the situation, so I have avoided discussing the science and other issues. These are usually well covered in plenty of other places.

However what is, I find, less well documented are the reasons why certain approaches may or may not be successful. I think there is a tremendous pressure on scientists and environmentalists to emphasize that the problem is not too bad, and that our solutions are readily to hand. This approach is on the face of it perfectly fine. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be yielding actual results; and perhaps it is merely a façade so that we can live a little more comfortably.

In the next series of posts I’d like to briefly (I hope!) explain my reasons for rejecting various possible kinds of solution. In most of these areas I am far from an expert, so please jump in and correct my misunderstandings! I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

For the first topic, let’s consider institutionalized religion. For all its fading moral compass and dogmatic inertia, religion remains a powerful force in our world. I am neither an apologist for not a cynic regarding institutional religion. Personally I don’t like big institutions of any sort, but I recognize that they do perform many positive roles in society.

Some months ago I had a conversation with an activist who had just come from the Warsaw discussions on climate change. He told me that a senior figure from the UN had told him that they had given up on governments and corporations, and that they were looking to religion to save them. For a secular body like the UN to be looking to religion is a sure sign of their desperation.

There is something to this. Religious bodies and leading figures have done a lot. Many churches and other groups have strong environmental policies. The NSW Uniting Church, for example, has recently decided to divest from fossil fuels. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also called for divestment; and recently our interfaith body ARRCC, together with others, was published in the Guardian calling for Pope Francis to back divestment. (Article here, letter here.)

Buddhism has not been backwards in this either. Many of the most senior religious leaders in Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, have spoken often and powerfully on the environment. The connections between Dhamma and the environment have been explored deeply by such writers as Joanna Macy, and put into practice by such movements as Sarvodaya. Several Buddhist movements such as the One Earth Sangha and EcoBuddhism are working to raise awareness and make changes within the global Buddhist community.

So that’s great. But it hardly scratches the surface. The vast majority of the world’s religious activity goes on unabated, with little or no interest in the environment. The sacrifices continue, the rituals are repeated, the texts are intoned, and the followers believe that they are already doing the best thing they can possibly do. Why divert their precious time from the Absolute to care for a mere mundane, passing concern like the environment?

It is quite possible to employ religious language to justify ignoring the environment: “It is God’s will”, “It is kamma”, “We just get enlightened and leave all this behind”, and so on. This is what Ken Wilber calls the “elevationist” fallacy, the inverse of the reductionist fallacy. Take any problem and view it in light of the Absolute and it goes away. This misuse of religious philosophy is very common in Buddhism. When I was a young monk, I mentioned to one of the seniors that the path to my kuti was muddy, slippery and dangerous. He responded, “What a great chance to develop mindfulness!” No: mindfulness means recognizing the problem and fixing the path. Overcoming the elevationist fallacy is one of the great benefits of studying the Vinaya. The Buddha never does this. He invariable addresses the problem directly before him: fix the path.

Moreover, religions systematically redirect our attention away from such genuine pressing issues as climate change, and towards their own petty, self-interested concerns. Evangelicals are obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and what people do in the bedrooms; Hindus with working off their karma; Buddhists with offering things to monks so they can go to heaven; Muslims with railing against the injustices of the profane world, and so on. These are the mainstream content and direction of religious sermons, which create a climate and a conversation within the community.

It manifests in ways big and small. Monasteries are built to look like the ancient architecture in a far away country, regardless of the different environment and climate. When on alms round, I am regularly given environmentally destructive bottles of drinking water, because the hungry ghosts need something to drink.

We have, of course, seen this in the Buddhist context of women’s ordination. To grant women equal rights, and to recognize the importance of doing this within a religious sphere, is elementary. Any primary school child can tell you that it’s wrong to treat girls as lesser. Yet even this simple ethical change has proven impossible for many members of the Sangha. The Wat Pa Pong Sangha reacted hysterically to the reality of women’s ordination, with petitions, boycotts, delegations, press conferences, and a whole raft of other attempts to undermine ordination for women. The ordination immediately prompted calls for taking Bodhinyana monastery away from Ajahn Brahm, which of course reveals the self-interest underlying the whole problem. Many, perhaps most, of these monks were not sexist before they came to the monastery. They grew up in families with mothers and sisters and female friends. But the corrosive effect of institutional narrow-mindedness slowly erodes the capacity for moral courage and perspective.

Then, of course, you have the massive investment among conservative religious leaders in actively opposing climate change. See, for examples, the deranged opinions of Cardinal Pell quoted at the bottom of the Guardian article I linked to above. In reality, religions are usually aligned with the most conservative elements in society, and routinely betray their transformative promise by undermining positive change.

When was the last time a major social change was driven by religion? Slavery? Apartheid? Women’s lib? Democracy? Overthrow of dictators? Arab spring? No doubt there have been religious figures in all of these movements, but the driving force has been secular-based ethical shifts, with religion playing an ambiguous role at best.

Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good. And while many followers of religions experience this on a personal level, such experience does not manifest in the actions of the religious institutions. In practice religious institutions exist to maintain traditions, support communities, and ameliorate suffering through charitable works. Even seeing these things in the most positive light we can’t expect any movement towards a radical transformation. Religion institutions are simply too invested in the status quo.

21 thoughts on “Things that won’t save us from global warming: (1) Institutionalized Religion

  1. The dilemma of being a social animal and operating best in groups and yet finding the compromises required for a well functioning group are quite intense in the modern era – when we don’t really rely on anyone else directly for survival and most of the people around us are strangers. I think as someone who has joined one of the oldest organisations in the world, the bhikkhu sangha, your position as a member of such an institution must be interesting for someone who doesn’t like “big institutions of any sort”.

    It’s not so long since one of your followers privately took me to task for not addressing you as “Bhante”, but by your name “Sujato” (a fine Buddhist name, and a shame not to use it). As I recall you were relaxed about it, but your status as a bhikkhu makes demands on lay people that made it uncomfortable for them: they don’t recognise my own ordination and thus treat me as part of the lay Buddhist institution. In fact the whole lay/ordained split seems to be an unhelpful distinction to me. So while I’m sure you are sincere in what you say about institutions, it seems to me that you are stuck in the middle of a major institution with all that this implies. To me you’re a thoughtful and intelligent human being who happens to live as a monk; to lay Theravādins you are a monk who happens to be a human being. And yet ordination defines you, doesn’t it? Your life is completely constrained by the institutions of the Vinaya.

    Also as I observed recently, despite your apparent dissatisfaction with institutions you are an apologist for the authenticity of those same institutions – I’m thinking specifically of your recent book on the Authenticity of the texts. You want to both believe that the tradition underlying the institutions is “authentic” (with all that this implies) and at the same time that the institution is part of the problem. I imagine this must create some tension.

    Anyway these questions only make your statements more interesting. I’m quite in sympathy with what you’ve said today. However where I differ might be in seeing the solution as coordinated collective action which will require the subversion of existing institutions (such as the bhikkhu/nī sangha) or the creation of new institutions specifically to address the issue of climate change. Because if we don’t act together in a concerted way then I don’t see anything making a difference. And concerted action on a large scale requires institutions. Ironic, no?

    I agree that the elevationist fallacy is a major problem for Buddhism. As such I think we have to address the issue of ontological dualism (i.e. matter/spirit dualism) in Buddhism. You yourself describe what you are doing as “spiritual” which I see as unhelpful – it buys into a distinction between the mundane and spiritual which is at the heart of elevationist thinking. Ontological dualism is so familiar to Westerners that they don’t even think about it… Of course we are “spiritual” beings. Of course the “spiritual” realm is more pure, clean, and unsullied than the dirty world of matter. And of course we’re on the side of the angels…

    At the very heart of the received tradition is the message that we can be free of this nasty, dirty, painful material world. While we encourage a dualistic worldview and give the non-material aspect of it an absolute value then the material world will not be the concern of the people who follow us. I’d say that we need to develop the critique of Romanticism begun by David McMahan and Thanissaro and deepen it to make it clear that the kind of dualism at the centre of so much Western Buddhist thinking is a wrong view. Until we make it clear that in nāmarūpa there is no nāma without rūpa we’ll never convince Buddhists that the earth is worth saving because matter will always seem less valuable than spirit *by definition*.

    There is nothing “spiritual” about what we do or about us, because we don’t believe in spirits (as essences which transcend the material world). We are certainly religious. We have permanently bound (religare) ourselves to rules and methods for living a good life. But spiritual? Well, I’m not anyway. I don’t believe in spirit, spirits, spiritual realms, spiritual beings, spiritual practices, spiritual liberation or spirituality. Religious, but not spiritual!

    This is certainly an interesting road you are going down. I wait with interest to see what other issues you will bring up.

    Best Wishes

    • My practice is entirely spiritual. A spiritual practice has nothing to do with belief in spirits in the narrow what that you define spirits.

      And I do believe in spirits as much as I believe in human beings (neither have an essence, but some transcend the material world in that some abide without material bodies).

      You write:

      At the very heart of the received tradition is the message that we can be free of this nasty, dirty, painful material world.

      Again, this is too narrow an understanding of what the Buddha taught. Liberation is not only liberation/release from a “nasty, dirty, painful material world.”

    • Hi Jayarava,

      I don’t have much time, but just briefly: you are quite right about my personal ambiguity towards the institution of the monastic Sangha. This is hardly a secret, especially on this blog! However, the Sangha as a whole, and as I experience it, operates more as a loosely aligned community with shared values and lifestyle, rather than the organized hierarchy that we usually associate with an institution.

      Spiritual means many different things to different people, I’ve never had a problem with it. Do you have a better word? It has nothing, in my mind, to do with anything metaphysical. To me it has a connotation of “wholeness” or integration, as well as the feeling of movement, like the wind. It is about the transformation or development or evolution of the entire person to a more conscious way of living. And that has nothing to do with any particular philosophy or metaphysic.

    • I’m enjoying the reflections your reflections on being part of institutions is producing in the last few days. I think this is just what ought to happen to all of us that are involved in institutions. I don’t doubt your experience of the Sangha – but neither do I doubt that some Theravādins got annoyed at me for relating to you as āvuso rather than bhante. One of the lessons I learned when studying organisations at Uni was that people at the top of hierarchies do not experience organisational politics in the same way as those further down. I should also say that while I’m doubtful about the institution of bhikkhu ordination per se, I did find the reinstating of the women’s ordination institution against conservative resistance quite poignant.

      When we use words we writers have to think about what they mean to our audience as well as what they mean to us – and few words are so vague and variable in meaning as spiritual. One can almost guarantee that few people will understand it as you do. If you look at the etymology of the word, the history of it’s use, then the denotation is clearly related to Christian ontological duality – it concerns matters of the soul or spirit, particularly the Holy Spirit. I think this underlies all the modern uses of the term.

      I find myself just substituting “religious”. But then that is a dirty word in the West these days, eh? But if you mean “wholeness” or “integration” then these at least are far more precise than “spiritual”.

    • Hi again Jayarava,

      Okay, but neither “wholeness” nor integration will do. Wholeness is just one aspect, and it easily becomes another extreme (from the Kaccayana Sutta: “All is one, this is one extreme…”). And integration only partially overlaps with spirituality. Not all that is “spiritual” is integrated (for which see my latest post), and not all that is integrated is spiritual (such as, for example, more primal forms of development we see in the animal world and so on. Often quite satisfactorily integrated behaviour, yet hardly spiritual).

      I frankly don’t see the problem in usage that you are talking about. I think most people that I talk to understand spirituality in more or less the same way, even though they would find it hard to pin down the meaning exactly. I wouldn’t put it in the same terms, but the introduction to the topic on Wikipedia expresses the same kind of thing:

      In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions, and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development.

    • You say > “I think most people that I talk to understand spirituality in more or less the same way, even though they would find it hard to pin down the meaning exactly. ”

      But this is a contradiction. That people both understand and do not understand a term is surely a problem, isn’t it? It’s precisely the vagueness that I find puzzling. What is vague about what we do as Buddhists? Ironically I think that “spiritual” is an inauthentic way of referring to the Buddhist path. I’m not at all sure what you mean by it – what I get is a sense of familiarity with the word, but no sense of what it means.

      I’d really like you to see my comments in the light of the problem you are talking about above: the dis-identification of Buddhists with the plight of the earth because their minds are on more “spiritual” things. I don’t think the statement that people understand what you mean by “spiritual” is consistent with the complaint that people generally misunderstand the “spirituality” of Buddhism and ignore problems associated with the material world.

      When you say “Moreover, religions systematically redirect our attention away from such genuine pressing issues as climate change, and towards their own petty, self-interested concerns.” I totally agree with you. But the redirection of attention is largely achieved through language.

      And the problem with religious language is exemplified in this kind of statement “Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good.” The way we frame our discourse and the metaphors we choose (e.g. good is high/ bad is low) have a huge influence. I’ve written about precisely this vertical spatial metaphor in relation to religious discourse. While we want to go higher (away from the earth) we’re not going to “get down” to action. While our good is “high up” then our attention is away from the problems “down here”. Father Sky (Uranus = Ouranus or “Heaven” in Biblical Greek) is getting all our attention, and Mother Earth (Uranus’s wife) is missing out. You are still framing religion as an ascent. Buddhism is fundamentally framed as a complete escape (vimokṣa) from the world. “Spiritual” *feels* right precisely because it fits this familiar frame and equates with ‘higher is good’. Buddhism is so often about questioning what feels right though, isn’t it? Religion promises us a higher way of being all right, but that is precisely the problem with religion!

      I know you probably don’t have time, but if you or other readers are interested, my essay on this subject is here:

      I’ll follow up with something on the history of the word “spirit” on my blog in a couple of weeks.

    • This is the old transcendent/immanent critique, one which doesn’t work when you look more closely at it in the Buddhist context. The Buddha used a vast variety of metaphors, and some is indeed transcendent, while others are deeply immanent. For every image of escape there’s an image of embodiment; for every image of flight there’s an image of profundity (“Make your heart as broad as as the ocean…”). If there was a consistent and universal trend perhaps some meaning could be drawn from this, but there just isn’t.

      Same, I would wager, if you look at my writings over the years. I doubt very much a fair assessment could make anything out of the usage of these kinds of metaphors as a whole, but of course it’s easy to cherrypick a few cases and say that they’re emblematic. Once more, I’m simply using words the way that most people use them. That’s how language works.

    • Jayarava,

      I don’t think that the Buddha taught in the terms that you’re using or that what the Buddha taught can be understood using those terms. Instead, he taught about the difference between being caught up in proliferations and confusion versus reducing proliferations and confusion all the way to completely removing proliferations and confusion. It’s not about “up” and “down” as much as it is about what is added to experience as a result of deeply seeded restlessness and ignorance versus not adding to experience at all. Transcendence in this sense is the complete removal of proliferations and confusion, i.e. the complete removal of desire, delight, and craving that are caused by restlessness and ignorance and lead to proliferations and confusion.

      There is no distinction between “the plight of the earth” and “more ‘spiritual’ things” because the plight of the earth is that beings insist on acting according to wrong views starting from “existence” and “non-existence” and proliferate and confuse their way all the way to what they can grab or destroy.

  2. Wow. I am really loving your posts at the moment. We need to talk about issues that affect our very essence. Our leaders, institutions, religions, even our friends don’t have the answers for such issues. It is up to everyday people actually talking about these issues. By talking about them, they will start to think. When they start to think, they may start to act. But getting discussions going is nigh impossible. Try getting such issues discussed on Facebook. I did. It was a waste of time. None of my ‘friends’ wanted to engage in such issues. Most of them want to post pictures of the meal they just ate or the funny storey the heard on the train. All amiable and cute but none of this has the ability to really make a difference. Facebook has the potential to be a platform to bring about such discussions, but instead people want to report on stuff that it mostly inconsequential. I have read reports that Facebook is likely to ‘die’ soon. As far as I am concerned, it can’t happen soon enough.

    Climate Change is one such issue that we need to discuss, but while we are discussing an issue of such grave importance, it brings to my mind so many other issues that are just as threatening, but lost on a cluttered horizon of so many other major civilization-threatening issues that we currently face.

    Example number one: the threat of nuclear destruction. Yes, the threat is still there. Sure the cold war has ended, but nuclear arsenal still exists. It was estimated that in the 1980’s there was sufficient nuclear power to destroy the world 40 times over. Whilst the US and USSR (as it was then) apparently disarmed in some nuclear devices in small token way, it was nowhere near enough to eradicate the threat. If anything, the nuclear threat has worsened; being less a state sponsored weaponry system, it is one now susceptible to being controlled by individuals and groups with specific aims that have the potential to bring the world to its knees. A relatively small event, such as the assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand which sparked WWI has the potential to trigger a global scale conflict again, but this time with far greater consequences. The Ukraine crises might just be that trigger. What about the US’s promise to Taiwan that if China was to take control of the island that the US would intervene? What would that do for world order? Where would my country, Australia, stand in this conflict? With our closest ally, the US, or our closest trading partner, China? What if North Korea finally makes good on its rhetoric and invades South Korea? Where would the US and China sit then?

    What about the bird flu. I recall in 2005 a 60 minute report that said that as far an international pandemic of bird flu was concerned, “it was not a matter of if but when”. The threat has not disappeared. It is still there. Just because we do not hear about it in the media, does not mean that it has subsided.

    What about diseases that are increasingly immune to antibiotics? The World Health Organisation says new resistance mechanisms have emerged, making the latest generation of antibiotics virtually ineffective. Many infectious diseases risk becoming untreatable and uncontrollable, sending us back to a pre-antibiotic era. Yet the causes of this: misuse of antimicrobial medicines and poor infection control practices continue by medical practitioners who acknowledge the threat yet choose to ignore it.

    Access to suitable nutrients is yet another issue that threatens the stability of the world. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ continues to increase. The have nots know what they do not have. They continue to grow increasingly frustrated and angry. If we, the richer nations do not give it to them, they will take it. We are living in a fool’s paradise, if we believe that the problems of lack of food and water in poorer nations is an issue over there which cannot affect us here.

    Localised conflicts also have the potential to destabalise not only entire regions but the world. The Syrian conflict which has displaced more than 1,000,000 people and laid to waste and ruin the hopes and dreams of entire generations. Even when this conflict has been ‘resolved’ the conflict will still continue as people fight for what scraps that are left over, much less, any hope for dignity and a way of life that has any real quality.

    It has been known for more than a years now that all the Earth’s major oil reserves have been discovered. The oil that is left is harder to find and more expensive to extract. The world is running out of oil, yet we plan for a future that seems to imagine that oil will be available and affordable for decades to come. We plan to build a new airport in Sydney while the price of oil continues to rise. We are living in an unprecedented point in time where long distance travel is quick, cheap and affordable. But this will not remain the same. We shall soon return to a time when international travel will be too expensive for most. I recently visited Fiji. There, a local informed me that that farmers can no longer afford to work the land. The prices of petrol are so high that the cost to fill up the tractor is prohibitive. The food that was being produced is no longer available. The economic pain felt by many on in this Pacific nation is taking its toll as people start to look for alternative sources of income in an economy that has only a limited number of opportunities available to them.

    The number of other issues the world is facing goes on: massive scale poverty, severe income disparity, structurally high unemployment/underemployment, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, so on and so on.

    All these issues point to an end of civilisation. This is not a dooms day prediction full of hype. It is factual and based evidence of the collapse of other civilisations of bygone eras such as the Mycenaean Greek, Indus Valley and Angkor civilisations. But where the collapse of these civilisations were localised, the threat is now global. Many of the key indicators that led to the collapse of civilisations in the past, are apparent now on a global scale such as depletion of resources, need for constant growth and of course the inability to the solve issues which threaten its very existence.

    But my point here is not to cloud the issue of Climate Change with all these other issues but to demonstrate the point that the response to Climate Change and all the other issues just discussed must now come from the heart. For example, what could Australia do that would be practical here and now? First I would devalue the Australian dollar. The Australian export industry has suffered enormously in the last few years as the AUD kept above the USD. Manufacturing is disappearing. Soon Australia will no longer manufacture cars. How does Australia generate an income if we cannot sell our stuff to the world. Australia’s economy is becoming more like a self-licking ice cream. Unless we are adding value to the world in some way, we have no chance of making a living and we really will become the banana republic that Paul Keating spoke of whilst he was prime minister. We should lower wages and adapt to a lifestyle that does not require us keeping up with the Jones’ (that is, those in the more affluent countries).

    Office workers should be made to work from home. We have the information and communications technology to do it. In 2012, when Julia Gillard was prime minister she raised the possibility of 12% of government employees working from home by 2020. She planned to achieve this by completing the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN). Well the NBN is still being rolled out and this is achievable. But we should not aim for just 12% of public servants working from home but for somewhere around 80% of all office workers to work from home. This would mean less cars on the road. And to ensure that cars are not driven unnecessarily, just as when water restrictions were in force and only houses of an odd number could water one day and even the next, so too cars with an odd number plate should only be allowed on the road one day and even the next. Of course, permits could be applied for to drive for specific purposes and waivers given for particular circumstances. Similarly, those required to travel for work purposes could also be exempt. All schools should be equally funded and children should be forced to attend schools that are within their catchment area. Home based learning should also be made available to address inequalities. In fact schools should be partially shut down and only used once or twice a week. Most learning should be on-line. On-line learning has already been happening for more than 20 years at universities and is happening now, even at primary school level. It is how I am doing my masters and how my kids are doing their homework. These models should be enhanced and improved.

    The point of these examples is to demonstrate how we could live much more efficiently, wasting less time and resources moving around. This is only the start of the types of initiatives that could be introduced. The fact is, as fossil fuels run out, these are the ways we may well be living 50 years from now. That fossil fuels are rapidly depleting is not a threat but an opportunity to seize a new lifestyle that is more simple and environmentally friendly. With a workforce that is working from home, managers would be required to ensure that employees are tasked in ways that real outputs are achieved which can be measured. Unfortunately, in many work places, so long as people are at their desk, it is assumed that they are working, however, in many cases this is untrue. Many managers love empire building and want all their minions around them. They don’t really care whether or not they are producing anything, so long as they can see them and know they have them under their control. Many workplaces are not about producing real outputs but are environments where people enjoy exercising control. They are less concerned with adding real value to people including their customers, stakeholders and more concerned with controlling a workforce to suit their own ends. People working from home is a threat to this very model. Such managers can no longer decide a person’s worth based upon how well they fit an organisation’s culture but on what they produce. This forces managers to manage. To measure what an employee produces and to ensure that what they are tasked with responsibilities that add real value.

    We already live much of our lives on-line. Why not do it properly? Soon Australia will cease car production all together. The expenses of buying, running and maintaining a vehicle are huge. If the costs of motor vehicle ownership can be reduced, then it is here is where salaries can be reduced. Governments will not be required to continue to spend millions on roads. There will be less carbon emissions and less pollution.

    This is picture is just one way we could improve life. It is not hard. We could do it. In fact I believe if it was enforced, many people would embrace it. But it will not happen while people are infatuated with the current lifestyle of leaving their home to do things that could be done from home in the first place. So the shift is in our heart and yes, it is a kind of spiritual shift. A turning away from seeking what is outside and being content with what we have at home. They say home is where the heart is. This is true in more than just one way. So many times, we leave our home. Bt home is where we can find peace. If we just stayed at home, we could find peace more often. The car is more than just a vehicle for moving physically around. It is an extension of our desire to continually go out there, to get to some other place where we hope and expect to find what it is we are looking for. We are so lost in this process that we have built our whole lives around moving out of our home not just for mere pleasure, but masking our desire with the excuse that it is central to our very survival. That human beings MUST drive to work so that they can earn money, where in fact they could do the same thing from where they now sit, stand, walk or lie right now. It is an irony that the one thing that so many of us need to do in order to survive is in fact one of the major reasons why we will not survive. And it is an irony that the civilisation and society we are working so hard to maintain is actually the society and civilisation that will collapse as a result of our wrong grasping.

    • Hi Stuart,

      Thanks so much for the input. I would only add that what makes all the individual problems you mention even worse, is that they happen together, reinforcing each other. And the global dangers take localized forms in places where multiple lines of vulnerability intercept; Pakistan being the example that comes readily to mind. And there the problem is exacerbated by the toxic, ignorant extremism of much of the religious practice.

  3. Jayarava, it’s interesting that you suggest that Bhante Sujato is bound by an institution and a Vinaya, when the evidence is that he acts quite independently, a lamp unto himself, in matters of conscience and ethics. Take the Bhikkhuni ordinations for example: were the Theravada Sangha a monolith or intractable institution, wise and important changes would be impossible. Bhikkhus, in fact, are not ‘constrained’ in their efforts by a Vinaya or by an institution, and are uniquely positioned to effect positive change. Another example: Bhikkhu Bodhi, starting Buddhist Global Relief and living at a Chinese Mahayana temple n New York…which institution or Vinaya has constrained him from these efforts?
    Next, is the use of the term “spiritual” an ontological dualism? By definition, “spiritual” has many definitions: you have chosen but one view in your critique. Wiki: “The term spirit means “animating or vital principle in man and animals”. It is derived from the Old French espirit,which comes from the Latin word spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath”, and is related to spirare, “to breathe.” To breathe, the breath, mindfulness of the breath…now what possible application would we as Buddhists have with the breath? Perhaps “spiritual” really means the “jayate,” or burning flame quality of meditative jhana that resides in us. Perhaps it is the quality of being mindful of the unsafe path, and wanting to do something to fix it. That might be true spirituality, and it is very much connected with the concerns of the mundane world.

    Finally, you use the term “apologetics” again, it seems as a pejorative. Bhante Sujato has made it clear that the efforts behind his book were to apply a reasoned, evidence based, scientific approach to the authenticity of the EBTs. If you question the evidentiary approach, then I’d be interested to read your critique of the book, using evidence and scientific method. There is nothing that is ‘institutional’ about the EBTs….the EBTs are documents, evidence, a record, and frankly are not foundational to many western Buddhist religious bodies. Apples and oranges, in my view.

    • To add to what you have said, one of the functions of the EBTs within Buddhist communities is that they act as a check and a brake on the development of Sangha hierarchies and institutions that have no foundation in the Vinaya. Not that it stops them, of course, but it does provide a point whereby they can be critiqued, in the same way as the Catholic church was critiqued by the Protestants.

    • The Catholic Church has studiously ignored the critique of the Protestants for about 5 centuries now.

    • Yeah, no, they really haven’t. They have fought it, denied it, adopted and adapted it… and now they, or some of them, are trying to get over it. Ignore? Never.

    • Dear Dhammapala – I think your response just reinforces the kind of observations I was making above. Āvuso Sujato has replied for himself above. It’s worth reading. Āvuso Sujato himself acknowledges the tension between defending a tradition and pursuing reform. Just as you implicitly acknowledge it by addressing him deferentially as “Bhante” and at the same time arguing that he’s not defined by your deference.

      The Buddha said that bhikkhus must act with restraint (saṃvara) based on the Vinaya. Indeed this is the measure of a monk rather than a bald head, or a ocre robe. So when I say that a monk is constrained by the Vinaya I think this is uncontroversial.

      For most of the history of the word “spiritual” has meant, as you point out, the existence of an “essence” or “soul”. It indeed originally derive from the word “breath” but you then have to go back and look at what breath meant at the same time. As in India (prāna) and China (qi), for medieval Europeans breath was associated with a vital essence for reasons that no longer make any sense. As interesting as I find what a word meant in the 13th or 14th century, we do need to think about how people use it in the present. And it is I think inevitably bound up with ideas about human beings having a dual nature of two substances: matter and spirit. This idea dates far back before the Christianity which has dominated Western intellects for more than a millennia to the Greek philosophers. The connotations of spirit derive from colloquial uses of it’s denotation of the vital essence. As far as I recall the Buddha was rather against this kind of view. What do you think?

      Allow me to direct you back to your dictionary: an apologetic is a work “constituting a formal defence or justification of a theory or doctrine”. I happen to think that the book which sets out to formally justify the doctrine that the early Buddhist texts are “authentically” the words of the Buddha is tendentious and biased (though not grossly so or in a surprising way, given who the authors are) . These – “tendentious” and “biased” – are pejorative terms. Apologetic is not. Apologetics are an important genre of religious literature. As both scientists and historians continue to undermine traditional accounts of early Buddhism, I suppose we’ll see a burgeoning of this genre. I know of about half a dozen formal defences of rebirth already. The rise of a new genre of Buddhist apologetics aimed at limiting the damage caused by modern scholarship is itself an interesting phenomenon. As I’ve said (somewhere) I think this is a good sign. Scholarship is starting to get under the skin of traditional belief structures.

      “the EBTs are documents, evidence, a record…”

      No trained historian, philologist, archaeologist, or anthropologist agrees with you, not even those who are positively predisposed towards Buddhism. But the real problem with this argument is that it is exactly – both in form and content – the argument that fundamentalist Christians make for the authenticity of their texts.

    • Jayarava, thanks for your comments. While I see these issues through a different lens, and disagree to some great extent, I am always of the mind that “iron sharpens iron,” and welcome your perspectives. I’ll write back a bit when I have some time, with respect to your invitation to respond on colloquial uses of the word “spirit”. Metta

  4. Bhante,

    While your intentions in raising this discussion appear to be most sincere, I’m not sure what the point of separating out a “spiritual response to the situation” from “discussing the science and other issues” is. The end result of this path of a formulating a spiritual response to climate change is either the articulation of a gloom-and-doom sentiment (hand-wringing) or personal acceptance of the situation (make oneself at peace with it). With this approach, you seem to have gone in the direction of a gloom-and-doom sentiment (hand-wringing).

    What you’ve done in this post is target institutions that exist to teach spiritual practices (or to make profit by selling them). And what you’ve found is that spiritual institutions have their own interests and motivations that are not necessarily different from any other kind of institution, even if you think that some spiritual institutions might find ways to improve the ways that they pursue their interests for the greater good of the environment. This appears to have more to do with Max Weber than with formulating a “spiritual response to the situation” to climate change.

    • This is just one step in a long path, which I have struggled with for a long time. Maybe you’re right. But I am just trying to give the reasons why I have arrived at my conclusions. Feel free to disagree or ignore it. But if we are to act, surely we must consider first what is going to be effective. And if we are not to act, then we should be clear as to the reasons why.

    • It’s hard to ignore this topic! I’m still not sure what religious institutions can do given the fact that they are mostly products of society and function a lot like any other institution. Some religious leaders might stand out, but overall religious institutions won’t be able to do enough fast enough if the goal is only to raise awareness. You mentioned the UN. The UN is not giving up on governments and corporations and is doing a lot more than just raising awareness. They are getting the scientific studies done: “U.N. Climate Change Report Says Worst Scenarios Can Still Be Avoided” (WSJ, April 13, 2014). In the end, most political leaders at the national and local levels are far more influenced by the leaders of the large corporations than the leaders of the large corporations are influenced by religious leaders or by anyone else of the 99% of humanity, and so no amount of raising the alarms and generating good intentions among the masses will make much of a real difference before it’s too late.

      The only way to make a significant enough difference is to get the leaders of the large corporations to change course. Unless religious leaders make them the focus, it’ll be too late before anything changes. Our political leaders sure aren’t going to do it.

  5. I like this part best : “This misuse of religious philosophy is very common in Buddhism. When I was a young monk, I mentioned to one of the seniors that the path to my kuti was muddy, slippery and dangerous. He responded, “What a great chance to develop mindfulness! ” , because it sounded so familiar to me each time when we questioned the rationale of a decision on a policy made by a temple leadership, most predominantly in Mahayana practice, the response has always been ” it is going to be a test for your paramita of forbearance” (kshanti. khanti), so no need to ask too much question”.

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