Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism

In 2002, the Buddhist academic Paul Williams published a book in which he detailed how and why he decided he could not longer be a Buddhist, and instead became Catholic. I was recently forwarded one of his articles by Ven. Thich Quang Ba, a senior monk in Australia, who told us that his articles are being used by the Vietnamese Catholic community to evangelize Buddhists, and asked for someone to write up a response. So, not being one to pass up a challenge, here it is. This article is not responding to Williams’s book, which I haven’t read, but to his article, On converting from Buddhism to Catholicism – One convert’s story. This article is published on the site, a site that exists purely to celebrate people converting to Catholicism.

Let me make some things clear to start with. I think it’s great that Williams has found a spiritual path that he finds satisfying, after years in which, as he now admits, he was never really a Buddhist. And I also think it’s great that he takes the time to develop a critique of Buddhism. There should be more of this. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, and we need thoughtful and experienced people to discuss the similarities and differences between religious and spiritual approaches, just as the Buddha did so often.

But here’s the thing: Williams’ critique is a mass of error. If we were hoping for an intelligent and meaningful critique of Buddhism from a Catholic point of view, this isn’t it.

Why so? The essence of his critique is this. Buddhism is hopeless (because of rebirth), while Christianity offers hope. Therefore Christianity is right, and it is rational to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, and so on.

This doesn’t even approach the form of a rational argument. It is wish fulfilment, nothing more. He wants to live in a world where everything will be okay in the future, and he concludes that this must be the world we live in. And that somehow, the arcane teachings of an institution that harks back to a messianic Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago are a source, apparently the only source, of hope. It is one of the worst theologies I’ve ever heard. It should be an embarrassment to anyone interested to develop a relevant modern Christianity.

If you want to see someone who does modern theology well, check out the readings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. There are plenty of interesting, reflective Christians like Spong; and one of the hallmarks of the genuine Christian traditions that I admire is that they are not content with simplistic rationalizations. There is plenty in the Christian traditions to be ashamed of: the witchhunts, the genocide, the millenia of persecution, the burning of heretics; it goes on and on. Yet in that, without denying or avoiding it, some can discern the struggle of ordinary, and extraordinary, people to discover and maintain some sense of the divine, even within our messed up world. And there is something real and authentic about that, something that we Buddhists could use more of.

Buddhist hope

But let’s consider Williams’ central problem, this question of hope. I raised this yesterday in a discussion group with some young Buddhists from the KM group here in Perth. I wanted to see whether my understanding of these things was just my own, or whether it reflected a wider understanding within the Buddhist community. And, as I kind of expected, pretty much all the things I had thought were brought out in the discussion. These things are not complicated.

Buddhists don’t talk much about hope, because hope is based on the future, and is therefore delusional. We don’t know what the future holds, so to base our emotional well being on something we don’t know, and can never know, is to invite disappointment.

To argue that hope is based on what is unknown is not just my argument. It was used by Paul, whose Bible teachings on hope are cited by Williams.

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?

For Buddhists, this could never be acceptable. Our main concern is to be grounded in reality, in what we can see. We could never be satisfied with a teaching whose essential principles were not merely unknown, but unknowable.

This is why we cultivate contentment. Contentment is simply being happy with what is, here and now. It is based on the reality of the present, not some imagined future. If we learn to be content now, we can carry that with us wherever we go. According to Paul, however, we hope precisely because we do not know something. This is a doctrine that elevates permanent ignorance to a virtue.

Hope is not merely delusional, it is rooted in aversion. Why do we have the need for hope? Because the present is bad. This, this place I am in, these people I am with, this mind that I have: all of these are somehow wrong, painful, unbearable. Rather than dealing with this reality, hope tells us that in some fantasy land of the future, everything will be okay.

Contentment, on the other hand, is based on acceptance and love. We don’t try to push reality away. We don’t try to avoid the pains and sorrows of life. We accept, and are content. It’s okay. This is why Buddhism is a path for grown-ups. We are not looking for someone to fix our problems for us. We are looking to develop a mature, wise connection with reality.

That is not to say that having a positive outlook for the future is impossible. Of course, we still do that, both in secular things and in spiritual. We study now so we can get a job later. Or we go to Dhamma classes now so we can meditate with more understanding later. Our world still happens in time, and we deal with that as any normal person does.

The difference is that as Buddhists, we don’t try to turn this ordinary process into some great spiritual principle. Sure, you have hope. If you are a good person, make good kamma, then you’ll have a good rebirth. Terrific! And if you practice Dhamma deeply and realize the four noble truths, then you will enjoy the bliss of Nibbana. Even better! There’s plenty to be hopeful about in Buddhist philosophy and practice. But that’s not ultimately important. We don’t make a big deal about it, because it’s all uncertain. Much better to focus on the here and now, and develop contentment with whatever is.

So it’s by no means correct to say that Buddhism is hopeless, if we understand it in this limited sense. It is only “hopeless” in the sense that we do not base our spiritual practice on the “hope” of some unknown and unknowable divine intervention at some point in the future.

Williams’ argument is, I think, based on a distortion of language. Normally I wouldn’t be too harsh on someone for doing this; it’s quite normal, and most of us do it all the time. But he studied and taught Madhyamaka philosophy for many years, so he should know better.

The distortion is in the words “hope” and “hopeless”. In the English language, the word “hope” feels good. And the word “hopelessness” feels bad: it means “despair”. Now, there is a sense, as I discussed above, where we could say that Buddhism is “hopeless”. But that kind of hopelessness has nothing to do with “despair”. On the contrary, it has to do with an emotional maturity that finds happiness in reality, not in fantasy. We don’t lack hope because we are looking for it and can’t find it; we have outgrown the need for it.

This kind of linguistic distortion, incidentally, is not new to Williams. We find it already in the early texts, where the Buddha is similarly accused of various kinds of negativity, similar to hopelessness, and responds with a nuanced linguistic analysis of the exact implications of the terms used.

Reason and emotion

Williams claims his position is “rational”. Yet this seems to be a purely theoretical reason, an inference from principles of theology, without any consideration of the reality of peoples’ lives. If you spend some time with actual living Buddhists you would know that we are no more hopeless than anyone else. In fact, Buddhist practices do exactly what Buddhists have been saying for millenia: they lead to peace, to contentment, and to happiness.

It seems to me that lack of contentment is driving Williams’ argument. Why else would he feel the need to persuade others of his religion by attacking his former religion?

For every Williams there are literally millions of former Christians, like myself, who have abandoned the faith they were brought up in and have found peace in the Buddha’s path. But Buddhists don’t get into the whole evangelizing thing, because we are content. We’re happy to be Buddhists, and happy to share our Dhamma with people who are interested; but we’re also happy that people should follow their own way.

This tolerance is not a new age idea, as we find it in the Buddha’s discourses themselves. Just yesterday, as it happens, I was editing the Udumbarika-sīhanada Sutta (DN 25), where the Buddha says this to a monk from another religious tradition:

Maybe, Nigrodha, you will think: ‘The Samaṇa Gotama has said this from a desire to get pupils’; but you are not thus to explain my words. Let your teacher remain your teacher. …

Nigrodha, I speak thus, neither because I wish to gain pupils, nor because I wish to you to leave your teaching, nor because I wish you to give up your way of life, nor because I wish to confirm you in bad principles, or detach you from good principles.

But, O Nigrodha, there are bad things that have not been abandoned, corrupting, entailing rebirth, bringing suffering, resulting in suffering, making for birth, decay and death in the future, and it is for abandoning these that I teach the Dhamma. And if you practice in accordance, the things that corrupt shall be put away, the things that make for purity shall grow and flourish, and each one of you shall attain to and abide in the understanding and the realization of full and abounding insight in this very life.

Buddhists are not interested in conversion. We don’t care whether you say you’re a Buddhist or not. We just want you to be happy. We are not so desperate, so emotionally fragile and needy, that we have to go around making everyone in the world believe the same things that we believe in. If you want to learn and practice Dhamma, great! If you’re happy to be doing something else, then be happy. We’ll be here if you need us.

It sometimes happens that people who approach religion through the intellect will overlook their underlying emotional and spiritual needs. In truth, we come to religion not because of reason, but because it calls to our higher emotions and intuition. We feel a heart-connection with a way, a path, or a community. Why different people feel this connection in different ways is difficult to know; perhaps it is because of past lives.

Reason is what we use afterwards to justify our beliefs and communicate them to others; as Williams says, “I convinced myself that it was rational to believe in God”.

If we do not address our emotional needs, they can lay fallow, untouched by years of philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such; sometimes we develop different aspects of the path at different times. But there is something wrong when we take our own, highly unusual personal experience, and turn that into a misleading universal argument.

No Buddhist in a traditional Buddhist culture has this problem. Traditional Buddhists approach the Dhamma first via the heart, by developing the faith, the contentment, the joy of participating in the Dhamma. Only much later, if ever, do they turn to a rational investigation into the teachings.

This is another area where I think Williams’ writings are disingenuous. He presents his article as if it were a personal journey, and uses the standard rhetorical technique of gaining emotional connection with his audience by telling his life story; a cheap trick that politicians use all the time. Yet he slides easily from “personal journey” to blithe, sweeping statements about “Buddhism” and “Christianity”. These are not the methods of a philosopher or scholar, which is how he presents himself. They are the methods of an evangelist.

Rebirth and the cockroach

Williams’ main argument rests on his analysis of rebirth. He doesn’t argue, as the secularists do, that rebirth is factually incorrect since there is no evidence for it. He can’t do that, since, obviously, Christian belief involves many things for which there is much less evidence than rebirth. Instead, he argues that what is reborn cannot be “me”. He says that Buddhists are correct to say that what is reborn is not-self, since whatever is reborn has only a limited relation to who we are in this life. Yet the implication of this, for him, is that he, the person who is Paul Williams, will disappear. In this sense the teaching of rebirth is hopeless: there is no hope for him as a person.

This is just such a wrong-headed argument, I don’t know where to start. But let me just say it: the fact that you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true. The world doesn’t exist in order to serve your emotional needs. If it really is the case that rebirth is real, then the role of religion is to help us learn to deal with it.

This underlines a further fallacy in his argument. Hope is not something that exists out there in the universe. The world is neither hopeful, nor hopeless. Nor, for that matter, is an abstract social construct like “Buddhism” or “Christianity” the kind of thing that can be either hopeful or hopeless.

Rather, hope is a way of responding to the world. Buddhism teaches us that we can train our emotions and learn to respond in healthy or unhealthy ways. If you think that hope is a healthy way of looking at the world, then you can use Buddhist or Christian teachings and techniques to develop that. Great! But hope is not just given to you. Like all emotions, it is a conditioned response.

Williams asks us to imagine being a cockroach, arguing that this is what Buddhists say we can end up as. What connection is there between a cockroach and us? What is it like to be a cockroach? He argues that if we were reborn as a cockroach, there is no meaningful sense in which we can say “we” still exist, and so we have for all intents and purposes ceased to be.

Once more, he exhibits a seemingly wilful blindness to the many Buddhist teachings that address exactly this issue. To start with, let me say that, while it is true that in theory Buddhist teachings seems to say that we might be reborn as a cockroach, in most cases when these things are discussed the form of rebirth is much closer to that of humanity. So he has chosen an extreme example, not a representative one, to illustrate his case.

But is a cockroach’s experience so utterly different for ours? Let’s see. Consider the five aggregates, a basic Buddhist teaching whose purpose is to help us understand the nature of experience and identity. The five aggregates are the body, feelings, perception, intentions, and consciousness. We have a body; the cockroach has a body. We experience pleasure and pain; so, I’m guessing, does the cockroach. We have perception; we can distinguish, for example, edible from inedible; and so can a cockroach. We make choices; and so does a cockroach. And we have awareness; and so, albeit minimally, does a cockroach. Like us, also, a roach has sight and other senses, although it uses them differently, with the sense of touch, mediated by fine hairs and antennae, being of prime importance. But these are details. On the whole, the structure of a cockroach’s consciousness, when considered in the terms that are important for Buddhism, is not all that different from ours. It is a matter of degree, not of kind.

To ask us to imagine ourselves as a cockroach is to invite empathy, to consider what it is like to be another kind of sentient being. And this empathy is at the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice. We recognize that even a cockroach is something like us.

At the same time, the opposite is true. I am something like a cockroach, but also something unlike it. And this doesn’t just apply to cockroaches, it even applies to ourselves. I am not all that much like me. If I try to imagine exactly how I felt yesterday, as I was reading Williams’ article, I can’t. I can recall some aspects of it, dimly and uncertainly, but I have lost forever what it it means to be me reading that article at that time. That is just how reality is. The only thing that is clear and evident is the present. So we can imagine, however dimly and distantly, what it is like to be a cockroach, or an alien, or a god, or to be ourselves an hour ago.

On knowing and the unknowable

Consider further the method that we use here, a method that is deeply characteristic of Buddhist practice. We start with ourselves, the here and now, with what we can directly experience. Then, little by little, we infer, to the past and the future, to other people, to other kinds of beings. This is how we can move from what is familiar to what is unfamiliar, without making the kind of giant cognitive leap that Williams asks of us.

This method underlies the Buddhist teaching on not-self, a central pillar of Buddhism that Williams seems to have completely misunderstood. We are changing, here and now. We can’t identify a single thing that remains steady and constant in our experience, yet we cling on to the idea of a constant “self”. The notion of self is purely a concept, a handy term we use for pragmatic purposes, but which doesn’t correspond to any single reality. When we attach to this concept of “self”, mistaking our concepts for reality, we cause suffering.

Buddhist teachings don’t create this suffering by taking your self away; they ease suffering by helping you understand why the universe is not the way you think it is. We know that everything will pass, so we learn to be at peace with that. I will disappear; in fact I am disappearing right now; and I am at peace with that.

But do you know what is really incomprehensible? Where we can really have no knowledge at all? Christian metaphysical ideas such as God, the soul, the trinity, or heaven. Christians are deeply vague and ambiguous when it comes to the salvation that is the basis of their hope. And for good reason. At the heart of the Christian notion of salvation is the idea that “I” will go to “heaven”, forever. Heaven is eternal, and for this reason it is inherently unknowable. This is not just my argument; it is stated explicitly in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4.18:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

But what can that possibly mean? All our experience is impermanent. Consciousness continually changes; this is not just a random detail, it is how consciousness works. There can never be any experience of the eternal, and we can ever infer eternity from our transient consciousness. Everything that “I” have ever been is impermanent. It is not possible to even imagine what a genuinely eternal experience could be like, or how it has any relation whatsoever to me as a conditioned person.

Our experience might seem distant from that of a cockroach; but we are closer, infinitely closer, to a cockroach than we are to an eternal heaven. The experience of being a cockroach is knowable, however slightly; but the experience of eternity is alien, utterly and forever. It is a nice-sounding idea that has no grounding in reality.

Rebirth and Christian belief

Willams argues the following.

If what I have argued here is correct, then it seems to me we are entitled theologically to say that we know rebirth is false. What I mean by this is:

  1. Rebirth is incompatible with Christian belief.
  2. As Christian believers we are entitled to say that we know theologically that Christian belief is true.
  3. Whatever is incompatible with a truth is false.
  4. Hence we are entitled to say as Christian believers that we know theologically that rebirth is false.

This is typical of Wiliams’ use of “reason”. I trust that I don’t need to point out how absurdly circular this is. But what is more interesting is how the argument uses “theological” reasoning to dismiss the teachings of Jesus.

For the Bible, and specifically Jesus, refers to reincarnation in many passages. This was well known to early Christians, some of whom, such as the Church father Origen, argued for a belief in reincarnation.

Why does Williams assert, then, that reincarnation is incompatible with Christian belief? Because, he says, “Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person.” If you are reborn then you have no uniqueness as an individual.

The funny thing, though, is that there’s nothing in the Gospels about this idea of the “infinite value of the person”. Indeed, the very notion of “the person” is far too abstract for the thought-world of early Christianity. It is a Greek idea, which came into Christianity via the early debates about the nature and essence of Jesus, who was the Divinity embodied as a person. It was introduced into Christianity by Tertullian, a Latin philosopher of the 3rd century, along with the notion of the “Trinity”. Thus Williams’ “theology” entails that he rejects rebirth, which is referred to frequently in the Bible, in favor of the doctrine of the unique “person”, which is found nowhere in the Bible.

Williams notes that you can even find some Christians who believe in rebirth. But this is a serious understatement. In fact, surveys, over many countries and several decades, show that roughly a quarter of modern Christians believe in reincarnation, and that many more accept is as a possibility.

Who gets to have hope?

It is perhaps not surprising that Williams chooses a cockroach as his example, for traditionally Christianity has not considered animals as worthy of moral concern. The sphere of Christianity is humans only, since humans possess a “soul”, whereas animals don’t. So there’s no hope for animals. But souls are tricky things, since they don’t exist, and are merely invented by philosophers and theologians. So there are lots of Christians who have argued that women have no soul, or that people of other races are not really human.

It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re hearing this wonderful teaching of “hope”. Christian hope, in it’s normal forms, doesn’t extend to the billions of people who are non-Christians: they go to Limbo (a kind of not unpleasant hell). This includes unbaptized babies, and the countless people who lived before Jesus, as well as all animals and so on. There’s no message of hope for these in the Gospels; the best the Church can do is say that maybe God will have mercy.

Hopeless, too, are those who practice unapproved forms of sexuality, or get divorced, or use contraception, or masturbate, or who are atheists, or agnostics, or who miss Mass on the wrong day (seriously!), and the list goes on. Sure, they can maybe be saved, if they confess, repent, and if God is in a good mood. But if they think that there’s nothing wrong with these things, they commit mortal sin and are doomed. This, of course, includes the vast majority of modern, thoughtful Christians, who don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on these and many other matters, but who prefer to discretely pass over them.

And if you’re a fig tree, you might as well give up now.

The hope of Jesus

When I hear someone saying that “Christianity offers hope”, I don’t believe them. It’s just too vague and general. Give me specifics and we can start to make sense of it. I do the same thing when facing problems in Buddhism: leave aside the platitudes, and look at what the Buddha actually said.

So, let’s see what the Bible says. But we have to narrow it down, and not be guilty of just cherry-picking passages. We’re talking about Christianity, so let’s consider the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. And let’s choose Mark, which, while composed long after his death by people who did not know Jesus, and which though constructed according to an artificial chronology is still the earliest, least filtered, and most reliable of the Gospels.

Mark is a good source for understanding Christian hope, since the entire narrative is set up as an apocalyptic prophesy. The story is meant to prefigure the significance of Jesus’s saving power, a power that is so incredible that not even his closest students had the vaguest notion of what was going on. (Remember this when you meet Christians who are so confident that they know what Jesus was all about: not even those who lived with him understood his message!) Jesus says to his disciples:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

This doesn’t sound all that hopeful. Hope comes in because God will save us. But isn’t it God who created all this in the first place? Actually, the text itself makes that clear:

If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

So we are at the whim of an omnipotent God, who created the world including all its suffering, and doles out pain and death as he sees fit. Hope is for the elect only, others will perish.

I find this to be not hopeful, but terrifying. This fear is no accident. The Bible, in many, many, places is trying its best to be terrifying, and Christian history is full of preachers whose stock in trade was not hope, but terror. Fear is, after all, nothing but the inverse of hope, and any doctrine grounded on hope holds fear in its back pocket. Fear is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of hope.

This is why, when the Western world began to emerge from the spell of Christianity in the 19th century, atheist thinkers such as Freud, Nietchzhe, and Marx documented the deep psychological and social scarring that Christianity had left on the European spirit.

Popular Christianity glosses over this history. The modern Churches have implicitly recognized that the atheist’s criticisms were right, and have changed Christianity, to some degree at least, to get away from this cult of death.

But it is never really gone. Bishop Spong, for example, tells a story of a young, devoted couple in his congregation, who were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter. But they had to watch as she became ill, and, while the entire congregation prayed and prayed, she weakened and died. Of course, the couple were devastated; but as he talked to them, he began to discern something beyond normal loss and grief: anger at God. How can He give us this life, only to snatch it away so cruelly, ignoring the pleas of those who have been so devoted to him?

A realistic approach to the Christian tradition cannot avoid this problem. God is terrifying, and in that way, he is just like life. He doesn’t exist to placate those who can’t get their own lives together. This is why Peter Carnley, the former archbishop of the Australian Anglican community, told his congregation that prayer doesn’t work; God isn’t the kind of being who sits there listening to a cosmic help line.

But what is it like to be saved?

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Here we clearly have an external force, a vaguely imagined savior appearing in some magical vision. The roots of Christianity lie not in the logic and rationality that Williams claims, but in a wild, ecstatic visioning.

There’s little rationality in the Bible. Reason was invented by the Greeks, and it made its way into Christianity as the Greek and Roman philosophers criticized the early Christian communities for their irrational beliefs and practices, such as Jesus’ resurrection in the flesh, the virgin birth, and so on. These criticisms, like those of the 19th century atheists, were obviously correct, and the Christians, while arguing against them, gradually changed their doctrine to accommodate the criticisms, turning a visionary prophetic cult into a coolly theological institution.

But I am getting diverted into historical matters here, and missing the key point: when will Jesus come back? This, surely, is the crucial question in Christian hope.

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Here we have the explicit statement that Jesus will reappear in the lifetime of his followers. Obviously this did not happen. Jesus’ prophecy, the heart of his teaching in the earliest testament to his life, turned out to be empty.

This was a fundamental crisis for the early Christian community: hope was promised, but not delivered. This is not unique to Mark, but was found through all the early Christian texts. (Apologies for quoting Wikipedia.):

Christians of Mark’s time expected Jesus to return as Messiah in their own lifetime—Mark, like the other gospels, attributes the promise to Jesus himself (Mark 9:1 and 13:30), and it is reflected in the letters of Paul, in the epistle of James, in Hebrews, and in Revelation. When return failed, the early Christians revised their understanding. Some acknowledged that the Second Coming had been delayed, but still expected it; others redefined the focus of the promise, the Gospel of John, for example, speaking of “eternal life” as something available in the present; while still others concluded that Jesus would not return at all (2 Peter argues against those who held this view).

To sum up: Christian hope, as taught by Jesus, was that he would return in glory to save his followers, while destroying all other people. This prophecy was false. The Christian tradition responded by developing a symbolic interpretation of Bible passages which were originally meant quite literally. Like countless apocalyptic prophets since then, Jesus’ words were addressing the events of his day, but were overtaken by history.

From a Buddhist point of view, this vacillation is entirely predictable. The problem is not with the specifics of how Jesus taught his followers; it is that the very idea that salvation in the form of a future hope is delusional. Our salvation comes from reality, and reality is always present.

In conclusion

Allow me to restate: I am not writing this article in order to attack Christianity. I am doing it in order to refute the critique of Paul Williams, a critique that, however misguided, has gained traction among evangelical Christians due to his prestige as a former Buddhist academic. Despite the length of this article, I have hardly scratched the surface of the mistakes in Williams’ depiction of Buddhism. For example, I have not even touched on his distortion of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma.

We follow religious paths, for the most part, because they answer to a deep, often unrecognized, emotional need or connection. So when, a couple of years ago, a former Buddhist told me that they had become Christian because they felt a connection with Jesus and his community, I said “Sadhu!”, offered my support, and had a lovely conversation with them and their new pastor.

Conversion is not a problem for Buddhists; suffering is. If someone can ease their suffering by following some religious or spiritual path, then that is the truest practice of Dhamma for them.

But we should not stand by while Buddhism is criticized unfairly and mistakenly. As the Buddha said in the Brahmajala Sutta:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.’

I have benefited greatly from reading, reflecting on, and engaging with Christians and those of many different paths. There is always something to learn, and we should never be so arrogant as to believe that we have all the answers.

Obviously, at the end of the day I can’t accept the basic Christian beliefs. But what I do respect in the Christian tradition is the sense of a real human struggle to connect with the transcendent in the middle of the mundane. If we look at the Bible in this way, we can see, not the divinely revealed word of God, but the words of people through the ages who, each in their very different ways, have found meaning in a mad world.

We are lucky enough to share this mad world with Christians, and with many people of diverse beliefs and practices, and we Buddhists can learn much from their struggles and insights. And I hope that, in the future, I can learn from a more meaningful Christian critique of Buddhism.


73 thoughts on “Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism

  1. Hi Sujato,

    It’s good that someone takes the time to refute Williams’ nonsense, and I agree that Spong is a more interesting theologian (though it’s two decades since I read anything by him, he made an impression at the time). Williams is vastly over-rated as a scholar outside the academy because of his book on Mahāyāna Buddhism (which shines largely because it has no competition).

    However, I have to take issue with you on the subject of “hope”. Of course Buddhism relies on hope. We sell Buddhism on the basis that we can end suffering. Some of us say that we can end all suffering for all beings everywhere. Some of us are watering this down to the bare minimum, i.e. that practising can make life a little more bearable. But we are all offering hope that things can be better, and most of us are offering hope that “better” can be “best”. We may approach the goal obliquely, but all of us have the same goal. Awakening, Enlightenment, Liberation. All concepts positively dripping with hope.

    I’m not sure why you go so far in playing down hope as to try to obscure it entirely. Take karma. Karma relies on setting up conditions for a better future. One of the traditional benefits of good karma is a better rebirth. A better rebirth in the next life, for themselves and their loved ones, is the fervent wish of many of the world’s traditional Buddhists. Indeed there is a whole economy of puñña which revolves around just this hope. The leverage point may be the present, but Karma is all about hope for a better future. And in this it is no more logical or rational in its conception than the messianic aspects of Christianity.

    Our problem in the face of binary heaven/hell eschatologies is that we cannot say anything definite about what it’s like to be liberated – there is an epistemological horizon beyond which our questions are avyākata. This has never stacked up well against less reticent eschatologies which promise Paradise and fill in the blanks from imagination.

    The most obvious come back to Williams’ assertion that rebirth means there is no hope, is that the Ariyasaccā deny this at its root. There absolutely is hope in the face of the rounds of rebirth. Rebirth ends with vimokkha, along with all other suffering. That is what the Buddhist religion offers it’s followers.

    • Hi jayarava,

      Well, that’s fair enough. But still, I don’t think hope is a Buddhist virtue in the same way as it is in Christianity. There, like faith, it is lionized as an end in itself, it seems; its very lack of reality is its greatest virtue.

      I haven’t really read any of Williams’ Buddhist writings so I can’t comment on that. He did do the very handy Routledge series Critical Studies on Buddhism, so i’m grateful to him for that (though not to Routledge for the outrageous pricing!)

  2. i agree with jayarava, bhante undeservedly downplays the importance of hope for a buddhist
    what you describe as living in the here and now is for the consummate ones, the arahants, they are those who don’t need hope, as they have laid down the burden already, for them there’s nothing to hope for any more
    but that is not the case for an average buddhist
    the rationale in the words of Williams is that if we accept the concept of anatta then it’s not us who will get awakened sometime in the distant future in one of rebirths, this revelation is hard to stomach for an average person
    however one asserts that we’re not the same throughout our lives anyway, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that unlike during our lifetime after the rebirth we don’t remember and don’t perceive the continuity of our personality from the previous life

    • and to round up the reasoning:
      that’s why in the Christian paradigm for a buddhist there’s no hope
      the problem of Williams probably amounts to the fact that he never really became a buddhist, Christian worldview was lingering at the back of his mind before eventually he couldn’t suppress and fight it any longer, couldn’t feign being a buddhist
      at the same time i wonder how many native theravada buddhists believe in eternal soul or personality and whether anatta is indeed a genuine integral part of their worldview

    • Well, answer me this.

      The three great virtues in Christianity are Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith is saddha; Love is metta. These are both straightforward, central teachings, explicitly said by the Buddha to be part of the path on countless occasions. So, where is Hope? Is there a single term, idea, or teaching anywhere that the Buddha said, “Develop hope for realizing Awakening” or anything even vaguely similar? I don’t think so.

      I haven’t denied that ordinary hope is part of life for a Buddhist. What I have denied is that it is a central virtue for Buddhists in anything like the way it is for Christians.

      Living in the present isn’t just for arahants: it is the path.

    • “Living in the present isn’t just for arahants: it is the path.”

      Excuse me, even “the path”?? Yes, the significance of all these “here-and-now” was definitely overplayed and overestimated by the commentators. With all my respect, I don’t think the Buddha meant such an approach.

    • living in the here and now for anyone other than an arahant i think is faking, because of being unnatural involving effort, and it still needs hope for awakening, emancipation or a better rebirth, i will only correct my point of view to accord with the teaching of 10 fetters and say that hope is needed until probably doubt is removed, that is until stream-entry level is established

      so i think hope is quite important for a Dhamma practitioner too, not as a means securing salvation but as a means of keeping one on the Path until reaching stream-entry level, even though it hasn’t been given doctrinal status as in the Christianity, until then without hope there’s nothing to motivate a disciple to persevere

  3. “Buddhists don’t talk much about hope, because hope is based on the future, and is therefore delusional. We don’t know what the future holds, so to base our emotional well being on something we don’t know, and can never know, is to invite disappointment.”

    But we can know quite well what the future holds. Actually there is a scientific field called Futurology, which studies the possible scenarios of human and technical evolution. Many of the great scientists of the past were true prophets and knew a lot about the future, our present. It suffices to recall only the amazing thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, they were all visionaries. Later there were Jules Verne, HG Wells, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Asimov, Kurzweil and many many others that successfully predicted the human future. It is exactly the visionaries who help this world become a better place and a better reality for various religions to deal with, and I very hope that one day, the buddhists will appreciate all these sincere humanistic efforts.

  4. Dear Bhante, your essay reminded me of some similar remarks about the Buddhist attitude toward hope made by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, Peace is Every Step:

    “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us – to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.


    Western civilization places so much emphasis on the idea of hope that we sacrifice the present moment. Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment. Many religions are based on the notion of hope, and this teaching about refraining from hope may create a strong reaction. But the shock can bring about something important. I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment, inside of yourself and all around you.”

    It seems clear that hope can be an obstacle if it causes a person to ignore or neglect what is happening now out of blind faith in salvation that will (hopefully…) bring a better future. This form of hope seems perilously close to despair. Buddhist teachings can provide an antidote to this problem, by encouraging a more courageously clear-sighted and realistic approach, as well as contentment, as you and Thich Nhat Hanh suggest.

    However, I think there is something to be said for the Christian sense of hope, which is that it involves an understanding that the profound relief of suffering must involve others (or an Other). It encourages giving up the idea that I am or can be in perfect control, and a willingness to open oneself to possibilities that are not within one’s capacity to know or bring about through deliberate, individual efforts. If this aspect of Christian hope, or the messianic tradition, is emphasized, I think it has some affinity with the Buddhist idea of non-self – and prayer undertaken in this spirit might be a form of meditation as valid as any other. Maybe the problem is not hope, but an impoverished sense of what hope can mean.

    • Hi Stefano,

      Thanks for this, and I am glad that I’ve been so terrifying to some! Amazing how a few words can apparently threaten a whole religious edifice. It gives me great encouragement.

      There are many things in your post, and I can’t hope to do justice to them all; many of them are things that I have discussed at length elsewhere.

      But just a note on fear; in fact, as it happens, I did a sutta class on one of the “terrifying” suttas yesterday, AN 3.36. Yes, it’s true that fear is a part of Buddhism, as in some ways hope is. They are ordinary human emotions, and are not in and of themselves right or wrong. Hope can motivate you to achieve things, to hold on in adverse conditions; but it can also lead you into traps. Fear is the same. There are some things that you should be afraid of, and fear triggers emotional and biological responses that have a survival value. But it also becomes crippling, and is easily manipulated as tool of control. As indeed has happened in the monastic communities, like the one you described, where fear and intimidation have become the natural state of affairs.

      But neither hope nor fear is ever taught by the Buddha as a central or important part of the path of practice, as I mentioned in a previous response. They are there, they are dealt with, they can have good or bad manifestations; but at the end of the day they are transcended. They are neither integral to the path, nor a quality of the Awakened.

      It is not just Ajahn Brahm who had an experience of fear that motivated him; the Buddha says the same thing in the Attadanda Sutta: disva man bhayamavisi, “When I saw that, fear came upon me”. Here he is speaking not of samsara, but of the conflict that plagues human society.

      The point is, while fear may play a role, as may hope, it is not a critical part of how the path is developed. Ajahn Brahm is not a fearful person!

  5. Hi Sujato,

    You write: ‘Fear is, after all, nothing but the inverse of hope, and any doctrine grounded on hope holds fear in its back pocket. Fear is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of hope.’
    I believe that fear and superstition plays a major role in Buddhism too, and not only in Christianity. Ironically, the reason why I am reading your blog is connected with this. The first Theravada monk I ever met, about a year ago, described you, with an expression of terror on his face, as someone who made some ‘very grave mistakes’ in your life and some very bad kamma. When I inquired what these mistakes were, he replied that you were critical of some senior monks in your blog, and also questioned the authenticity of some of the Suttas. This of course made me immediately curious and sympathetic of your work and encouraged me to start reading your blog. Though I was very surprised by the terror that the face of that monk expressed (which intuitively I felt was supported by a system of belief probably not unlike that of the Western Middle Ages), at the time I just thought that it was a problem with that particular monk or at most with his school, and went on practicing Buddhism following Ajahn Brahm’s teachings

    However, I cannot now be blind to the fact that in Ajahn Brahm’s books too one finds sentences such as these: ‘One of my favourite teachings of the Buddha is the simile of the stick (SN 15:9, 56:33). When I first read it I almost shivered in fear. The simile makes the point that the ripening of kamma at death is as uncertain as which end of a stick will hit the ground first when it is thrown into the air…Everybody has a store of bad kamma….Even if bad kamma doesn’t ripen when you die this time, as long as you remain in samsara, you will eventually experience tremendous suffering – in hell, in the animal realm…You are only safe if you become a stream-winnner’ (from The art of disappearing, p 104). I do not know why this is one of Ajahn Brahm’s favourite Suttas, but what is sure is that this sentence causes at least as much terror and suffering in the face of the threat of the future as the most menacing passages of the Bible. In addition, if taken absolutely seriously, this sentence would imply that all ways of living one’s life that involve enjoyment of samsara are patently insane, and that the only rational and sane way to live one’s life would be that of a monk. Thus, according to this, even people whom in the west we consider great geniuses, like Rubens and Goethe, should in reality be judged as stupid because they openly enjoyed things like sex and drink (in a civilized way) and were very much fond of samsara (even Socrates drank large quantities of alcool as described in the Symposium, and was not chaste).

    But what scientific or factual grounds do we have for taking sentences such as the one by Ajahn Brahm quoted above seriously? (I mean seriously in the sense that we live our life by them). Concerning rebirth, the work of Ian Stevenson suggests that it is a possible explanation for some of the phenomena that he has recorded, though of course that research does not constitute a proof of rebirth in a scientific sense. Concerning the law of karma, modern thinkers like Nietzsche whom you have mentioned above would certainly think that that is wishful thinking. We live in a cold, impersonal universe and I find it very, very hard to see why it should be morally structured if no God created it (this is one part of William’s argument that I find convincing). If we then look at the concept of the stream-winner, I don’t understand on what basis we are to undertand that once we attain that state (assuming it exists) we are safe and will reach Nibbana within seven lives. What is there to prevent a stream-winner from, for example, dying in infancy in her seven subsequent lives due to say natural disasters or illness or war, so that she will never be able to further her practice? Though this is highly unlikely, it is not logically impossible. Of course one will argue that the Buddha said so and that we should have faith in him, but in this case one is appealing to faith, just like the Christians.

    At one time when I thought of aligning my life to the Buddhist teachings in the most serious sense, I had an exchange of emails with Paul Williams to find out more about his reasons for instead quitting Buddhism. Although I realized that our world views and needs were very far apart, I think that he was genuinely concerned in trying to help me in my attempt to make the right choices that would enable me, as it were, to live a good life. And I find some of his arguments, and in particular the idea that Buddhism relies just as much as Christianity on dogmas, quite reasonable.
    There was another thing that he wrote to me that I found quite useful. He advised me to mistrust those epistemological claims according to which you need to attain deep meditative states to access truth. I do not know why he said that, but his advice was certainly useful when I later visited the Tibetan lamas and other groups, and I got a very clear impression on how a whole system of power can be built on superstition, on the belief in the mysterious attainments of an élite and the idea of a ‘spiritual hierarchy’.

    • “Of course one will argue that the Buddha said so and that we should have faith in him, but in this case one is appealing to faith, just like the Christians.”

      I think there is nothing wrong with faith as such. Even completely atheistic scientists are guided by some kind of faith or intuition while working on their not yet proven theories, for instance. We are all believers, whether in the existence of the supernatural or in its absence, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that faith must not be obscurantic and terrifying, I agree.

    • speaking of the fear factor in the Dhamma

      Bhikkhus, there are these five cords of sensual pleasure. What five? Forms cognizable by the eye … sounds cognizable by the ear … odours cognizable by the nose … flavours cognizable by the tongue … tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and likable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust. These are the five cords of sensual pleasure. Now the pleasure and joy that arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure are called sensual pleasure – a filthy pleasure, a coarse pleasure, an ignoble pleasure. I say of this kind of pleasure that it should not be pursued, that it should not be developed, that it should not be cultivated, and that it should be feared.

      Aranavibhanga sutta (MN 139)

  6. I was a catholic and then I encountered the theravadans. I abandoned both as they both subordinate women. Even with the full ordination of women the garudhammas ensure this.

  7. In Christianity, belief is necessary because you have to accept things that cannot be known in this life. You just have to have hope, and all you have is hope. You just have to fear consequences of wrong belief, and you cannot be freed from fear of the consequences of wrong belief in this life.

    In the teachings of the Buddha, trust and fear are important so that we can develop spiritually beyond the need for trust (because there comes knowledge and true knowledge) or fear. Saddhā has elements of faith and hope, but it’s only useful until it’s no longer necessary as results can be attained in this life, here and now. And fear can useful in that it turns us from things that are unwholesome so that we can develop spiritually beyond all fear, a result that can be attained in this life, here and now.

    In Christianity, all is done by God, i.e. sola fide, by faith alone (assisted by the carrot and stick of hope and fear) is one saved later, in an eternal afterlife.

    In the teachings of the Buddha, we created the problem, we do the work to overcome the problem, and we can see the results for ourselves.

    • In Christianity, all is done by God, i.e. sola fide, by faith alone (assisted by the carrot and stick of hope and fear) is one saved later, in an eternal afterlife.

      I had meant also to write: and you are saved only by the grace of God, sola gratia, i.e. only by God can one be saved (and all you can do is hope that God decides to save you).

    • taking into account how few there’re known cases of awakening and arahantship in the present life outside of the Pali Canon, it’s safe to conclude that in the degree of probability of salvation Buddhism isn’t that much different from Christianity

      considering the doctrinal tenet that nibbana is unconditioned, it then must also be unconditioned by one’s efforts to bring it about, however paradoxical it sounds, so effectively one cannot really be absolutely sure when nibbana is going to set in, which is not unlike nescience and lack of certainty of one’s own salvation in Christianity

      like salvation by unpredictable and incalculable God’s grace in Christianity, nibbana comes about of its own accord, unfathomably
      practising the Noble Eightfold Path one can create auspicious conditions for its advent, but not compel it by the presence of these conditions, much like with salvation in Christianity

    • Salvation in Christianity is about surrendering self to a higher power that will save you if you believe tenets of faith that cannot be confirmed by human reason or direct experience. In Catholicism, you have to combine belief in tenets with acknowledgement of the authority of the Church by way of receiving sacraments from Church leaders.

      Liberation in Buddhism isn’t about gaining anything. It’s about recognizing the spinning, the proliferations, the craving that leads to spinning and proliferating, and the root of restlessness for what they are and abandoning them, getting them out of the way, and letting them go so that there is the possibility of direct experience of all dhammas.

      Christianity teaches the faithful to hold on blindly and tightly to constructed ideas about self, existence, God, etc.

      The Buddha taught that saddhā is helpful in order to begin to let go so that, when you’re ready to abandon spinning and proliferating, to stop craving, and to let go of the cause for restlessness, you’ll no longer need faith at all.

      That nibbana is unconditioned does not mean that it must also be unconditioned by one’s efforts to bring it about, nor is nibbana something that sets in.

    • salvation in Christianity as far as I know it in the Orthodox form, comes not simply thanks to the faith, but to the true living of the tenets, still it’s for the God to decide whether one is saved

      Apostle James wrote in his Letter “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (2:26)

      in fact dhammic liberation is defined much simpler as the cessation of stress, these are direct words of Buddha in translation into English from the Nikayas, but indeed it’s not about gaining it’s about getting rid of, still this doesn’t negate the fact that the adept has no way of controlling or calculating that moment, which is not unlike hoping for the God’s grace for salvation

      i have nothing to say on the faith subject since i don’t see how it is relevant to the discussion

      unconditionality of nibbana is absolute, if it were conditioned by at least something it could not be constant and final, one would inevitably fall from it once the conditions are nor longer in place, and an arahant, a nibbuta would return to samsara after having already been liberated from it, that however makes the whole idea of liberation void and lacking any sense for working towards liberation which has a potential of ending is really a time-wasting

      nibbana is a state, so it can set in like any other state

    • Hi Баян Купи-ка,

      You wrote that a practitioner following the teachings of the Buddha has no way of controlling or calculating the moment of awakening, but that’s not entirely correct. The practitioner could calculate it if he or she were willing to waste so much time as to ensure that it would take nearly an incalculable number of lifetimes to attain it. And there the practitioner has a choice not to do that, i.e. has some control over it.

      You said that you don’t see how faith is relevant. Having the ability to trust the Buddha and others who have benefited from the Buddha’s teachings, i.e. having faith, is very important for those who are just beginning the path.

      You said that the unconditionality of nibbana is absolute and that if it were conditioned by at least something it could not be constant and final. Approaching the experience of nibbana as an arahant, the being would be the one producing the conditioned phenomena and causing their arising. What you’re describing isn’t so much an arahant falling from nibbana once the conditions are nor longer in place, leading to a return to samsara after having already been liberated from it, but a stream-enterer, a once-returner, or a non-returner, i.e. those who are still both consumers of and producers of conditioned phenomena.

      In any case, I don’t see why you think that what you wrote leads to the conclusion that working towards liberation is a waste of time. Even if you refuse to accept the teaching on the complete destruction of the asavas, there are still many benefits to the Buddha’s teachings between spinning and sinking in a tangled web of confusion and liberation. Of course, the stubborn refusal to accept the possibility of the complete destruction of the asavas will be something that you’d have to let go of before full awakening. Good luck.

      Nibbana is not a state. It’s the experience of the ending of the need for any state of becoming.

    • alright i agree that nibbana being an experience is a more accurate definition

      still a type of experience has a point of outset, which is the same as setting in

      and since nibbana is only an arahant’s experience i cannot be describing anything other than that

      being unconditional it turns out to not be conditioned even by the factors of the path, that’s the paradox

      striving for impermanent liberation is like climbing along an icy slope, too much effort for too little to no gain, if sliding back down the slope is the end result then staying at the foot is more preferable

      i to the contrary do accept the possibility of the complete destruction of asavas, i only think that it occurs in a way not very much different from the Christian salvation, that is inconceivably and mysteriously

    • Баян Купи-ка,

      Christian salvation is not the destruction of the asavas. There is still a subject (your soul), in the presence of an object (an eternal God figure), and the bliss you experience in the presence of God is a pleasure rooted in contact. It’s about the permanence of existence, never to end up as non-existence. That’s the extent of what God can do for a believer.

      Buddhist liberation is beyond subject, object, and beyond any pleasure rooted in contact. It’s about moving beyond the concepts of existence and non-existence. This is the extent of what a being can do with his or her own effort and direct experience.

      Maybe rather than thinking about the conditions for arriving at the experience of the unconditioned, it would be more useful to ask about the conditions that caused the departure from the experience of the unconditioned and how those causes and conditions can be abandoned.

    • the premise of what you say with regard to stripping off conditions which estrange one from nibbanic experience or block it off from one is reminiscent of the Buddha-nature concept in Chan-buddhism according to which everybody is innately endowed with Buddha-nature and all there’s to do is realize that fact, that is to return to one’s own primal basic experience obscured by all the defilements and proliferations

      however this is not quite the teaching of the Nikaya Buddhism

    • “reminiscent of the Buddha-nature concept”; “however this is not quite the teaching of the Nikaya Buddhism”

      To be more exact, this is not quite the teaching of the Abhidhamma and Theravada.

    • Just to clarify, the term “Nikaya Buddhism” is sometimes used to refer to the early schools of Buddhism, before the arising of the the Mahayana around 0 CE. The “Buddha-nature” concept, insofar as it is an Indian concept at all, arose in the later part of the Mahayana, perhaps 3rd century CE. The Sanskrit term is “tathagatagarbha”, which means the “embryo of the Buddha”, i.e. that each person has a “seed” or potential of Awakening. It took quite some time after the emergence of this term for it to be understood in the sense that we use “Buddha nature”. I’m not sure if that happened in Indian Buddhism, or if it is a Chinese development.

      In any case, it’s perfectly correct to say that the “buddha-nature” concept is not part of Nikaya Buddhism, nor, indeed, part of early Mahayana.

    • Dear Bhante,

      Of course you are right concerning the later emergence of the “Buddha-nature” term. But answering Баян, I meant the conception by itself which, I believe, is not alien to Nikaya Buddhism. I meant that situation where the Sutta terms relating to the mind and its activity, such as citta, manas and vinnana, were almost equalized by later commentators, as Bhikkhu Boddhi once mentioned. However, they are quite different in meaning. As far as I am aware, citta (mind-heart) is not mentioned neither in the 12 Nidanas nor in the 5 Aggregates and described as an object which is to be purified and trained in most of the Suttas, while according to the Abhidhamma view, citta is just a synonym for vinnana (consciousness). Please, don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to promote any kind of views associated with atman or eternal existence, just think that such nuances are noteworthy when it comes to the Buddha-nature. For instance, this difference of the terms is well seen in MN 121, in a place in which the mind (citta) needs to overcome the sphere of consciousness (viññāṇañcāyatanasaññaṃ):

      “Again, ânanda, the bhikkhu not attending to the perception of the sphere of space or the perception of the sphere of consciousness, attends to the single perception of the sphere of nothingness. With the perception of the sphere of nothingness the mind springs, gets settled and is released. He knows, whatever anxiety there’s on account of the perception of the sphere of space and the perception of the sphere of consciousness, are not evident here (…)”

    • Okay, sure, I understand better now.

      There are plenty of passages that use mano, citta, and vinnana as synonyms found in many places in the texts; for example SN 12.61. And citta is most assuredly said to be something that is to be purified and trained.

      There have been several attempts to find an essential difference between these terms, and none of them work.

      The actual difference is not that these things have different denotations, but that they tend to be used in slightly different contexts, with different connotations.

      Vinnana is more technical, and tends to be used in the context of the 1st noble truth (aggregates, senses, etc). It is to be understood.

      Citta is more general, and is used in a wide range of non-technical contexts (which effectively dooms any attempt to develop a particular philosophical reading of the term), but when it is used in doctrinal contexts it usually appears in the 4th noble truth, the path. Cittabhavana, cittasampada, adhicittasikkha, etc., etc., are all terms that relate to purification and training of mind, especially in samadhi as the culmination of the 8-fold path. It is to be developed.

      Mano has a more active nuance, and tends to be used in contexts relating to the 2nd noble truth, especially as regards kamma (manosancetana, manosankhara, etc.).

      Note that I say “tend” and “is used”, not “this is what it is”. Buddhism is not an essentialist philosophy, and to seek to identify “citta” or “vinnana” as an object or thing is to miss the point. They are just ways of talking about experience that are helpful for liberation.

    • Dear Bhante,

      ” mano, citta, and vinnana as synonyms found in many places in the texts; for example SN 12.61.”

      The point is that there are not so many such cases in the Suttas. As far as I know, only two or three.

      “The actual difference is not that these things have different denotations, but that they tend to be used in slightly different contexts, with different connotations.”

      Denotations, connotations… sorry, but the difference is obvious 🙂 My previous example proves this.

      “They are just ways of talking about experience that are helpful for liberation.”

      I completely agree, but I can’t ignore the special status of citta in the Suttas (for instance: It is like some core of a human being which in the purified form seems to mean the mind in sopadhiśeṣa nirvāṇa, in my view. Of course, I don’t deny its empty and constructed nature, but it is definitely something special and different from mano and vinnana.

      “and to seek to identify “citta” or “vinnana” as an object or thing is to miss the point.”

      I don’t get this traditional hostility towards an “object”, “subject”, “individuality” and other definitions. Even the Buddha used them, including atta. What is so wrong with the definitions considering that one realises that he/she indicates something inherently empty and constructed? I use them everyday, but it doesn’t mean that I am totally attached to things I talk about.

    • Hi Victoria,

      I’ve commented in detail on the radiant mind passage that you refer to. But that is buried away in a comment in a long thread, so I’ll repost my comment as an actual post, and invite you to continue the discussion there.

    • Obviously, the Buddha-nature concept found in several schools of Mahayana Buddhism is not what’s in the Pali Canon.

      What I’m saying doesn’t have much to do with the Buddha-nature concept found in several schools of Mahayana Buddhism. What I am saying is what’s in the Pali Canon.

      You don’t even have to look very hard in the Pali Canon to find it. Both the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the Anattalakkhana Sutta are about stripping away attachments that create delusional self-identity and distort all experiences and about experiencing directly the cessation of all causes of suffering, i.e. craving that leads to attachments:

      “And this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the complete cessation without remainder, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.

      And what is this experience? Saṃyutta Nikāya 43.1-44 passim:

      “And what, bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of desire, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the unconditioned.

      We can debate what this means and try to conceptualize it in circles for eons, but it will always fall short of the insight that’s possible by experiencing the pleasure that’s not rooted in contact, which is nothing other than the experience that remains when there is the removal of attraction, the removal of aversion, and the removal of ignorance.

      The problem – that there is suffering – is the result of what we do, i.e. proliferate, attach, and spin, and the solution is simply removing all tendencies that cause us to do all the proliferating, attaching, and spinning.

      The Buddha-nature concept found in several schools of Mahayana Buddhism is an attempt to describe the indescribable. Perhaps it’s useful to some people on their path. But it’s not what I’m talking about.

  8. Interesting conversation. Perhaps a sifting of the Buddha Dhamma might reveal a little more of the presence of hope than too many commonly allow. Perhaps there might not even be a Sasana if were not for the Bodhisatta’s ‘hope’ ..When he saw the 4 sights the first 3 of age, sickness and death were NOT met with ‘contentment’ he was profoundly dis-contented ; stirred and shaken with samvega. (and after his awakening, his observation that ‘this dhamma is for those who go against the stream’ is not an endorsement for generalised passive ‘contentment’. The 4th sight of the wandering samana gave rise to the ‘hope’ that perhaps there is something else. This pasada, must in the beginning, contain hope and belief because there is not sufficient experiential knowledge yet to know if one is on a true path or not. As it matures the reasoned confidence based on experiments with the truth grows hand in hand with our appreciation of the good and true. I don’t think the Buddha would have been shy of the word hope though he may been at pains to distinguish types of hope in realistic and unrealistic. I have heard various Buddhist’s over many years be overly cautious or coy, about the word hope, and yes even denying this human emotion. (a similar coyness about the word ‘love’ also when clearly the spectrum of meaning for Metta range from friendliness to what any sensible person would call ‘love’ – instead we use monochrome ‘loving kindness’ for every occasion) I see this as contributing to rather than clearing up misunderstandings about the Sasana. Looked at in less grim and silly ,so called orthodox, terms the Buddha sasana is the most hopeful teaching I know of. No matter ones difficult back story the Buddha offers the hopeful message that by developing confidence in the possibility of cause and effect and embarking on plans suitable action ANY human being can DEVELOP and become more free in life.
    John Allan

  9. Hi Victoria,
    This is a really good point. We all have some kind of faith, for example as a scientist I have faith in the ability of the mind to understand physical reality through reason, or at least to make models that approximate quite accurately to reality (I have always been filled with wonder for example by the fact that the mind can, using things like mathematics, understand and model pretty well what’s out there in nature, as far as inanimate matter is concerned). I also think that modern Western science is probably not the only way of understanding reality. And above all I think that science by itself will never be able to provide ethical values and determine how to live a good life – so this is why I am on a religious quest.
    But, I think it is puzzling when religion makes claims about reality which cannot then be tested and verified, or which seem to go against reason or simple common sense. Thus to go back to my sentence which you quote above, what I was referring specifically to was the idea of stream-entry – and particularly the idea that once one ‘gets there’ one is safe and will be enlightened within 7 lives – which I find very hard to make sense of (at least as hard as to make sense of Christian dogmas) – though certainly I have tried. (I realize that I am beginning to sound like Stephen Batchelor here…but here’s another thing: if Buddhism were really only about living in the now, and making rational and scientific claims and did not depend on dogmas, there would be no big debate between Stephen Batchelor and the monks). But to go back to the idea of stream-enterers: as far as I understand, there were no stream-enterers in the immediately previous generations of the Buddha, since it was he who rediscovered the path. Then the first stream-enterers must have appeared after his enlightenment. And since he was no longer there seven generations later to verify that all of them had been enlightened, the claim that they are enlightened within seven lives is certainly not based on empirical verification, and I don’t understand on what basis it should be taken as true (unless this were to be taken as an a priori synthetic judgment in the Kantian sense, but I don’t understand on what basis we are to do so). Besides, even if one could verify that all stream-enterers one encounters are enlightened within seven lifetimes, this would not imply that this law is true by necessity : if would be enough to find in the future one stream-enterer who is not enlightened in seven lives to falsify the theory. But, of course, in practice this theory can never be tested or falsified – since you would need first to indentify stream enterers, which I understand is not possible since monks do not speak of their attainments, and then have some observer living seven times longer than them and checking whether they get enlightened in seven lifetimes, which is patently impossible to do. As such, the idea of stream-entry would appear to make claims about reality which I cannot in earnest say are convincing, at least to me.
    I am also very familiar with the claim that Brs makes, that the difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that the former, unlike the latter, promises things that it can deliver in this life (even Nietzsche made a similar claim, though he probably did this in order to gain some extra ammunition in his enterprise to demolish Christianity). Then according to this claim, if you just practice enough you will be able to see reincarnation for yourself. The Arahants (and maybe other ariyas (?), I am not sure about this) do remember their past lives and understand reincarnation directly. So let’s turn tu them. What I find hard to understand, is that since seriously basing one’s life on the idea of reincarcation would be an immense benefit for all of us, one of the greatest act of compassion that the ariyas could do would be to share with us proof of reincarnation. I once saw a documentary on the BBC in which an ordinary person claimed that he had very clear memories that he had lived during the 30 year war I think. He was truly convinced of that. Interviews were then organized with historians who were familiar with many details of daily life in that period : things like the way people dressed in that period, the type of weapons that were used in the war etc. and it turned out that his memories did not match at all the historically known facts, and were due to delusions. I think similar experiments could be designed with deep meditators who remember their past lives: if they shared some of their memories say with historians, perhaps they would provide empirical verification of the Buddhist teachings on reincarnation. This would be an immense benefit to us: I remember Ajahn Brahmali, when talking of reincarnation, made a simile with investing in the stock market, saying that if you invest basing your choice on ‘inside information’ (a metaphor for living life according to the truth of reincarnation) then you’ll be on the right track. My problem is that I don’t see convincing evidence for this ‘inside information’. Last summer I spent some time in a Buddhist monastery in Europe belonging to the Thai Forest tradition. I remember talking to one of the senior monks there about the claims of a famous Thai master according to which he remembered innumerable lives (enough lives so that his past bodies, when placed side by side, would cover the whole surface of Thailand and more). The senior European monk just burst out laughing and said that there is a lot of hype in Asia and that I should really be careful to believe such claims. If a monk who has been in ‘the system’ for many years gives me such advice, I think that some skepticism is healthy. In any case, without wishing to offend the faith of anyone reading this, I once myself tried to calculate how many human lifetimes it would take to have enough past bodies to cover the whole surface of Thailand when the bodies are aligned side by side. It turns out that if you believe in evolution, you also believe that man has been around for at most 250000 years. An easy calculation shows that you would need a much greater span of time to have enough bodies to cover the surface of Thailand, and thus makes claims such as these quite puzzling. Of course one could claim that this is silly: the master remembering his past lives spoke in a very emotionally charged way, and was simply trying to convey the fact that he had lived and suffered for so very long in the past and he had finally put an end to all this. But this is the problem: I think people should make a clear distinction between an emotionally charged statement (for example saying that you are so very very tired of life because you have suffered so much) and an empirical statement on facts (which could be easily verified as I mentioned above by sharing with the world some historically verifiable memories). If you are very tired of life and you want to go to a monastery that’s fine, I sympathise with that. However, terrorising those who believe that living a good life is compatible with the enjoyment of a healthy sensuality by saying that we will definitely experience terrible suffering in a future lifetime unless we become ariyas (cf my previous post on Ajahn Brahm’s comments on the Stick Sutta) is another matter.
    Another puzzling example of claims that are made by Buddhism and are not then confirmed by science I found amongst the Tibetans. According to them, when highly attained masters die, they stay in meditation for several days, during which time the temperature of their heart is said not to cool. This can be easily tested using infrared cameras. Thus western scientist sent a number of these cameras to India, so that this process could be studied as part of the Mind and Life Institute program. I remember attending a talk by one of the scientists in charge of that program. When asked of the results of these experiments, he just replied that somehow, when a highly attained monk died, the infrared cameras never arrived there on time…

    • Hello Stefano,

      Thank you for the very interesting comment, I couldn’t describe the sad situation with the Buddhist myths and superstitions better. This is especially true for the former Christians studying Buddhism: being tired of our previous religious dogmas, we seek for something more open and humanistic, but in the non-secular field this is not so easy. I agree with your skepticism and usually avoid getting involved in the discussions with conservative monks about all these folklore fairy-tales, since know well that I will hardly be heard, so now my Buddhism is becoming more and more abstract and philosophical. Otherwise I will lose it and I don’t want this to happen. Besides, I just prefer to concentrate my attention on the core Buddhist concepts, cutting off all unessential things and not to read all these terrifying Sutta passages and suspiciously detailed classifications, all the more because I am assured that any religious claims which, as you mentioned, “seem to go against reason or simple common sense” and create obstacles in the path of natural human evolution is doomed to disappear. This is just a historical law, so I am not willing to waste my time. Regarding ethics you mentioned above, I think so ancient texts as Buddhist also can’t be a complete guide to ethics nowadays, that is why I see the future of Buddhism in an integration with secular humanism, I mean actual historical humanism with its emphasis on the uniqueness and dignity of human individuality, not just mere compassion or kindness, also shared by all known religions. I don’t think Buddhism has a chance for survival in a modern world without it. Furthermore, it would be a relevant scenario, not contradicting Dhamma since compassion and kindness are beautiful virtues, but they are unable to provide personal freedom and inviolability, so needed to attain freedom in a metaphysical sense (I mean Nibbana)

    • Stefano,

      I’m not sure that you have to take the teaching on stream-enterers fully awakening within 7 lifetimes so literally.

      In any moment, most beings spin and proliferate their way to great confusion, and the degree of the complication that they create in any moment may be an indication of how much they’re still engaging in becoming (which is kammic formation) and how many lifetimes they are away from awakening.

      On the other hand, someone who has had a glimpse of Nibbana in any given moment has learned to see fabrications for what they are, to stop proliferating, and to set aside confusion, giving an indication of how many lifetimes they are away from awakening (whether the exact number is seven probably does not matter so much as the fact that it is now a number that can be easily counted, i.e. it will be a lot less than someone who has not).

      Anyway, the Buddha explicitly taught not to try to figure out all the complexities of the results of kamma because we’d be engaging in an endless task that will lead to more proliferation and confusion rather than to less!

    • Brc says:

      I’m not sure that you have to take the teaching on stream-enterers fully awakening within 7 lifetimes so literally.

      why aren’t you sure, are there any indication that the number is to be understood metaphorically?

      With the wasting away of [the first] three fetters, he is one who has seven more times at most.

      Sekhin sutta 2 (AN 3.86)

      if it were only a metaphor i doubt they would bother to make reservation with ‘at most’

    • Hi Баян Купи-ка,

      The ‘at most’ only means that it may be less than seven. In other words, it isn’t exactly seven. It could be 3 more, 4 more, or 5 more, or 6 more, or 7 more, depending on each being’s kamma. That helps make my point about it not having to be taken as something too rigid, which is what I meant by not having to take the teaching on 7 lifetimes so literally. Thanks.

      Otherwise, I don’t think that the Buddha meant for us to lose sleep over efforts to figure out if it could be 8 more or even 9 more in some cases, which is also what I meant by not having to take the teaching on 7 lifetimes so literally.

      Frankly, the choice is to either waste a lot of time trying to calculate if it may be 8 more or even 9 more in some cases, or accept that the Buddha already gave a figure of 7 more ‘at most’ and turn attention to some other aspect of the practice.

    • if it’s explicitly said to be 7 or less i don’t see why one should not take this statement seriously and literally, there’re no danger or adverse consequences of taking it that way, the Buddha would not state something which could be potentially harmful or deceitful in the first place
      as a matter of fact, the acceptance of the figure you have conceded to is exactly taking it literally, which you nevertheless warn against

    • Баян Купи-ка,
      I was responding to Stefano having some difficulty in taking the statement seriously and literally (see his original comment above), and trying to provide something helpful so that he can take the statement seriously without getting overly stuck on the literal for now.
      I wasn’t trying to make a blanket statement to all about the dangers of taking the statement seriously and literally. I was trying to offer something helpful to an individual who appeared to be having some distress over what he saw as a problem.
      There are no dangerous or adverse consequences in taking the statement seriously and literally and, if you do so, that’s great! And I see no dangerous or adverse consequences in taking the statement seriously while keeping the mind open enough to the possibility that it may not be exactly 7 lifetimes and not one moment more. I do not think that the Buddha intended for us to worry about or get stuck on trying to figure out exactly how the number of lifetimes is 7 or less.

    • On the subject of testing, I too would like to see more. There have been some things, but it’s not easy to find good meditators, and not easy to meditate well in an experimental setting. Still, hopefuly there will be more in the future.

      It is of course true that most forms of traditional Buddhism are full of bonkers superstitions. What to do? We try.

    • Stefano wrote

      Thai master according to which he remembered innumerable lives (enough lives so that his past bodies, when placed side by side, would cover the whole surface of Thailand and more)…
      I once myself tried to calculate how many human lifetimes it would take to have enough past bodies to cover the whole surface of Thailand when the bodies are aligned side by side. It turns out that if you believe in evolution, you also believe that man has been around for at most 250000 years. An easy calculation shows that you would need a much greater span of time to have enough bodies to cover the surface of Thailand, and thus makes claims such as these quite puzzling.

      such a conclusion would be relevant if the Thai monk claimed that all his lives had been in human form
      but there’re various forms of life which a person can end up being born as according to the Dhamma and many eons of creation and destruction (well, also unconfirmed)
      so as far as the sheer number of rebirths is concerned regardless of the form his claim isn’t that extravagant

  10. I’ve read that article, and I don’t really believe that is the full story. If I remember correctly, Paul Williams’ main interest before was Tibetan Buddhism and specifically Madhyamaka philosophy. It seems more likely to me that after years of studying this stuff, he wasn’t making progress in meditation. Unfortunately, intellectuals tend to think and analyze too much when they sit down to meditate. Christianity seems simpler by comparison, and maybe he thought he could make progress with that instead. I see that his newer interest is mystical meditative traditions in Christianity, so that would make sense. As a scholar, though, he is obligated to have some more lofty rationale, hence the book. In retrospect, Madhyamaka was a poor choice. Tathagatagarbha or Pure Land approaches would have been much more suitable.

  11. Hi Victoria and Brc, thanks for your comments. It’s great to be able to share ideas with you here. The day after tomorrow I am going to a talk by Ajahn Brahm who will be in the Uk so maybe I’ll be able to raise some of these points in the Q&A session. Stefano

    • Hi Stefano,

      That’s wonderful! I’ve listened to and read a lot of Ajahn Brahm’s teachings, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him in person.

      Otherwise, my wife and I are going to have a baby and, if it’s a boy, we’re thinking about naming him Stefano!

  12. This is my personal view & observation: that Christians in general, have the tendency or have been conditioned by their religion to convert & conquer others in the name of Jesus or God. Whereas, Buddhists were taught by Buddhism to transform ourselves& “conquer” ourselves via the 8 fold Noble Path & meditation. I observed that those new buddhists who were born christians or staunch christians are generally prone & have the tendency to unknowingly or unconsciously try to convert & conquer others or “save” others so to speak & try to be a saviour or bodhisattvas so to speak, when they themselves are the ones needed to be “saved” or are not yet free from their defilements or unwholesome motivations or conscience (in buddhism hiri & ottappa). In my view & opinion, sorry to say this: it is imperative for those christians newly turned buddhists to have this shift from convert & conquer mentality to self-transformation mentality & behaviour. It’s not to offend here but with the motivation to offer a little constructive criticism. sokhihotu.

  13. Here is Dr. Paul’s response.
    ———- Forwarded message ———-
    Date: Wed, Oct 22, 2014 at 4:25 AM
    Subject: Re: Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism (2)

    Many thanks for this Steve. It is an intelligent response that, however, misses the point at times and also enters into some areas of the interpretation of both Buddhism and Christianity where I would disagree. Where he says, for example,

    ‘[W]hile it is true that in theory Buddhist teachings seems to say that we might be reborn as a cockroach, in most cases when these things are discussed the form of rebirth is much closer to that of humanity’

    I do not know which Buddhist texts he has read over the years. This seems to me to be simply false. My Tibetan teachers taught me again and again that we were much more likely to be reborn as something much worse than a human rather than a human. Being reborn a human being is said to be a very rare and precious rebirth. I am sorry to say it, but that is simply what I was taught by Tibetans and their Sanskrit and Tibetan textual sources. I spent many years hearing it, reading the sources in the original languages, and meditating on it.

    And again, when he says that Christianity that ‘Jesus refers to reincarnation in many passages’, this is simply denied by the whole history of Christian orthodoxy which I follow and by most scholarly contemporary Biblical scholars. In other words, I and most Christians would completely reject what he is saying. More importantly, although we often find it stated so among Buddhists, it is simply not true that Origen held to reincarnation. He states, in book 13 of his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew:

    ‘[I do not hold this] lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures’.

    I have checked this in the Greek, and as far as I can see it is precisely translated here in the standard translation of the ‘Ante-Nicene Fathers’ series.

    I was interested, incidentally, to see that Vietnamese evangelicals are using my work to evangelise Buddhists. Well, this is the sort of thing an author is never told. I am not responsible for it although when one enters the public arena anything can happen. I should add that it never ceases to astonish me that I am considered to have written an academic critique of Buddhism. I did no such thing, nor did I ever intend to do such a thing. Had I done so, it would have been very different, and written in a very different style.

    And to say

    ‘The essence of his critique is this. Buddhism is hopeless (because of rebirth), while Christianity offers hope. Therefore Christianity is right, and it is rational to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, and so on.’

    is really a caricature of what I wrote, or say. Just to indicate one point where he misinterprets what I say, in spite of what he says I am emphatic in my writings that I am not saying Buddhism is ‘hopeless’ in the sense of ‘despair’. What I say is that Buddhism is ‘hope-less’ in the sense that because after death we as the persons we are would be no more, it held out no hope for me or my family and friends (unless we become enlightened in this life, which as I point out is not considered realistic by most Buddhists, and it certainly was not realistic for me). And I explain what I meant by the sense of ‘hope-lessness’. I, Williams, felt I had no hope. I do not recall despairing, as such. But I could see no grounds for hope, of the sort I explain in what I wrote.

    And the author admits he has not read my book, in which I develop my story more fully with a fuller explanation of what I am doing. He is so sure I am wrong without bothering to read most of what I wrote on the subject!

    But to be honest I too doubt he would have changed his mind if he had read the rest. Still, to underline the point: What I wrote was a personal account of why I became a Catholic having been a Buddhist for over 20 years. In it I opened up my heart (which is linked to my brain!) and I hope I did it politely. I am accused here of using ‘cheap tricks’ like a politician. I did not at that time have such an insight into my hidden motives. I am sorry; I did not intend, and never have intended, to use cheap tricks. I do not see myself as an evangelist; merely someone who was an academic working in Buddhists Studies who was also a Buddhist for over 20 years and who wrote a very personal book (and eventually, after persuasion, a few items online) to explain to others why he had now decided to become a Catholic. Nothing more.

    When I say that we are entitled to say theologically that rebirth is false, this is not in spite of the way it is portrayed here, an example of my ‘reason’, my objective argument for non-Christians. It is an example of what I consider orthodox Christians, given that they are orthodox Christians, are entitled to say. I am writing theologically, for fellow orthodox Christians. Perhaps (and understandably) the author is unfamiliar with the nature of specifically theological writing.

    Incidentally, the picture of Christianity given in this critique is a ‘tabloid-press’ picture, with its predictable reference to the ‘hopelessness’ of those involved in ‘unapproved forms of sexuality’ rather than a carefully nuanced respectful understanding of Christian doctrine and best pastoral engagement over the years. As the author himself clearly understands, polemic is not argument.

    Well – some of the responses that I read to what I have written sadden me but I do not blame them. That is what happens where religion is involved.

    Either way, I am now retired and very much involved with other things than these debates. I prefer to act as if I am dead; what I have written can be debated by others. As I said in my book, the debates can go on forever but one has to stop and make a stand some time.

    I do not mind if you want to put this on the website as a sort-of response to the critical piece submitted. But I shall still leave it to others to engage in the debate. Good luck to them, but please, please, I do hope they will debate with respect for the honesty and deeply-held sensitivities of all involved in these choices. And of course, finally we do not know – in this life – who is right. We need to make our choices, and take our stand, and take responsibility for the choices we have made. But that should give us all, I hope, a certain humility. God bless!


    Sent by “Steven Lawson”

    • “What I say is that Buddhism is ‘hope-less’ in the sense that because after death we as the persons we are would be no more, it held out no hope for me or my family and friends (unless we become enlightened in this life, which as I point out is not considered realistic by most Buddhists, and it certainly was not realistic for me). ”

      sums up Dr. Paul’s misunderstanding of Buddhism. He thinks that that unless we become enlightened, we are eternally doomed to be born in the animal realm. On the contrary, what I believe that-

      “Animal plane of existence is below that of humans and classed as one of the unhappy states. Beings born into lower planes are unable to engage in skillful activities to acquire wholesome kamma due to the nature of their existence. Therefore they may remain trapped in this state for a long time, until such time that the unwholesome kamma which resulted in that birth is exhausted. They will then be reborn into a higher plane such as human.”

      Piya Tan was spot on when he said that “Contrary to popular Buddhism and Buddhist mythology, it is not difficult to obtain human birth. This popular wrong view is encouraged by the misquoting of the parable of the blind turtle
      alluded to in the later works without reference to its context in the Balapandita Sutta (M 129)
      where it is stated: ”

      He continues: “According to the Saleyyaka Sutta (M 41), it is easy to be reborn as a human being, or even as a divine being—you can aspire for it. But there is a catch: we need to live morally virtuous lives.
      Moral virtue is the fuel that propels us into such births and keeps us on that trajectory. Live a morally virtuous life and aspire for such a birth, and you will obtain it. The quality of the human
      state that we are reborn into will also very much depend on the kind of karma we have in store.

      We may HAVE a human body, but it is difficult to BE human, so that in the end it is also difficult for us to REMAIN in a human body (Dh 182). In other words, if we behave like an
      animal (living a cyclic life of eating, enjoying sense-pleasures, without mental development), or we live in fear and blindly following others, we are likely to be reborn as animals, if we are not
      already one! ”


    • Thanks for leaving this here, and I am glad to have heard from Dr Williams. For some reason I missed this when it was first posted and I just noticed it now.

      But I would like to respond to a couple of points. Regarding Origen and reincarnation, it’s probably true that I repeated this too uncritically. However, Williams omits the context of Origen’s statement here: he is responding to a Gospel passage where Jesus refers to Elijah who has come, in reference to John the Baptist. Here we have a Bible passage, which, like many others, is most simply interpreted as referring to rebirth. Origen, it appears, is wishing to avoid this reading, which smacks of paganism, and must force a less obvious reading against the text. However, contemporaries asserted that Origen did indeed teach this heretical doctrine, as stated quite clearly by St Jerome: (There’s a discussion of this on Wikipedia (

      The following passage is a convincing proof that he [Origen] holds the transmigration of the souls and annihilation of bodies. “If it can be shown that an incorporeal and reasonable being has life in itself independently of the body and that it is worse off in the body than out of it; then beyond a doubt bodies are only of secondary importance and arise from time to time to meet the varying conditions of reasonable creatures. Those who require bodies are clothed with them, and contrariwise, when fallen souls have lifted themselves up to better things, their bodies are once more annihilated. They are thus ever vanishing and ever reappearing.”

      Perhaps St Jerome was wrong. But it is clearly the case that the issue was alive and debated in the early Church, and that the contemporary prevalence of belief in rebirth among Christians continues a long history of this idea.

      In addition, I object most strongly to William’s claim that my depiction of the Christian sins is “tabloid”. On the contrary, it is simply what the received Catholic doctrine says, in extensive, authoritative, and unambiguous terms. Here is just a small sample of the various sins referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (

      • 2352 Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.
      • 2353 Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children.
      • 2354 [Of pornography] It is a grave offense.
      • 2355 it is always gravely sinful to engage in prostitution
      • 2357 Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
      • 2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity.
      • 2370 [On contraception] “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.
      • 2390 The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion.

      Each of these is regarded as a “grave offence”, being violations of the Churches interpretation of the Ten Commandments. They form the basis of mortal sin:

      • 1857 “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

      And the outcome of mortal sin is stated with equal clarity:

      • 1861 If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.

      So no, my presentation of these issues was not “tabloid”, it stated clearly and in brief the actual doctrines of the Catholic Church.

      Now, I may hopefully be excused if, as a Buddhist monk, I make mistakes or omissions in my discussion of a field in which I am not an expert. What is, I think, less excusable is, why doesn’t the Catholic Church actually teach these doctrines? Sure, such things are heard around the traps, but I attended a Catholic school for 7 years, and attended Mass for longer than that, and I had no idea of the specifics of the notion of mortal sin or what things were mortal sins. I had to look it up on the internet. Surely the fact that pretty much everyone in their congregation has done things—very often, repeatedly, and unrepentingly—that will lead them to eternal hell is something that Catholics should be warned about? It was certainly a major focus of Church teaching in the past, why not today? If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, read, for example, Chapter 3 of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (, which gives a harrowing depiction of Catholic teachings on Hell. If these things are what Williams believes, should he not be proud of them? Why the need to dismiss what I’ve said, when I was merely restating official doctrine? Could it be that if Catholics knew what their Church’s teachings actually were, they would turn away in even greater numbers?

  14. just some cultural perspective on hope: what is the difference between germans and austrians:
    the Germans say.”the situation is serious, but not hopeless.”
    The Austrians say: “the situation is hopeless, but not serious.”
    Well… what attitude will be more conducive for developing the path?

  15. I read Mr. Williams article and your response which in my opinion went overboard attacking Christianity or pointing out its shortfalls. what would have been more important to me is to just deal with his questions. Here are some of mine (and i’m not saying what my beliefs are):

    1) If there is no creator, where did all this reality (or delusion or dream or whatever) come from? If you say it was always here, my question is how do you know or how does anyone know that? and if you don’t know 100%, say so and don’t propound that position again. And if you say you know that this reality, this universe has always been here just by itself, i could argue that the creator has always been existent. Do you know everything? if you do, say so, if you don’t admit that you don’t know.

    2) you did not answer Mr. Williams point about an innocent baby living today will suffer tremendously because some dumb ass (the one that preceded the baby) did all sorts of bad things. The Buddha said there is suffering and the person living today is suffering for something he did not do. Where is the compassion here? i don’t think it is heartwarming to a person who is suffering in this life for you to tell him or her: ” gee whiz, you’re suffering because of karma. . .”

    3) Mr. Williams also made the point that very very few people achieve realization, so why should anyone care to be Buddhist or even meditate. That goal to me is like someone saying: “get in this rocket and start pedaling (to make it go) to travel to a perfect world 1200 light-years away.” meditation is beneficial, but not for enlightenment, except for the few.

    4) I read that the Buddha said that when he attained enlightenment, he remembered “his” previous lives. How could they have been “his” previous lives if he was impermanent and transient as Siddhartha Gautama with no self?

    5) and how come we now have billions upon billions of individual Buddhas? what happened to impermanence and no self; and what are they doing to help all these transient beings who are “alive” today? how come there is still samsara?

    6) it is my conclusion that Buddhism is spot on describing the universe and how it works. If you wish to answer my questions, please do so but only out of certain absolute knowledge, otherwise admit you don’t know.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, and in particular, for stating your criticisms in a way that is both polite and clear.

      Regarding your point number 6, there is no such a thing as “absolute knowledge”. All knowledge is partial. This is not a flaw, but is how knowledge works; it is an abstraction, and necessarily incomplete (see Godel’s theorem). Nevertheless, although it is against your final point, I will answer your previous questions.

      1. The point here is precisely that we do not know, and hence cannot make any meaningful statement. There is no Creator, it is a myth. Virtually all peoples around the world tell themselves stories of creation. These stories have a purpose; they help people feel like they have a place in the world. But they don’t really tell us anything about how the Universe started. The Buddha, and indeed some of the Brahmans before him, were extremely unusual in having the guts to admit that he didn’t know. The first point of the Universe (or more correctly, samsara, the stream of universes) is unknowable. That’s the Universe we live in: deal with it.
      2. The law of kamma has no more to do with compassion than the law of gravity does. You fall down, you hurt. You do something bad, you hurt. Compassion comes in in how you respond to that situation. We don’t tell it like it is because it’s heartwarming, we tell it like it is because, well, that’s how it is.
      3. Very few people will become astrophysicists, so why bother looking at the stars? Only a few people will ever become billionaires, so why bother earning a wage? Enlightenment is the most subtle thing there is, of course only a few people will realize it. But even a simple Buddhist meditation can be of great benefit, even for people who have no interest in Enlightenment. But once again, you seem to think that a religion should teach that the world is somehow how you want it to be. It isn’t. It’s just how it is. Most religions are based on a combination of wishful thinking and fear-mongering. Hopefully in Buddhism you’ll find neither.

      4. To explain a complex matter very briefly: not-self does not mean an absolute lack of identity, it means there is no underlying metaphysical entity—call it a soul or a self—that is permanent and which is your real essence.

        Consider, say, a corporation. It dumps acid in the water. Ten years later they get busted, and the company is sued. Who is responsible? Those who made the decisions have moved on. Nevertheless, even though there is no single thing in the company that is identical with what it was ten years ago, the law holds the company responsible, and they have to pay. Why? Because of conditions. There are connections, and those connections are what make us accountable. Even though the company has no permanent metaphysical identity, it is conceptually understood as the same thing for the sake of moral accountability. Understanding how these conditions work makes the company (hopefully) consider more carefully before acting harmfully in the future.

        The law of kamma is basically similar. We are not comprised of a single metaphysical essence, but of interrelated systems of mental and physical phenomena. If we look closely at all the things that make up our experience, we see thoughts, memories, feelings, and so on, but we see nothing that is “I”. These systems are constantly shifting and affecting each other. Our choices are one of the things, one of the most powerful things, that affect how our mind and body are.

        And not only is there the observable influence of energies bouncing off each other, there is plenty that we don’t see, which the psychologists call the unconscious. We think we are over something, then Bam! it all comes rushing back. These are the kammic seeds that lie dormant, waiting for the appropriate conditions to sprout. Is it “right” that you, now, are feeling sad because of something that “you” did many years ago? You’re a different person now! You’ve changed! You’ve learned your lesson! But still, there it is, that feeling, and it really doesn’t care what is “right” or “fair”: it just is.

        The transition from one life to the next is irrelevant: we are changing moment to moment even in this life, death is nothing more than a more radical form of change.

        This is, in fact, a non-problem. Moral accountability is only possible in a world of impermanence and change. The genuine philosophical problem is how to reconcile moral accountability with an eternal soul, a problem that only becomes more acute if that eternal soul was created by a loving God. The whole metaphysical doctrine of the soul, like that of God, is nothing more than a nest of incoherencies based on magical thinking: I wish it, and so it must be.

      5. I agree the notion of countless omniscient Buddhas is deeply problematic. However this is a Mahayana doctrine, and was not taught by the Buddha.
  16. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. In fact i should have edited my questions; some of them were a bit rude, but i assure you inadvertently. i just typed and submitted without reading through it. Thanks again

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