Translating the Four Nikayas

Dear blog-friends, my apologies for abandoning you for the past several weeks, or is it months now? I have, as you may have suspected, been occupied with other things, primarily with doing work for SuttaCentral.

One of the reasons for my focus on SuttaCentral is that I am planning on taking an extended break in order to translate Pali suttas.

Since it’s mainly concerning SuttaCentral, I’ve put the main post on our Discourse forum, where you can read all about it and voice your comments:

Read about my translation project.


Buddhist-flavored crowdfunding:

A little while ago I came across this site, which is made of pure awesome:

Basically it’s a kickstarter built on Buddhist principles. It’s wonderful to see a progressive Buddhist contribution that, instead of whining about modernity or going all commercial, sees that some aspects of modern life are actually pretty amazing and 100% in line with Buddhist principles.

And one example of that is the whole idea of crowdfunding, which provides a means, based on generosity, to complement to usual commercial ways of raising funds. It’s a brilliant, subversive idea, and ripe for a Buddhist slant. takes the whole idea of dana even further; you don’t have a set percentage to pay the site for their services, you choose what to give them. And their profits are put back into the community. There’s a heap of little details like this that show that the site has a really good handle on both the Buddhist principles and on how to apply them on the modern web.

One of the founders is Alan Clements, an ex-monk and Buddhist teacher, and the depth of experience shows in the site. It has been carefully put together from every angle, from design to philosophy. It goes without saying that the site, like the Dhamma as a whole, is not just for “Buddhists”, but opens up the fundamentals of Buddhist practices for everyone.

So when you’ve got a project to get started, consider!

Why we can be certain that God doesn’t exist

A couple of months ago I wrote a rebuttal of Paul Williams’ critique of Buddhism. That got me thinking about theology a little; always bearing in mind the Hindu saying that one who loves God will get enlightened in seven lifetimes, but one who hates God will get enlightened in three!

I was reminded of something in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago, and there was something that had niggled me about it. Of course, there are many things that one might take issue with in that book, but one thing struck me: even though he launched the most virulent attack possible on God, he said that we can be almost certain that God doesn’t exist. It seems to me on reflection that he is being too wimpy: in fact, we can, and should, be completely certain that God doesn’t exist.

TL;DR: The concept of God, in any recognizable form, involves not one, but a cascading series of impossibilities, incoherencies, and contradictions, any one of which is sufficient to dismiss the notion out of hand, but which taken together render the likelihood of God’s existence to be practically zero. Moreoever, there is precisely no evidence in favor of God existing. The only rational conclusion is that God does not exist.


Dawkins, of course, is being a good scientist, and operating within the conservative epistemological framework of modern science, according to which it is not possible to arrive at definite truth about anything. This is all fine and good, but it is not really how things work.

The reality is that we accept many things all the time as being certain. It is certain that today is Monday. It is certain that I am sitting on the floor. It is certain that I am breathing air. Sure, we might do a solipsistic fantasy where we doubt these things for philosophical purposes, but for any pragmatic purpose, these things are certain.

Another way of looking at it is to think of certainty’s opposite, doubt. “Question everything!”: so goes the slogan. Sounds great, but it is completely impossible. If you really questioned everything, you’d never get anything done. I’ll get a glass of water. But is there water? Is there a glass? Am I me? How do I go? And if we really questioned everything, we would not find wisdom, we would be paralyzed and unable to understand anything.

In this way, the standard of “question everything”, or its correlate, “nothing is certain”, becomes just another metaphysical absolute. It becomes an unassailable doctrine; and of course, it begs the question: can we doubt the idea that everything should be doubted?

What science, and Buddhism, actually operate on is far more pragmatic. Truth is approached in a reasonable way, contingently accepting most things as true, and identifying just one thing, or a set of things, as the object of inquiry. How we choose those things is largely based on what matters: for science, to have an improved understanding of the physical world; for Buddhism, to escape from suffering.

So we have a pragmatic approach to truth, and we question things when it appears that questioning is going to be useful. Of course, we don’t know until later whether it actually is useful, but we make our best guess, based on what we have previously learned, and then we see the results.

Rather than saying that everything should be doubted all the time, then, we would be better off saying that anything should be open to be doubted, if by doubting or questioning it we may gain some benefit.

Defining God

In such discussions, it is customary for theists to say that we really can’t say what God is. This is apparently meant to be an argument in favor of the existence of God, but all it does is to affirm that the concept is ultimately meaningless. I will come back to the meaninglessness of God later on, but for now, I want to refute this idea as it stands.

The concept of God is not so vague that we can’t talk about it. While it can never be 100% pinned down, that is not the point. In fact, pretty much any concept, if pushed too hard, will break down and be impossible to define.

What is relevant is whether there are enough qualities that are commonly accepted to be part of the understanding of God in order that we can have a sensible conversation about it. And of course, there are. God is eternal, he is morally perfect, he is omniscient, omnipotent, infinite in extent, and he created the world. Pretty much any monotheistic theology will accept these and other similar claims about their God. If they reject these, we are probably in the sphere of the pagan small-g gods, to which my argument does not apply. However, any understanding of God that works within these and similar basic qualities will fall squarely within the “impossible”.

Why is God impossible?

If we take at all seriously any of these claims, it becomes immediately apparent that they are simply nonsense.

What could it possibly mean to say that an entity is omnipotent, for example? He can literally do anything: save a bird’s life, raise a man from the dead, start a universe, or shift the orbit of an electron in a hydrogen atom floating in the Horse-Head Nebula.

This is just ridiculous. It has no correlate to anything that we know of the universe. There is nothing in science, nothing in experience, nothing anywhere that gives the slightest credence to this idea.

It violates, in fact, every observable fact about the universe. Everything we have seen, every physical reality that you or I have ever experienced or will experience, operates according to certain well-understood principles. And these things are always limited. Stuff falls down. Energy flows to an equilibrium. Push something and it pushes back. And so on and so on. Every single observation that anyone has ever made of the universe is of this kind.

Sure, there are plenty of details that need working out, and plenty of areas where our knowledge is inadequate. But the only way to extend our knowledge to to start with what we have actually observed and understood, and to work out from there. You can’t just pull out of your hat a kind of thing that is utterly different from every other kind of thing and assert that it is worthy of serious consideration.

And what of omniscience? To know literally everything that is happening now, and in the past and future? Nice idea, but it contradicts everything that we know about how consciousness works. As the Buddha pointed out ad infinitum, consciousness works according to conditions. Those conditions are, like all conditions, limited, impermanent, temporal, and localized.

As I have argued earlier in discussing the “infinite consciousness” ideas that sully much Buddhist mysticism, the notion of a consciousness that has not evolved, that is not embedded in time, that has no relation to the actual consciousness that you and I experience every day of our lives, is nonsense on a stick. You can’t just take away all of the conditions that make consciousness possible and say, a-ha! That’s a consciousness! Omniscience is deeply impossible.

Eternity? Same thing. No one has never experienced anything eternal. It is, in fact, quite impossible to do so. You can’t use a limited impermanent consciousness to experience an infinite period of time, any more than you can take a limited ruler or measuring tape and measure an infinite distance. Even the existence of the past and the future is dodgy enough, much less the notion of eternity.

Impermanence is not merely an arbitrary thing that happens to consciousness: it is how consciousness works. Change is how consciousness learns and grows and becomes. In deep meditation, sure, this process is radically arrested, which is why with limited insight, and the power of attachment to self, it is easy to mistake such states for eternal. But they are not, they are merely dependent on subtle conditions. This was one of the chief insights of the Buddha.

Hopefully I don’t need to continue. The point is simple enough: every quality that is commonly attributed to God is simply a baseless assertion, which contradicts everything that we know about the world as it is, and for which there is no evidence.

Not only is there no evidence currently, it is not possible for there to be any evidence. How could one ever prove that God was omnipotent? What possible means of knowing could there be that could establish this? None whatsoever.

But the impossibility of God goes deeper than this, for not only is every quality of God impossible individually, they are also impossible taken collectively. The most powerful argument here is the argument from evil. God knows all, so he knows not only every bad thing that is done, but how to avoid it. He is all powerful, so he can prevent every evil without harmful side effects. And he is morally perfect, so he will always do the right thing. Yet there is much evil in the world, evil that even a morally imperfect person of limited knowledge and power can eliminate. How is it that God allows this evil to persist?

The theists have been back and forth on this argument for centuries, but I won’t go into all the defences here, and why they don’t work. Suffice to say, the argument from evil is highly robust, and more than that, it is spiritually important as it goes to the heart of why we engage in spiritual practice: the problem of suffering. Any doctrine that aims to address suffering, and does so while leaving such a gaping hole in its heart, is grounded only in the irrational.

The argument from evil is only one of many arguments that philosophers have developed over the years to show that God cannot exist. When we start to take seriously the claims that are intrinsic to the notion of God, the impossibilities cascade one after the other, multiplying the improbability, which was already at vanishing point with the first quality of God.

In addition, there are many other considerations that we could bring to bear. Take, for example, the criteria of usefulness, which is one of the basic standards that any scientific proposal must satisfy. If it was the case that God created the world, surely he would leave some fingerprints somewhere? Surely this fact would be the primary datum underlying any successful physical theory? Surely it would be the single most important fact about the world? Yet those who do science know that not only is the God hypothesis utterly useless in explaining any physical phenomenon whatsoever, it has a positively pernicious influence, which has frequently held back science.

The most pertinent example of this today is of course the ridiculous creationist doctrine in the US and elsewhere. I refuse to dignify it with the term “intelligent design” since what it depicts is neither intelligent nor designed. It is the doctrine that God created the world, and that this explains how all the different animals and plants came to be. Yet this silly dogma has added precisely nothing to our understanding of biology. Nothing, after hundreds of years and countless proponents. It is an utterly barren and useless hypothesis for understanding anything about the world.

Once more, we could continue in this vein indefinitely. There is literally no end to the nonsense that can be argued and justified based on the single mistaken assumption that God exists. So much so that I propose the following: any subject whatsoever, if investigated rationally, disproves the existence of God.

What could be more impossible than God?

Here I’d like to propose a sliding scale of impossibility. We’ll start with things that we can all agree don’t exist, and see how weird we can get before encountering something less likely to exist than God.

How about Unicorns? They don’t exist, right? Even hardened scientsist are agreed on this, I would presume. Yet they are not all that improbable. Basically, a horse with a nice horn; we’ll leave aside the more magical varieties here. They might have existed, but evolution didn’t happen to take that particular step. Now, given the size of the universe, could we not argue that Unicorns probably exist on some world? Sure, why not? But let’s rephrase our tenet: that Unicorns don’t exist on earth. This works just as well for us.

Now, there is still some chance that we might be wrong. After all, new species, including some sizeable mammals, are still being discovered. And Unicorns don’t violate any known laws of science. So they are not completely impossible, but still, so unlikely that no-one gives their existence any serious thought. Yet they are far, far more likely to exist than God.

Next, take Santa Claus. With his flying sled, reindeers with shiny red noses, workshop on the North Pole, and his astonishing ability to visit all the homes of children all around the world on one night (excepting of course the poor and the homeless), he is far less likely to exist than a Unicorn. He violates multiple laws of physics. Moreover, like God, the fact that lots of people believe in him is easily understandable as a wish-fulfilment. We can trace the cultural, historical, psychological, and commercial forces that have led to the cultural phenomenon of Santa Claus, and there is no need to invoke a supernatural explanation.

So he’s impossible, he doesn’t exist: and yet he is still much more likely to exist than God. Flying through the air on a sled is pretty much impossible, but hey, maybe there is some super-advanced technology that might make it happen. And who knows what advances plastic surgery might bring to the burgeoning field of reindeer nose enhancement? Getting to every home on a single night: well, not so easy to explain. But a ton easier than explaining the ability to literally do anything whatsoever. That is far more impossible, if not infinitely more impossible. So God is many, many orders of magnitude less likely to exist than Santa.

Okay, so how about something a little less fanciful? Is it possible, for example, that 2+2=5? (We can rephrase this in ontological terms, if you like: what is the probability that there exists a true statement that “2+2=5”?) Surely there is no-one, not even the most skeptical scientist, who would treat this as possible.

Now, mathematical statements are true or false by definition. Once we know the terms of the problem, we can derive the result that 2+2=4, and it never equals 5. We can do this in pure mathematics, and if we like, we can confirm by empirical observation, as has been done countless thousands of times.

But the history of science is full of examples of apparently self-evident axioms turning out to be anything but. A classic example is the Euclidean “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points”. Self-evident, provable by theorem, and confirmed by countless tests: yet still wrong. Einstein showed that the shortest distance between two points is in fact a curve, due to the influence of gravity.

It is this kind of example that leads to the idea that everything should be questioned. Yet Euclid’s theorem served perfectly well for thousands of years, as indeed it still does today, except when calculating spaceship trajectories and the like. It only became useful to question it when certain theoretical developments forced a new approach, which was subsequently confirmed by observation.

So it is possible that “2+2=5” might turn out to be correct. Perhaps our notion of a number is faulty. Perhaps we are living in a tiny pocket of a much larger Universe where a different mathematics applies. Of course, incredibly unlikely, but still more likely than that God exists.

To make 2+2=5 we would have to revolutionize our understanding of numbers and their relations. This would lead to some changes in our culture, just like changing the idea about straight lines led to some changes, such as improvements in astronomy and understanding of the cosmos. But the existence of God would require an even bigger, wholesale rejection of everything we have ever seen and learned about the Universe. No law of physics, no conception of time and space, no moral principles, no history, no nothing would escape revision. To conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than the statement “2+2=5”.

Okay, so what is less likely than this? What about something that is just plain meaningless? There’s Chomsky’s classic “green ideas sleep furiously”; a sentence that is grammatical but meaningless. Can we say of this that it is true or false? In other words, can we make an ontological statement of the form: there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”? Well, it would seem unlikely, and the philosophers would mostly say no. But for our purposes, perhaps it is still relevant. Such a statement, unlike 2+2=5, is not even wrong. It simply doesn’t have enough semantic clarity to be the kind of thing that might exist. If anything, then, we could say that it is less likely to exist.

Yet it is still not entirely out of the question. The statement, like the statement 2+2=5, depends on meaning, and meaning is a slippery beast. There have been multiple attempts to create a linguistic context where “green ideas sleep furiously” is in fact meaningful. Whether these are successful or not, it is still the case that the statement might be made meaningful. And if it is meaningful, it might be true.

As with the previous example, if we were to find a way in which this statement were to be made meaningful and even true, it would involve some revision in our understanding, in this case, of linguistics, and possibly in the nature of colors, ideas, sleep, or furiosity.

Yet this would be far less of a revolution than if we discovered that God exists. To work it out would require no more than some rational philosophy, whereas to apprehend the reality of an existent God requires an entirely new way of knowing the world, one that has no relation to anything that anyone has ever experienced. Once more we conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than that there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”.

I’m reaching here. I’m finding it hard to come up with things that are less probable than this. Maybe someone can help me out! But I suspect that the point has been made.

God doesn’t exist. If we are to use the word “certain” of anything, it is this. The existence of God is not merely unlikely, but of such monumental improbability that the word “impossible” doesn’t do it justice. We simply don’t have language that fully captures the degree of improbability of God. The normal things that we call “impossible” are infinitely more likely to be true than that God exists.

But why?

If this argument is correct, then we might wonder why so many people believe in something so improbable? There are plenty of intelligent, sensitive, and sincere theists: if it is really so obvious, how have they missed it?

I don’t want to get too much into the psychology of religion here, but I will return briefly to the question of meaning. It was an axiom of the logical positivists that metaphysical statements, such as “God exists” are, in a profound sense, meaningless. They constitute a use of language which, while outwardly following the normal grammar and syntax of language, has no content.

I think there is something to this idea; but it is not something that happens incidentally. God must be understood in a way that is beyond the reach of reason and evidence, despite the efforts of countless theologians to the contrary. As soon as God comes within the sway of ordinary evidence, of logic, or of meaning, he enters the profane world; he becomes sullied by the world and withdraws from it it in fear. This is a fundamental drive of the religious impulse; it moves towards the irrational. And there, as a symbol or a feeling or an impression, God has a genuine place.

It is the meaninglessness of the concept of God, the utterness of its impossibility, that makes it such a fertile and powerful idea; that allows it, in fact, to become the focus of meaning for so many people. It is precisely God’s lack of linguistic meaning that endows him with a surplus of spiritual meaning.

This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.

The problem is that God is a confused bearer of this meaning. Some things are not rational because they go beyond reason; but other things are not rational because they fall beneath reason. So while God can raise some people to a higher spiritual realization, he is just as likely to drag his followers beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality. The reason for this is not hard to find: God has evolved from the brutal warrior deity of a primitive tribal people, and he still keeps alive many of his traits from the bad old days. While some enlightened believers find a way to get past that, the old ways are still there, and can be backed up by countless passages from scripture.

If we are interested in moving beyond reason, there is no need to invoke a set of theistic beliefs; the Buddha showed this 2500 years ago. The important thing is the expansion of consciousness, and for this God is irrelevant. In recent surveys, many theists agree that atheists are just as likely to be good people, and sometimes they even say that religion does more harm than good. We need a framework for genuine spiritual development which inspires, as God sometimes does, a movement towards greater compassion and wisdom, while avoiding the brutality, the sexism, and the ignorance that God all too often draws in his wake.

Karma & Rebirth in early Buddhism

Dear friends,

We have finally prepared the detailed reading list for next year’s course in Karma & Rebirth in Early Buddhism.

As with the Early Buddhism Course in 2013, this will be presented each month in parallel at the BSWA by myself and Ajahn Brahmali, and in Sydney by myself alone (unless anyone can persuade Ajahn Brahmali to come to Sydney! That would be very good kamma!)

You can download the reading and other course details from here:

Course outline, BSWA, Perth

Course outline, Buddhist Library, Sydney

And you can register for the course here:

Registration, BSWA, Perth

Registration, Buddhist Library, Sydney

Use Discourse!

For this year, we are facilitating a discussion and exchange around the course using the new forum platform, Discourse. This is something that we have been developing in the background for SuttaCentral. The integration with SuttaCentral is not complete, but it’s ready enough to be used for this course. Ultimately we’d like this forum to be a place where all kinds of material related to the suttas can be gathered and made accessible.

If you’re interested in the course, register at, and you can join the online community, discuss issues, ask questions, and so on. This is especially useful for anyone interested in following the course online, but we hope it will be fun for everyone.

To get started, have a look at the course outline for the first workshop: myth-busting. If anyone has any myths they want busted, please let us know!


My favorite bit of the Abhidhamma is the first paragraph: Phenomena that are skilful, phenomena that are unskilfull, phenomena that are undesignated.. Actually, this seemingly innocuous phrase emerged from the debates in ancient India about the nature of the Dhamma: can we describe everything as dyads—as pairs of opposites or complements—or do we need to acknowledge a “third”. The Theravadins opted to include the “third”, here said to be things that are “undesignated”, that is, not describable as either good or bad.

This is good. Dyads get all rigid and crusty. They become dogmas; literally black and white. So here, as often in Buddhism, we meet the mysterious “third”, somehow not quite fitting in to the normal scheme of things.

This is not merely a problem of categorization. The existence of a “leftover” is essential for Awakening: Nibbana is among those things that are “undesignated”. It is beyond good and evil, and its existence signifies that an escape from the duality is possible.

The same is true on more mundane levels, such as gender. Everywhere we go, we are subtly conditioned to think of gender as binary; signs on bathrooms, clothes, idioms like “he/she”, and so on, with all the connotations and stereotypes that go along with these.

Yet this, like all dyads, undersells the truth. Gender is far more complex than just two. There are gay people, whose sexual orientation does not agree with the stereotype. There are transsexual people, who identify with a gender other than that assigned at birth, and who may seek to change their gender via surgery. There are intersex people, who have physical attributes that are not readily assignable as either male or female. There are asexual people, who simply have no sexual interest. And I am sure there are many other variations. And of course, all of these things may interact, and change, and be fluid and uncertain.

But what is certain is that these people are all, you know, people. They have jobs and loves and losses and lives, just like anyone else. But they have something that many others don’t: they have to endure a constant discrimination, an exclusion and marginalization that pervades every aspect of life.

Some people

I am a very privileged person. I’m white, male, middle class, from a developed country. I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed for being who I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live your whole life being told you’re different, weird, a freak. But I imagine it’s not very nice. So I have to listen to what others say to know what discrimination feels like.

It’s even worse when you come to religion. Here we are, approaching the realm of the spiritual, a place we come to because we believe in something better; because we want to be lifted up. Yet we meet, here again, the same dreary, boring discrimination we’ve found elsewhere; except now it comes from God, or from the Buddha, or from Allah. Terrific. That’s just so helpful.

Why is it that religions seem to be the bastion of the most repressive forms of discrimination? I think it comes down to order. Recall the anthropology of Levi Strauss; he talked about how tribes negotiate ambiguous dualities through such things as the kinship systems. Who can we have sex with? This is one of the basic questions that cultures have to answer, as soon as they create structures larger than an extended family group.

Culture arises from this imperative; negotiation of sexual partners is one of the key concerns of all ancient mythology. And “third gender” people don’t fit neatly into this either/or narrative. They become defined as “other” by culture; notice how animals don’t have this kind of discrimination. In more developed cultures, there is a mythic narrative that explicitly defines the acceptable roles of male and female; this is sorted out, for example, in Genesis.

How that happens depends on the culture. It is, of course, entirely possible to include the “third” as part of how humanity is “in the beginning”, and some cultures in fact do this. In India, traditionally at least, there has been a greater tendency to be inclusive of diverse sexualities, and people of third genders have often been ascribed a special sacred role. These days, with the rise of a more narrow-minded Hindutva mentality, such ideas are becoming displaced, under the influence of the more rigid and dogmatic monotheistic religions.

Religions have inherited the role of sustaining this kind of order. Notice how it goes: first there is a statistical generalization (most people fit into a cisgender male or female role); then there is a normative assertion (cisgender masculinity and femininity are the only acceptable forms of gender and sexuality). That normative assertion is then forever in battle with reality. Listening to Catholic and Anglican bishops insist that there is and can only ever be one form of marriage, I was left wondering whether these good gentlemen had ever met an actual human being.

But religions should be doing much more than telling us what is right and wrong; in fact ethics is really tangential to religion. The real purpose of a true religious or spiritual path is to point to a greater or a higher sense of meaning; a value that changes all values. For Buddhists, this is Nibbana; for Christians, God, and so on. So it is inherent in the very nature of the spiritual path that there must be a “third”, beyond good and evil.

And to point this out, to embody it in human culture, has been one of the traditional roles of third gender persons, whether in ancient Greece, China, or India. Living on the edges, they are a reminder of the limitations of our cultural norms. They show us that dyads are never perfect.

In modern times, this dynamic is playing out in new ways. We no longer wish to assign people special roles, whether for good or bad, based on a sacred text; instead we want to empower people to find themselves, to grow and live in the best way that they can. And third gender people, by speaking out and letting us know of their lives and their sufferings, reveal for us some of the myriad ways we are bound by culture and convention, limiting the expression of our humanity. This is not just a theory or an ancient sacred ideal; it is a powerful force that has changed, and is changing, our world for the better.

It is sad but true: we usually have to suffer before we start to question. I hope our world is moving, slowly and uncertainly, towards a more inclusive ethic, one that values all humans—and non-humans. It will take time. One thing is sure: this will not be driven by those, like me, who have much. It will be driven by those who suffer. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to all those courageous people who do not fit neatly into the categories that our cultures have decided on, who speak out and who change things for the better.

Australian police on domestic violence

In the Guardian this morning, there is an important message from Australia’s police chiefs on domestic violence. It is encouraging to see attention drawn to this actual issue, where people every day are hurt and traumatized, instead of the bogeymen of terrorism or asylum seekers. It could be a lot better: none of the police chiefs are women. But still, good on them for having a say.

Those who have read my blog since the days of the bhikkhuni ordination may remember that I drew the connection between women’s ordination and domestic violence. The logic is simple: when religious leaders treat women as lesser and other, this message filters down in coarser forms and becomes a justification, implicit or explicit, for violence against women. Thus when the monks of the Wat Pa Pong circles make rules saying that nuns cannot speak before a monk, that they must follow behind and so on, they are deliberately and consciously acting to reinforce a social norm that creates a culture of violence.

This process is inherent in how we live our lives as Buddhist monastics. We expect that our behaviour, more than our words, will provide an example of the best kind of moral life. When we disempower women, exclude them, and deny them their basic human rights, such as their right to practice their religion in accordance with their conscience, we send a powerful message to our community. If the monks treat women as less, that confirms that women have bad kamma and they cannot escape their lot. Sometimes monks will even argue this explicitly; a common position in the Theravadin Sangha is that when girls get captured and sent for sex slavery, there is nothing that can be done, as it is their kamma.

The police chiefs who I quote below know all too well the results of this kind of denial of responsibility. It is not just monks who behave in this way; when men are in positions of power, respect, and authority, they become isolated from the consequences of their sexism. The police are not: they see it every day.

They regard it as the moral responsibility of men of influence to strongly send a positive message and change the culture. This is very telling. If sportsmen, businessmen, or husbands have a moral responsibility to change the culture around discrimination against women, what are we to say of monks? Are not monks supposed to be far greater examples of moral behavior than footy players? Is it not our job, much more than others, to set a clear and consistent message and example, and to not rest until the culture of discrimination against women, and the violence that inevitably accompanies that, is ended forever?

Commissioner Ken Lay

… we perceive women differently than men and by differently, I mean we perceive them as less valuable.

In order to stop a problem we have to tackle the cause. Even though it’s only a small number of men who perpetrate violence against women, all men have the power to help prevent violence.

We all have a circle of influence around us, whether it’s a whole organisation, the local footy club, or simply the family around the dinner table. We have enormous capacity to lead by example, and show other men how to champion change.

Commissioner Darren Hine

But it’s only through a cultural shift, where we all influence a change in attitude and behaviour, that there will be a significant and lasting impact on family violence.

It starts with society’s “influencers”: sportsmen, businessmen, actors and other personalities are standing up to condemn violence against women and children. And it continues at footy games, BBQs, cricket matches, school, college, university, at work, the pub; we are all in a position to make a positive influence when we see unacceptable behaviour or attitudes.

We can assist in turning young boys into respectful young men. We can have a quiet word with the young man or mate that the way he talks about girls is disrespectful and inappropriate.

We should consider our own behaviours and attitudes, be strong role models for our children, families, teammates and friends.

We are all responsible for shifting social norms that blame, excuse, minimise and justify violence against women and their children.

Commissioner John McRoberts

However, effective laws are only one of the tools required to combat domestic violence. True and lasting progress will only be made when community attitudes, specifically male attitudes, change.…

It involves a three-pronged strategy of enforcement, engagement and empowerment that when combined have been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of domestic and family violence and hold perpetrators to account.

Addressing this issue is going to require lasting generational change. Lead by example. Challenge others. Own the change.

On the radiant mind

The following is a comment I wrote some time ago in the discussion thread on this article. I’ve extracted it and reposted here, with a couple of minor changes.

To understand the famous passage on the “radiant mind” we will have to go into some details and background, so hold on. Here’s the Pali:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.

The sutta appears in the middle of a long list of other short suttas, all of which deal with some aspect of mental development, eg. metta and so on. These texts are obviously artificial in a sense: they have been divided up from longer, more coherent discourses to fit the “Ones” format. Thus these two “suttas” are really one sutta; and the same goes for the two previous suttas (not quoted here), which are just abstracts from the present text.

The overall context of this part of the Suttas is samadhi: in fact, probably the reason these texts have been artificially “processed” to fit in this section is because the idea of “one” fits well with samadhi as “one-pointedness of mind”. This doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that we should expect texts here to deal mainly with samadhi.

A literal translation is:

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is defiled by transient defilements. An unlearned ordinary person does not understand that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “An unlearned ordinary person does not have mental development.”

Radiant, monks, is this mind. And it is freed from transient defilements. A learned noble disciple person understands that in accord with reality. Therefore I say, “A learned noble disciple has mental development.”

The syntax of the sutta is somewhat obscure, in Pali as in English: while there are no grammatical difficulties, it is not entirely clear what the sense of the text is. This is already a red flag: as a rule, one should never rely for crucial explanations on a text that appears only once, and which is unclear. Surely in a crucial matter the Buddha would have stated it many times and made it clear what he was talking about. As a rule, when faced with an obscure passage, we look to more clear examples to help us understand.

To start with, then, let’s look at other Sutta passages that use the same word “pabhassara”. Here I will ignore the fact that this word is merely a synonym for many other terms such as abha, pariyodata, obhasa, and so on, that are frequently used in the context of samadhi. A quick search of the uses of pabhassara reveals this:

  • Majjhima 93 Assalayana: the “radiance” of a fire
  • Samyutta 6.5: The “radiance” of Brahma
  • Samyutta 46.31–32: The “radiance” of gold, compared to the “radiance” of the mind when it has right samadhi (i.e. jhana).
  • Samyutta 51.22: the Buddha’s body in samadhi is lighter and “more radiant”, like hot metal.
  • Anguttara 3.101: Similar to SN 46.31 above, except here the word pabhassara is only directly used in the simile when referring to gold; the text goes on to speak of samadhi, but doesn’t use pabhassara. However,
  • Anguttara 3.102: Here pabhassara is used of samadhi, in the same stock phrase as above, as well as in the “gold” simile.
  • Anguttara 5.23: “Gold” and “samadhi” as above.
  • Sutta Nipata 46: “Radiant” gold jewellery.

So pabhassara is used in an ordinary language sense of the “radiance” of a fire or gold; in a “religious” sense of the light of Brahma; and in a Dhamma sense of the radiance of the mind in samadhi. The sense of the simile of gold, which is the most common context, is that just as gold has impurities and the smith will gradually work them out, resulting in pure, radiant gold, so too the meditator eliminates the defilements (upakkilesa = nivarana = 5 hindrances) and thereby leads the mind to samadhi. This all hangs together very straightforwardly. Nowhere is there any suggestion that it has anything to do with Nibbana.

These passages, especially the recurring comparison of gold with samadhi, are clear and well-defined. They are proper teachings, not just cut-up slivers with no parallels, as in the more famous pabhassara citta passage. This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them.

Returning to our passage, the “radiant” mind is said to be either defiled or freed from defilements. While the overall context is cittabhavana, i.e. samadhi, and is obviously meant to be the same as the more common gold/samadhi passage, there is a crucial difference. That is, in the gold/samadhi passages, the gold (and the mind) is said to be “not radiant” when it is defiled; and “radiant” when the defilements are removed. But the texts under discussion say exactly the opposite.

There is a clear contradiction here, and as always, one can approach contradictions in various ways. Perhaps the two can be harmonized: the radiance of the mind is potentially there, even if not apparent. Fine, but that is not really how the Buddha talked about things. We should always prefer a simpler, more grounded explanation, not one that necessitates revising the whole of the Buddha’s teachings based on one dubious passage. Given that the text has obviously suffered editorial changes, I suspect that the problems arose due to these.

The beginning of the Sutta has the Buddha (presumably, although it doesn’t actually say so), saying, “This mind is radiant…” The particle “idam”, “this”, functions to limit and specific: This mind, not “the mind” (as in Thanissaro’s translation). As well as the gold/samadhi passages, we might compare to the Upakkilesa Sutta, where the Buddha speaks of how he meditated, then light arose, but because of “defilements” (upakkilesa, the same word as our sutta), the light vanished. The word for light is different (obhasa), but is from the same root with the same basic meaning.

This is the normal way the Buddha talked about the mind. It is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. Our passage, which is unique, without parallels in any early Suttas, syntactically awkward, clearly the subject of editing, can be read as suggesting a different take on things, that the mind is somehow “radiant” even when covered by defilements. Or it can be read in line with the other, more clear suttas.

In either case, there is no suggestion here that the “radiant mind” be connected with Nibbana. Quite the opposite: the whole point of the sutta is that it can be defiled, so it cannot be Nibbana.

Faith-based engagement with climate deal for 2015 and beyond

Here is a report from an interfaith perspective from the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

By Nigel Crawhall, Interfaith Liaison Committee

Bonn, 22 October 2014

Faith-based organisations and networks have been steadily increasing their engagement in climate advocacy work. As the UNFCCC Parties negotiate the 2015 agreement, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’I and other faith movements are careful watching the process. An interfaith caucus process has been steadily emerging since COP14, with some groupings such as the World Council of Churches having been involved since before the original treaty was even drafted.

As each element of the climate crisis strikes, it is the churches, mosques and temples at the frontline of relief services, helping to bury the dead and console the grieving. People typically turn to the places of worship for safety, support and emergency services. All of the faith networks report that their budgetary expenditures are soaring and they feel a duty to become more involved in climate crisis prevention, mitigation and adaptation. This however, needs to be understood in a broader agenda of justice, peace and a meaningful quality of life for both rich and poor.

The overall concern of the faith-based organisations is that the UNFCCC process has shifted from the core mission of the United Nations, the upholding of the ethical principle of human rights and ensuring global governance to promote peace, security and now the attention to sustainable development. The once evident value-based work of the United Nations has morphed into a type of competitive self-interest where those who are the perpetrators of harmful climate impacts show no remorse or ownership, and those who have once been on the weak end of the global economy, but are emerging as powerful economies and emitters, cling to the history rather than face up to their current and future duties.

For FBOs, the challenge is how to get the ethical and moral questions back at the heart of the negotiations.

As the Roman Catholic delegate at the caucus meeting at ADP 2-6 noted, it is like the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. Cain in a fit of rage kills his own brother Abel. God who has seen all and knows what is in heart, asks Cain what has happened.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

It is precisely this question which the Parties to the Convention most wish to avoid, and like Cain, behave that if they deny it, avoid it, table it and create an ad hoc working group, this somehow absolves them from the consequences and the responsibility.

In Buddhism, the term is ‘hiri ottappa’, which means moral dread or moral shame. If the perpetrator of a harmful act, and we can think of rapists, murders, child-abusers, do not confront themselves about the unwholesome origin of their actions, and seek atonement for their negative karmic deads, they can never benefit from release, liberation and ultimate nibbana.

In Lima, the Peruvian Inter-religious Council will be the interfaith host for religious and spiritual constituencies. They will facilitate the interfaith caucus, hold interfaith solidarity events, work with the #fastfortheclimate movement, and assist with a two day conference on religious duty and climate change.

Thursday 23 October will be a key day for discussing the INDCs and with it the future of multilateralism and human compassionate action.

It is also the start of Diwali, when a billion Hindus. Diwali is the festival of light and represents the victory of hope over despair and light over dark. As Lydia Mogano from the We Have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice network reported in the caucus meeting:

“In New York we looked for one word to motivate the faith movement. We saw all the people protesting and uniting and chose the word ‘hope’. Now in Bonn, watching the negotiations, I think our word will need to be ‘courage’.”

The Peruvian link is here:

The most recent Holy See contribution is here:

International Buddhist statement on climate change:

Dr. Nigel Crawhall
CEESP – WCPA Strategic Direction / Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity & Protected Areas

IUCN Focal point on Resolution 009/12 on faith, climate and the environment.

6th World Parks Congress home page: