Religion is, on the face of it, a social movement whose motivation is to inspire the best in humanity. So why does religion make us do the worst? Why, in so many places on so many issues, are the religious forces arrayed on the side of narrow-mindedness, exclusion, and intolerance?

Determined to Survive

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the past. Not in a specific historical event – though these surely color the ways fundamentalism manifests in the present – but in our present relationship with our own deep formative years.

If we look at the various approaches to understanding human nature, we find they all speak in terms of a narrative that depicts a process of change and growth through time. Those narratives take very different forms. In psychology, the narrative is the story of an infant’s growth through formative years to adulthood. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the story of the Hebrew people’s encounters with and troubled relationship with their God. In Buddhism, it is the story of an individuals countless past lives, all emparting some lesson, and in the chief example of the Buddha, culminating in the perfection of Awakening.

Each of these narratives is told and retold in countless variations in their own tradition, until they become a background, a way of seeing. They are not so much a sequence of events as a manner of framing understanding.

It seems to me that what these narratives have in common is a notion of ‘troubled emergence’. There is a struggle, a trauma, deeply embedded in our past. This suffering recedes whenever we look too closely; it’s always on the horizon, in the twilight. In the very emergence into consciousness there is a memory of the darkness that came before.

We are creatures emerging from the dark. Caught forever in a moment of transition. We turn our faces to the sun, but in the back of our minds is the thought of the past, a fear mingled with a vague but powerful longing.

This is why I turned my back on the anti-religious atheism that I embraced at age 15, when I discarded the Roman Catholic beliefs of my upbringing. I am all-too familiar with the rationale of the secularist atheists, having espoused it for a decade myself. I’m still an atheist, of course, in the basic sense of not believing in a creator God. But Buddhist atheism is much more accommodating of diverse views and realities than the modern secularists. (That’s another problematic word – I’m a secularist in the sense that I believe society should be organized on a neutral basis with respect to religions, not in the sense that society is better off getting rid of religion.)

But I gradually came to see something suspicious in the idea that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of the past. Start afresh, and rebuild the world from reason. A seductive idea; except unfortunately, we are not made of reason.

What we are made of is the bizarre, unknowable, endlessly complex and fascinating matrix of conditions that have led us to this point. Stop for a moment and just breathe: you are here, and this presence is where your everything has led you.

Religions and other narratives give us a framework for apprehending this numinous reality, this emergence of a vital, living present from the fading obscurities of the past. Religions are complex, contradictory, and troublesome precisely because they honor this complex, contradictory, and troublesome reality.

Different traditions deal with this in ways that suit their own context. In Buddhism, the language we use is that of karma. Doing our best to leave aside the popular misunderstanding of karma as ‘destiny’, what karma really means is ‘action’. Our past actions have created the reality we inhabit; and our future will be shaped by how we respond to that reality. Our past is infinitely dim. Some, it is believed, have the ability to see something of their past lives. The Buddha is recorded as saying he could remember 91 aeons of past lives. But none of this changes the fundamental fact: no matter how far back we remember we eventually disappear in the twilight. The Buddha, perhaps alone among the world’s great religious teachers, said that it was impossible to know the ultimate beginning of things, the first point of that ‘dark mass of ignorance’.

So religions don’t discard the past, like the atheist secularists. But they run the risk of being trapped in it. The darkness really is dark, and it is no less a part of our deep heritage.

Here’s the thing: all the vital, inspiring religious traditions that we live by were forged in a new relationship with the past. The Buddha was constantly dialoguing with religious figures of his time: arguing, agreeing, adopting, evolving. It is sometimes a dance, sometimes a battle, sometimes a game. But is always real, and it has that edge, that unpredictability of the true inquirer.

There are some fascinating studies of schizophrenia. They talk of the voices that make irrational, sometimes violent demands; of the struggles that people have to resist the commands; and of the disturbing sense of relief that comes with giving in.

The commandments of our religious past have a similar quality. They speak to us, in sometimes arbitrary and often unknowable words, making startling claims and impossible demands. How are we to know when these are the words of a wisdom unfathomable to our deluded thinking; and when they are the growlings of the Beast?

This is the struggle that modern religions undertake. And, clearly, we often get it wrong. The bizarre, cruel, and ignorant rantings that we hear so often in the name of religions are, like it or not, an inescapable part of the modern expression of religion. But we can’t merely dismiss the fundamentalists: we have to listen to them (at least occasionally!)

The reality is, painful as it is to admit it, that they represent a portion of what is found in our religious heritage. Not the whole truth, certainly, and not the useful parts of the truth; but the darkness that they espouse so passionately – the hatred of those of a different sexuality, or the exclusion of those of different gender, or the condemnation of those of a different belief – is a genuine part of all religious traditions. It is that darkness from which we are emerging.

It does no-one any good to simply pretend that the darkness is not real – but that is exactly what I find to be the most common reaction: ‘Oh, but that’s not real Buddhism!’ ‘That’s just a cultural accretion.’ True enough on one level, but not very helpful. All it really says is ‘I am going to make a conceptual distinction that allows me to maintain my idealized conception of my own religion’. It’s a coping mechanism, which is not a bad thing. Coping mechanisms are useful – they help us cope! But they don’t take us much further than that. If we want to go deeper, we have to start by accepting darkness as darkness, not to explain it away, but to understand it; and to truly emerge from it.


Secular Buddhism discussion

So it’s over now, thanks so much to Winton and Lizzie for agreeing to take part; thanks to the Buddhist Library and Paget for hosting us; and thanks to all those who helped – and not forgetting you all, who helped stimulate the conversation.

The night was, in my ever so humble, an excellent dialogue, one of the few occasions where we really managed to actually pursue some important matters and have a real exchange of ideas, rather than simply stating our positions.

For myself, I learned that this idea of ‘enlightenment’ as a process, rather than a completed state, is central to the secular Buddhist perspective. I had heard the idea before, but didn’t realize how significant it was.

The second thing I learned was a better grasp of why they call themselves ‘Buddhists’. Often the Secular Buddhist crowd are criticized because they don’t fit some externally defined set of criteria for being Buddhist. But in our secular world, belonging to a religion is basically what you write on the census form. If I say I’m a Buddhist, that’s what I am. So Secular Buddhists feel a sense of identity that makes them want to call themselves Buddhist.

These two points are useful for me to help understand where Secular Buddhists are coming from. In addition, it’s starting to dig down to something more interesting. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened’. It is a past participle, denoting a completed or perfected state. The finality of the Buddha’s Awakening is fundamental to the whole Buddhist literature and is, for example, a major theme of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. To say ‘the Buddha is not Awakened’ is an oxymoron.

Now we could leap up and down and say, ‘But that’s just irrational.’ And maybe it is. But how many people choose their religion for rational reasons? I certainly didn’t. And the vast majority of people believe in a religion because that’s what their parents believe. If the Secular Buddhist position really is irrational, then this is not a criticism, it is an acknowledgement that forces other than reason are at play. And so: what might those forces be?

Discussion on ‘secular Buddhism’

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

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

Critique of Batchelor by Allan Wallace

Response by Stephen Batchelor

Reflections from an old mutual friend

A further response by Ted Meissner

The Moral Life of Babies

Here’s a fascinating article in the New York Times, which describes research that examine the extent of a babies’ innate moral sensibility.

It seems that even very young infants are instinctively able to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’, a fact which is difficult to explain from a biological point of view. The traditional perspective has it that children are acculturated to learn morality as they grow.

Some researchers have been tempted to ascribe this innate moral sense to “the voice of God within our souls.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, we would prefer to think in terms of rebirth.

Regardless of the reason why, the practical outcome of this is that people are, before culture, primed with at least the basics of a moral sensibility. This falls short of a truly mature ethics, as babies, for example, are still not impartial in the sense required by higher ethical discernment. (But then, who is?)

This reminds me of the Socratic belief that we have all learned everything in countless past lives, and so what we call ‘learning’ is in fact merely ‘remembering’. If children have an innate sense of morality, then it would seem that the most useful form of education would be that which ‘draws out’ (to use the literal meaning of ‘educate’) knowledge that is already innate.

This issue has recently become the focus of intense debate in Sydney, with the recent proposal to trial teaching ethics in schools to children who choose not to go to ‘scripture’ classes. The basic method of the ethics class is to present the children with a bunch of ethical dilemmas, and discuss them.

The Sydney Anglicans, as always foremost in reaction, have come out strongly against this, insisting that they be involved in the process, while the Catholics have been more muted.

(For those of you not familiar with the Sydney religious scene, the local Anglican church is one of the extreme conservative wings of the international Anglican communion, and is separate from the rest of Australia’s Anglicans, who are generally quite progressive.)

Jensen & co. seem to be outraged that secular ethics should be taught in Australian Government schools – teaching secular ethics in a secular institution! What will they think of next.

Underlying this is the basic question of moral authority. The Western philosophical tradition, starting with Socrates, sees ones own inner voice as the prime source of truth, while the Church sees morality as descending from on high, and mediated by itself.

The time has long passed when secular institutions looked to Christianity for its values. Our children need to learn ethics, not from any self-appointed ‘authority’, but by learning to listen to their own voice of conscience, to dialogue with others, to accept different points of view, and to found ethics on a shared humanity, not adherence to any religious dogma.

Buddhism & the supernatural

You might be forgiven for wondering about whether Buddhism is a religion. After all, there are plenty of people who say that “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion”. When I say plenty, that’s 73,300 on a google for the exact phrase. Personally i think this is just a piece of modernist sloganeering. Buddhism obviously fills most of the same roles in Buddhists’ lives that other religions fulfill, and in every practical sense it is regarded as a religion everywhere. Of course, it’s a different kind of religion than theistic ones, which necessitates rethinking what we mean by a religion.

But if we take this seriously, Buddhism would not fall under the status of a religion for charity purposes in Australia (and many other places). The relevant Australian definition says there is:

… no reason to move away from the decision made by the High Court in the Scientology case, that a religion must have two characteristics: belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and that there is an acceptance of canons of conduct that give effect to that belief by some part of the community. No submission suggested a different definition of religion.

This is curious to me on a number of levels. First up, i wonder whether Buddhism should fall under this definition. In fact, I would say that I definitely think Buddhism does not believe in the supernatural as it is normally understood – a statement which, however, needs some clarification.

The other curious thing is, why on earth does believing in a Supernatural being justify getting special consideration? I am sympathetic to the radical atheist view, which could argue that, since belief in the supernatural is manifestly irrational, money given to believers is rewarding irrationality.

Of course, religious people do good things, such as giving to charities. But that is not the issue here. Secular organizations can give to charities just as well, and the government can award them charitable status for their good works, not because of a belief in the ‘Supernatural’.

This problem could have very practical implications. Buddhist who applied for charitable status might not get it; or, conceivably, Buddhism could be attacked by hostile forces on these legal grounds.

What does ‘Supernatural’ mean? One definition says ‘not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws’, which seems fair enough to me. When people use the word ‘supernatural’, they usually mean things like psychic powers, ghosts, other realms of existence, and so on. It’s obvious that Buddhists believe in these things just as much as any religion.

It’s true that there are a few Buddhists, who we might call ‘naturalist’, who deny the reality of these phenomena. But there are also a minority of Christians or others who would take a similar line.Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully interpret the Buddha’s teachings in a way that excludes rebirth; however, I would not want to say that someone who denies rebirth cannot be a Buddhist.

However, from a legal point of view, if one was a Buddhist who denied the reality of, say, rebirth, or other aspects of Buddhism that are not scientifically verifiable, could one be said to be following a ‘religion’ in this sense?

The problem is, it seems to me, deeper than this. The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.

The Sri Lankan philosopher David Kalupahana has developed this idea in detail. he argues that Buddhism is empirical through and through; that even those aspects of Buddhist belief that seem to invoke the ‘supernatural’ in fact merely involve a refining and extension of ordinary sensory capacities. Thus the ability to see beings in other realms is the ‘Divine Eye’, which results, not from the intervention of a force beyond nature, but from the refinement of the mind through the practice of jhana.

In fact, the translation ‘Divine Eye’ is maybe a bit misleading in this context, as there is no notion of divine intervention. The Pali is dibbacakkhu, where dibba is an adjective related to deva, or deity, hence the rendering. But the root meaning of all these terms, still felt very strongly in the Pali, is to ‘shine’, related to the word ‘day’. So it would perhaps be better to think of this power as ‘clarified vision’ – which is exactly the English ‘clairvoyance’.

So, while many of the things that are called ‘supernatural’ do form a part of regular Buddhist belief, I don’t think the word ‘supernatural’ is an appropriate description of these things from a Buddhist point of view. This is more than a semantic issue, for the very Buddhist critique of the ‘supernatural’ forms an integral part of our soteriology. We may believe in these things, but we don’t regard them as being essential or important for our religious path, precisely because they fall within the realm of birth, ageing, and death; that is, they are natural.

The problem is a historical one: definitions of religion in Western law are not supposed to be philosophically precise, but pragmatically effective. They are supposed to deal with the legacy situation that governments are supposed to offer various kinds of support for religions for the common good, and to deal with upstarts like Scientology, who quite cynically try to leverage this support for their own advantage.

Which brings us to the question: why on earth should governments be interested in giving tax breaks or other support to religions anyway? It seems to me there are two main reasons. From the government’s point of view, the interest is in ‘social cohesion’. Religions help keep the fabric of society together. There is an ancient strain, which, depending on your point of view, might be called either pragmatism or cynicism, which runs back to the Greco-Roman days, where people who don’t really believe in the gods still insist that the cults and the festivals be upheld. This is a perfectly legitimate interest that government has, and if the people in government believe that religion does, on the whole, help keep society harmonious, then it is perfectly rational for even atheists to support religion.

From inside the religion itself, however, while social cohesion would be a valued part of religion’s contribution, it does not capture the critical point. Religions believe that they offer something that has a value that transcends anything found on this mortal coil. The benefits offered by religion are not just charity and social harmony, but an eternity of transcendence. And it is this special value that religionists believe sets them apart from any secular philosophy, not matter how good its social ethics may be.

This assumption of transcendant value is impossible to accommodate within secular discourse. How do you weigh up a saved soul against improved health care? And there is the ticklish problem that most religions understanding of the transcendent excludes followers of other religions… But we should not forget that a majority of the people in government actually believe in some such doctrine as this, whether or not it influence their decisions.

Come back to the root meaning of ‘supernature’: literally, ‘above or beyond what is born’. There is only one thing that might fit this description in Buddhism, and that is Nibbana. Nibbana is quite literally ‘beyond birth’. It is not ‘supernatural’ in the everyday understanding of the word, but it is supernatural according to the root meaning.

This is still not ideal, and is a stretch of Western theistic ideas into a context where they fit uncomfortably. If this ruling were to be reviewed, i would suggest using a word such as ‘Deathless’, or ‘Unconditioned’, which would suit Nibbana just as it would a theistic God.

It is more problematic to describe Nibbana as a ‘Being, Thing or Principle’. Nevertheless, while philosophically we might quibble, these words are obviously meant to be so general as to encompass just about anything, so in this context I think we could let them pass.

So in the end I think Buddhist scrapes by: it is a religion under Australian law. I understand that this is not the case in some other countries; perhaps some of you have some knowledge of this.