10 reasons why 2012 is looking good!

The new year is upon us – and a very merry one for all sentient beings!

The doom-mongers will be out in force this year, so let me, as a died-in-the-wool contrarian, offer 10 reasons why 2012 is shaping up to be a great year.

  • EU is banning factory hens. Ok, that may be a bit overstated, as they are just being allowed some extra space and some other welfare provisions; and there will always be compliance issues, but hey, it’s a start. And provisions for the welfare of other farmed animals is following in the next few years. The appallingly cruel development of factory farming is one of the most vile products of technology, and its end cannot come too soon.
  • Bhikkhunis keep on happening. We have seen the ending of Wat Pa Pong’s policy of banning monks from Bodhinyana who had participated in bhikkhuni ordination. Next year there will be a large scale bhikkhuni ordination in Vesali. While in Malaysia, I heard many hopeful things about the setting up of a new centre there. Through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, I heard words of encouragement, gratitude, and support for the bhikkhunis. There’s over 1000 bhikkhunis now in Sri Lanka, and this is just the beginning.
  • Troops are getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not unproblematic, of course, but surely the only thing that can possibly work in the long term. Perhaps in the future our beloved leaders might reflect first on whether invading foreign countries is the most effective way of making them love democracy and freedom.
  • Kids TV show Waybuloo has got yoga and other cool stuff. Aww! Cute characters be nice to each other, share hugs and grow flowers, and float when they get happy, which is lots! It must be good, ‘cos the fundamentalists hate it.
  • After the Year of the Protestor, what happens next? From the Arab Spring to Occupy, people got out on the streets, almost always peacefully, and said, ‘Enough!’ the struggle for freedom, peace, equality and all good things is very far from over, but it is happening. A couple of years ago, who would have guessed? And what will the outcome be for the next year? Since we know that non-violent protest movements are far more successful than violent ones, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the progress will stick.
  • Fundamentalism is dead. Alright, not dead yet. But dying. Maybe not dying, but still. Pining for the fjords, at least. The unstoppable wave of ignorance and stupidity in the name of ‘religion’, which dominated global events from the time of 9/11, seems to be on the wane. The Arab Spring and other major shifts, including climate change, are driven by other concerns. The Tea Party candidates are dropping out of the US elections; it seems there is a limit to the lunacy that democracies will tolerate. We might even see a drift back to sanity-based politics. Hopefully this will accompany a more healthy relationship between religion and science.
  • Technology catches up on global warming. Even though the political response to the global warming crisis has been an almost unmitigated failure, technology is at least making some headway. This map shows how soon there will be cost parity between solar and current electricity generation in the US. Parity arrives in San Diego in 2014, according to their calculations. For more info, check out The Futuremakers, a great doco on emerging energy technologies by my old friend Maryella Hatfield.
  • More people are meditating than ever before. At least in the US: “A 2007 national Government survey that asked about CAM use in a sample of 23,393 U.S. adults found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months—compared with 7.6 percent of respondents (representing more than 15 million people) in a similar survey conducted in 2002.” That’s nearly 25% increase in 5 years. The growth of meditation worldwide is perhaps the most significant thing ever in the history of humanity. For the first time, a large percentage of people, of all nationalities and religions, and in all kinds of settings, are consciously and deliberately making efforts to purify and expand their consciousness. No-one knows what the possible outcomes of this will be – but it will be more than just a little short term stress reduction.
  • Violence continues to decline. We have discussed Steven Pinker’s argument that violence is, on the whole, in decline. He continues to make his case, and statistics argue in favor of many of his key points. For example, homicide rates worldwide continue to decline. here’s hoping that 2012 will be humanity’s most peaceful ever.
  • The prophets will be wrong, again! Here’s counting down to Dec 20, 2012, when the world is going to end and all the usual yada yada. Me, I’ll be kicking back here at Santi with a lovely cup of coffee and a nice ‘told you so’. You’re welcome to join!

So there’s ten. What other great things can we look forward to in 2012?


Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).

In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.


The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5


Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8


Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.

1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

Turns of events

It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.

Has anything got better?

Short answer: not so you’d notice.

Long answer:

Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.

I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.

Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’

Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.

Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.

Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.

As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.

There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.

In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)

What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.

Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.

(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)

Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.

A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.

WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?

There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.

Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.

One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.

Comfort or Challenge

Richard Gombrich, one of the most senior academics in Buddhist studies, recently gave a keynote address for the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010. It’s a terrific, passionate, and all-too-true article. He had the following to say about the role of women in Theravada Buddhism.

Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand?

If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.

Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.

First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.

I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.

But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.

My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravāda restart the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravādin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravāda Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravāda Buddhism for many future generations.

How, then, can Theravāda Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!

The Last Post (for a while…)

And what a ride it’s been!

I started this blog less than 9 months ago, soon after the WA bhikkhuni ordination. It filled a need that I had felt, for a way of communicating that was more direct and contemporary. And it seems to have filled a need for others, too: 226 000 views, and nearly 6000 comments.

Through this, I’ve been able to connect and share in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I’m a writer: I guess I always have been one at heart. The blog format offers what is, for me, a great combo of directness and substance. I can say things of meaning, and include serious analysis, but there’s always room for some lightness of heart, too.

But the truly astonishing thing has been you lot. My goodness, what a lot of words! True to its origins, the most vital and stimulating topics have consistently been those on bhikkhuni ordination. This, for me, is a sign; a sign that we have tapped into a deep shared need. So much has been deeply heart-felt. I’ve been surprised, moved, delighted – and yes, more than occasionally annoyed – to find what is in your hearts expressed here so well.

I have this feeling, this image in my mind, like Odysseus on his journey home. After ten years at war, it took another ten years to cross the few hundred miles of ocean back to Ithaca and his beloved. He lost everything: his ships, his men, his treasure; and was adrift on the wide ocean, clinging to a bit of driftwood in a mighty storm. He is cast upon the beach, and makes his way, finally, to his home. Only to find that his halls are overrun with usurpers. That moment, which he had yearned for for so long, turned out to be his greatest challenge.

This is how I feel about my life with the WPP tradition. I was lost, and they gave me a home, gave me a direction. In the world so messed up and confusing, they recognized my pain, and offered a way out. My life owes so much to them that I can never express it. And yet – and yet! – there is still this. It is as if I have been gradually waking up these past ten years or so, coming out of a self-induced dream.

I cannot blame anyone else for my own dreams. But the reality is so much colder, so much harder, that I do not wonder why so many of us prefer not to wake up.

We dream of a truth, of something untouched and pure. In our hearts we long for a safe harbor, for certainty and protection. And we yearn for this so deeply that we give up our all. We hand our hearts over in trust. It is so rare, so precious! So few of us even have the chance to dream, still fewer to realize our dreams. We give up all and move on; and we imagine that our chosen ones feel for us what we feel for them. That our dreaming and their dreaming is one and the same. And we forget, we pass over, the many little details that should be teaching us that the ocean is not just soft breezes and caressing waves, but also has treacherous reefs and sharp teeth.

Nothing can be undone; the choices we have made, we must live with. We are in that most human of dilemmas, hearts undone and confused, just wanting something so simple: the truth that frees.

That truth is not outside. It does not lie with any tradition. Those in whom we seek a refuge, the ‘masters’ of the spirit; they too are human, all too human. Can we be brave enough to admit this to ourselves? To acknowledge that the sacred Dhamma is under the custodianship of a Sangha made of human beings, like ourselves, full of pain and heartbreak?

Then is another choice. To give up, submit to the waves; let the waters close over our heads.

Or to learn to swim. To kick. To struggle. And most important of all: to hold out a helping hand. To forgive, and to love, with a love that knows the folly and the blindness. To recognize that we are the masters; that we hold the Dhamma pure and pristine in our own hearts; that, if we stay true that little guiding star, we need not seek refuge, but can offer it.

I give my great thanks to all my friends on this blog, especially those with the courage to disagree with me. You are all my teachers. I’m going away for a while now. We’re entering our three month vassa retreat, and I won’t be attending to this blog in this time. The comments will stay open, and I hope the discussion continues. The vassa ends October 23 – almost exactly a year after the bhikkhuni ordination. I’ll be back then.

Until then, don’t forget. Stay true.

Freedom & Responsibility

My father used to quote Rousseau to me:

Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains…

The western Enlightenment idea of freedom is essentially freedom from social constructs. We are shaped, twisted, distorted from our true potential by the deadening, if not positively malign, forces of ‘society’. As the world becomes ever more compartmentalized, regulated, and bureaucratic, our ability to maintain an intrinsic freedom dwindles, little by little, until before we know it we have lost our vitality.

This essentially romantic view of our dismal modern predicament has been repeated endlessly throughout modern art, from Joyce’s Mr Duffy, who ‘lived a short distance from his body’, to Eleanor Rigby as she ‘Waits at the window/Wearing the face/That she keeps in a jar by the door…’. For us, the Hero is the One who breaks out of this predicament and realizes the fullness of her humanity.

But while western culture has excelled in expressing, in endlessly creative ways, the grimness of modernity, it has been far less successful in depicting what it is that the Hero actually does. Once they are ‘free’, where do they go? How do they live?

For the most part the answers are so mundane that they are scarcely less depressing than the initial situation: marry the one you want; leave a dead-end job and go to the country; give charity; or else, simply become a creative individual. This last option, beloved of the Romantics, is peculiarly attractive in the west, but, as someone who has lived the dream, it seems to me that as a vehicle for true liberation, artistic creativity is decidedly overrated. Its prominence in western thought, it seems to me, is little more than a self-justification by those who write the books…

It is not that these things are bad, it’s just that they are not deep enough. They answer certain human needs affecting certain aspects of who we are, but they are woefully inadequate to address the roots of our true humanity.

Perhaps the problem lies in mistaken assumptions. Are we really ‘Born Free’? A baby, lying there in its cot – is that freedom? A baby has very little freedom, mainly because he has so little capacity. He cannot choose, cannot act beyond a very limited sphere. We put our babies in bonds – restricting them in their cribs, or holding them close to our bodies – not to stifle them, but to protect them, to keep them alive. The norms of culture have evolved, not through a nefarious conspiracy of ‘old lady judges’ who ‘push fake morals’, but because culture keeps people alive. It feeds them, clothes them, and most important of all, conditions them with the social, ethical and linguistic conventions that prevent us from killing each other. I was forcefully reminded of this a few days ago by this passage from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, speaking of the Fayu people of New Guinea.

To us, a few dozen people constitute a small, ordinary gathering, but to the Fayu it was a rare, frightening event. Murderers suddenly found themselves face-to-face with their victim’s relatives. For example, one Fayu man spotted the man who had killed his father. The son raised his ax and rushed at the murderer but was wrestled to the ground by friends; then the murderer came at the prostrate son with an ax and was also wrestled down. Both men were held, screaming in rage, until they seemed sufficiently exhausted to be released. Other men periodically shouted insults at each other, shook with anger and frustration, and pounded the ground with their axes. That tension continued for the several days of the gathering…
The Fayu consist of about 400 hunter-gatherers, divided into four clans and wandering over a few hundred square miles. According to their own account, they had formerly numbered about 2,000, but their population had been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu. They lacked political and social mechanisms, which we take for granted, to achieve peaceful resolution of serious disputes.

We are all Fayu, but for the benefits of culture. Of course, it is not the case that our ‘advanced’ culture has solved these things better than ‘primitives’: within both ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ societies we can equally find examples of the civilizing effects of culture, or of the violence and depravity that results when culture fails.

By nurturing, sustaining, and educating us, our societies have brought us to a level where we can ask the deepest questions. Perhaps we are wrong to criticize our culture for not providing the answers. Perhaps the answers lie beyond anything society can deliver.

Society, at its best, can enable us to live in reasonable safety, with enough food to eat, shelter, friends and family, health and education. It can give us freedom of speech and action, but it is up to us to choose what to do with this freedom. If we allow ourselves to be led by the manipulations of advertising and consumer culture, whose fault is that? Yes, there is a powerful conditioning, but there are plenty of people who just ignore the whole schmozzle. And good riddance. Notice that here I am not talking about the problems of society, about what happens when things go wrong, but about what society can achieve, and which it does achieve in some cases.

It seems to me that the Buddhist approach to freedom is virtually the inverse of the widespread liberal conception of freedom. Rather than the assumption that ‘we are born free’, Buddhism teaches us that freedom is something we have to earn. We have to actively work to deconstruct the effect of the trivializing and same-making of culture. We have to continually question, to be unsatisfied with the shallow answers to life’s problems that are on sale in the marketplace.

Buddhism supplies a more systematic and coherent account of freedom than Western culture. We are imprisoned by the negative and afflictive forces of our own minds, and have to work gradually to overcome these. Each step on the Buddhist path is consciously and freely chosen. There is no ‘Thou shalt’, instead we say, ‘I undertake the training…’. And at each step we are freed – not just aimlessly freed from whatever, but freed from those specific things that cause suffering for ourselves and others. each of the precepts is an exercise in freedom. Contentment, restraint, mindfulness, moderation – each of these essential Buddhist trainings frees us from the inessential. Deeper freedom comes from the release of the mind from the five hindrances in the jhanas, which the Buddha illustrated by similes such as a man released from prison, or a person who is cured after a long illness. Our deepest, most subtle bondage is the illusion that ‘I am’, and so final freedom comes from the elimination of any residual notion of a ‘self’.

From the texts as well as from modern examples, it is clear that there is a distinct notion of what this state of freedom is like. An arahant lives, eats, sleeps, laughs, and talks much like the rest of us. But they are untrammeled by illusion, by sadness, or anger. their life is said to be one of simplicity, contentment, mindfulness, and joy. And for the most part, they choose to do two things with their lives. Left to their own devices, they are simply happy and content. They live, and just that much. When the chance arises, they will work hard help others realize the same contentment. But they are not desperate or pushy: they respond to genuine needs, and otherwise remain silent.

Such an ideal of freedom may seem elusive and distant, but I believe it is possible. It’s a magnificent vision. But it should come with a warning. Such an ideal of personal and spiritual liberation does not displace or marginalize the importance of social freedoms. India in the Buddha’s day was a place of great freedom. People were free to live, to work, to wander across the countryside, to follow their beliefs and religious practices. Of course there were problems: caste, gender, slavery, wealth, and other socially constructed institutions restricted individual choice, like in any society. But the Buddhist culture arose in conflict with these social constructions. Indeed, Buddhism could never have appeared in a society that did not tolerate freedom of thought, speech, and religious practice.

Buddhist ethics should argue against caste boundaries, against discrimination, against inequality. And Buddhist praxis succeeded despite these things, not because of them. Nowhere did the Buddha argue that restrictions, submission to the cultural forms, were in themselves liberating. On the contrary, in texts such as the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, freedom from slavery is one of the prerequisites for undertaking committed Dhamma practice.

Similarly, for women, ordaining as bhikkhunis meant freedom from the socially mandated submission that was required of women. Virtually every Brahmanical law-book states at a woman can never be free. In her youth, she is subject to her father; in adult life to her husband; and in old age, to her sons. The inspired verse of bhikkhuni Muttā exalts that she is free of the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband! Life gone forth was experienced by the nuns as freedom from the stifling restrictions of home life. Freedom from social constriction is a pre-requisite to spiritual freedom.

The many rules and restrictions undertaken by Buddhist monastics are themselves another step towards freedom. The crucial thing is that they are consciously chosen by mature adults. They are not imposed from outside as a means of control. If you don’t want to keep the rules, don’t ordain. If you do want to keep them, you can ordain, and enter into a community of responsible adults, for whom freedom is a gift to be used wisely and responsibly.

As monastics we have many freedoms: freedom from cooking, from shopping, from eating after noon. Freedom from the commitment, attachment, sacrifice, and pain of an intimate relationship. It’s easy to abuse these freedoms. That’s why training and communal support are such an essential part of our life.

Because that is the ultimate burden of freedom. With great freedom comes great responsibility. If we are granted the power of choice, and if we use that choice to suppress others, we have betrayed their trust and shown we are not worthy of responsibility.

In the end, perhaps this is why most of us choose lives of quiet desperation; why we find it so persuasive when the rich and powerful, whether politicians or spiritual leaders, explain to us the virtues of poverty and submission. It’s easier to let someone else make the tough choices. We can pretend to be impotent. Pretend we are less than fully human. Collude in our own inadequacy.

Or we can make a choice.