Friday, November 9, 2007

Buddhist Boomers

Taste -- Houses of Worship: Buddhist Boomers: A Meditation
By Clark Strand
1084 words
9 November 2007
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2007, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

A colleague recently took me to task for consulting Jews and Christians on how to keep American Buddhism alive. He didn't agree with either premise -- that Jews and Christians could offer advice to Buddhists, or that Buddhism was in any danger of decline. But he was wrong on both counts. American Buddhism, which swelled its ranks to accommodate the spiritual enthusiasms of baby boomers in the late 20th century, is now aging. One estimate puts the average age of Buddhist converts (about a third of the American Buddhist population) at upwards of 50. This means that the religion is almost certain to see its numbers reduced over the next generation as boomer Buddhists begin to die off without having passed their faith along to their children. And Jewish and Christian models offer the most logical solution for reversing that decline.

The basic problem is that non-Asian converts tend not to regard what they practice as a religion. From the beginning, Buddhism has been seen in its American incarnation not as an alternative religion, but as an alternative to religion. American converts have long held Buddhism apart from what they see as the inherent messiness of Western religious discourse on such issues as faith and belief, and from the violence that has so often accompanied it.

The author Sam Harris, though not himself a Buddhist, is nevertheless fairly representative of this point of view. In his book "The End of Faith," Mr. Harris is strongly critical of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but he gives Buddhism a free pass. "Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence," he concedes, but "it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all in the Western sense."

Mr. Harris goes so far as to claim that "the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma." He likens the Dalai Lama's encounters with Christian ecclesiastics to a meeting between Cambridge physicists and Kalahari Bushmen, which is offensive on so many levels -- to Christians, to Buddhists, to Bushmen, and maybe even to physicists -- that one hardly knows where to begin. And yet most American converts would probably agree with Mr. Harris's portrayal of Buddhism as an empirically based spiritual practice. In its pure, idealized form (which, admittedly, exists mostly in the minds of Western converts), that practice is relatively free of dogma and superstition. Unfortunately, it is also free of folk tales, family and -- dare I say it -- fun.

For the most part American converts don't see this as a problem. When I suggested to my colleague that he might want to think of ways to integrate his Buddhist experience into the long-term life of his family, and that he might look to existing religious models, like his local synagogue, for ideas on how to do that (rather than to the out-of-state monastery where he goes alone on retreat twice yearly), he answered shortly, "When my kids get old enough, they can decide for themselves whether to meditate or not."

It's an argument I have heard before. Having left the religion of their birth, often with good reason, American converts tend to be wary of anything approaching religious indoctrination, even if that means failing to offer their children the basics of a religious education. This has the advantage of giving Buddhist children great freedom of religious expression, with the disadvantage of not giving them any actual religion to express. The result is a generation of children with a Buddhist parent or two but no Buddhist culture to grow up in.

What does this mean for the non-Buddhist culture at large? Why be concerned that so few Buddhist baptisms, weddings or funerals occur among Buddhist converts each year that most of them have no idea what such ceremonies even look like, or that years after their conversion, their extended families persist in thinking of them as basically Jewish or Catholic at heart? The answer is surprising all around.

In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people's minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.

Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large -- from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." The object of that experiment is not to import some "authentic" version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether -- one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.

In that case, all the more reason to keep Buddhism in America alive. But to keep that experiment running (as it must if it is ever to yield practical results for the broader religious culture), it has to get itself grounded in the realities of American family life. That is why I tell every Buddhist I meet these days to make friends with a local priest or rabbi and ask what kinds of programs he (or she) is offering for children and families. For if Buddhism has much to offer the West, it surely has much to receive as well. Whatever new religious model is going to emerge over the next 100 years as the result of the inevitable cross-pollination of religious cultures in America, one can only hope that it will preserve the best of East and West.
Mr. Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the author of "How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not)," forthcoming from Doubleday Religion.

Instant karma: behind Asia's monastic activism

Instant Karma: Behind Asia's monastic activism --- Economic pain spurs Buddhists in Myanmar; Falun Gong's determination
By Andrew Higgins
2301 words
7 November 2007
The Wall Street Journal Asia
(c) 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. To see the edition in which this article appeared, click here

AFTER EVENING PRAYERS on Sept. 18, the abbot of a small monastery in Myanmar's largest city convened the roughly 30 Buddhist monks in his charge. The bonds between secular and religious authority had broken, the abbot said. Then he gave the monks his blessing to take to the streets in protest.

That meeting, one of many held in monasteries across Myanmar in mid-September, helped turn a sputtering campaign of dissent led by secular democracy activists into a mass movement led by the Buddhist clergy. The country formerly known as Burma erupted in the biggest wave of antigovernment demonstrations in nearly 20 years.

"We wanted to stay out of politics," says U Zawtiga, a monk at the monastery in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. But "how can religion thrive when the country is so desperate?" Mr. Zawtiga, active in the protests, fled Yangon after the military started shooting protesters on Sept. 27. He is now in hiding along Myanmar's border with Thailand. His abbot, he says, has been arrested.

The vanguard role of monks in the Burmese revolt underscores a curious turn for a creed often associated with quiet contemplation. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Buddhism offers no clear scriptural mandate for revolt against unjust rulers. Rooted in nonviolence, a belief in rebirth and a conviction that salvation lies in the conquest of worldly desires, it has no tradition of crusades or jihad in service of an almighty God.

Across wide swathes of Asia, however, Buddhism has emerged as a powerful spur to political activism. Motives differ from place to place. So, too, do the strands of Buddhism involved. But in each case, the faith has taken the lead in often noisy campaigns for change.

The phenomenon extends from Tibet, where Buddhist monks have doggedly resisted Chinese rule, to Myanmar and several other countries of Southeast Asia, where monks have become a significant political force. Monastic activism has taken on a sinister tone in some places, particularly in Sri Lanka, where hard-line nationalist monks have formed a political party that wants all-out war against rebels of the mostly Hindu Tamil minority.

In China, meanwhile, a Buddhism-tinged group called Falun Gong has eclipsed a moribund pro-democracy movement as the Communist Party's most determined foe.

Buddhism should "not run away from society but reform society," says Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent Thai champion of Buddhist activism against poverty and injustice. Focusing on meditation and the next life, he says, is "not Buddhism but escapism." In 1989, Mr. Sivaraksa helped found the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, a group of Buddhist activists that includes some from Myanmar and also Tibet.

Christopher Queen, a Harvard University religion lecturer, says the trend began in the latter half of the past century, a time when the shocks of modernization and war prodded many faiths to become increasingly political. Some Roman Catholics embraced "liberation theology," and Muslims increasingly turned to political Islam. For Buddhists, though, activism has involved a fundamental rereading of their generally quiescent creed.

Buddhism holds that an individual's lot in life is determined by actions -- or karma -- in previous lives. This offers hope that evil leaders will pay a price for their misdeeds in a future life but provides little impetus for immediate action. As a result, Buddhism for much of its history has tended to shore up the status quo.

But Myanmar's current plight demands action in the here and now, says Bo Hla Tint, a Buddhist and member of Myanmar's government in exile. "We can't wait," he says. He adds that military strongman Gen. Than Shwe will face further punishment later -- with rebirth as a stray dog or an animal raised for slaughter. Rebirth as a household pet, says Mr. Hla Tint, "is too good for him."

A big factor pushing Myanmar's monks onto the streets is their own economic pain. Dependent on donations of food from an increasingly impoverished populace, monks are going hungry as public alms giving declines. "If people are starving, how can they give to us? If they suffer, we suffer," says U Kaw Thala, 48, another Yangon monk now moving between safe houses in the Thai-Myanmar border zone.

In contrast to secular activists, who are often easily silenced by arrests and intimidation, these faith-fired Buddhist campaigners have demonstrated tremendous stamina. Such perseverance is often helped by the fact that monks and nuns usually have no spouses or children about whom to worry. Activists also benefit from a loose but durable support network provided by their faith.

Mr. Zawtiga, the Yangon monk, entered the monkhood at the age of 7. Now 39, he has lived in five monasteries and has a network of contacts across the country. During the September protests, he traded information with old monastic friends and helped coordinate street protests. His parents are both dead. Two of his brothers are abbots.

When the military started raiding monasteries the night of Sept. 26, Mr. Zawtiga took refuge at the home of a devout Buddhist. The next day, accompanied by two other monks, he traveled by bus to the border with Thailand. Local Buddhists gave him shelter and a set of orange-colored robes to help him pass himself off as a Thai monk. Burmese monks wear burgundy. Mr. Zawtiga stays in touch with monks in Yangon and elsewhere by cellphone.

"Everybody knew the military would use violence," he says, "This was not unexpected. We are not afraid." Students and other pro-democracy forces, he says, have been severely weakened by years of repression, but "the Sangha [Sanskrit for Buddhist clergy] is getting stronger and more organized." Last week, more than 100 monks took to the streets again in Pakokku, a town in center of the country. They chanted a Buddhist prayer associated with the democracy cause.

One of the better-known demonstrations of stalwart Buddhist resistance is in Tibet, a Buddhist enclave until China invaded in 1950. Its monks again defied Beijing last month by celebrating the U.S. Congress's decision to award its highest civilian honor to the exiled Dalai Lama. Clashes were reported in several towns between Chinese security forces and monks.

Persistence and organization are also hallmarks of China's banned Falun Gong movement, a blend of Buddhism, Chinese folk religions and pseudoscience founded in 1992. After initially tolerating the group, authorities cracked down hard in 1999, branding Falun Gong an "evil cult" and arresting thousands.

Since then, the movement has taken up politics with gusto, promoting a political tract called "The Nine Commentaries," a denunciation of communism written in 2004. Falun Gong has no monks or clergy, but, through a web of motivated and well-organized lay followers in Hong Kong and elsewhere, it continues to needle Beijing. A TV station and radio network run out of the U.S. beam anticommunist messages into China.

The head of China's state-controlled Buddhist Association denounced Falun Gong, but a few activist Buddhists rallied to defend the group. Among them was Xu Zhiqiang, a protest leader during China's 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement who, after being released from jail, joined a Buddhist monastery. Buddhism, he says, offered him a sanctuary and also toughened his resolve.

In 2004, Mr. Xu helped in a civil suit filed on behalf of an imprisoned Falun Gong follower. He says he doesn't support Falun Gong's reading of Buddhism but does support religious and political liberty. Last year, authorities booted Mr. Xu out of his monastery, accusing him of corruption and "improper relations" with three female Buddhists. He denies the allegations.

Though often wary of Falun Gong's sometimes cult-like behavior, secular Chinese dissidents voice admiration for its staying power. Democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng, who spent 19 years in Chinese prisons and now lives in exile in the U.S., isn't a believer but sometimes attends Falun Gong events outside China to show solidarity. At a big July rally in Washington, he looked out on a sea of anticommunist banners and said his own dwindling band of secular democrats "could never get a crowd like this."

Buddhists have moved beyond cloistered contemplation before. In medieval Japan, a time of political turmoil, monasteries ran their own armies. China, too, had warrior monks. Starting in the 13th century, China saw periodic rebellions stirred up by the White Lotus, a Buddhist sect greatly feared by rulers as a symptom of dynastic decline.

Generally, though, Buddhism has tended to support established power. This pattern dates back more than 2,500 years to the religion's founder, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, or the "enlightened one." A north-India aristocrat, he found spiritual liberation -- Nirvana -- through meditation under a tree. Unlike Jesus and Mohammed, he didn't challenge ruling elites.

Roughly two centuries after Siddhartha Gautama's death, King Asoka of India declared Buddhism a state religion. Since then, Asian rulers through the centuries have sought to emulate his example, supporting monasteries in return for the clergy's blessing of their rule.

Even fanatical atheists have cloaked their rule in symbolism borrowed from Buddhism. In May 1975, shortly after their conquest of Cambodia, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his lieutenants retired to a Buddhist sanctuary, the Silver Pagoda, to plot a murderous program that would result in an estimated 1.6 million deaths and included the slaughter of many monks. Pol Pot slept on a raised dais previously used to display a statue of Buddha.

Burma, as Myanmar was known until 1989, has a particularly deep Buddhist heritage. According to Burmese tradition, the faith was first brought to the country by a mission sent by King Asoka in 250 B.C. When Britain seized Burma in the 19th century, loyalty to Buddhism helped rally resistance.

Since independence in 1948, Burmese leaders have all sought to revive the ancient model of close bonds between monastic and state power. More than 80% of the population is Buddhist. U Nu, the country's first prime minister, rebuilt temples and monasteries and, in imitation of King Asoka, held a Buddhist Council that brought together faithful from across Asia. After a 1962 coup brought the military to power, dictator Ne Win, a xenophobic Marxist Buddhist, built two huge new pagodas -- but also purged the clergy of monks suspected of disloyalty.

Democrats tapped Buddhism, too. When students took to the streets in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy cause, visited Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda to call for an end to military rule. Monks joined the movement, which mushroomed into a peaceful mass uprising. In September 1988, the military crushed the protests. As many as 3,000 people died. Nine months later, similar scenes played out in China, Burma's closest ally. Hundreds and possibly many more died when the Army launched an assault on Tiananmen Square to end student-led protests.

In both China and Myanmar, democracy activists went into hiding, fled abroad or were jailed. In both countries, various strains of Buddhism helped fill the void as a vehicle for dissent.

China worked hard to shore up the Buddhist bona fides of its increasingly beleaguered allies in Myanmar. Starting in the mid-1990s, it arranged several times to have Buddha's tooth -- a relic greatly revered by Buddhists -- sent from China to Myanmar for display. Myanmar's generals built a special sanctuary to house the tooth and invested in other Buddhism-related construction projects.

The lavish spending on temples won over some monks but in general, ties between the state and the clergy continued to fray. Dissident monks set up the All Burma Young Monks Union to organize resistance to the junta. Ms. Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, reached out to elderly abbots and, while in detention, calmed her nerves by reading a book on the "liberation teachings" of Buddha.

The deepening economic crisis of recent years hit monasteries hard, pushing even apolitical monks towards activism, says Mr. Kaw Thala, the Yangon monk now in hiding. He says he used to collect small donations of rice and other food from about 20 people each week. The number of alms givers, he says, had dwindled to a handful by this summer.

Meanwhile, soaring unemployment drove many jobless men to seek shelter in monasteries. At a monastery in the hills above Myawaddy, a town on the border with Thailand, a 44-year-old former professional kickboxer explained that he grew too old to practice his martial skills and couldn't find another job. He decided five months ago to become a monk.

Myanmar's recent protests were initially triggered by an abrupt increase in the price of fuel on Aug. 15. Veteran political activists, mostly former student leaders from 1988, organized a series of small marches and delivered fiery speeches. Most were promptly arrested. The protests died down.

In early September, security forces threw gasoline on the dying embers by manhandling a group of monks in Pakokku, the central-Myanmar town where monks marched again last week. Rumors quickly spread of a blood bath. Senior monks demanded an apology from the military. Officials ignored the plea.

When a mid-September deadline set by monks for an official apology for the Pakokku incident passed, monastic anger bubbled over. At meetings in monasteries across the country, monks denounced the military's failure to apologize and called for action.

Mr. Zawtiga, the monk from Yangon who is now on the run, says discussion of the Pakokku episode dominated the meeting held at his own monastery on Sept. 18. The military "insulted our religion," he says. "We can't tolerate that."

Friday, October 19, 2007

50 dates of world history

The 50 key dates of world history
Richard Overy
2082 words
19 October 2007
The Times
Times2 4
(c) 2007 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

The eminent historian RICHARD OVERY, editor of The Times Complete History of the World, chooses the dates that he believes have most influenced humanity

Choosing 50 key dates from world history is a daunting task. No two people are likely to choose the same 50. Any list will prompt the response "why did you leave that out? Or put that in?"

Important dates are not the same as well-known dates. Every schoolchild used to know 1066, 1588 and 1815 but only the last appears in my list, and not just for the sake of the Battle of Waterloo. Any list of just 50 dates has to take account of some obvious limitations. No date appears before the start of human civilisations about 5,500 years ago and the beginning of a written or pictorial history. Some dates are very fuzzy, partly because there is no particular year in which it is possible to say "the wheel was invented then", despite its clear importance; partly because the accounts we have, even of quite recent events, can be misdated; partly because primarily oral cultures produce either no chronology or one that is wholly speculative.

The question of geography means leaving out many key dates from the history of Europe to make room for dates from Ancient China, or the Middle East, or the Americas. World history is global, even if it much of it has been dominated by Europe.

Why, then, these dates and not 50 others? Human history is a vast and complex story, but human society has worked over the past 5,000 years only because of some key inventions and discoveries. That is why the wheel, the plough, the sail and the watch are there.

Human societies have been held together by religion, which is why the major religious founders are here. Religion links the modern world with the past 2,000 or 3,000 years. Every day millions of people read the Bible, a document of an entirely lost world, but a book, like the Koran, of enormous power.

Political events are seldom as important, but at times they shape the future in fundamental ways. That is why the unification of Ancient China is there. China is still a large, unified state occupying roughly the same area that it did 2,000 years ago. If the Persians had blotted out Ancient Greece, or the Carthaginians had destroyed Rome, the classical world would have been very different. The rise and fall of Communism in the 20th century affected the lives of millions.

Lastly, human intelligence and creativity shaped the way we think about the world.

Newton-ian physics, Einstein's relativity theory, Darwin's biology and the works of Shakespeare have all made the world a different place. If there were room, Copernicus or Goethe or Nietzsche, or a dozen non-European thinkers, might all have as good a claim.

These are dates that arguably changed the way human society developed for better or worse over the past five millennia.

The Times Complete History of the World, edited by Richard Overy, is published by Collins and available now, price Pounds 75. It is available from Times BooksFirst for Pounds 67.50, free p&p. 0870 1608080,


1 c.3500 BC Invention of the wheel and plough in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq); invention of the sail in Egypt: three fundamental inventions for trade, agriculture and exploration.

2 c.3200 BC Invention of writing in Mesopotamia: the means to record and understand human history.

3 c.3000 BC Founding of the first cities in Sumeria (present-day Iraq): origin of modern social and administrative structures.

4 c.1600 BC Modern alphabet invented: the essential means of communication of complex concepts and culture.

5 c.1600 BC Beginning of Greek civilisation: essential to Western heritage and the root of mathematics, philosophy, political thinking and medicine.

6 753 BC Foundation of Rome: the Roman Empire is a pillar of the modern age, producing ideas on justice, law, engineering and warfare.

7 c.670 BC Invention of iron-working: metallurgy is the key to further technical, economic and military developments.

8 c.551 BC Birth of Confucius, the founder of one of the world's major philosophical systems.

9 490 BC Battle of Marathon: the Greeks repel a Persian invasion, securing the survival of Greek culture and science.

10 486 BC Birth of Buddha, founder of one of the world's major religions.

11 327 BC Empire of Alexander the Great reaches into India: the first example of a long-term and often violent interrelationship between Europe and Asia.

12 202 BC Hannibal is defeated by Rome: the victory is essential to secure the survival and expansion of Roman civilisation.

13 27 BC Founding of the Roman Empire: this is the start of the classic period of Roman domination in Europe and the Mediterranean.

14 c.5 BC Birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the many branches of Christianity. The exact date is disputed.

15 AD 105 First use of modern paper: this replaced stone, slate, papyrus and vellum as a cheap and convenient medium.

16 AD 280 Unification of China under the Western Chin dynasty creates the political shape of modern China.

17 AD 312 Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity: this made it possible for Christianity to spread across Europe.

18 AD 476 Fall of the Roman Empire in the West ends 800 years of Roman hegemony.

The creation of moderen Europe begins.

19 c.AD 570 Birth of Muhammad, founder of one of the world's great religions.

20 c.AD 730 Printing invented in China: an essential step in mass communication/ administration/cultural dissemination.

21 AD 800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor of the new Western Empire. This marked the point at which Europe began to reintegrate. The Holy Roman Empire lasts for 1,000 years.

22 1054 Schism of Greek and Latin Christian Churches divides Christianity permanently into two geographical and denominational halves.

23 1088 First university founded in Bologna, Italy: the start of a modern conception of higher learning and universal knowledge.

24 1206 Genghis Khan begins his conquest of Asia. This has a major impact on Asian development and the movement of peoples.

25 1215 Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymede: this is the origin of the modern concept of constitutional rule.

26 1453 Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks: Almost 500 years of Turkish domination of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East begins.

27 1455 First book printed with moveable type: Johannes Gutenberg's revolution in printing technology makes mass-market reading possible.

28 1492 Christopher Columbus discovers the New World, bringing the Americas into a global trading/cultural system.

29 1509 Invention of the watch: essential to a modern economy and administration, this introduces the concept of regular timekeeping.

30 1517 Martin Luther launches the Reformation. It is the start of Protestant Christianity and the idea of religious individualism.

31 1519 Cortes begins his conquest of South America, which becomes part of the wider world economic and political system.

32 1564 William Shakespeare is born: his plays make fundamental statements about the human condition.

33 1651 Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan is published: this is the origin of the modern idea of civil society, equality before the law and egoistic individualism) 34 1687 Isaac Newton publishes Principia Mathematica, the foundation of modern physics.

35 1776 American Declaration of Independence determines the political evolution of the New World and the rise of American power.

36 1789 French Revolution marks a fundamental break with the tradition of monarchy; the "rights of man" are enshrined.

37 1815 Battle of Waterloo: the Napoleonic Empire ends, and with it Napoleon's ambition to rule and reform all of Europe.

38 1825 Rocket steam locomotive built, marking the start of the railway age of cheap, fast land transport.

39 1859 Publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. His theory of evolution transforms the view of Man and his environment, and belief in God.

40 1885 Benz develops first petrol-driven car, starting the most profound technical and social revolution of the modern age.

41 1893 New Zealand introduces unrestricted women's suffrage. At this point women win the principle of full political equality.

42 1905 Einstein's theory of special relativity published. It transforms the nature of modern physical knowledge.

43 1917 Russian Revolution creates the first successful, long-term revolutionary state.

44 1918 End of the First World War. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapse; maps of Europe and the Middle East are redrawn.

45 1939 Outbreak of Second Worldd War: 50 million die worldwide from 1939-45 in the world's largest and most deadly conflict, which ends the long age of imperialisms.

46 1945 End of Second World War; when the first nuclear bomb is detonated, mankind develops the means to destroy itself.

47 1949 Communist China founded: China is created as a single territorial unit with a common administration and a modernising economy.

48 1959 Invention of the silicon chip is the major technical invention of the past century, making possible the computer age.

49 1960 First contraceptive pill made available for women, who can now make their own biological choices about reproduction.

50 1989-90 Collapse of Communist regimes in Europe: marks the end of the long communist experiment; Asian communism is also transformed.


Sir Ranulph Fiennes, adventurer

AD0000 Birth of Christ

1415 Battle of Agincourt: always nice to keep the French in their place

1066 My family arrived at Hastings and we've been here ever since

1990 Berlin Wall knocked down: victory over Marxism

1945 VE Day: victory over Fascism

Amanda Foreman, biographer; author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

753BC Foundation of Rome: the spread of civic virtue

1564 Birth of Shakespeare: the apotheosis of the English language

1767 Invention of the Spinning Jenny: the subjugation of man to machine

1945 Detonation of the A-bomb: the perfection of war

2001 9/11 attacks: the triumph of terrorism

Orlando Figes, historian; author of A People's Tragedy

c. 1438 Johannes Gutenberg's printing press

1685 Birth of J.S. Bach, father of modern music

1789 The first modern revolution (French Revolution)

1796 Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccination: the first real breakthrough in combating infectious diseases

1833 Abolition of slavery by the UK Parliament

Baroness Neuberger, rabbi; Liberal Democrat peer

2737BC The discovery of tea by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung

1847 Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrates that thorough handwashing by doctors and midwives dramatically reduces death in childbirth

1849 Henry Layard discovers the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the earliest version of the flood story

1907 James Murray Spangler invents the vacuum cleaner that becomes the Hoover

1967 Dame Cicely Saunders founds St Christopher's Hospice in London, the first modern hospice

Richard Morrison, columnist and critic

1066 Last invasion of Britain (Battle of Hastings)

1685 Birth of three great composers: Bach, Handel and Rameau

1807 Abolition of the slave trade

1876 Wagner completes The Ring, the most stupendous artwork ever created

1926 John Logie Baird gives the first public demonstration of television

Hugo Rifkind, Times diarist

456BC Birth of Aristophanes, father of comedy

1789 Most famous misquote, when Marie Antoinette almost certainly does not say "let them eat cake"

1875 Henry Nestle and Daniel Peter invent milk chocolate

1912 Opening of the world's first fast-food outlet, Automat, in New York City

1957 Panorama shows the world's greatest hoax, of Swiss spaghetti farmers preparing for harvest


1 How old was Alexander the Great when he died?

2 When did Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon?

3 In which city was the prophet Muhammad born?

4 Which island group did Christopher Columbus arrive at first in 1492?

5 Where did Luther launch the Reformation?

6 When were the United States formed?

7 Who was the author of The Rights of Man?

8 Where was Napoleon exiled after Waterloo?

9 What was signed on June 28, 1919?

10 In which year was the Chinese "Gang of Four" overthrown?

History Quiz Answers

1. 32 2. 49BC 3. Mecca 4. The Bahamas 5. Wittenberg 6. 1783 7. Thomas Paine 8. St Helena 9. The Treaty of Versailles 10. 1976

Friday, October 5, 2007

A Response to Shyam Ranganathan's Review of The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi/Reply to Nicholas Gier

A Response to Shyam Ranganathan's Review of The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi/Reply to Nicholas Gier
Gier, Nicholas F; Ranganathan, Shyam
2650 words
1 October 2007
Philosophy East & West
Volume 57; Issue 4; ISSN: 00318221
© 2007 Philosophy East & West. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Nicholas F. Gier

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Idaho

Shyam Ranganathan's review of my book The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi (Philosophy East and West, vol. 57, no. 1) exceeds all the expectations that an author might have for a fair and constructive appraisal, and I thank him for it. Ranganathan offers accurate summaries of each chapter, praises the strong points, graciously indicates some weaknesses, and offers viable options for alternative interpretations. Before I tender more specific remarks, I would like to offer an anecdote.

While on sabbatical in India in 1992, I attended a meeting of the Indian Association of Christian Philosophers held at Dharmaram College in Bangalore. The topic of the conference was Sankara and Christian theology. As I sat and listened, in quiet amazement, to talks about how well these two suited one another, I was moved to make a comment. I stood and declared that Ramanuja would be a much more promising partner for Christian theology. The audience went deathly still, as if I had uttered some sort of rude remark. Looking back at this incident, I have imagined that it must be the equivalent of someone standing up and promoting Duns Scotus, my favorite medieval philosopher, in a group of confirmed Thomists.

In my thirty years of teaching Indian philosophy, I thoroughly documented the references to personal theism in the Upanisads, and I informed my students that many of them have invocations to Visnu or Siva. I also reminded them that the word advaita is found only once in all the Upanisads and that there are over a dozen schools of Vedanta. My students were amazed to learn that many Indian philosophy professors, after lecturing on Advaita Vedanta, go home and make offerings to Ganesa. Just as no European ever worshipped Aristotle's unmoved mover, no Hindu has ever bowed before nirguna Brahman. I do not think it is too much to say that I have been a devoted champion for the "neglected" Vedanta.

Professor Ranganathan's main critique of my book is that I did not consider theistic Vedanta as a way to read Gandhi. He grants that I briefly compare Ramanuja and Gandhi favorably, but he fails to note that I refer frequently to Gandhi's devotion to Rama and his Vaisnava background. Furthermore, I also reference Glyn Richard's article relating Gandhi, quite successfully in my mind, to neo-Vedanta,1 thus refuting Ranganathan's charge that I conflate Vedanta with Advaita. My statement that "Vedantist metaphysics cannot possibly serve . . ." is made in the context of a discussion of the Advaita school. Finally, in my chapter "Rules, Vows, and Virtues," I concede that making vows to a personal deity is a viable Gandhian alternative to my preference of virtues supplanting vows. Gandhi's several references to nonviolence as a virtue led me to press on with my thesis.

The main reason for my focus on Advaita Vedanta is that, with very few exceptions, it is the Vedantist school with which Gandhi is associated. Although I stand firm in my belief that Gandhi is not an Advaitin, I definitely do not exclude a Jain or Hindu theistic interpretation. I propose a Pali Buddhism framework, not because I think Gandhi would have chosen it, but because I believe that is the best way to develop a philosophically coherent Gandhian ethics of nonviolence. If he had actually allied himself with Buddhism, his Vedantist tendencies would have drawn him to Mahayana.

I am most troubled by Ranganathan's attempt to make Jainism, Samkhya-Yoga, and the Vedantist schools into process philosophies. First, I object to his phrasing that Buddhism "makes room for a process conception." It is not a problem of accommodating Buddhism to process philosophy, because Gautama's explicit rejection of an impermanent Atman and affirmation of the flux of existence makes his view the standard for ancient process philosophy. Second, Samkhya-Yoga has process only on the material prakrti side, not in the spiritual purusa where ahimsa is an intrinsic and not a developed virtue. Even though Jain commentators have attempted to give their philosophy a process interpretation, I believe that they have failed.2 Ranganathan admits that only Ramanuja's lower self is impermanent while the higher self remains permanent, so this is a substance metaphysics and not the process philosophy I learned from John Cobb and David Griffin as a graduate student at Claremont. Third, the isolated individual self of Jainism and Samkhya-Yoga, which Ranganathan contrasts favorably with Sankara's absolute monism, does not support the relational self that is implied in Gandhi's organic holism and required for nonviolent activism.

I found it disappointing that a recent book on Indian ethics had no chapter on virtue ethics.3 The fact that virtue ethics does not appear in this volume does not mean, however, that one cannot find it in the Indian tradition. In my essay "Toward a Hindu Virtue Ethics,"4 I have sketched what this option might look like. I was inspired to write that essay because of Bimal Krsna Matilal's book Ethics and Epics, but his view of Krsna's virtue aesthetics gave me pause, and I returned to Confucianism or Buddhism as the preferred Asian virtue ethics.

I am not convinced, without much more discussion, that theistic Vedanta, as Ranganathan suggests, would give us the developmental model of virtue that I find in early Buddhism and Confucianism. I suspect that one would find a "recovery" model of virtue that is found in Plato and the Stoics. Because of my limited knowledge of theistic Vedanta, I will not foreclose the possibility of the developmental view. Nevertheless, I very much doubt that one would find there the ethical pluralism that is definitely implied in Gandhian experiments in truth, especially Gandhi's controversial attempts to remain spiritually pure while sleeping with young women.

It appears that Ranganathan has confused a relativized Hindu nonviolence with Buddhist/Gandhian pragmatic nonviolence. Ranganathan describes the former better than I did in my book: "Its nature and scope is defined relative to ritual and social contexts and self-interest (e.g., ritual slaughter is the general occasion when the general prohibition against killing is suspended)." The sacrifice of a goat to Durga and eating its flesh, which a priest declares is not killing or meat eating in this ritual context, is very different from Gandhi's decision to euthanize a calf at the Sabarmati Ashram in 1927.

Gandhi's 1927 decision sounds utilitarian in that he is principally concerned about the calf's suffering, but Gandhi's experiments in truth have a strong personal and pragmatic tone ("this works for me") without reference to the hedonic calculus. In my book I discovered the same pragmatism in the Buddha's eightfold path being interpreted as, for example, suitable livelihood and appropriate speech.5 Arjuna was exempt from ahimsa because of his caste and Krsna's assurance that no negative karma could affect his inviolable soul, but Buddhists have no such soul, and because they are never excused from any intentional act, Buddhist farmers, for example, must perform penance for killing insects with pesticides.

Finally, considering the fact that Gandhi was not a systematic thinker and warned us against unitary views of his thought, I find Ranganathan's attempt to eliminate legitimate Gandhi interpretations by syllogistic reasoning the most un- Gandhian hermeneutic imaginable. This is, after all, a thinker who declared that he was an Advaitin and a Dvaitin at the same time. (Gandhi was not trained in philosophy, so we must take this as an affirmation of the identity-in-difference that describes his organic holism.) With the exception of an Advaita interpretation, I made it clear that I would not foreclose the possibility of a Jain or Hindu view, which of course includes theistic Vedanta. Ranganathan demonstrates that he has solid grounding in these schools, and I urge him to write a full-fledged essay on this topic. This would be a welcomed contribution to Gandhi scholarship, and perhaps it would also convince some Indian Christian philosophers to take a second look at Ramanuja.


1 - Glyn Richards, "Gandhi's Concept of Truth and the Advaita Tradition," Religious Studies 22 (1) (March 1986): 1-14.

2 - See my Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), pp. 92-97.

3 - P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu, and R. Sharma, eds., Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges: An Anthology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishers, 2007).

4 - "Toward a Hindu Virtue Ethics," in Contemporary Issues in Constructive Dharma, ed. R. D. Sherma and A. Deepak (Hampton, VA: Deepak Heritage Books, 2005), vol. 2, pp. 151-162. The editors went to press without my revisions to the piece, but you can read it in full at hindve.htm. More revisions are forthcoming.

5 - The Virtue of Non-Violence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 76-80.

Reply to Nicholas Gier

Shyam Ranganathan

Philosophy Department, York University

I must thank Professor Gier both for his kindness toward me in his response and his invitation for me to write a full-fledged essay on the topics that our exchange has raised. While I have not written on Gandhi's thought as such, much of what I have to say on Gier's book is influenced by the research and arguments I put forward in my Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass, 2007) and my forthcoming translation and commentary, originally titled The Moral Philosophy of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, to be published as Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (Penguin). Gier's closing comment not only serves as an invitation-and challenge-to me to systematically defend my views on these topics but also encapsulates what might be the locus of disagreement between Gier and myself. He suggests that it is I who have foisted a syllogistic argument onto the task of interpreting Gandhi's thought, whereas my original complaint was that I thought that this was the only way to make sense of Gier's arguments. If Gier were not offering such a disjunctive syllogism, the extended and recurrent criticisms of Jain and Advaita interpretations do nothing to positively make the case for a Buddhist interpretation of Gandhi and are gratuitous within the structure of his presentation.

But let us take some of Gier's responses to me in order. Gier appears to believe that the fact that he notes Gandhi's devotion to Rama and his Vaisnava background (which I did not mention in my review) shows that he was sensitive to theistic Vedanta in his analysis. My complaint was that he did not fully consider reading Gandhi in terms of Visistadvaita-a very specific school of Vedanta, and not synonymous with theistic Vedanta as such. Moreover, that Gier noted Gandhi's devotionalism is hardly evidence that he considered theistic Vedanta seriously. Even Sankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra betrays a devotion to Rama and an affinity for Vaisnava religious practices (see his Brahma Sutra Bhasya, I.ii.7), but this hardly means that Sankara advanced theistic Vedanta. Gier claims that his reference to an article that recognizes the Neo-Vedanta leanings of Gandhi refutes my claim that he conflates Vedanta with Advaita Vedanta. My claim was not that Gier never makes a distinction between different types of Vedanta, but that he is not careful in his talk of "Vedanta" given that the only form that he seriously considers is Advaita Vedanta and that he refers to it simply as "Vedanta."1

Gier defends his neglect of theistic interpretations of Gandhi on the grounds that Advaita Vedanta "is the Vedantist school with which Gandhi is associated." This is a remarkable admission, for it suggests that Gier thought reading Gandhi in light of Jainism or Advaita Vedanta was more plausible than reading him in light of Visistadvaita-this despite the fact that he does so much in his book to show the plausibility of interpreting Gandhi in this light, as I make clear in my review. Given Gandhi's cultural proximity to Visistadvaita, the omission is glaring.

The question thus presents itself: why did Gier not take this route of interpretation seriously enough to treat it systematically? Gier's honorable candor in his response gives us one explanation: he is out of his depth when it comes to theistic Vedanta and thus failed to appreciate its salience. If this is the reason for his omission (and I suspect it is part of the explanation), this is a serious deficiency in a study of Gandhi's thought for obvious historical reasons.

There is also another possibility, namely that Gier thought that he could exclude several historical options (including all Vedanta, theistic or otherwise) because they are a species of a type of view that he believes is incompatible with Gandhian process thought. Gier's response confirms this. He states that Jainism, Yoga (which he incorrectly conflates with Samkhya), and Ramanuja's Vedanta cannot be process philosophies. He argues: (1) in Yoga, ahimsa is an intrinsic virtue of the purusa and not a developed virtue, and (2) Ramanuja's philosophy is not a version of Cobb's and Griffin's process philosophy. With respect to the latter claim, it is particularly odd that we should be looking to Cobb and Griffin to set the conditions of interpretation, when Gandhi was an Indian thinker, emerging from an Indian and Gujarati philosophical milieu that is indisputably influenced by Visistadvaita.

But the first argument Gier raises is very telling of the error of his approach that I initially raised in my review. Gier wishes to draw a dichotomy at the conceptual level between substantialist and process philosophies that does not translate into the Indian philosophical views on the ground. For instance, in the case of Yoga, ahimsa is both an intrinsic virtue of the purusa and a developed virtue. How is this possible? Because the purusa qua embodied being has a double aspect: one aspect transcends prakrti, and the other is deeply enmeshed in a pedagogical union with prakrti that Patanjali calls "samyoga"-an enmeshment that is so profound that the purusa misunderstands itself and acts contrary to its transcendent nature. So understood, the purusa must develop and perfect the practice of yoga so that it can understand its own essence and reach kaivalya. The practice of yoga takes the yogi qua purusa from a very rudimentary commitment to the yama rules such as ahimsato dharmameghasamadh, or the absorption in the "Rain-Cloud of Morality." To fail to appreciate the process and developmental aspects of Patanjali's philosophy of Yoga as it pertains to the purusa is a major error of translation and interpretation that is characteristic of a failure to distinguish Patanjali's Yoga from Isvarakrsna Samkhya.2

But how can ahimsa be both a developed and an intrinsic virtue, both a process and a substantial quality? Is this not a contradiction? In response to this question, I ask whether a thinker could logically advance both Advaita and Dvaita, as Gandhi had apparently done? An answer to both of these questions could be had by a careful elaboration of Ramanuja's philosophy, which, unfortunately, Gier's provocative book at once invites and neglects.


1 - Nicholas F. Gier, The Virtue of Nonviolence, ed. D. R. Griffin, SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), p. 44.

2 - See Ian Whicher, The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); Shyam Ranganathan, "Samkhya and Yoga: One Darsana or Two?" Namaru pa: Categories of Indian Thought (Winter 2004): 29-33.

Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics

Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics
Kaufman, Whitley
2027 words
1 October 2007
Philosophy East & West
Volume 57; Issue 4; ISSN: 00318221
© 2007 Philosophy East & West. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

My goal in "Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil" was to stimulate discussion about karma and rebirth as a solution to the problem of innocent suffering in the world. As such, I welcome the chance to hear from critics such as Chadha and Trakakis and am happy to attempt a response.1 In their critique, they attempt to portray me as ignorant of the many precise subtleties and refinements of the karmic philosophy, and thus incapable of judging it. However, as I stated in my original article, my purpose is not to present a historically based synthesis of the karma-rebirth doctrine, but rather to attempt, using the most charitable interpretation possible and not being rigidly bound to doctrinal traditions or texts, an active reconstruction of the best case for a systematic theodicy based on karma, in order to see whether it can successfully explain the origin of evil.

But I would also suggest that there is often a certain advantage in having a detached perspective on a subject, since one who is too closely involved in the subject matter may fail to attain objectivity about it, and be prone to dogmatic acceptance of doctrines even when they defy common sense. But let the reader decide: I will briefly present my reactions to their criticism of my six principal objections to karma and rebirth.

The Memory Problem

It is, I argued, a basic principle of justice that one should in general be apprised of what one is being punished for and why; indeed, this knowledge would seem essential to the process of moral education. But the karmic system does not provide us this knowledge. The critics' responses are disappointing.

First, they distort the objection into an "unreasonable demand for precise correlations between bad acts in the past and consequent sufferings in the future." In fact, the problem is not merely the lack of precise correlations, but of any correlation at all. I am unaware of a single verified historical example of anyone having a memory of one's deeds in a past life presented as explanation for present suffering. Anyway, why is demand for a precise correlation unreasonable? Isn't that exactly what we demand when parents punish children, or when society punishes criminals?

Their second reply is simply the dogmatic insistence that one should simply have faith: karma tells us that our present sufferings are correlated with past deeds, and that's the end of the discussion. It should suffice that one knows one is being punished for an unspecified wrong committed at an unspecified past time and place, because that is what karma says. This, of course, is simply to ignore the objection and to refuse to countenance the possibility that karma might not be an ideal explanation of human suffering.

The Proportionality Problem

The widely-accepted proportionality principle holds that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. But it seems implausible that people have committed such horrendous crimes in past lives to deserve the kinds of horrible suffering that is all too common in human life. Thus, karma seems to violate the proportionality principle.

In response, first, they try to evade the question by a misdirection, quibbling about theism versus an impersonal cosmic mechanism. But justice requires proportionality no matter whether there is a personal God or an impersonal mechanism behind human suffering.

Next, they acknowledge the Proportionality rule, but insist that it follows that it is in fact satisfied by karma. People who suffer terribly really must have been horribly sadistic, brutal, and Nazi-like in past lives. But this is just my point: such a claim is highly dubious. Even a superficial knowledge of history and of human nature makes it simply implausible that so many people could have been so evil.2 Again, it seems a case where an a priori conviction that karma is true can lead one into a distorted conception of reality.

The Infinite Regress Problem

There is no doubt that belief in radical free will would manage to avoid a regress in explaining the origin of evil. However, this is no better an explanation of evil than that of Christianity and the doctrine of the Fall. Thus, the concerns raised about the Fall doctrine apply equally to karma. John Hick, for instance, has questioned the coherence of the idea of humans creating evil ex nihilo. Recall, my goal is not to show that karma is any worse an explanation than Christianity, but only that it is not demonstrably better.

The Death Problem

The critics simply assert that, according to the karma doctrine, death is not an evil, so therefore "we do not need to account for it." I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a satisfying explanation of why living beings have to die, and why death is so often difficult and painful. There is, by the way, another problem raised here: if death is unequivocally not an evil, then why should killing be considered a moral wrong? The Hindu scholar Franklin Edgerton points out a disturbing oddity of the Gita: it is forced to downplay the moral ideal of ahimsa or nonviolence in order to justify killing in war.3

A related claim made by the critics is that I have failed to "appreciate" the Hindu/Buddhist view that life is nothing but "suffering and misery." But I submit that to any reasonable person this claim is patently false. As anyone can attest, life is not merely suffering and pain, but full of happiness and pleasure as well (are they denying that pleasure and joy even exist?). A successful theodicy must account for the world as it is, and not paint a distorted picture of the world in order to make it fit the theory.

The Free Will Problem

The problem here is simple: is one free to perform genuine evil, that is, to harm the innocent, producing undeserved suffering? If one is, then there really is undeserved suffering in the world, in contradiction to the claims of karma philosophy. If one is not, then that would seem to be a severe restriction on free will, indeed a denial of the possibility of any sin at all. The critics attempt to respond with a dubious argument about who has the proper role and responsibility to dole out suffering. They seem to endorse the view that the worst possible sin that one can commit is to improperly take upon oneself the role of administering a justified punishment for a wrongdoer, rather than leaving it to karma to administer. If so, this is a very strange view. It entails that what was wrong about the 9/11 attack-or any crime-was not that innocent people were killed (everyone who died, those in the buildings and in the planes, deserved, according to karma, exactly what they got) but that the wrong people did the dirty work. The only thing wrong about what Al Qaeda did, it follows, was that it was "not [their] role to carry out the punishment." Indeed, they claim that harm is supposed to be administered not by wrongdoers but by an "impersonal process." But what exactly does this mean? That the destruction of the planes and the buildings on 9/11 was supposed to have been accomplished by a lightning strike or some other natural force? Were the six million Jews in Nazi Germany supposed to have been gassed to death by some impersonal, natural process, rather than by the Nazis?

Moreover, this is an oddly constricted view of free will, in which we are prevented from ever harming innocent people and yet not prevented from inappropriately providing justified punishment to guilty people. It also would appear to contradict the stronger claim about free will that they endorse elsewhere in the article. The dilemma stands.

The Verifiability Problem

As I said in my original article, religion ought not to be held to the same level of verifiability as claims of science. Nonetheless, religious claims that are wholly and completely unverifiable in this life, and yet which have serious practical consequences for this life, can be subject to dangerous abuse. Prime evidence of this is the use of karma to justify the oppressive caste system in India. Reportedly, the untouchables in India originally resisted Mother Theresa's attempts to improve their plight, as these might interfere with their karmic progress.

The critics' response is to insist that karma is indeed verifiable and falsifiable, but only after death-not very helpful to us here and now! It is also, they claim, verifiable in principle, since it is logically possible in that any one of us might suddenly be "miraculously transported to a higher level of consciousness" where we see karma verified. True enough, but of course also entirely unhelpful. Moreover, by that standard any theory, no matter of what kind, would be verifiable, making the very idea of verifiability meaningless. Finally, as to the question of predictive power of the theory, their analogy with the relation between smoking and lung cancer is quite ill chosen. The causal connection between the two was merely a hypothesis until it was in fact verified by epidemiological studies. I am unaware, however, of any such similar studies testing the predictive power of karma. Once again, what these critics are saying is simply that, if the karma doctrine claims to have predictive power, that's all the evidence they need. There is, of course, not a single verified example in recorded history of a successful prediction being made on the basis of karmic causation.

Let me summarize my main concern about the karma/rebirth system this way. The great attraction of the karma system is its reassurance that we are completely in control of our own fate, that whatever happens to us is a predictable consequence of our own choices. While it means we are prisoners of our past, it also means that the future is entirely within our control. No doubt, this feature of karma is a source of its great appeal. But this promise comes at a great price. It entails that there is no such thing as innocent suffering, that everyone gets just what he deserves. But then there can be no moral obligation to help others in distress, to protect, to rescue, perform acts of charity, or even to feel compassion for a sufferer. Most other theodicies begin with the acceptance that there is such a thing as innocent suffering, that as humans we do not have godlike control of our destiny, but are fragile, vulnerable beings, often in need of help from others. The implication is a deep moral obligation to help those in need, to feel compassion and pity for those in pain. In contrast, karma elevates the "blame the victim" idea into a systematic principle. The question at stake is which account is more plausible, the idea that everyone is getting just what he deserves, and so we should not interfere with the cosmic punitive scheme, or the idea that there is genuine, undeserved suffering in the world, and that it is thus our duty to help reduce the misery and pain in the world?

Copyright University Press of Hawaii Oct 2007 | Notes | 1 - Let me, however, express a wish that the debate not descend into petty meanspiritedness. These critics correctly point out an error in the original article: at one point within a parenthetical remark I had inadvertently placed the terms "moral evil" and "natural evil" in the wrong order. They declare this an "inexcusable blunder." I hope that the karmic system, if it exists, is not so unforgiving! My apologies for the error. | 2 - Or that particular groups are so much worse than others: were all the Africans who were enslaved really so evil in past lives that they deserved enslavement more than other races? Were the Jews in Nazi Germany so much worse in past lives than everyone else? | 3 - Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 185. | Whitley Kaufman | Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Mahatma Gandhi and other great souls - successful failures?

Gandhi, fighter without a sword
882 words
1 October 2007
Indo-Asian News Service
© Copyright 2007. HT Media Limited. All rights reserved.

Indo-Asian News Service Mumbai, oct. 1 -- Gandhi, the Mahatma, truly considered himself a citizen of the world though he worked for the freedom of the Indian nation from foreign yoke. "My religion has no geographical boundaries," he explained to Kakasaheb Kalekar. "If I have a living faith in it, it will transcend my love for India herself." It was that brand of religion that taught him to believe in the soul and rely solely on soul force to fight all the ills in human hearts.

Humanity was his religion. He believed that for victory, war was the most blunt weapon, and the sharpest one was obviously non-violence. He abhorred the concept of might being the right.

Gandhi's saying - "Most religious men I have met are politicians in disguise. I, however, who wear the guise of a politician, am at heart, a religious man!" - remains the key to the value system of the political philosophy he adhered to. Gandhi entered politics to fight irreligion. He also accepted the fact that he might not be absolutely accurate as regards his words used. This is the hallmark of a truly great person.

Truth for him was god. And non-violence, or soul force, was his only means of fighting the ills of life. He was not a nationalist in the narrow parochial sense. Gandhi was at pains to explain to American writer Jeanette Eaton that his nationalism in reality is intense internationalism.

"Our nationalism can be no peril to other nations in as much as we will

exploit none, just as we allow none to exploit us." In her book, "Gandhi: Fighter Without A Sword", Eaton narrates that the greatest influence of Gandhi on her was Gandhi's notions on oneness of the world.

Gandhi told C.R. Das: "How heartening it is to imagine that when there is One World and no militarised boundaries and all the natural and human resources, all the sciences and technology which are today marshalled and arrayed for destructive purposes, will be used for the elimination of poverty, ill-health and ignorance. They shall be used for promoting goodwill and for creating better conditions of life for the whole humanity. Though this rosy picture is today the privilege only of the poets and the utopian dream of idealists, there is no doubt that this is the cherished hope of everyone who strives for harmony."

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his "India Wins Freedom" states that Gandhiji is universally acknowledged as the greatest man of his age because despite affecting the destiny of the whole sub-continent, he held no high office nor did he rule countries. By sacrificing political gains, he bought peace like all true thinkers and philosophers.

He was above all the frivolities of political life, drawing strength from what he termed "soul force", an inner strength that comes only when one believes in non-violence and truth and has abiding faith in the innate goodness of fellow beings. It was this quality that made Gandhi a leader of the world leaders.

Maulana Abdul Waheed Siddiqui, a noted Islamic theologian and founder editor of Nai Duniya Urdu weekly, writes in Gandhi Number issue of Oct 2, 1953, on the importance that Gandhi laid on Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi told Siddiqui that India could never reach her goal if she were hit by Hindu-Muslim hostility.

He threw himself in the struggle to heal the breach between the two communities. He supported Muslims in the Khilafat campaign and agitated for the release from the prison of the Ali brothers. It was at this time too that the Khadi movement was inaugurated.

Because he possessed such an enlightened and secular world view, Gandhi unhesitatingly advocated the causes of Hindu-Muslim unity, social progress, religious tolerance, spread of modern knowledge, individual liberty and above all educational reforms. He had the courage of a statesman for initiating reforms. However, he did not live long enough to see his ideas implemented as the life of this saint who advocated non-violence was cut short by a most heinous act of violence.

Duty to Gandhi was of paramount importance. He said: "Duties to self, to the family, to the country and to the world are not independent of one another. One cannot do good to the country by injuring the world at large."

Tagore had feared that Gandhi would fail. Wrote Tagore: "Perhaps he will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed, as Christ failed and as Lord Mahavira failed to wean men from their inequities, but he will be remembered as one who made his life an example for all ages to come."

Will Durant, in an article in The Manchester Guardian, said: "Perhaps Gandhi failed as saints are likely to fail in this very hostile, selfish and Darwinian world. But these very failures are the eternal successes attained by saintly people as they can never stoop to the detestable levels of this materialistic world in which each one is running after god of Mammon."

Monks as advocates of change in a political system

The Burmese monks' spiritual strength proves religion has a role in politics: Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularists understand
Pankaj Mishra
1215 words
1 October 2007
The Guardian
© Copyright 2007. The Guardian. All rights reserved.

In recent months, militant atheists have tried to convince us religion ought to be expelled from public as well as private life. It is not hard to imagine how their salon wisdom would have fared last week in the streets of Rangoon, where ordinary Burmese protesting against a military dictatorship rallied behind Buddhist monks - the "highly revered moral core", as the New York Times put it, of Burmese society.

If the images of saffron-robed mendicants braving police brutality seem oddly familiar, it is because Buddhist monks left their monasteries and led protests against political repression frequently in the 20th century. So great and prolonged was the suffering of war in Indochina that the Buddhist attempt to alleviate it may seem a distant memory. But it was the self-immolation of a monk in Saigon in June 1963 - rather, pictures of him serenely meditating as flames devoured his body - that first troubled America's conscience about what was then an obscure war.

Thich Nhat Hanh, another Vietnamese monk, was a prominent figure in the anti-war movement in the US who eventually persuaded Martin Luther King to pit his voice against the destruction of Vietnam. In Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge killed almost all the 60,000 monks, the Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda became a major figure in the reconstruction of his country.

In September 1987 Buddhist monks and nuns began the first major political demonstration in Tibet in years by unfurling the Tibetan flag in central Lhasa. They were arrested and severely beaten, sparking off clashes between Tibetans and police that provoked Hu Jintao, now China's president and then the Chinese administrator in Tibet, to declare martial law.

How did a supposedly meditative tradition produce political protesters? If "religion is a poison", as Mao Zedong informed the Dalai Lama - a sentiment echoed by the secularists of our time - why then has Buddhism proved such an effective means of mass mobilisation against tyranny?

The Buddha himself was no political theorist or activist. He preferred to address the question of what constitutes the ruler's right to rule. Unlike the theorists of ancient India who claimed divine sanction for kingship, the Buddha did not find the ruler's legitimacy in some transcendent realm. As the many stories about ideal kings in the Jataka Tales - a compendium of Buddhist stories - attest, righteousness is the only proper basis for the ruler's authority.

The Buddha preferred small political communities in which all members shared the power of decision-making. In his lifetime, however, he witnessed the emergence of large states. Aware that these impersonal regimes exposed many people to a sense of powerlessness and insecurity, he hoped that the Buddhist sangha , or monastic order, would base itself near urban centres and help give newly uprooted people a sense of spiritual community and tradition.

Thus Buddhist monks, living not in forests but in retreats close to populated settlements, are traditionally bound to laymen by an ethic of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorgan ised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes.

Certainly, Buddhists are not immune to ideological delusions. In early 20th-century Japan, and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of nationalism and militarism. Nevertheless, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on intellectual and spiritual vigilance, Buddhism has proved to be less vulnerable to fanatical zeal than not only other major religions, but also such modern ideologies as nationalism and secularism. As Nhat Hanh exhorts, echoing a major theme of the Buddha: "Do not be idolatrous about, or bound to, any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

It helps, too, that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather than total revolution. Writing to Martin Luther King in 1965, after another Buddhist self-immolation in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh explained that "the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man."

Maha Ghosananda, who lost his entire family in the Cambodian killing fields, insisted on including the Khmer Rouge at UN-sponsored talks on the future of Cambodia, claiming that he wanted an end to antagonism, not to antagonists. (Such practical wisdom traditionally preserved peace in Afghanistan's tribal society, and the country's current president, Hamid Karzai, appears to have embraced it by offering a seat in his cabinet to the Taliban.) Similarly, Samdhong Rinpoche, the monk prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile in India, claims he opposes the injustice and violence of Chinese rule rather than the Chinese people or state. Calling for a Gandhian-style campaign of satyagraha , or non-violent resistance, Samdhong Rinpoche asks Tibetans to actively reject Chinese rule through non-cooperation and disobedience, without hating or harming any Chinese. Both he and the Dalai Lama have reservations about even an economic boycott, which they believe hurts ordinary people more than it damages governments.

Living through a worldwide upsurge of violence, most of us may find it hard to conceive of Buddhist principles as politically efficacious. Nevertheless, the history of the modern world furnishes many examples of political victories achieved through moral persuasion and spiritual strength: national self-determination in colonised countries, the civil rights movement in the US, the velvet revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the gradual spread of parliamentary democracy around the world.

Today the Burmese generals confront the "authentic, enduring power" of people, before which, as Hannah Arendt presciently wrote in her analysis of the Prague Spring of 1968, a repressive regime eventually surrenders. The Buddhist monks chanting on the streets of Rangoon may look naive and defenceless when you consider the power of the political-military institutions of the modern, secular era that they are up against: heavily armed nation-states with hyper-competitive capitalist economies. Certainly, the Burmese generals know the way the world works. Apparently isolated, they play shrewdly the game of international realpolitik, buying the silence of their two rising and needy neighbours, democratic India as well as authoritarian China, with oil, gas and timber. However, to such a ruthlessly amoral politics, based on purely rational self-interest, the moral and spiritual values of religion can and often do pose a challenge.

No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, "those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics".

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ecology and religion

Faith upon the earth - Religion and ecology
839 words
22 September 2007
The Economist
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2007. All rights reserved

Whether they like it or not, ecologists and clerics need each other

In many parts of the world, religious groups and environmental scientists are teaming up—albeit sometimes reluctantly

“THERE was a functioning bridge until 1470 AD,” says Praveen Togadia, a Hindu fundamentalist, smoothing out his dhoti. “Due to natural calamities, it was disturbed, and parts went into the sea.” To modern, secular eyes, at least, the “bridge” is a 30-mile (48km) chain of sandy shoals across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. But millions of Hindus see the shoals as physical proof of their beliefs. The Ramayana, a Hindu text, says a bridge was built by monkeys at the behest of a Hindu god, Ram—who duly crossed over to wrest his wife Sita from a Sri Lankan demon. The shoals are known in India as “Ram Setu”, or “Ram's Bridge”.

Now take a deep breath and consider the conflict over a plan by India's Congress-led government to dredge the strait for a shipping canal. While Hindus loathe the project on spiritual grounds, ecologists have different objections. At the junction of the deep, cold Indian Ocean and the shallow, temperate Arabian Sea, the strait is an ecological prize. So far, 377 endemic species have been found in nearby waters.

On this issue at least, the devoutly religious and the greens are on the same side. But the former, it seems, have more clout than the latter. On September 12th the government told the Supreme Court that the Ramayana was not proof of the existence of Lord Ram; and that science suggested the shoals were made by sedimentation, not monkeys. On the same day, the World Hindu Council, headed by Dr Togadia, staged protests across the country. On September 14th the government, at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, the (Catholic) leader of Congress, put the canal plan on hold: a setback for a government which wanted to save ships from a 24-hour loop round Sri Lanka. With elections due next year, Congress feared giving its Hindu foes in the Bharatiya Janata Party a new slogan.

India's greens have little love for their accidental allies. “I'm not protesting against this project for religious reasons but for environmental ones,” says Kushal Pal Singh Yadav, of the Centre for Science and the Environment, a Delhi think-tank.

In many other parts of the world, secular greens and religious people find themselves on the same side of public debates: sometimes hesitantly, sometimes tactically, and sometimes fired by a sense that they have deep things in common.

One more case from India: ornithologists who want to save three species of vulture (endangered because cattle carcasses are tainted by chemicals) see their best ally as the Parsees, who on religious grounds use vultures to dispose of human corpses.

In China, organised religion is much weaker and conservationists also feel more lonely. But Pan Yue, the best-known advocate of green concerns within the Chinese government, says ancient creeds, like Taoism, offer the best hope of making people treat the earth more kindly.

Other tie-ups between faith and ecology are less obvious. In Sweden, the national Lutheran Church, working with Japanese Shintos, recently held a multi-faith meeting on forestry. They agreed to set a new standard for the care of forests owned or managed by religious bodies—in other words, they said, 5% of the world's woods.

This month, representatives of many faiths, including a local Lutheran bishop and a shivering Buddhist monk (see above) gathered in Greenland to talk to scientists and ecologists. Patriarch Bartholomew, the senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, led his impressively robed guests in a silent supplication for the planet.

The terms of the transaction between faith and ecology vary a lot. In places like Scandinavia, where religion is weakish, a cleric who “goes green” may reach a wider audience; in countries like India, where faith is powerful, spiritual messages touch more hearts than secular ones do. That doesn't stop some environmental scientists from saying they are being hijacked by clerics in search of relevance. But Mary Evelyn Tucker, of America's Yale University, says secular greens badly need their spiritual allies: “Religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack.”

Martin Palmer, of the British-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, says faiths often have the clearest view of the social and economic aspects of an environmental problem. In Newfoundland, he notes, conservationists put curbs on cod fishing—and left the churches to care for families whose living was ruined.

Still, one selling point often used by the religious in their dialogue with science—the fact that faith encourages people to think long-term—may be a mixed blessing. The most pessimistic scientists say mankind has a decade at most to curb greenhouse gases and fend off disastrous global warming; that doesn't leave much time to settle the finer points of metaphysics.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Thai buddhism on the crossroad by Sanitsuda Ekachai

Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads.(Book Review)
Taylor, Jim (American writer)
1839 words
1 April 2003
SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in SE Asia
ISSN: 0217-9520; Volume 18; Issue 1
Copyright 2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

By Sanitsuda Ekachai. Edited by Nick Wilgus. Bangkok: Post Books, 2002. 328 pp.

Sanitsuda Ekachai's new book is a collection of short, critical articles and commentaries on various aspects of contemporary Thai Buddhism, arranged under eight sub-headings with a short introduction. An appealing feature of this ensemble is that "other" voices are heard with reader-friendly and short, insightful comments over debates concerning the relevance and place of contemporary Thai Buddhism, especially monasticism.

The author uses few words and some broad brush strokes to construct some extraordinarily vivid frames of everyday religious life in Buddhist Thailand.

In reviewing a book such as this on Thai Buddhism, we need to ask ourselves what this religion is, which is not always lived in accordance with the texts that most Thais seem to follow and identify with to some extent. The imagination, itself a social fact, is important as a means of informing the way we think, feel and act, in this case in relation to religion. It also accounts for the many expressions of Thai Buddhism that we see around us. Perhaps also these days we need to venture outside the monasteries to experience living religion and what it means in the construction of everyday contemporary life in the villages, towns, and cities. Lest we forget, Thailand is still one of the few remaining Buddhist countries where the Arahant (self-accomplished "saint") ideal--and its liberating possibilities--remains alive and well in the collective imagination. Not so any longer for the wellspring of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, and doubtful in neighbouring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. It seems to me that many Thais are now asking the question: if these "acclaimed" exemplars or monastic teachers are still around, where are they to be found?

Modern Buddhists would seem to claim that what is needed these days is a system of standardization as a requirement for continued monastic registration. Imagine, if you will, a situation in this period of globalization where each monastery (and monks), like many businesses in Thailand, would carry an "ISO" classification engraved over the front gate; for those "good monasteries" able to show that they have adhered to "best-practice standards". But, more seriously, who would determine what is "best practice"--monks or laity?

As an expression of diversity, Thai monasticism, we are told, needs to recognize the contribution of monk-activists engaged in this world, in as much as it recognizes the normative spiritual achievement of the reclusive, disengaged meditative "Path" questers (to be found among the remaining forest enclaves). This is certainly a theological mute point. These modern activist-exemplars are to be found in urban monasteries, places of teaching and learning, various refuges, rural community centres, conservation sites, and hospices. Importantly, as the author says, while encouraging a worldly engagement we should not forget the all-important questions of monastic discipline.

In the past decade or so we have been overwhelmed by media accounts of serious monastic infringements, abuses of monastic privilege and power. These are the "other" images of Thai Buddhism that are not usually affixed to either glossy tourist brochures and postcards to send back home, or media representations, circulated and consumed widely through both print and electronic media (Thai and English). These images have not been favourable to defining a respectable "place" for Buddhism in modern Thai society. At this point we may ask ourselves, what, if anything, has gone wrong with Thai Buddhism in recent times? Or has the media had a greater influence than we realize? There is not much talk around about "good monks", as these persons are in any case hardly "newsworthy" (unless the reader believes there are no exemplary practising monks left any more--which I do not believe, and clearly neither does the author--though we may differ on what constitutes an "ideal" monk).

Sanitsuda Ekachai attempts to capture this complexity, while at the same time show us that there are "other" religious possibilities, mainly from the social interstices. At the same time the author shares the concerns of many educated Thais in suggesting that Thai Buddhism needs to be linked to the wider processes of democratic reform so that internal change can likewise occur in the Sangha (male and female monastic orders). The assumption is that Thai Buddhism is in a state of "crisis" needing serious structural attention and that little trust can be placed in the monastic elders who, we are told, are unaware of current social realities. The position throughout (in so far as it is possible to identify a consistent thread) starts on the premise that the forces of modernization in Thailand have destroyed the fundamental basis of tradition, especially cultural forms such as religion. This has led to a new materialistic and individuated society based on consumption.

Thais, it would appear, clearly like to go shopping instead of going to the monastery, or in a manner of speaking, the Buddha has been "relocated" in the shopping centres and arcades. Thus said, we need to be careful in assuming cultures are static, without any capacity to change through internal and external influences. Thai Buddhism has always been contested and changing (Is this not one of the fundamental tenants of Buddhism?) and, in going with historic flows, this has accounted for its continuities.

It is from global realities that Thailand struggles to find a new identity. It is from this scenario, as the author makes another important thematic point, that Theravada Buddhism in Thailand has re-established a new "relevance" for "modern Thai life and problems" (p. 10); a religion that is, contrary to contemporary images, "still alive and well in the Thai psyche" (p. 11).

The responses from the Sangha to the conditions of modernity have been mixed and not without tensions and contradictions involving various actors. Everyone, it seems, has something to say concerning "problems" over discipline, monastic training, and the maintenance of religious sanctity.

Many of the case studies in this book received media attention over the past decade or so due, in no small part, to the author herself writing on social issues for the Bangkok Post. The reader is taken through some depressing scenarios of monastic corruption and scandals on the one hand, and tales of hope and promise on the other. The compilation (even if the reader has already read some of these accounts penned by the author) gives a broad overview of a modern society in change, especially through the confused and traumatic social and economic crisis of the late 1990s. However, unfortunately, the events of 1997 were not clearly factored into the discussions and implications for Thai Buddhist practices.

Although "other" voices are heard in the text, the author also makes her own position clear, which is in support for the reform Dhamma heritage of the late modernist scholar-monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and, correspondingly, an active, engaged monastic order (male and female). This engaged "here-and-now" Buddhism (espoused by the well-known Sulak Sivaraksa) confronts contemporary concerns and issues (women's rights, environment and conservation, social equity, justice, and so forth), reaching out to a society clearly much in need of spiritual nourishment. The proviso is that these "concerned" monks keep to the disciplinary charter; though how they do this while being "engaged" and "this-worldly" (as they are encouraged to do so) is not fully addressed--as are the inherent contradictions in this proposition.

Monks gain respect and veneration precisely because of a ritual separation from society at large, where the temptations of ordinary life are minimized. Even Buddhadasa Bhikkhu--particularly popular among the Thai middle class--preferred a forest hermitage for his contemplation and scholastic pursuits.

The very problems confronting modern monks have been a blurring of spatial boundaries with the gradual attrition from the simple, distanced, reclusive life. In other words, the increasing worldliness of monks has created its own problems--as it did in the West among Protestant and Catholic clergy. There was even talk of whether Buddhist monks should be allowed to marry if they are going to be more engaged in the world.

In the matter of "keeping the faith", the modern-day problems are indeed complicated, but the solution is simple if we go back (forward?) to the essence of (timeless) dhamma practice. In the present "crisis" we need to understand the practical implications of the monastic discipline, and its limitations on worldly engagement. It is not possible to have it both ways. The Theravada monastic discipline is to ensure that being a monk, even these days, is unambiguous and without hindrance. It is in ambiguous situations that confusion arises.

For most ordinands, keeping the minutiae of the discipline is not easily done and disciplinary infractions occur with increasing frequency because monks, after all, are human. There are many Thais who have fallen into a crisis in "faith" over the condition of the contemporary Bhikkhu Sangha. Some even believe that most of the remaining good monastic teachers have now established branch monasteries outside the country, especially in the West, while one or two alleged monastic miscreants were forced to flee the country out the back door for fear of facing criminal proceedings. But, looking at the situation overall, these cases were few and far between. In regard to the question of women in Thai Buddhism, the author is most articulate: "It boils down to power: the male-dominated order wants to continue excluding women from entering and sharing monks' sphere of authority" (p. 287). It is not that the author is necessarily incorrect in her moral assessments--it is more a question of whether all concerns, even more conservative ones, have been adequately considered.

The progressive position is that if the Sangha's administrative structure (and its geriatric monk-administrators) is not in accordance with modern norms and values, it should be changed. After all, Thailand is rapidly changing. The same argument is heard over the necessity of providing secular education to monks to enable them to keep abreast with the informational world-in-change, especially information technology, though issuing bachelor's degrees to ambitious monks, or a new digital monastic order ("Cyber-Sangha") does not, in itself, ensure a "better fit" monastic order that is more able to respond to contemporary social needs than now.

There would be little to disagree about the subtext in the book, with its concerns for much-needed reform, which also seeks connection back to the untainted origins of the teachings. The book is about the concern in making "faith" work in the present; making the varieties of Thai Buddhism relevant and meaningful in today's world in order to "keep faith". Thai Buddhism, in a sense, may be at a "crossroads", but to my mind it all depends on perspectives, ways of seeing and understanding, and which particular road one is looking down.

Jim Taylor is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Adelaide, South Australia.

The journey of one buddhist nun

The journey of one Buddhist nun. (Book Reviews: Thailand).(Book Review) (book review)
Ashley Thompson
2488 words
1 February 2003
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 34; Issue 1
Copyright 2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved. COPYRIGHT 2003 Singapore University Press Pte Ltd.

The journey of one Buddhist nun

Sid Brown

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 180. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The journey of one Buddhist nun gives an invaluable account of Thai Buddhism in practice. The account is invaluable -- beyond value, more valuable than any value -- not simply for its content but also because in some important way it is offered without the expectation of a return: Sid Brown's patent intent is to give without measure. The intention is that of one engaged in Buddhism and in life, in Buddhism today and, more specifically, in the life of a contemporary Thai Buddhist nun (maechi) named Wabi. The book is explicitly offered to a deceased brother, and implicitly to Maechi Wabi. We begin, then, with the sacral gravity of the gift -- a book offered to those who can not read it.

Yet the author's gift lies also in a remarkable capacity to measure her account. From an unbounded field of sources, ranging from the immense Pali canon to the immense life of Maechi Wabi, Brown has harvested and winnowed an extraordinary amount of material. With the essential that remains she tells a series of inter-related stories. These are, most importantly, the on-going stories of Meechi Wabi, of the institutionalisation of the Buddhist nunhood in Thailand and also a certain story of Sid Brown. Together, these stories engage numerous issues of interest to students of Buddhism and contemporary Southeast Asia, as well as to those seeking to explore questions of sexual difference and processes of globalisation.

The author's inaugural goal, as evidenced throughout the book by a sustained interlacing of canonical material with field observation and as stated in the Appendix, was to represent a living Buddhist tradition, 'textually defined but also, most assuredly, culturally defined and defining' (143). Interplay between Pali text and Thai practice is indeed well represented, at once in the words and actions of Maechi Wabi and other Thai Buddhists documented by Brown, and in the author's narrative trajectory as she brings her own textual knowledge to bear in interpreting experience. This approach posits a system of mobile exchange in which no single entity can be simply fixed, isolated, reduced and understood as such. Texts inform and explain practice as practice illuminates and motivates the use and production of texts. Similarly, the narrator frequently changes place with the narrated as Brown tells both her story and that of Wabi, including translations of Wabi's interpretations of her own and Sid Brown's stories. This approach, in a book meant not just to describe or analyse but in some sense to teach, is best exploited on the subject of meditation.

Meditation takes on increasing importance as The journey progresses. We follow the gradual amplification of Wabi's engagement in meditation, along with her and others' descriptions of increasingly intense meditation visions and experience. This attention to meditation reaches a climax at the book's centre (Chapter 6) in which the author pursues her own and Wabi's Buddhist interpretations of meditation experience. These interpretations are framed, more or less consciously, within the particular sociological, psychological and intellectual realms which the two protagonists -- Wabi and Brown -- inhabit. Still following Maechi Wabi, and as if coming down from the high point of meditative intensity, the narrative focus begins then to gradually shift to the life story of the Institute of Thai Maechi. In this way, the author takes us into the experience of meditation. We learn of the visions as recounted and analysed by the nuns themselves, and through the narrative staging, we ourselves undergo a sort of meditative experience. Comparisons made by Brown between the experience of reading and that of meditation, though somewhat problematic if only for their brevity, are in a sense performed by the narrative. This reading experience appropriately includes a sense of vacuity -- not necessarily that of meditation's most rarefied element but rather that of leaving such a state to re-enter the mundane world.

This is the world of the Institute responsible for administrating Thai Maechi and in which focus strays from meditation. In this institutional context, one wonders to what extent meditation, while supported as one of many activities (including classes on Buddhist doctrine, general education, sewing and flower arrangement), may in fact lose its focus. The paradox of teaching meditation -- and perhaps of any teaching at all -- is thus coupled with the dilemma of the institution. How can one relate knowledge of experience -- that is, knowledge of a specific experience and knowledge attainable only through singular personal experience? Yet meditation must be taught -- the dangers of unguided exploration, feared in many traditional Buddhist contexts, are made apparent by Maechi Wabi. How can an Authority authorise the most interior individual experience? Yet individual freedom is inseparable from, and strictly speaking inconceivable without, some form of institutional frame.

Although these issues are not explicitly addressed in a sustained manner, this book offers a detailed look at a very telling example: in the present socio-economic and cultural context, Thai women's freedom in such religious practice is highly dependent upon institutional support. It is in fact the first encounter with this inextricable paradox which triggers a formative crisis of faith for Maechi Wabi. It is doubt in the honesty of teaching -- in the very possibility of teaching honestly -- a doubt in the authority of authorities, which brings Wabi to nearly lose and then reconfirm her Buddhist faith.

Her story is like that of many contemporary Thai Buddhist nuns. Seeking refuge in the nunhood was seeking refuge from poverty and domestic abuse or unhappiness. But she is exemplary in another sense: rigorously compassionate, giving, hard-working, studious and calm, she is, in Brown's account, a model Buddhist nun. In cultivating such traits, Wabi has improved her lot in life, or rather reaped the merits sown in this and past lives. The explanation of Wabi's life is not, however, hermetically sealed within Buddhist doctrine. Brown shows Wabi's life to be not strictly of her own fashioning, but also largely affected by the course of contemporary history. Understanding the intricacies of this singular life within the context of both Thai nation-building trends and massive globalisation (and it should be noted that at least in the current state of affairs these two forces have contracted a manage de raison) requires extraordinary analytical agility, open to critiquing East and West, and capable of standing on pe rpetually shifting ground. Those points in The journey in which Sid Brown seems to lose her footing are precisely such points of translation: linguistic, cultural, intellectual, political translation. These are faults only insofar as, uncovered by the reader, they lay bare the chasms created when different worlds or continents meet.

The author's notably recurrent appeal to choice provides an intriguing demonstration of the complexities of the interpretive task at hand. The temple in which Wabi lives is said to be a 'community of choice' (104); Wabi is frequently said to have 'chosen' her path. The establishment of choices for Thai girls and women is lauded as a goal and accomplishment. The nun's alter-ego in this Thai women's history play is of course the prostitute. Both have left a difficult home for homelessness; they are of similar socio-economic origins. In Brown's narrative, however, an important distinction between the two lies in the question of choice: while the prostitute is forced into her vocation, the nun enters voluntarily. This attribution of choice to the nun is an explicit attempt to combat contemporary Thai preconceptions of the nun as a woman who, having lost in love, 'chose' the nunhood only out of desperation, not unlike the prostitute. More implicitly, the interpretation reflects a certain and steady spread of Ameri can political culture which promotes choice in stripping it of philosophical and political complexity. A more precise calculation of the degree of choice exercised by Wabi and other Thai nuns, or even by the Institute for Thai Maechi could be had, for example, by investigating the duplicity of karma as it masterfully conjugates determinism and its opposite, free will.

Like Wabi's multiple 'choices' made to enter the nunhood, the 'choice' to establish the Institute of Thai Maechi was a complex one. The Institute can be seen in many ways as itself born of prostitution. Steadily expanding and increasingly institutionalised sexual exploitation of poor girls and women in Thailand over the course of the twentieth century necessitated a concerted institutional effort to provide a viable alternative path for these vulnerable populations. Though not of course without roots in traditional culture, both institutions have been established as such in close conjunction with the unrelenting machine of globalisation. On the one hand, since the Vietnam War, Thailand has been exploited as an international prostitution playground. On the other, American feminism (and here I pose another question to Sid Brown: would many references to 'Western' not be more precisely construed as 'American' -- whether or not they come directly from American nationals?) directly incited Thai authorities to form alise female roles within Buddhist hierarchies. In both its working structures and its philosophy, the Institute owes much to Thai social and cultural complexes, of course, but also to Western-inspired forms of private organisation, grassroots resistance and good works. Though Brown delineates this Western influence, she leaves it more or less unanalysed. We are left with a number of vast and imprecise ideas, such as that of choice being what Thai nuns need or want or have.

American hegemony also makes itself felt in The journey's referential frame. The foreign case in hand is repeatedly illuminated by reference to contemporary American scholarship on a wide variety of issues, including but by no means limited to Buddhism. This shuttling between Thailand and America would seem to aim at isolating universal truths shared by all cultures, and to give an American public access to a distant subject. In the process, the most essential point -- i .e., the universality of truth, the very notion of truth as a fixed, self-sufficient concept -- remains unquestioned. See, for example, the observation (p. 73) that 'meditation removes the "bulwarks of ignorance" when we might otherwise actively refuse knowledge of truth'. The American referents, summoned in view of demonstrating the universality of the Thai Buddhist example, are, like the concept of choice, left unanalysed. In the name of laudable and indeed necessary ideals, difference is elided.

A certain nostalgia, even conservatism, enveloping the text at times is not without relation to this lack of analytical edge. Many readers would undoubtedly welcome sustained analysis of the structure of a feminist path like that of Wabi, explicitly based on emulation of the father who abandons the family; of the significance of sexual repression and expression within the Thai nunhood and so apparent in Wabi's life; of the significance of Catholicism within contemporary institutionalisation of the Thai nunhood. Those for whom sewing or flower arrangement classes (or the Vessantarajataka tales) have no place in feminism, and those who see danger in the unsounded naivete of American political culture at large, may particularly suffer from this absence. Brown's determination to celebrate the courage of those who obtain or make it possible to obtain high school diplomas at a late age, like those who demonstrate compassion when struck, tends to inhibit acknowledgement of irreducible complexity. 'Choices' made, con sciously or not, to winnow out certain details of Buddhist narrative parallel such analytical lacunae. Though we are told, for example, the story of the Buddha's disgust at the sight of revellers drooling in their sleep the day after, never are we told these revellers were women. Though we are told the story of Mahapajapati's long struggle with her son the Buddha to gain his authorisation for acceptance of women into the Buddhist order, never are we told the severe conditions under which authorisation was finally accorded. Sid Brown has told a compelling story; we should however remember to what extent this story is her own in the making.

As final note on language, this book is a vast translation. I would like to reiterate my admiration for the skill and care with which Wabi's life has been given to us. Here again, those points at which translation seems wanting reveal the impossibility of perfect exchange. Yet it is precisely here, where language resists facile translation, that careful analysis can best demonstrate how specific cultures articulate, in their own terms, universal truths. One of these points arises with the Pali/Thai term dhammata/thamata (p. 58-9). That this single word is spelled differently in its Pali and Thai forms leads, first, to confusion. Commentary in the text and the Appendix do not sufficiently clarify the issues at hand. Never are we told, for example, that Pali words are transliterated letter for letter while Thai is phonetically transcribed. Never is it made clear that Dhammata and thamata are virtually (etymologically at the very least) one and the same word. Relationships between Pali/Sanskrit and Southeast Asi an vernaculars, though relatively straightforward, are frequently difficult for Western students to grasp. This is largely due to an initial inability to envisage how one language could be written in any number of scripts. A more careful presentation of this situation would have facilitated reading this book and, more generally, conceiving Indian languages as cultural vehicles in Thai. The transliteration of the Thai form, dharrmata, gives in fact an interesting link to an extraTheravadin past: Thai 'suchness' retains reference to Sanskrit, most probably brought to Thai through Khmer. The uninformed reader is likely instead to understand there to be two related words which mean two different things: in Pali: 'suchness,' and in Thai: 'normal'. Understanding the semantically extensive use of thamata in Thai, be it in a secular or a religious context, gains from an understanding of the term's religious roots. The fact that these roots are not entirely cut in popular Thai usage allows Wabi to come to an intensely religious insight of the term. 'Normal' is in fact far too normal a translation for thamata.

It is, on the other hand, the informed reader who may wish for clarification of the translation 'heartmind'. While we learn the relatively irrelevant fact that 'food', is gap khao ('with rice') in Thai (p. 8), never are we given the original of 'heartmind', a key concept recurring throughout the book. Is this the Thai chai or a Pali 'equivalent'? These are of course details, but details which, carefully studied, could bring us that much closer to the 'heartmind' or the 'suchness' of Thai Buddhism -- to its specificity, there where it promises to communicate a universal.

Total number of pages for this article: 5 FULL TEXT Singapore University Press Pte Ltd.