Sunday, 19 June 2011

Metarationalism versus Irrationalism in Religion

Metarationality - the mental landscape beyond the end of the tracks

From Rational Buddhism:

'Metarationality deals with valid phenomena which lie beyond the limits of discursive thought.  Qualia are prime examples, and much meditational practice deals with the deliberate invocation of qualia. 

Also, some types of meditation seek to go beyond conceptual thought in order to reach nonconceptual awareness.

Other metarational phenomena are those paradoxes that lie at, or just beyond, the limits of logical thought, and which have been investigated by Buddhist philosophers such a Nagarjuna.

According to Hume, the entire field of ethics may be metarational, since reasoned and logical arguments are incapable of going from an 'is' to an 'ought'.  Ethics cannot be rationally derived  either from  knowledge based on logic and definitions, or from observation.

The difference between metarationality and irrationality, is that with metarationality you attempt to explore the landscape beyond the end of the tracks of logical thought, whereas with irrationality you come off the rails long before you reach the end of the line.

Irrationality - coming off the track before you reach the end of the line

Buddhist philosophy is rational until it reaches the limits of logic, wherupon it goes metarational, whereas some religions are just plain irrational from the very start of the journey.

More here 



A Glimpse of Non-conceptual Awareness

Jim recently left this comment at an old post on Inherent Existence .  Rather than leave it in the obscurity of the archives, I thought it was sufficiently interesting to repost here...

"Inherent Existence" as a concept does not inherently exist. So when you try to pin down the definition of the *concept* of inherent existence, you can't come up with a "clean, clear" definition.

Garfield's translation of Nagarjuna's Mulamadyhamakakarika (Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) posits the equivalence of "empty of inherent existence", "dependently originated" and "conceptually designated".

I like the shorthand of "no essence" for "empty of inherent existence". That helps me understand, when I perceive at any phenomenon that there is in no way any particle, energy, quality or category exists as an essence, a standalone existent in that phenomenon. That then leads to "dependently originated", meaning that the phenomenon appears before my perceptions due to an endlessly divisible network of elements and causes. Then "conceptually designated" tells me that principle among those elements and causes is my being here to cast a (perhaps sub or unconscious) conceptual designation onto that "thing", delineating it in space and time as "separate and distinct" in the network.

This puts me on the doorstep of "what is producing the conceptual designation", which points to the concept of a self. That becomes the next target of analysis, as in "no essence to this self", "this self is dependently originated", "this self is conceptually designated". These taken together point to to the "conceptual designator" in the self, the "model of self" in the self and the "observing awareness" in the self. These become the next targets of the three-part "emptiness analysis" described above.

This can be repeated again, and again, and again, until the neuro-pschological nexus of model of self, conceptualizing engine, and observing awareness is sufficiently weakened that there's a break in the conceptualizing, and a glimpse of non-conceptual awareness. I find that this gets more effective the more it is practiced.


Regarding the opening statement "Inherent Existence" as a concept does not inherently exist",  and the reference to Garfield, see Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought by Jay L. Garfield and Graham Priest.

Related Posts

Generic Images in Buddhism

Reification in Buddhism - Ultimate and Conventional Truths.

Buddhism versus Materialism

Essentialism in Physics, Chemistry and Biology

Existence, Impermanence and Emptiness in Buddhism



Is Richard Dawkins a Buddhist?

"Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he."
- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche  

According to the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, all phenomena derive their existence from causes, structures and mental designation. They do not have any defining essence, or inherently existing nature that determines what they are from within themselves. Ultimately, their identity resides solely in the arbitrary judgement of the observer.

In Buddhist philosophy, most teachings on the of lack of inherent existence and absence of essential nature refer to non-living structures.  Milinda's Chariot is the classical example.  However, our modern knowledge of evolution allows us to apply the same line of reasoning to living creatures, in particular refuting the reification of the species.   The best illustration of Buddhist teachings on lack of inherent existence of the species is the essay 'Gaps in the Mind' by Richard Dawkins:

The discontinuous mind. 
"...We would all agree that a six-foot woman is tall, and a five-foot woman is not. Words like 'tall' and 'short' tempt us to force the world into qualitative classes, but this doesn't mean that the world really is discontinuously distributed. Were you to tell me that a woman is five feet nine inches tall, and ask me to decide whether she should therefore be called tall or not, I'd shrug and say 'She's five foot nine, doesn't that tell you what you need to know?' But the discontinuous mind, to caricature it a little, would go to court (probably at great expense) to decide whether the woman was tall or short. Indeed, I hardly need to say caricature. For years, South African courts have done a brisk trade adjudicating whether particular individuals of mixed parentage count as white, black or coloured.

The discontinuous mind is ubiquitous. It is especially influential when it afflicts lawyers and the religious (not only are all judges lawyers; a high proportion of politicians are too, and all politicians have to woo the religious vote). Recently, after giving a public lecture, I was cross-examined by a lawyer in the audience. He brought the full weight of his legal acumen to bear on a nice point of evolution. If species A evolves into a later species B, he reasoned closely, there must come a point when a mother belongs to the old species A and her child belongs to the new species B. Members of different species cannot interbreed with one another. I put it to you, he went on, that a child could hardly be so different from its parents that it could not interbreed with their kind. So, he wound up triumphantly, isn't this a fatal flaw in the theory of evolution?

Mental designation 
But it is we that choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species. On the evolutionary view of life there must have been intermediates, even though, conveniently for our naming rituals, they are usually extinct: usually, but not always. The lawyer would be surprised and, I hope, intrigued by so-called 'ring species'. The best-known case is herring gull versus lesser black-backed gull.

In Britain these are clearly distinct species, quite different in colour. Anybody can tell them apart. But if you follow the population of herring gulls westward round the North Pole to North America, then via Alaska across Siberia and back to Europe again, you will notice a curious fact. The 'herring gulls' gradually become less and less like herring gulls and more and more like lesser black-backed gulls until it turns out that our European lesser black-backed gulls actually are the other end of a ring that started out as herring gulls.

At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their neighbours to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, in Europe. At this point the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way round the world. The only thing that is special about ring species like these gulls is that the intermediates are still alive. All pairs of related species are potentially ring species. The intermediates must have lived once. It is just that in most cases they are now dead.

Arbitrary Designation
The lawyer, with his trained discontinuous mind, insists on placing individuals firmly in this species or that. He does not allow for the possibility that an individual might lie half-way between two species, or a tenth of the way from species A to species B...

Artificial categories
...The word 'apes' usually means chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons and siamangs. We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes — the gibbons and orang-utans. There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans but excludes humans. The artificiality of the category 'apes', as conventionally taken to exclude humans, is demonstrated by Figure 7.1. This family tree shows humans to be in the thick of the ape cluster; the artificiality of the conventional category 'ape' is shown by the stippling.
Figure 7.1
Figure 7.1
In truth, not only are we apes, we are African apes. The category 'African apes', if you don't arbitrarily exclude humans, is a natural one. The stippled area in Figure 7.2 doesn't have any artificial 'bites' taken out of it.
Figure 7.2
Figure 7.2
'Great apes', too, is a natural category only so long as it includes humans. We are great apes. All the great apes that have ever lived including ourselves, are linked to one another by an unbroken chain of parent-child bonds. The same is true of all animals and plants that have ever lived, but there the distances involved are much greater. Molecular evidence suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived, in Africa, between five and seven million years ago, say half a million generations ago. This is not long by evolutionary standards.

No essential differences between species
Happenings are sometimes organised at which thousands of people hold hands and form a human chain, say from coast to coast of the United States, in aid of some cause or charity. Let us imagine setting one up along the equator, across the width of our home continent of Africa. It is a special kind of chain, involving parents and children, and we will have to play tricks with time in order to imagine it. You stand on the shore of the Indian Ocean in southern Somalia, facing north, and in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother's hand, and so on. The chain wends its way up the beach, into the arid scrubland and westwards on towards the Kenya border.

How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It is a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles. We have hardly started to cross the continent; we are still not half way to the Great Rift Valley. The ancestor is standing well to the east of Mount Kenya, and holding in her hand an entire chain of her lineal descendants, culminating in you standing on the Somali beach.

The daughter that she is holding in her right hand is the one from whom we are descended. Now the arch-ancestress turns eastward to face the coast, and with her left hand grasps her other daughter, the one from whom the chimpanzees are descended (or son, of course, but let's stick to females for convenience). The two sisters are facing one another, and each holding their mother by the hand. Now the second daughter, the chimpanzee ancestress, holds her daughter's hand, and a new chain is formed, proceeding back towards the coast. First cousin faces first cousin, second cousin faces second cousin, and so on.

By the time the folded-back chain has reached the coast again, it consists of modern chimpanzees. You are face to face with your chimpanzee cousin, and you are joined to her by an unbroken chain of mothers holding hands with daughters. If you walked up the line like an inspecting general -past Homo erectus, Homo habilis, perhaps Australopithecus afarensis -and down again the other side (the intermediates on the chimpanzee side are unnamed because, as it happens, no fossils have been found), you would nowhere find any sharp discontinuity. Daughters would resemble mothers just as much (or as little) as they always do. Mothers would love daughters, and feel affinity with them, just as they always And this hand-in-hand continuum, joining us seamlessly to chimpanzees, is so short that it barely makes it past the hinterland of Africa, the mother continent.

Our chain of African apes, doubling back on itself, is in miniature like the ring of gulls round the pole, except that the intermediates happen to be dead. The point I want to make is that, as far as morality is concerned, it should be incidental that the intermediates are dead. What if they were not? What if a clutch of intermediate types had survived, enough to link us to modern chimpanzees by a chain, not just of hand-holders, but of interbreeders? Remember the song, 'I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales'? We can't (quite) interbreed with modern chimpanzees, but we'd need only a handful of intermediate types to be able to sing: 'I've bred with a man, who's bred with a girl, who's bred with a chimpanzee.'

Moral dilemmas
It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates no longer exists. ('Luck' from some points of view: for myself, I should love to meet them.) But for this chance, our laws and our morals would be very different. We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces. Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion. Apartheid, for those that believe in it, would assume a new and perhaps a more urgent import.

But why, a moral philosopher might ask, should this matter to us? Isn't it only the discontinuous mind that wants to erect barriers anyway? So what if, in the continuum of all apes that have lived in Africa, the survivors happen to leave a convenient gap between Homo and Pan? Surely we should, in any case, not base our treatment of animals on whether or not we can interbreed with them. If we want to justify double standards - if society agrees that people should be treated better than, say, cows (cows may be cooked and eaten, people may not) - there must be better reasons than cousinship. Humans may be taxonomically distant from cows, but isn't it more important that we are brainier? Or better, following Jeremy Bentham, that humans can suffer more - that cows, even if they hate pain as much as humans do (and why on earth should we suppose otherwise?), do not know what is coming to them? Suppose that the octopus lineage had happened to evolve brains and feelings to rival ours; they easily might have done. The mere possibility shows the incidental nature of cousinship. So, the moral philosopher asks, why emphasise the human/chimp continuity?

Yes, in an ideal world we probably should come up with a better reason than cousinship for, say, preferring carnivory to cannibalism. But the melancholy fact is that, at present, society's moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the discontinuous, speciesist imperative.

Figure 7.3
Figure 7.3 Hypothetical computer-generated image of what an intermediate between a human and a chimpanzee face might look like. (After Nancy Burston and David Kramlich, from C. A. Pickover, Computers and the Imagination: Visual Adventures Beyond the Edge (Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1991).)
This arresting picture is hypothetical. But I can assert, without fear of contradiction, that if somebody succeeded in breeding a chimpanzee/ human hybrid the news would be earth-shattering. Bishops would bleat, lawyers would gloat in anticipation, conservative politicians would thunder, socialists wouldn't know where to put their barricades. The scientist that achieved the feat would be drummed out of politically correct common-rooms; denounced in pulpit and gutter press; condemned, perhaps, by an Ayatollah's fatwah. Politics would never be the same again, nor would theology, sociology, psychology or most branches of philosophy. The world that would be so shaken, by such an incidental event as a hybridisation, is a speciesist world indeed, dominated by the discontinuous mind.

I have argued that the discontinuous gap between humans and ‘apes’ that we erect in our minds is regrettable. I have also argued that, in any case, the present position of the hallowed gap is arbitrary, the result of evolutionary accident. If the contingencies of survival and extinction had been different, the gap would be in a different place. Ethical principles that are based upon accidental caprice should not be respected as if cast in stone.

Nevertheless, it must be conceded that this book's proposal to admit great apes to the charmed circle of human privilege stands square in the discontinuous tradition. Albeit the gap has moved, the fundamental question is still 'Which side of the gap?' Regrettable as this is, as long as our social mores are governed by discontinuously minded lawyers and theologians, it is premature to advocate a quantitative, continuously distributed morality. Accordingly, I support the proposal for which this book stands."

So is Richard Dawkins a Buddhist? 
So is Richard Dawkins a Buddhist without perhaps realising it?   According to  Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche,  acceptance of the Four Seals -
  • Lack of Essence or Inherent Existence of Functioning Phenomena
  • Impermanence of Functioning Phenomena
  • Inevitability of Samsaric Suffering
  • The True Nature of the Mind
- makes one a (minimalist) Buddhist.

Dawkins shows an excellent understanding of Lack of Inherent existence in the essay quoted, and as a Darwinist he is obviously well aware of the related seal of Impermance.

Samsara's pleasures are deceptive, bring no contentment only torment
He also shows an awareness of the third seal,  the inevitable nature of Samsaric suffering, in the following quote from River Out of Eden:  A Darwinian View of Life

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

The True Nature of the Mind
Dawkins also understands the way that delusions afflict the mind,and how these can be transcended:

''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."  See further discussion at  Accepting our Evolutionary History does not Mean Rejecting our Spirituality .

Nearly but not quite
Where Richard Dawkins differs from Buddhism is that he appears to accept the default physicalist view of the mind.  The difference between the Buddhist and the physicalist (materialist) view of reality can be stated quite simply:

The Buddhist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure
- Designation by mind

The physicalist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure

...with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

To the Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality.

See  All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace - The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey for a detailed discussion of this topic.

Although Richard Dawkins is not quite a Buddhist, his philosophy, derived by completely independent reasoning and within a non-Buddhist culture and intellectual environment, comes very close indeed to the four fundamental tenets of Buddhism.

This convergence has also been note by Buddhist commentator Ed Halliwell:

Dawkins strips away religion's dead wood  

"Dawkins is doing religion a favour – by exposing faith and spirituality to criticism, he paves the way for their renewal.

"I doubt it was his intention, but in 100 years time Richard Dawkins could be hailed as a prime architect of 21st-century religion. Though strident to the point of comic fundamentalism, the New Atheist diatribe has not only laid bare the irrationalities of believers, but forced those of us who favour scientific-spiritual accommodation to sharpen our arguments. And that can only aid the development of spiritual forms fit for the modern world.

When I first picked up The God Delusion, I was a bit disappointed to find it was rather polite about my own tradition. Right up there in chapter one, Dawkins sensibly suggests that Buddhism might be seen as an ethical or philosophical system rather than a religion, and so not a major focus for his ire. We've got off lightly from other anti-religionists too – Sam Harris even goes on Buddhist meditation retreats.

The International Buddhist Film Festival, which opened in London last week, has at least provoked a bit of poking at our flabby underbelly. On Radio 3, Martin Palmer accused western Buddhists of creating their own version based on "the religion we don't want, which is Judeo-Christian, and the religion we would love to have, which isn't quite religion, which … doesn't have too many rules, and the rules it does have, like the Tibetan ban on homosexuality, are conveniently forgotten." Mark Vernon, relaying Palmer's comments on his blog, agreed, describing western Buddhism as "deeply partial, a pick 'n' mix religion". Their criticisms would appear to be supported by a glance at the IBFF schedule, which includes films – such as Donnie Darko and Hamlet – for which the label Buddhist seems pretty tenuous.

But Buddhism has always changed shape according to place and time. Impermanence, as one of the three marks of existence, must apply also to Buddhism itself. It accepts, even demands, that every culture must find its own unique expressions of awakening. To prevent them becoming pieces of stale ideology, its discoveries must be tested anew by each practitioner, rather than being swallowed from scripture. Whenever Buddhism is embraced in a new location, it has mixed with pre-existing wisdom – hence, for example, why Zen looks so different from Tibetan Vajrayana.

In Buddhism there should be no room for dogma – the ultimate criteria for performing an action is its role in alleviating the suffering of oneself and others. A course of action could reduce suffering in one circumstance and magnify it in another, so the rules are there to be broken and the traditions are there to be changed, provided, of course, you can do it skilfully. When asked to sum up the essence of Buddhism, Japanese teacher Shunyru Susuki replied "Not always so". The pliability of the teachings means that mistakes can be learned from, and culturally created doctrines or codes of behaviour that are unwise, outdated or harmful – the aforementioned approach to homosexuality for example – can be freely consigned to the bin.

Does that make western Buddhism a pick 'n' mix religion? Perhaps it does – but if we pick and mix well, we might create something good. Indeed, if we pick wise insights from the past and mix them with the ever-accumulating knowledge from our own cultural heritage, then what we might have a viable model for 21st-century spirituality. It needn't even be called Buddhism, which is, after all, just a word.

As a path that simultaneously emphasises both constant change and a relentless search for truth, perhaps Buddhism is in a good position to develop more mature forms. However, the rational onslaught must inevitably spur other traditions to self-question and adapt too. And this is where Richard Dawkins may well be one of religion's greatest allies. The old code that sacred beliefs cannot be challenged for fear of causing offence has been shattered – and it needed shattering. If the sacred dimension just means articles of faith that provoke outrage when assaulted, then religion and the religious would be better off without them. Dawkins and his ilk may have their sights trained on eliminating religion, but what they are actually doing is exposing its dead wood, the anachronisms that have been protected from critical thinking, and that needed cutting away.

Claims to special privilege in society, indoctrination of belief as fact, repressive or violent acts as a means of evangelism, and the upholding of outdated worldviews on scriptural grounds – all these and many other examples of the misuse of spiritual traditions do them no favours and should be dropped. If that is pick 'n' mix religion, can I be first in the queue at the sweet counter?"

Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions.  - The Richard Dawkins Foundation

Comment by Yinyangnature:
"Why does Professor Dawkins claim Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated world-views? I believe it is due to the fundamental differences that are found when comparing Western religions with those of Asia.

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) model the cosmos on the politics of the ancient Middle East. God is viewed as a monarch who rules and controls everything. Just as a tyrant king of this period, God is able to severely punish or reward his subjects as he sees fit.

The Dharmic religions (Buddhism, Zen, Taoism and Hinduism) don't see the cosmos as something that is responding to a ruler or controller. They believe the Universe is a self perpetuating unity.

The Western faiths also repel and distance themselves from Nature. Whereas the Asian philosophies are firmly rooted in the natural world and see all of Nature as divine.

Unquestioning faith is paramount in the Abrahamic religions and everything else is seen as secondary to the holy dogma. Yet in the Asian religions the very opposite is true. Acts of compassion are always foremost and adherents are free to believe whatever they choose. Buddha is quoted as saying "Do not believe anything unless it agrees with your own experiences and common sense; even if it is said to have come from me."

Although Richard Dawkins may be unlikely to go for refuge to the Three Jewels anytime soon, his worldview shows a strong 'convergent evolution' towards Buddhist philosophy.  The major difference would seem to be the nature of the mind.

In Buddhist philosophy the mind is not reducible to physical causality and structure, but is a fundamental foundation of reality.   Since he hasn't, to my knowledge, stated otherwise, I would guess that Richard Dawkins holds the scientifically orthodox  physicalist/computationalist point of view.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Saturday, 18 June 2011

Buddhism encourages envy, theft and backwardness, according to Professor of Islamic Thought

Jealousy's Final Solution
by Hans Jansen

'Why is it that large parts of the so-called Third World appear to be lost beyond rescue? It is because most people over there cling to a familiar theory about the way of the world. It concerns the quite natural conviction that riches can be gathered by taking from your fellow men; and right they are. Taking from others can make you rich without too much trouble. The only thing in demand is a little touch, or threat, of violence.

In developing countries, it is commonly believed that besides taking, there are no other means towards a state of ownership. For those aspiring to get rich in the Third World, that is a basic fact of life. Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are Third World religions. Those who are born and raised in these cultural spheres know what becoming rich entails. It means successfully taking the other’s share.

Some Westerners, on their part, also occasionally suffer from the feeling that the main road to prosperity is through taking. At the kindergarten playground, that was clearly the case. Whenever in need of a toy shovel, one had only to take it from a fellow shrimp. Braving the sandbox with your own self-made spade was not an option.

Though the basic attitude seems childish, some in the West have congregated into groups, united in their belief that this kind of taking is the only route to riches. Evidently, this is not the only option open to Westerners, yet many otherwise fair-minded individuals believe that anyone who possesses more than others must have arrived at that point by taking, that is, through some kind of robbery or theft. Consequently, the kindergarten board is heartily invited to redistribute the loot among the weak and oppressed, by force, if need be. This primary wisdom, acquired at kindergarten level, makes it hard to benefit from the time-honored advice of seasoned economists, that wealth is created when each and every one of us is left in the undisturbed possession and enjoyment of the fruits of one's own labor.

Redistribution, however, features high on the priority-lists of policymakers in service of the state. It creates a rising tide of nannyism that sweeps the empowered masses from one bureaucratic institution to another. Social work, social housing, welfare offices, social justice, youth care, rehab and resettlement are all entangled in a noble competition, to help the "client", for sure, but also to be the first to have redirected him to the institution, most suited to his rightful claim to state-sponsored assistance. The opinion that meddling by or on behalf of the state is not only inefficient but also not entirely proper, has become viewed as being more and more eccentric. The common sense of old, that the bulk of that support owes much, if not all, to denying others the fruits of their labor, has gained the crude freshness of a new insight.

State meddling has taken great leaps forward among all of the free Western nations. Some sectors of private enterprise not withstanding, all branches of society are managed through government, one way or the other. There are practically no areas left where the State does not have the final say. And for sure, there's a lot of meddling to be done, preferably by interchangeable CEOs and politicians, hovering between interlinking branches of society, like birds of a feather. Professional nannies at every level, be they administrators, judges, bank managers, social workers, executives or journalists, are bound by a shared preference for parties and special interest groups that nurse the habit of meddling. Needless to say that the classes who are privileged to "empowerment" follow in their wake. There is little surprise in the dream team merger of ideologies, trumping a Third World Order and Western nanny state interventionism.

That there may be individuals and societies who have only themselves to thank for their wealth, managing to pull it off without taking from anyone for the creation of those riches, is beyond the belief of the professional First- and Third-World nannies. This option must remain far removed from their calculations, because the income generated by professional nannies stems from their noble support for the "disenfranchised", cut off from sources of wealth that they consider to be illegitimate in the first place. Their bread and butter, and even their identity as professional saviours, could be jeopardized if affluence proved to be possible without harming anyone, by allowing, for instance, more freedom and a tad bit more modest yet proper administration.

Split societies like those on the island of Cyprus or between Malaysia and Singapore may provide some illustration. Ever since the split-up, one part does well while the other doesn't. The primary difference is between the ideology and the social order in these newly formed states that where considered to be one before the separation. Nothing could be found in today's Greek/Turkish Cyprus and Singapore/Malaysia that might serve to explain the vast difference in both the standard of living and well-being between these now separated political entities - other than the mentality of their respective inhabitants. In places that prosper, people usually haven't suffered from too much confiscation. On the other hand, in the areas that don't do well, taking has become a daily routine.

The belief that taking is the only source of wealth, is a common error of judgment and perception, reducing the rich and complex sphere of economic reality and human action to a zero-sum game. This misperception generates a long chain of political consequences and policy decisions, starting with all of these fashionable forms of redistribution. The relative difference, however, in standards of living and well-being between places where no other explanation presents itself besides cultural differences, shows one thing rather convincingly: that prosperity depends on the way a society runs itself and that, in turn, is determined by culture, religion and ideology.

And yet, in countries like the Netherlands, political movements based on envy, nannyism and resentment seem to be doing just fine. These political movements are often in collusion with like-minded foreign ideologies and religions. In Western countries, the existence and political power of a steadily growing constituency of voters who hate and despise the ostensibly wicked West cannot be ignored any longer.

But much to their chagrin, the facts of life prove to be uncooperative once again. It is no accident that the West became prosperous by opting for a society that enabled freedom, competition, technology, truly civil service (at least in theory, if not in practice), self-reliance, debate and a high standard of living. Ideologies that carry the most currency in third world countries teach otherwise, to wit: that the prosperity of the West is testimony to their unbecoming behavior towards Third World nations, and that therefore, the West needs to be fought. Reparations! Down with freedom! Away with all things Western! It would be surprising if these sentiments hadn’t received such a warm welcome among like-minded movements and organizations in the West.

The choice for a society based on envy, hate and jealousy, combined with a public ban on freedom and competition will create something like Pakistan, a nation getting poorer by the day. A choice based on a free market, free competition, on freedom of religion and other civil liberties, will create nations akin to Taiwan or South-Korea - nations where prosperity is steadily growing while sixty years ago they where in as much of a miserable state as Pakistan and Ghana are today.

Both in the West and the Third World, the Khmer watermelons, Red and Green, have happily joined hands with Third-Worlders, in an attempt to destroy the vestiges of freedom that still survive today. All of this follows from their desire to usher in a new society for a New Man – their ennobled Modern Savage. The biggest compliment one could pay these attempts at starving off jealousy, is to say that here’s a man who will definitely never be the envy of anyone, anymore.'

Hans Jansen is a scholar of Islam and former Professor of Modern Islamic Thought at the University of Utrecht. He writes from the Netherlands.


Rational Buddhism

Friday, 10 June 2011

Queer Dharma and Gay Buddhists: Dharma for the LGBT Community

Sodom and Gomorrah

Following on from the previous post, is it possible for the Abrahamic religions ever to accept people with 'non-Biblical'  sexual orientations?  Is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah always going to be a background narrative?

But while the Abrahamics seeth with homophobic hatred resulting in doctrinal and physical queer-bashing, there is fortunately one spiritual tradition that 'doesn't fault gay sex or gay people in any way whatsoever.'

From The Bay Area Reporter
'In the crowd of streetwise San Franciscans lining up for needle exchange, he stands out: a 52-year-old gay Buddhist monk, lean and sinewy in his bright yellow and red robes, chatting amicably with the men and women in line while swapping clean syringes for the dirty ones he collects.

His name is Tekchog, and he knows firsthand what it's like to need a clean needle. Before he was Tekchog, he was David Ruch, a gay man living in the Castro, addicted to crystal meth and having unsafe sex with a partner who shot speed. But that, it seems, was a lifetime ago; before protease, before he found Buddhism, before his lover died. And every Tuesday night for the past eight years, "come rain or shine or earthquake," as he puts it, he's been here, behind the Market Street Safeway, handing out needles to stem the tide of HIV.
"Heroin and speed users don't take holidays," he said, packing away bins of syringes that will later be incinerated by the city. "They depend on us to be here. And everyone I know knows that on Tuesday nights, this is where I am."

Soon enough, Tekchog's Wednesday nights will also be spoken for. Starting January 4, he'll be teaching introductory meditation classes at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center as part of his temple's outreach to the gay community. "The classes are an opportunity to develop your mind and become happy," he said with a sly grin.

Has it worked for him? Is this celibate gay monk living in the Castro any happier than the rest of us? The story he tells, like the stories of many who have weathered drug abuse, illness, and loss in gay San Francisco these past two decades, is replete with heartbreak. But Tekchog is animated in the telling, his bright blue eyes flashing. "Happiness is all in the mind," he said.

Coming out
Not realizing he was gay, Ruch was married in 1980 and lived with his wife, Linda, in a pastoral Idaho town while pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. In 1982 Linda got pregnant, but six months into the pregnancy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; she had a massive tumor the size of her fetus. After three grueling months of chemotherapy, she delivered a healthy baby girl, Erin. Two months later, in January 1983, Linda died.
Shell shocked, Ruch stayed in Idaho to finish his Ph.D. After a long mourning, he began experimenting with men, eventually falling in love with one of his male students. The two had a commitment ceremony and, with Erin, moved to a new life in San Francisco. The city's banquet of available men, casual sex, and crystal meth, however, proved too enticing for the couple. "It didn't take us long, living in this candy store, to break up," Tekchog said.
His next partner, a younger man, had a serious speed habit. "I thought I was going to help him. Instead, I got addicted," he said.

Crystal meth is an all-consuming beast, and the descent into its clutches is most often marked with loss ? of health, home, self-respect, employment. Ruch and his partner were no exception. His partner shot speed. Clean needles were nowhere to be found. They had sex without condoms. Before long, when a colleague found speed on his laboratory bench, Ruch lost his high-paying research job. "I started washing dishes at Orphan Andy's, even though I had a Ph.D. And I was still doing speed," he said, with unmistakable regret.
On April Fools' Day, 1995, the other shoe dropped. He tested HIV-positive and, he said, realized his life was careening toward disaster. In desperation, he turned to the AIDS Health Project.

"The first thing I had to do was break up with my partner, otherwise him, me, and my daughter were all going down the toilet." He ended the relationship, stopped using speed, and found a full-time job at the San Francisco AIDS Office, a position he still holds today.

Spiritual life
Clear-headed for the first time in years, he saw, on a distant horizon, the possibility of a spiritual life. "I was looking for ways to control my mind, and everything I picked up pointed me toward mediation and Buddhism." He found an introductory mediation class, the kind he now teaches, offered by the temple that would later ordain him. He loved it, never missed a class, and had soon immersed himself in an earnest study of Buddhist teachings.

Objects of Refuge

 A refuge for queer people
Tekchog is quick to point out that, despite a now infamous condemnation of homosexuality by the Dali Lama in 1997, Buddhism is indeed a refuge for queer people. "It's a religion that doesn't fault gay sex or gay people in any way whatsoever." And the Dali Lama's comment? "Unmitigated bull," Tekchog said, "and not backed up by Buddhist scripture."

After years of ardent study, he felt called to still deeper spiritual practices. "I wanted to control my mind and become a Buddha in this life." The only way to do that, he said, was to take the vow of celibacy and become a monk. He was ordained in 2000, given his new name (pronounced like it's spelled, TEK-chog), which means "supreme vehicle," and has worn his robes ever since.

But "monk," as Tekchog lives it, does not entail sleeping in a bare cell with no possessions and meditating alone all day. He leads, instead, a deeply engaged life. Besides his AIDS Office job and volunteering at needle exchange, he also runs the North American Buddhism in Prison Project, corresponding with some 500 prison inmates who are interested in meditation and Buddhism. He manages the entire program himself from a tiny office in the Castro apartment he shares with Erin, now 22. She's working on her bachelor's degree in photography and filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Tekchog approaches the prison project and needle exchange with a disarming lack of judgment, viewing himself as a servant to other beings who, with any luck, will also find their path to happiness and, ultimately, enlightenment.

"Being happy is a state of mind," Tekchog said. "If you have control over your mind, you can control whether or not you're happy. It's as simple as that."

Introductory meditation classes begin Wednesday January 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street. Classes are free and open to all. For more information, visit the Kadampa Buddhist Center, 3324 17th Street. Phone: (415) 503-1197. Or visit '

The Abrahamic Tradition

"...Bruce was drawn to Buddhism for a plethora of reasons. One of the main emphases of Vajrayana Buddhism is compassion. Another aspect of Buddhist teachings that Bruce found appealing is its views about "sin". According to Buddhist teachings, Bruce said, there should be no sense of guilt because we all naturally transgress. Another important factor, and possibly the factor that sealed the deal, for Bruce, was the fact that his homosexuality was not a problem for local Buddhists. As a gay man, Bruce wanted to be a part of a religion that would validate him as a person. Geshe Kelsang, the spiritual head of the Dromtonpa Kadampa Buddhist Center, does not regard homosexuality as misconduct. His teachings do not treat gays and lesbians as inferior in any way. Scott said that he experienced more acceptance of his sexual orientation in Buddhism than he had in either Catholicism or the Baha'i faith..."


Alan Turing - A Gay Buddhist Chemically Castrated and Mentally Destroyed


Cambodian LGBT Pride Festival gets Buddhist Blessing



Monday, 6 June 2011

All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace - The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey

Challenging the mechanical model of the mind

The recent BBC2 programme, All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace,  presented the case for computationalism - that is the belief that human beings are nothing more than biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. According to computationalism, there is no mind existing independently of matter and no spiritual or ethical dimension to human existence.

Computationalism, whether explicitly stated as a philosophical theory, or just implicitly accepted as the way the world is, as in this programme, has become the default belief of modern materialism. The computationalist worldview is responsible for much of the bleakness and brutalism in modern art and culture.

Computationalism, like its predecessor physicalism, is of course the antithesis of all religions, and one which religions find difficult to argue against, with the exception of Buddhism, which alone has the philosophical arguments to challenge it.

The programme publicity states: 'At the heart of the film is one of the most famous scientists in the world - Bill Hamilton. He argued that human behaviour is really guided by codes buried deep within us. It was later popularised by Richard Dawkins as 'the selfish gene'. It said that individual human beings are really just machines whose only job is to make sure the codes are passed on for eternity.'

Richard Dawkins was portrayed as the protagonist of this bleak view of human nature, though in fact Dawkins' view is rather more complex, and compatible with Buddhist philosophy.  

Accepting our evolutionary history does not mean rejecting our spirituality. In The Selfish Gene,  Richard  Dawkins says: ''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

The programme tells how the geneticist George Price, appalled at the consequences of the Selfish Gene hypothesis, converted to an extreme form of Christianity in his attempt to rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.  Unfortunately Price's reaction, like so much of the Christian reaction against Darwinism, lacked any rational basis and in Price's case ended in suicide.

Christianity has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion.

Buddhism versus Computationalism in a nutshell
The difference between the Buddhist and the Computationalist view of reality can be stated quite simply:

The Buddhist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure
- Designation by mind

The Computationalist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure

...with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

To the Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality.

Mind and Machine
The Turing Machine provides one of the most easily understood refutations of materialism, physicalism and the mechanistic model of the mind.  Turing believed that "When the body dies the 'mechanism' of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately."

The argument is as follows:

- The behavior of all machines, computers and physical systems is reducible without remainder to the operations of a Turing machine.

- The behavior of the mind shows at least two functions - 'aboutness' (intentionality)  and qualitative experience (qualia) - that cannot in principle be reduced to the operations of a Turing machine.

- Therefore, there are some aspects of the mind that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

See Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine for a full explanation.

More Buddhist arguments against materialism and computationalism.
Further Buddhist arguments against materialism in general, and computationalism in particular, are set out in these previous posts:

"Qualia are internal, subjective qualitative states such as the redness of red, aesthetic experiences of beauty and revulsion, pain, happiness, boredom, depression, elation, motivation, intention, the experience of understanding something for the first time, etc. Such states are subjective and private and are distinct (though causally related to) physical and neural activities...."

"...computers are not only incapable of understanding meaning, but they actually strip all meaning out of anything fed into them..."

...the 'Mother of All Algorithms' - the mental faculty that understands and creates algorithms - is unlikely itself to be algorithmic...

"The great difficulty in talking about non-algorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on, then the phenomenon would be algorithmic).
A typical example of a nonalgorithmic activity is assigning meaning to any object. For example, when is a chariot a heap of firewood? Or when is a car a pile of parts? (as discussed under sunyata). Many processes involving semantics, as distinct from syntax, appear to be non-algorithmic... "

"Reductionism states that:

  • The mind is nothing but the brain.
  • The brain is nothing but a biological system.
  • Biological systems are nothing but chemical interactions.
  • Chemical interactions are nothing but physical interactions.
  • Therefore the mind is nothing but a set of physical interactions.
However, from a Buddhist standpoint, the reductionist argument is flawed at the top, it is flawed at the bottom and it is flawed in the middle... "

"The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest..."

TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.

- Sean Robsville

Related Posts

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

Rational Buddhism

Is Richard Dawkins a Buddhist?

The dumbing down of computer literacy and decline of programming in education

Buddhism versus Materialism



Sunday, 5 June 2011

Jihad against Buddhists in Thailand intensifies

From Atlas Shrugs

Subject line: Unreported story: Thailand mass migration due to Muslim terror
"Here in Thailand things are so bad that every quarter thousands (most likely tens of thousands) of non-Muslim (primarily Buddhist) Thai citizens in the south are abandoning homes, jobs, businesses, land holdings and generations of work to head for safer northern provinces. Their holdings are sold for a song to local Southern Muslims. This is the plan of the Muslim terrorists of course, and it's working. This forced mass migration of Buddhists and abandonment of property and homes in the south of Thailand is a part of terrorism story that is largely unreported in the local or international press.

I have no government sources to back up the numbers (thousands or tens of thousands) but this is not surprising as the government would not wish to acknowledge the huge demographic change in the south in the last few years as this would be an inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase). You must also understand how the Thai national character sometimes prevents the telling of inconvenient truths. The abandoned homes and closed businesses tell the story though and any southern resident can recite a long list of friends and family already gone. Everybody wants out but it's difficult to leave assets and generations of attachment to the land and communities.

Yala Province public Thai schools are closed because all the teachers fled last year. All of them. The local Mosque schools are of course fully staffed and operating. The surging terrorist violence is readily apparent on Wikipedia where a fairly complete list of attacks shows that already in 2011 we have experienced 3 times the entire number of attacks for all 2010 but we're not even half way through the year.

The world is not paying attention to the big picture story in Thailand because no one is pulling it all together. The world hears of an attack here or there, but nothing of the overall impact to the country and the southern Buddhists. There is a mass migration and population shift in progress but the story is not being told..."  More 

See   No future for Buddhism in an Islamized World



Faith and Reason in Buddhism

What is 'faith' in Buddhism?  Is it like faith in other religions, in permanent antagonism to the intellect and requiring you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

From Rational Buddhism:

Buddhism and ...

Faith, the ultimate F-word for rationalists

'For rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, 'Faith' is very much an F-word .

Faith makes a virtue out of believing unprovable and often improbable propositions.  Dawkins contrasts this with the scientific method, which he describes as a system whereby working assumptions may be falsified by recourse to reason and evidence.

The Place of Faith in Buddhism
So is 'Faith' in Buddhism the same kind of unquestioning belief in bizarre and often mutually contradictory assertions as found in other religions, or is it more in the nature of 'Trust'.

Buddha, in his rejection of essentialism and affirmation of the importance of impermanence, displayed an insight into the way that things exist that has only recently been confirmed by science.   Buddhist meditational techniques have also recently been empirically verified to have measurable beneficial effects.  But how far should we trust Buddhist doctrine when it deals with topics that are beyond our present comprehension?

Trusting the Guide to the Path
Consider the situation where we are hiking on a mountain in the Scottish Highlands.

We are following a map, when suddenly a fog closes in and we can only see a few feet ahead.  We decide to get off the mountain as quickly as possible and wait for better weather.   The map shows a quick way down which appears to be shorter than the route we took to get here. But do we trust the map?

Well, there are good maps and not so good maps. There are maps originating from the observations of competent mountaineers using suitable equipment and accurate record keeping, and there are maps originating on the back of beer mats drawn from hazy memories in Highland bars at 11 o'clock at night after traversing the malt whisky shelf. 

So how do we decide whether to follow the route on the map? How do we know it won't lead us over a cliff or into a bog?   Are we prepared to stake our safety and maybe our life on this map?

One way to weigh the risks would be to judge the reliability of the map by what it has shown so far. Has it accurately described the route we've taken?
Or has it shown things that aren't there, and missed out major features that are?   

If Buddha's map to the path has proved accurate up to where we are now, then maybe we should have sufficient faith in it to take us a bit further along the path.'   More



Thursday, 2 June 2011

Alcoholism, Identity and Emptiness

Buddhism and Recovery: Anonymity as Spiritual Foundation 
- Kevin Griffin in The Huffington Post

"Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities."

The recent New York Times article about the 11th Tradition and anonymity stirred up a lot of controversy. But I think the 12th Tradition is ultimately more important.

When you walk into a 12-Step meeting you drop a big part of your identity. Certainly you drop your last name, but you typically don't bring your job title, your bank account, social role and many other unique identifiers. Although you'll very likely talk about some of your life's story, it's usually in the context of your "disease." And the point of that is to talk about what you share with everyone else in the room -- whether it's alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive eating, relationship dysfunction, sex addiction or whatever.

You're not so much trying to establish your individuality as to let go of your sense of uniqueness.

When we stop trying to stand out in this way, we are working from the premise that, as the 12-Step literature says, "Selfishness -- self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles." Dropping our last name and our sense of uniqueness is a way to counter this tendency of trying to be the most special person; of trying to control everything and everyone around us; of putting satisfaction of our own desires before the needs of those around us.

Like many 12-Step ideas, there is a brilliance in this one. Without exactly telling us why we are doing it, the tradition of saying, "Hi, I'm Kevin and I'm..." guides us to an experience of letting go and an insight into our own suffering -- the suffering of self-centeredness.

The Buddha takes this idea even further when he declares that the very idea of a separate self is a misperception. If that is the case, then being self-centered is really a problem because there's nothing there to be centered on!

Many people struggle with this idea, called anatta, which might best be translated as "not-self," as in, "Your name is not your self; your body is not your self; your thoughts are not your self; your feelings are not your self." The Buddha says that if you can't control something, then it doesn't belong to you; you can't claim it as who you are. So, one of the first things we look at when we learn Buddhist meditation is whether we can control any of this stuff, and pretty quickly we learn that we can't. Sure, we can have some influence over them, but when you get sick or obsessed with something or depressed, you obviously are not choosing to have that experience.

This idea that no part of you is yours, that none of these things define you, is, we could say, the spiritual foundation of Buddhism. In some greater sense, then, we are always anonymous. Yes, we can make a sound and say that that sound is "my name," but it's really not. It's just an agreement made by everyone that this body and mind will be called by that sound: "K-e-v-i-n." Me!

The Buddhist teaching, then, points toward the same idea as Tradition Twelve: live by spiritual principles, not by orienting toward self. Follow the Five Precepts of Non-Harming; practice the Noble Eightfold Path; offer lovingkindness and compassion to all beings; live with wisdom and equanimity. In the recovery world, we have similar principles: honesty, integrity, faith, courage, letting go, kindness, generosity, spiritual connection.

It's not that you have to stop being you. The "functional self" continues. You can still talk about "I." It's just that you know that these are simply conventions, not absolute truths. And you know the potential for suffering when you become attached to identity. Oftentimes, when we are struggling, we can simply ask ourselves, "What aspect of my identity is threatened right now? What sense of self am I clinging to?" The answer will usually be apparent. Then the only question is, "Can I let go of that right now?" That's where the real work begins.

Exercise: Who Is Myself?
Make a list of all the roles you play, all your identities, whether it's work, family, friends, your talents, your personality traits, your emotional patterns, your addictive habits. Look at all the things that you call "I," like name, body, memories, plans, accomplishments, etc.

Once you've got the list, go through it one-by-one and ask, "Is this permanent? Could it change? Does it belong to me? Do I control it?" Then ask yourself, "Does this ever cause me pain or discomfort? What would happen if I didn't believe this was 'me'? How can I stop clinging to this identity?" 

Related Post
Sutra and Tantra



Wednesday, 1 June 2011

'Modern Buddhism' now in Public Domain

The author - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Leading Buddhist author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has released the authoritative Modern Buddhism into the public domain as pdf files and eBook formats.

The book is downloadable in three volumes free of charge. 


Topics include:

Volume 1 Sutra
- Introduction
- Paths of Initial, Middling and Great scope
- Bodhichitta, Love and Compassion
- The Six Perfections
- Emptiness of Body, Mind, Ego and the Eight Extremes
- Conventional and Ultimate Truths
- the Union of the Two Truths
- Lamrim

Volume 2 Tantra

- Introduction to Tantra
- Correcting Misunderstandings
- Relation of Sutra to Tantra
- Tantra of Generation Stage
- Tantra of Completion Stage
- The Subtle Body: Channels, Drops, Winds and the Mind
- Mahamudra
- Great Bliss
- Heruka Body Mandala
- Instructions of Vajrayogini
- Yogas of Sleeping, Rising and Experiencing Nectar

Volume 3 Prayers for Daily Practice

- Liberating Prayer
- Prayers for Meditation
- The Yoga of Buddha Heruka
- Blissful Journey
- Quick Path to Great Bliss
- Liberation from Sorrow (Prayers to the very popular female Buddha Tara)
- Avalokiteshvara Sadhana

- Glossary
- Bibliography
- Study Programmes of Kadampa Buddhism
- Tharpa Offices Worldwide
- Index
- Further Reading

About the author