Being is Believing (plus an invitation)


It’s been a strange feeling, re-encountering pages written over a decade ago: a bit like dusting off a family photograph album, or bumping into an old flame. Did we really look like that? How could we think those clothes were stylish? Will we get on? How will we have changed?

As it happens, when it came to producing an eBook of What Do Buddhist Believe? (first published by Granta Books and, to my delight, translated into half a dozen languages) I still agree with what the younger me said – which is either worrying or reassuring. So the good people at Mud Pie took the decision to republish the book as it stands, changing fewer than a hundred words.

Hand with beadsThe core Buddhist tenets have stood the test of time, of course. Circumstances, however, have changed a lot. Since the book appeared, four people named in the text have died: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gadaffi and Leonard Cohen. It’s worth reflecting on which of them most enriched the world – and why.

It might also be worth looking again at the choice of title, which was – and remains – intentionally provocative. Buddhists come in all shapes and sizes, from all sorts of backgrounds and all parts of the world. Generalising about nearly half a billion people is a dangerous exercise! What I’ve tried to do, therefore, is give a sense of some of the most important and interesting facets of Buddhism – and suggest a few reasons why, in an age which seems increasingly disenchanted with organised religion, Buddhism appears to be thriving.

As to the question of Belief, here’s a short extract from the beginning of the book:

* *  *  *  *

The Buddha was once asked by an eager student what happens to us after we die. He deflected the question with a joke. But the earnest enquirer persisted. So the Buddha turned to him and said:

Listen – if you had just been shot by a poison-tipped arrow, you wouldn’t be standing there asking me, ‘Who fired it? What did they look like? Where did they come from?’ … You’d be saying: ‘Help! Get this arrow out! Quick!’

The point the Buddha wanted to make is that it is important to attend to what is urgent and a matter of fact, rather than getting distracted by speculations and theories. We must live in the here and now. Priorities matter.

This fundamentally pragmatic approach is what makes Buddhism so distinctive. It is also what makes the title of this book at first appear rather odd. For Buddhists aren’t primarily concerned with believing and thinking; their main interest is in beingand doing. Buddhists do what they do because they want to become wiser and happier. It is hard to think of any religion or philosophy that wouldn’t support the same aims, but few are as explicit about it. In the words of the Dalai Lama: ‘The very purpose of life is to seek happiness.’ What that means in Buddhist practice (as well as theory) is the subject of this book.

There is only one way to find out whether Buddhism works or not: by testing the teachings in daily life. Of course it is important to listen to what other people have to say and to read and study the scriptures (which are voluminous); but there is no substitute for direct, actual, personal experience. In the words of the Buddha: ‘That which you affirm [must be] that which you have realised, seen, known for yourself.’

The Buddha was emphatic about this. Every proposition should be tested rigorously before being accepted or rejected. Belief based on theory was one thing, knowledge grounded in personal experience another. The Buddha might not altogether have approved of the title of this book therefore.

Perhaps a better question would be: ‘Does Buddhism work? Does it make your life more meaningful?’ The answer to this would be a resounding and unequivocal ‘Yes’. There aren’t many questions to which nearly four hundred million people, living in all corners of the world, would respond unanimously, so this in itself is highly significant.

And the question gets more interesting the more it is explored. ‘Meaningfulness’ can be understood on a number of levels:

Philosophically: why are we born?

Historically: how did we get here?

Psychologically: who are we?

Morally: how should we behave?

Politically: what action should we take?

Cosmically: where are we going?

This book attempts to offer some answers to all of these questions, and I hope several more.

Finally, how much has Buddhism changed over the years? Is being a Buddhist now any different from being a Buddhist in the past? Two hundred years ago there were virtually no Buddhists in the West. Now there are over a million in Europe and approximately five million in the United States. Two millennia ago there were very few Buddhists outside India and hundreds of thousands in it. Now they represent only a tiny minority of that subcontinent’s population (though, interestingly, there is great  interest among the so-called Untouchables or Dalits) whilst elsewhere in the world their numbers are expanding rapidly.

The increasing popularity of Buddhism across very different cultures and at a time of increased secularism and suspicion of ‘organised religion’ is interesting in itself. Why are more and more people in the West taking up Buddhism? What is it that they think Buddhism has to offer that other belief systems don’t? Is Buddhism becoming more popular because it answers some of the pressing questions posed by living in the twenty-first century? Or has the definition of ‘Buddhism’ become so flexible as to be effectively useless?

It is clear, for example, that people who call themselves Buddhist vote in many different ways (or don’t, or aren’t allowed to vote), so there can’t be such a thing as a monolithic ‘Buddhist view’ of politics. Similarly, not all Buddhists are vegetarians, or agree about the role of women in society, or the causes of poverty and its alleviation, or the best way to raise children or prevent war. Buddhists even seem to disagree about some apparently very basic ‘theological’ questions, like which is the most important of the Buddha’s teachings, what precisely it means to be enlightened, or whether or not belief in rebirth is essential. Some commentators feel we should talk about ‘Buddhisms’ in the plural and focus on its practitioners rather than searching for a set of core, universal premises.

How often or how intensely Buddhists ask themselves about their identity and their belief system will obviously depend on who they are and on their circumstances. To be born into a Buddhist family, in a culture where Buddhists predominate and where its outward signs – temples, statues, robed monks – are everywhere to be seen, is very different from being a first generation ‘convert’ in a culture where Buddhists are in a tiny minority. One is the inherited norm, the other an explicit choice.

Which brings us back to the question raised at the beginning: what Buddhists say and do – how people act meaningfully on their beliefs. The two things don’t follow necessarily. I often wonder whether, if he were to come back today, the Buddha would recognise many of the things which are being said and done in his name – just as I wonder whether Christ or Mohammed would be horrified by some of the causes for which their support is invoked. There are misguided zealots and hypocrites in all cultures. But it would be interesting to know, at the very least, whyBuddhists agree that being a Buddhist makes their lives more meaningful and how they feel – or possibly even believe– it affects the way they live.

 

* *  *  *  *

And now for that Invitation I mentioned …

In this book I’ve highlighted the wide variety of Buddhist practices, and tried to convey a sense of what people find works best for them. To that end, I’ve interviewed a number of practising Buddhists from different traditions and asked:  What difference do you believe your practice makes in your daily life?’ You can see what they have to say here.

 This is where the Invitation comes in. I’d love to find out what YOU think. Do, please, take up the opportunity to let me know what you do and what difference you’ve experienced. Simply click here and fill in the box.

After you’ve bought the eBook of course! … BUY E-BOOK

Hearing the Buddha


Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by Allah. Christians believe that what Christ said and did was recorded for us, after his death, by the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who knew Jesus personally. The Buddhist position is slightly more complicated because the Buddha lived in a pre-literate age, and his teachings were not written down until several centuries after his death.

Buddhism and Pali coverThe oldest surviving texts are in the language known as Pali. Collectively, they are referred to as the Pali Canon. Followers of one Buddhist tradition, the Theravada, equate these texts with ‘the words of the Buddha’. They accept that the Canon was established at a Council of his closest followers held soon after the Buddha’s death, and that this body of teaching has been faithfully transmitted by monks and nuns ever since. They accept that Pali must therefore be the language in which the Buddha preached. The texts, they believe, are an accurate transcription of his words.

Other Buddhist traditions take different views. They note that several other versions of the same texts, composed in different Indian languages, are known to have existed; some are lost, but several fairly full versions have survived in Chinese translations. They accept that the First Council took place much as described in the Pali Canon, but that the texts then established were the versions proposed in their own traditions. Though the Chinese translations are mostly dated (within the Christian era), we have no solid clues as to the dates of the composition of their Indian originals.

In recent years some scholars of Buddhism, particularly in America, have gone further. They argue that there may never have been such an individual as Gotama Buddha, and that, even if there was, we can know virtually nothing about him or about the dating of all the canonical texts.

I disagree!

In this short book I describe the Pali language and its place in history. I discuss how the texts were composed and preserved in an age when there was no writing. I use strands of what we know about the language and society of the time to construct an argument which makes it appear possible, even probable, that Pali is the language that the Buddha used as he walked to and fro, through the villages of northern India, preaching and interacting with the people he met along the way. I argue that, in order to understand and in turn to be understood by them, the Buddha developed a composite dialect containing a great many local variants. And I suggest that, as he gathered disciples, some of whom travelled with him, the language of his preaching became known as the ‘language for recitation’ (which is what ‘Pali’ means); and evolved into the private (not secret) language of the religious community which he founded, the Sangha.

My claim that Pali was the language used by the Buddha will not come as a surprise to traditional Buddhists, because they have always believed it. They have believed it, however, without always being aware of the difficulties such a notion involves for people from more technologically advanced countries. To give just one example: it is surely remarkable that without writing, let alone any more modern technology for recording speech, all these texts could be accurately preserved for centuries? How could this be?

I point to the fact that students of Sanskrit who have learned at the feet of traditional teachers have observed how not only their Indian pupils but also Western visitors can acquire mnemonic powers of which we did not know we were capable. Another relevant study is modern linguistics: fieldwork has shown that parts of India have evolved common languages which occupy a middle ground between local dialects and the formalised language used by the educated elites.

The more I discover, the more intrigued I have become by the radical possibility that we can get closer than we ever thought to the actual words of the Buddha. If I’m right and Pali, or something very much like it, really was the language he spoke with his close followers, this has profound implications for the history of Buddhism.

Richard Gombrich

Click here to find out about learning Pali online.

7/7


77g

On 7 July 2005, four young men travelled from Leeds to London – and blew themselves to pieces. Three of them exploded their bombs on London Underground trains and one on a Number 30 bus. Between them they killed 52 innocent people and wounded 784 more, many with life-changing injuries.

The shock waves raced around the world, along with the defining image of the event – the mangled remains of a red double-decker bus, an iconic image of London struck by a monstrous act of terror. Coming only four years after an even more monstrous act in a major Western city – 9/11 – the attack was quickly dubbed 7/7. As with the New York attack, it’s a shorthand label that has kept the date alive during the passing years.

For me, 7/7 has another significance, because on that very day in 2005 my book The Buddha, Geoff and Me was published. The contradiction of the timing struck me at once.

Geoff is the story of a cynical young man who is looking for meaning and direction in his life. In some ways, in his disillusion and alienation, he’s perhaps not so different from the four young men who became the 7/7 bombers. Unlike them, though, he encounters a teaching not of rage, vengeance and violence but its very opposite – Buddhism.

A fundamental tenet of Buddhist thought is that everyone possesses the Buddha nature, a state of being characterised by wisdom, courage and compassion. Normally this state lies dormant but, given the right trigger, it can be awakened and revealed in daily life; just as our anger sleeps within us until something pokes it and brings it boiling up from within. For the young man in my book, the trigger for his Buddha nature is meeting and becoming friends with Geoff, a down-to-earth, beer-drinking, roll-up-smoking Buddhist.

So – to return to the contradiction – here I was on 7/7 publishing a book about a young man’s journey to develop the best aspect of human life while, on the very same day, four young men were enacting the worst.

The irony was not lost on my best mate, who – it’s fair to say – is less than convinced by the Buddhist view of things.

‘So where was their Buddha nature then, eh? Forget to pack it in their exploding rucksacks?’

Good question.

My answer – that in these four bombers it hadn’t yet been awoken – didn’t cut any ice with my friend. As he pointed out, even practising Buddhists can behave badly. History has seen Buddhist monks arming themselves to fight battles over land and property, contemporary Buddhism has not covered itself in nonviolent glory in Sri Lanka or Myanmar – and ‘Even you’re not exactly a paragon of virtue,’ he reminded me.

All true, but also pointing to a deeper truth.

The highest Buddhist teachings – there are several levels – explain that we all experience constantly changing life states, some of which seem to directly contradict each other; for example, anger and the Buddha nature. And yet, Buddhism says, these apparently contradictory life states co-exist within us; sometimes active, at other times dormant. Which means, as the Buddhist sage Nichiren observed, that ‘Even a heartless villain loves his wife and children. He too has a portion of the bodhisattva world within him.’ In other words, for all his villainy, ‘the bodhisattva world within him’ enables him to care about others (of his choosing) and work to protect and nurture them.

I recalled this observation when I learnt about Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers. Before he left for what was later discovered to be a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, in November 2004, his wife had filmed a video of him dandling their baby daughter on his knee and lovingly kissing her goodbye. After the bombing, a note he’d written for his wife and daughter came to light. ‘Sorry I can’t be there, hope you understand. I love you all and inshallah [God willing] will meet you the best of places Jannah [heaven].’

Khan had worked as a primary school teaching assistant, helping children with behavioural problems. He was also a youth worker and had arbitrated in a dispute between rival gangs. As the Guardian reported:

Few men were more popular on the streets of Beeston than the 30-year-old family man. Recognised by his sensible sweaters and neat, coiffured hairstyle, Khan’s respectability peaked nine months ago when he visited Parliament as the guest of a local MP. There he was praised for his teaching work. Even now, those who hang about Cross Flatt’s Park describe him as their mentor.

In other words, Mohammad Sidique Khan seemed to have quite a large ‘portion of the bodhisattva world within him’ – so how on earth was he capable of such a hideous act?

The answer routinely given is that, as with every other murderous terrorist, he was ‘radicalised’ – that is, his mind was somehow twisted to adopt a brutal, vicious ideology with no regard for human decency or the lives of innocent people.

I have trouble with this explanation – it simplifies something that experts agree is actually pretty complex. So might an analysis based on another insight of Buddhist philosophy be helpful here – namely, the function of honzons in our lives? I wrote a short explanation not long ago for a military project in which I’ve been closely involved:[1]

Honzon is a Japanese word that expresses the idea of core beliefs in its two composite characters.

  • hon — fundamental
  • zon — object of respect, veneration or devotion

The concept derives from Eastern religious thought and can be broadly interpreted as referring to what a person bases their life on, consciously or unconsciously, to give it meaning. It is similar to the concept of psychological centrality, and what the organisational expert Steven Covey calls ‘centers’.

Each of us has a center, though we usually don’t recognize it as such. Neither do we recognize the all-encompassing effects of that center on every aspect of our lives.’[2]

A honzon can be defined as a person’s most essential needs attached to a specific goal, activity or object, real or abstract. A person’s self-identity is closely bound to his or her honzon. All individuals and groups have a honzon, which is also the basis of individual and group morality. For example, a person might never be violent – except to protect his or her honzon. Examples of honzons include the following.

Family                                   Key relationship

Peer group                           Organisation/team

Animal/pet                          Power

Fame                                     Status

Wealth                                  Possession(s)

Work/career                       Talent/activity

Pleasure/fun                       A substance

Mission                                 Belief system

Abstract principle              Nature

Culture/land/nation         The enemy

For as long as our honzon is perceived to be intact, within reach or recoverable, we will draw strength and inspiration from it. The picture of our family or loved one in time of stress, the nation’s flag raised on the battlefield, the thought that the many hours of training or study will eventually bring fame or wealth; these are all day-to-day examples of the motivational power of a honzon.

On the other hand, the loss of our honzon leads to confusion, suffering, decline and even death. A threat to (or denial of) our honzon is the most serious of all challenges and can prompt the earliest and strongest reaction.

To my mind, radicalisation in essence consists of honzon replacement (or elevation). What the extremist previously saw as fundamental, the centre of his or her being – family, career, whatever – is supplanted by a ‘higher order’ belief system that relegates all other possible honzons to a lower rank. A new ‘higher order’ morality comes with this belief system that provides meaning and structure; in short, anything that advances or sustains the new honzon is ‘good’ and anything that obstructs or attacks it is ‘evil’. And the evil must be resisted, with violence if necessary.

Crucially, one common characteristic of violent extremists is that they consistently frame their lethal actions in defensive terms. In their minds, they are protecting their honzons. This is an extract from Khan’s pre-bombing video message:

Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.

Similarly, when he murdered the pro-EU MP Jo Cox during the EU referendum campaign, the right-wing extremist Thomas Mair shouted ‘Britain first, this is for Britain!’, ‘Britain will always come first!’, ‘We are British independence!’ and ‘Make Britain independent!’ No prizes for guessing which honzon he thought he was protecting. Again, Anders Brevik, who killed 77 people in the 2011 Norway attacks, claimed to be defending Europe from the ‘cultural suicide’ of Islam and feminism. For him, ‘European culture’ – whatever that means – trumped all other honzons.

Unlike Khan, Thomas Mair and Anders Brevik were not pillars of their local community – far from it. In fact, a significant number of violent extremists, at least in Europe, share backgrounds of petty criminality and anti-social behaviour that already set them apart from mainstream society. Joining or identifying with an extremist group – and the honzon it chooses to revere – is not then such a big step, especially if they meet it in prison.

In short, many acts of political violence, including by states, can be understood through the lens of the honzons we adopt and the morality that we develop around them.

But understanding is only the first step. To solve this problem we need wisdom, courage and compassion, demonstrated in the thoughts, words and actions of more and more people. For if the War on Terror has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot kill our way out of this cul-de-sac. The more death we put into the system, the more death seems to come out of it, year by year.

The ultimate challenge perhaps is to find a honzon that has, as its central value, supreme respect for the dignity of life itself and to promote that widely in society. Perhaps then the wisdom, courage and compassion we so badly need will start to arise in abundance. And perhaps then the seemingly endless repetition of events like 7/7 will dwindle to the point where they’re no more than a bad memory of ages long ago.

So that’s my thought as we mark 7/7 for another year – wisdom, courage and compassion. And life, not death.

Eddy Canfor-Dumas

 

[1] Understand to Prevent: The military contribution to the prevention of violent conflict, MCDC, 2014.

[2] The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1988.

View from the mud


 

shutterstock_292004123Hello and Welcome!

I’ve been a practising Buddhist for over 20 years and a recovering publisher for nearly 30 – or maybe it’s vice versa.

The idea of Mud Pie has lived with me for much of that time.

At last technology – along with the help of some very skilful people – has made it possible to realise the vision.

It’s a clear and simple vision – not at all muddy really. A place where you can find outstanding books by inspiring and talented writers.

Over the coming months and years we’ll be featuring a pieload of great work.

We’ll also be highlighting a number of key Buddhist links and connections.

Plus some other treats …

We’re open to all suggestions for developing the site and the books we feature, so do get in touch.

Tony Morris