Why should Buddhists think about God? Why should Christians or other theists think about Buddhism? Answer: to get beyond the quick dismissal based on an abstract caricature. Surely, the central concerns of these religions involve facing up to challenges, engaging with the Other? Yet too often Buddhists dismiss God, and theists dismiss Buddhism based on a shortcut abstraction, a mere piece of groupthink in which the complex experiences that underlie the other tradition are turned into a reductively conceptual belief. Belief in God is eternalist error, say Buddhists. Buddhism is a merely human religion with no link to the true inspiration of God, say theists. All is one, say universalists. Surely qualities valued in all these traditions – faith, mindfulness, love, or wisdom – require us to go beyond these inadequate brush-offs?
There are two underlying problems. One is what people are attached to a particular account of what is ‘essentially’ meant by God or by Buddhism. Another is the assumption that religion is all about ‘beliefs’, so that opposed religions are just set in intractable opposition. My own process of thinking about this subject, based in an understanding of the practice of the Middle Way, leads me to question both of these unhelpful sets of assumptions. The Middle Way is not just a Buddhist practice, but a more general way of making sure that we base our judgements on experience rather than dogma, whatever tradition we may be working in.
That we should let go of our supposed ‘essential’ definitions is perhaps the hardest thing for many people. What is God, for instance? An abstract definition of perfection and infinity? A source of certainty? Or a massively empowering archetypal experience of potential, going beyond what we recognise in our current limited lives? The abstract definitions of God, which become a matter of ‘belief’, set conflict in stone before we begin, because absolute assumptions inevitably conflict with each other.
If, however, we recognise God to be an experience, there are no such necessary conflicts. Recognising that experience to be archetypal is a way of understanding its power without in the least underrating it. A symbolic God is no less powerful in our experience than a ‘real’ one, and far from being psychologised away or made ‘relative’, can be seen as all the stronger once liberated from the tyranny of abstract ‘beliefs’.
Of course, much of the perspective that might help us sustain such an experiential attitude to God comes from Buddhism, with its emphasis (at least as interpreted in the West) on practical engagement and working with mental states. But, despite these advantages, Buddhists have no call to be triumphalist, because all the same tendency to use absolute ‘belief’ as a shortcut (in enlightenment, or in the Buddha’s revelation, for instance) can be found in Buddhism as well.
Many Buddhist dismissals of the experience of God come from an out of date error theory that charts the path as one between ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’. If you see the Middle Way in such fixed terms, it is likely to become fixed itself – just another piece of metaphysics. To stop Buddhism also being a matter of ‘belief’, based on inflexible assumptions about what it ‘really’ means, we need to focus, not on concepts of the ‘dharma’ as ‘truth’, or of enlightenment as an end point, but rather on the principles we apply to judgement at each point in our lives. The Middle Way is not a metaphysical abstraction, but a principle of judgement – avoiding both positive and negative absolutes, seeking experiential meaning and justifiable provisional beliefs at each point.
Finally, too, apart from fixed assumptions in theism and in Buddhism, there is a third kind of dogma – the naïve universalism that claims that Buddhism and theistic religions are ‘all one’ because they all point to the same ‘ultimate reality’. There may be a genuine attempt to overcome conflict in such an approach, but its claims about ‘ultimate reality’ are just as dogmatic as anyone else’s. In my book I argue not for a naïve insistence that ‘all is one’, but rather for a critical universalism. In critical universalism, we don’t assume that all traditions are of equal value, but we do subject them all to the same standards, seeking to sort out what is helpful and unhelpful in them. Thus we do not need to abandon our traditions for any kind of vague mish-mash, but can nevertheless be empowered to get beyond the habitual abstract assumptions that entrench us in conflict.
After a lifetime in book publishing I’ve grown accustomed to the art of the elegant disclaimer: the modest suggestion in the Acknowledgements that the author couldn’t possibly have written it without the support of his/her (long-suffering and devoted) family; the invaluable input of (Great and Good) colleagues; and the helpful comments of various close (namedrop) friends.
This is customarily followed by an apology for any remaining errors and oversights (slavery, the empire, global warming etc) and/or a declaration of monstrous self-effacement. The most immodest author I ever worked with began his magnum opus with the statement, ‘Nothing in this book is original.’
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found myself penning words which I can only describe as sincere. When I wrote that this was ‘a genuine case of the more I found out the less I knew’ it was nothing less than the chastening truth. I was, I admit, being slightly less honest when I thanked various friends and scholars for their advice and comments. What they said was often dispiriting because it exposed my all-too-obvious limitations – though I did find some consolation in the fact that none of them seemed to agree with each other. After all, ‘The jewel of Buddhism has many wonderful facets.’
Another unfortunate by-product of a lifetime in publishing is a tendency to be more excited about the book that hasn’t yet been written than by the one that’s about to appear. Pocket BUDDHA already felt very old by the time it popped up on Amazon. Moreover it‘s slightly embarrassing to confess that the 128 pages (including Preface, Endmatter and of course Acknowledgements) took me two years to deliver.
In fairness I had other things to do along the way, and the final 22,500 words were culled from more than five times that amount, after at least thirty rewrites. In fact when I think back to how long it really took me – it’s been over half a lifetime. My desire to write a biography of the Buddha is as old as my interest in practising Buddhism.
I’m struck by three words from that last sentence: ‘Buddhism’, ‘practising’ and ‘biography’.
Who or what is a Buddhist? I have a long-held scepticism of all ‘isms’ (including Scepticism) and the more I found out about the varieties of what is labelled ‘Buddhism’ the more difficult it became to generalise with confidence. It was all so much easier before I started!
As to practising, I’ve always struggled with sectarian divides and ‘faith’ groups; but the paradoxical effect of bumping up against the limits of my intellect was just that – a recognition that Buddhism is about more than merely rational argument. I think I’d always known this in my heart of hearts. Deep truth lies in poetry rather than prose.
In terms of biography, the more I wrote the more I was struck by the essential paradox of trying to encapsulate the ‘life’ of a man whose teaching was all about impermanence and the idea of ‘no fixed self’. I remain convinced that the Buddha was an actual historical human being. But the idea of writing a ‘biography’ with its conventions of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ became increasingly difficult as it was obvious that the evidence was so distant and had been so elaborated over time.
More and more I realised the importance of a book I’d read many years ago – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse – and the love affair I’d had with the beauty of his writing and the sublime quality of his vision. This, I realised, had shaped my quest for someone (no doubt idealised) who not only asked the questions I had, but actually embodied the answer to those questions.
I guess what it boils down to is giving myself permission to find out what I thought and why I thought it. That way, I figured, at least one reader would be happy. I’m not sure I succeeded; but I excuse myself that, in the pursuit of an essentially selfish goal, I may have reached out to some other people along the way.
So there you have it. A disclaimer to a disclaimer! I just hope the Buddha would have understood.
From charcoal grey through to lightly-toasted brown, from ochre to gaudy leopard-print yellow, the colours of rusting, rotting leaves lie thickly layered underfoot. Under this dense blanket bulbous, ankle-twisting flints and hefty chunks of chalk are lurking; you need good boots for an autumn walk in my local woods.
For over five thousand years these tracks have witnessed the coming and going of humanity. Some are worn into deep, scooped hollows and rounded above by overhanging branches to form magical tunnels. Few people come here now. It’s a place of peace and silence, left to the fallow deer and the badgers, the solitary heron and garrulous mallards.
I’ve been watching the beautiful decay of this particular wood for several years now. Its creaking grandeur, like all the natural landscapes I have lived near and loved, is tracing the same, inescapable cycle of birth, decline, death and renewal. I go into the landscape to feel part of that cycle, to be at peace with the impermanence of my own physical self.
As a student in Yorkshire, nearly forty years ago, I loved how the beech woods sagged under heavy rain and the distinctive, unapologetic smell of mud. At weekends I regularly tramped the seven or so miles cross-country from Horsforth to Otley wearing inadequate boots and with no return bus fare. I had just enough money for a bag of chips and the energy to be certain of making it there and back before dark. Through snowy copses, past flocks of skittish ewes and herds of ponderous dairy cows I walked and walked, a feeling of contentment expanding in my chest at every step. The embrace of the landscape was tangible; crags didn’t judge me, the wind blasted hawthorn had no expectations of my behaviour. No matter how fierce the weather, the scenery remained trustworthy, a safe companion. Here, emotional burdens floated off and scudded out of sight. I had faith in our connection, the landscape and me, and it never disappointed. The call of rooks from blackened winter treetops still makes my heart sing.
Several years later, at a time in my life when they were almost forgotten, those feelings of joy and connection were reignited by the Buddhist teacher, Daisaku Ikeda. Meeting his writings marked the beginning of a spiritual adventure I’ve now been enjoying for thirty years. Mine was not a conversion but a homecoming. Buddhist teachings articulated for me what I already sensed to be the truth of my existence. In Nichiren Buddhism I found a framework within which I could develop and deepen that understanding. But Buddhist practice was not a place to retreat into from time to time, like a landscape; instead it taught me how to build courage and carry it with me into the whirl and worry of everyday life.
As I moved into middle age, and the existential shift of the menopause, hot flushes, fatigue and loss of confidence temporarily shook my equilibrium.
There were days when I wondered if I was sliding into my grave and would be found one evening, propped against the kitchen sink, still clutching a mug of cold tea. At my funeral my husband would say, ‘She died staring out at the overgrown garden, unable to reach it.’ These feelings were the tangible result of decreasing hormone levels. The chemical tides that once turned on a monthly basis, lashing me to woman’s most primitive biological purpose, had ebbed. They slipped out silently and without warning, wreaking mental and biological havoc on their way.
I returned to long walks in the landscape for space, solitude and reassurance, but this time they were enriched by several decades of Buddhist practice. Unlike the young student who walked for temporary relief from social awkwardness or exam pressure, I now walked as if with an old friend. Solitude in the landscape remains one of my great spiritual joys. When I am walking those bumpy, ancient tracks I reflect with contentment on the decomposition of leaves and the steady erosion of the hillside. Nothing is being lost but space is being made for the new. Everything, including our own lives is subject to this impermanence. The falling leaves of autumn are a reassurance that seasons continue to turn, that life at a molecular level is never extinguished but only re-formed.
In writing Buddhism and the Menopause I wanted to share this feeling of ‘reassurance in impermanence’ and to encourage other women to sense that the passing of each season is not just another milestone on the way to being older, less attractive and less useful, but a glorious reminder that everything turns and returns in its time.
You can read a sample of Claire’s book here.
When I was first invited to consider writing a Mud Pie Slice, I thought of all the subjects I could attach to the title ‘Buddhism and’: Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, Emptiness, Attention, Mindfulness, Meditation … All these topics were tempting; but they were revisitations of themes I had explored earlier. So wilder suggestions arose, fired by my other enthusiasms – Buddhism and Art, Buddhism and Gardening, Buddhism and Horse-riding, Buddhism and Ecology.
And, and, and …
Suddenly I was struck by the repetition and the transformative power of that little word ‘AND’. All of the books I had written, from psychotherapy (The Resonance of Emptiness: A Buddhist Inspiration for a Contemporary Psychotherapy, 2000),to its expansion in the world of neuroscience (Beyond Happiness: Deepening the Dialogue between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences, 2008),to the concept of emptiness (A Philosophy of Emptiness, 2014), and most recently to practices of attention (Attention: Beyond Mindfulness, 2017), could be tied together by the phrase ‘Buddhism and’.
The ‘and’ had been the stepping stone from one topic to the next, each linking in some way to the previous one and each gaining something in the process. All of these issues (and their interdependence) acquired extra resonance and richness from being viewed through the lens of Buddhist thought and considered in the light of age-old Buddhist insights and practices.
So this brief conjunction ‘AND’ has allowed me to cast my net wide, to include all the facets of Buddhist teachings that seem most alive, relevant and rewarding to me today. The central wisdom of Dependent Origination – the net of Indra which supports the world and our consciousness – is its foundation. Its other face is emptiness – the dynamic quality that goes beyond all fixity, mediates between all duality, and, far from being a lack, is the very basis of abundant fullness, the space that allows for form.
I’ve always been what I term a ‘freelance’ Buddhist, attached to no particular school or sangha (whilst attempting to evade accusations of eclecticism and possible superficiality by careful study of its many branches). What attracts me are the Dharma’s psychological insights and supremely practical message about living well. I first came across Buddhist ideas as a teenager in the Zen writings of Hubert Benoit and Alan Watts. Later, in my twenties, I visited Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Centre in the UK, where, sitting by a lily pond, I received meditation instruction from Akong Rinpoche. Much later came both formal study and organised retreats. I studied Buddhism at SOAS, where Learning was comprehensive but Belief frowned upon. At the same time I began training as a psychotherapist using a Buddhist-influenced approach, where, by contrast, all theory and intellectualisation were devalued in favour of attention to emotion and intuition. I found that attending to both aspects at the same time enabled me to keep as sense of balance and perspective, which I now see as a helpful example of ‘AND’ at work.
Writing this Mud Pie Slice has allowed me to explore further the teachings of Buddhism which I have found most personal, practical and relevant, and the many ‘AND’s to which they can beneficially lead. This has been a springboard into the world of writing, art and other experiences that so enrich my life. Just as the early psychology of the Buddha illuminates the way our minds work and has so much in common with the findings of contemporary neuroscience, so the creativity and attention of artists and writers reveal the contextuality and the emptiness of which Buddhist texts speak. The ‘AND’ points in all directions, a small yet vital indication of interdependence.
So I have come to greatly appreciate the importance of that little and so often neglected word, which stitches a Buddhist approach to each and every subject – the brief conjunction which reveals the rich, complex interdependence and the impermanence of everything. If a modest mud pie expressed the noble intention of a gift to the Buddha, so may the humble ‘AND’ convey the wonder and richness of Buddhist thought.
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.
The 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
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.
The 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.
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.
Click here to find out about learning Pali online.
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?’
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:
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.’
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
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.
 Understand to Prevent: The military contribution to the prevention of violent conflict, MCDC, 2014.
 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1988.
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.