28 March 2008

You say you want a revolution?

The environment is going belly up. Wars, violent insurgencies, armed conflicts are the norm; kids with guns turn up at school and shoot their classmates, or shoot each other in the streets. The list goes on. What the world needs now, more than anything, a Buddhist might say, is the Dharma, even a Dharma Revolution.

Buddhism has always been, along with Islam and Christianity, a missionary religion. Right from the beginning the Buddha set out to convince people that his Awakening was accessible to all, to convert them. In the past Buddhism has been a great force for good in Asia - spreading education, literacy, and positive values, promoting stable societies. Buddhist states, contrary to popular opinion, have not always been at peace with themselves, or with the neighbours. But I do see Buddhist teachings and practices as a practical solution to life's problems, large and small. There's a vocal minority who are antithetical to spreading the Dharma. In the UK, for instance, those organisations which have been most active in going out to people with the Dharma, that have spread the Buddhavācā most effectively are frequently attacked for "empire building" - almost as though spreading the Dharma was a bad thing! The more people who take on Buddhist precepts the better as far as I'm concerned.

In the 1960's and 70's the hippies took to the Dharma like ducks to water. They were ready willing and able to start practising and to take it all seriously enough to be transformed by it. Many of the current leaders of various Western Buddhist movements came out of that counter-cultural undercurrent. However the 1980's followed: I could sum the the Zeitgeist of my era as "a loss of idealism". The result was nihilism and hedonism. The hippies were hopelessly naive, and the X generation knew it. The result is that Western Buddhism is largely still drawing converts from the hippy generation. Sanghas across all divides are getting older on average. We are not attracting young people to Buddhism.

Creating a "Dhamma revolution" will not be easy in the West. I actually see more potential in India with its massive under-classes who are enthusiastically embracing Buddhism. If we are going to do it, then I believe that Malcolm Gladwell has much to tell us on the subject of spreading our message. Its a while since I read his book "The Tipping Point" so this isn't a formal review, but a paraphrasing based on memory. I do think that any revolutionary manifesto must take into account what Gladwell says - he draws his examples from the most successful revolutions, mega-trends, and plagues in history.

The successful revolutionary committee comprises three basic skills: the Maven, the Networker, and the Persuader. The Maven knows stuff. It is the Maven who will see what needs to happen, what people really need or want. They see the trends in society - in which case Gladwell himself is a Maven. In a Buddhist context we don't need to worry too much about this. The Buddha was our Maven. He discovered what we should do about suffering.

However knowing what to do is not enough. One has to get other people on board. Other people must be persuaded that what the Maven says is correct. Ironically, perhaps, the Maven is often not a good persuader. Persuaders are able to get the message across. Someone has to sell the message. I think the Dalai Lama is probably the best example of this. Bookshops are full of his books - they have crowded other authors out in many cases. He gets amazing press coverage as well, and is as far as I know, always portrayed positively in the West. It's not enough to have the Dharma for ourselves. I would count us as having been successful, for instance, when the whole creation/evolution debate broadens out to include a Buddhist perspective.

However even the ability to know what to say, and how to say it, is insufficient. One must know who to say it to. And this is the skill brought to the mix by the networker. They know everyone, and they know who does what. They know who, if persuaded, will make all the difference. For instance the Dalai Lama meeting George Bush is not going to create a Dhamma Revolution because Bush is on his way out, he a fundamentalist Christian. Those meetings may well help to secure the safety of the Tibetan refugees in exile - an admirable goal - but they won't make much difference on a larger scale. Elected leaders have a problem that the emperors of China and Japan did not have - they were not subject to the will of the people. In Asia it was often the adoption of Buddhism by the aristocracy that made the difference in its survival - just as the adoption of Christianity by Roman Emperors resulted in a Christian Europe. And yet its clear that royal patronage is fickle. The question then is who do we reach in order to make a difference? I'm not sure that we know the answer to that yet, but I suspect that "ageing hippies" is not going to be it.

Propagating the ideas of Buddhism - such as personal responsibility for actions, and the revolutionary transformative power of kindness and generosity - in the West will be difficult. People are on the whole wealthy, governments are popularist, personal responsibility is no valued, individualism is the rule. But if we are going to do it then I think Gladwell is offering us a blueprint. Working out the details will be interesting.

image: Malcolm Gladwell, from PomeRantz

21 March 2008

An Experience of Awakening?

A friend sent me this today, and I was so struck by it that I thought I'd make it the basis of my rave today. It's billed as "what it feels like to have a stroke", which it does describe. Because of her ability to observe and articulate her observations (the benefits of a scientific training!) we get an incredibly detailed account of the progress of Jill's stroke. She notices a lot more than the average person might, and her neuroscience training gives her a vocabulary and a conceptual framework to understand and communicate her experience. However it goes well beyond the what happens when parts of her brain start shutting down. Perhaps it is best to watch the video clip and then read my comments.

I'll just summarise what Jill says about the hemispheres.

Left: linear/methodical, interested in past and future, interested in details. The left hemisphere categorises, associates, and makes projections and predictions about the future. It thinks in language and is responsible for our internal chatter. Source of the though "I am" - separate individual.

Right: interested in here and now. Thinks in pictures and kinesthetics. Information as a flow of energy, experiences as a collage. Interested in how here and now looks, sounds, smells etc. Knows that we are all one, perfect, whole and beautiful.

Once Jill's stroke is underway it suppresses the activity in her left hemisphere. She describes the experience in terms of losing a sense of the distinction between the atoms of her arm and the atoms of the wall, and not being able to define the boundaries of her body. There is just energy and she is captivated by this. At the same time her "internal brain chatter" falls silent. She has an expansive feeling, and feels "at one with all the energy" and "it's beautiful there". When her recollection of her past falls away it is a profound relief - imagine losing 37 years of emotional baggage! It was euphoric. All job stress was gone, all stress of any kind was gone, and there was an experience of profound peacefulness.

What Jill is using a language that anyone familiar with Buddhism should be acquainted with. She talks about losing a sense of being a limited and isolated self, of losing the "I am" (ahaṇkāra). The immersion in right-brain consciousness gave her a sense of unboundedness (aparimāna) associated with euphoria (sukha, pamojja, piti), and sense of unbounded love for and solidarity with everyone (mettañca sabbalokasmiṃ mānasam bhāvaye aparimānaṃ - Metta Sutta). She repeats the word "peace" (śanti). She gestures and describes a sense of liberation (vimutti). The falling silent of internal chatter sounds very much like entering the second dhyana. However she does not describe things in terms of dependent arising, and I can't help wondering what she would make of the teaching on this.

Jill is describing a classic mystical experience which is familiar to those described in many religious traditions. What is interesting is how closely her explanation follows the conceptual landscape of Buddhism. She doesn't say whether she follows any particular tradition.There ar of course resonances with other traditions. At times she appears to be describing the insight that is summarised as "I am brahman" in the Upaniṣads, for instance. Interestingly Jill does not meet God, or interpret her experience in theistic terms. What makes Jills story profound is that she retains the ability to experience that kind of consciousness, more or less at will (is what she implies anyway). This resonates very powerfully with my own spiritual aspirations.

It seems very likely that Jill's stroke affected that part of her brain that has been dubbed the "God Spot". More recent research has shown that it is more of a network of a dozen or so regions than a spot, but the name is evocative. Stimulation of the brain, whether by epileptic seizure or electrodes applied to the scalp, has been able to reproduce the kinds of feelings that mystics and Jill are talking about. Atheists have taken this as proof of the non-existence of God, but that is to suggest that they understand the effect which is claiming too much. How could, for instance mediation - intense samādhi - produce a vision or an experience of unboundedness? No one knows. No one really understands the relationship between the brain and consciousness except to say that we do know there is one.

Of course what is missing from Jill's presentation is any kind of method. Jill says that anyone can choose what kind of consciousness they dwell in from moment to moment. But we can't follow Jill because she achieved this Awakening via a life threatening (random?) blood clot. And actually although it sounds it, in practice changing our level of consciousness is not that easy. Fortunately the Buddha has described a method which is reported to produce just these kinds of experiences, especially the experience of blissful unbounded consciousness which sees things in terms of energy (ie process) and which makes no distinction between self and other.

Dr Jill Bolte Taylor also has a book out called My Stroke of Insight, and an interesting website.

14 March 2008

Unicode : its time has come.

Downloads from visiblemantra.org

Times Ext Roman
Self installing Windows font, just double click.

Jayarava's Indic Keyboard Map
zipped archive with map files, and some documentation on installation.

I'm fairly sure that these files are virus free but do your own scan.

They work for me but may not work for you

I've started to use Unicode a lot more in this and other places. In fact you will need to use Unicode to read this post. What is it, and why use it? Unicode is a standard for the encoding of letters and other written characters. In the old days the Americans (bless 'em) created a standard way of encoding English which is known by it's acronym: ASCII. Each letter was a assigned a number and this made encoding text much easier for computers. ASCII used one byte (8 bits) which gave it a limit of 256 characters. This just about does it for English, but of course many other languages are in use in the world, and some of them don't stick to the plain Roman characters familiar to English language speakers. Unicode solves this problem by using two bytes giving 256 x 256 = 65536 possibilities. Even this places limits, but it does mean that encoding non-Roman scripts is a possibility, and it also allows us to use a full range of diacritic marks - which is where it gets interesting for me.

I falteringly read Pāli, and I use a lot of Pāli and Sanskrit terms in my writing. Diacritics do matter in the writing of Indic languages. For instance the retroflex unvoiced stop ( ṭ ) is different from the dental unvoiced stop ( t ). Compare them in Devanāgarī for instance: ट and त are not at all alike, and are clearly distinguished in pronunciation. However in the early days of popular writing about Buddhism, publishers, who did not have readily available fonts to cope with the diacritics, nor proof readers who knew what they meant, just decided to do without them. Unfortunately this became the fashion. Scholars used them of course and this became a bit of a dividing line - serious Buddhist writing uses diacritics, but popular Buddhism does not. There is no good reason to continue this, but it's become a habit.

Until quite recently the internet reinforced this bad habit. HTML simply could not cope with anything other than ASCII (and it's one byte descendants). Several ASCII based encoding systems were invented. Let's say I want to write paṭicca-samuppāda. Two of the common methods of doing it in text look like this:
velthuis: pa.ticca-samuppaada
ITRANS: paTicca-samuppAda
Neither is very easy to read compared to properly printed text. Real problems emerge for nasals ṅ, ñ, and ṇ, and the sibilants ṣ and ś. One way around the problem was to create a special font that had to be installed before pages could be read. This works OK, but these home-made fonts use parts of the ascii scheme that are seldom used in English, and they do it idiosyncratically so that they are not interchangeable. If I use the Vipassana Research Institute font that comes with their CD of the Pāli Canon I get this if I change fonts:
VriRoman Pali: paµicca-samupp±da
Unicode solves this problem, and it is getting easier to use. On my visiblemantra.org website I used to hand code all of the extra characters. So for example ṭ = &#7789 and ā = &#257. This is time consuming, taxes the memory, and makes the source code difficult to read, but it results in a full set of Indic letters. And what's more the will display correctly in any Unicode font.

Unicode has not completely superseded the old style ASCII fonts. Since the sequence that contains the numbers and upper and lower case Roman letters are the same, for most people there is no incentive to change. We have our favourite fonts and we don't want to change. And actually there are still not many Unicode fonts to choose from. Windows and Mac both ship with a couple of Unicode fonts (For Windows Arial Unicode MS and Lucinda Sans Unicode) but not a version of Times Roman. Some fonts only implement a subset of the Unicode character set - so Times New Roman does have some extra characters, but not all the ones we need for Sanskrit.

When I set up visiblemantra.org I made the decision to use diacritics throughout the site. I believe that it is important to accurately represent the mantras. So you can't really read the site without setting a Unicode font in your browser options. I'm an early adopter and this will mean that some of the 200 or so visitors each day cannot read some of the text, but I hope I am making it more sensible for everyone to start using Unicode. Its a bit like DVDs or any of those new technologies. Some people hold out for as long as they can, but there comes a time when it just makes more sense to go with the new. I believe the time has come. I have used the occasion diacritic on this site before, but fudged it at times by leaving them off. From now on I plan to use diacritics all the time - which is to say that I intend to spell Sanskrit and Pāli words as they should be (taking into account my appalling spelling of course).

Two things have made the difference for me. Firstly I managed to get hold of a copy of the Windows Unicode font Times Ext Roman which has all the diacritics I need, and looks good both on screen and printed. Secondly I discovered how easy it is to make a keyboard map so I can type them whatever application I am using. I'm making both the font and the keyboard map available on visiblemantra.org, and I'd encourage everyone who reads this to go ahead and make the jump. I also have both a rough, and a detailed, guide to how to pronounce the letters of Sanskrit on visiblemantra.org.

Here's the Sanskrit alphabet in all its glory:

a ā i ī u ū e ai o au aṃ aḥ ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ ka kha ga gha ṅa ca cha ja jha ña ṭa ṭha ḍa ḍha ṇa ta tha da dha na pa pha ba bha ma ya ra la va śa ṣa sa ha kṣa

See what you've been missing? (Hint: if not set your browser font to Unicode!)

A selection of fabulous Resources which rely on Unicode can be found at the following locations:

08 March 2008

Violence and the Media

Memory Alpha
I've always loved reading science fiction, and enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows. My friends and I club together to buy seasons of Star Trek. Lately I've also seen some of the remade Battlestar Galactica and a new series called Heros. In these more recent shows there has definitely been a change in the way violence is depicted. It is more graphic, the obvious intent is to make it seem more real. It is more frequent. It is also more violent. Season three of Star Trek Next Generation, which I am watching at present, seems quite innocent by comparison.

Since my ordination retreat I have become a lot more sensitised to violence in the media. I find now that I cannot bear to watch much on the screen. The emotional response is too strong. I've also become aware of how violence is hyped in other media. Even the much vaunted BBC news focusses in on the most violent and shocking news. Perhaps their coverage is a little more sophisticated than a tabloid, but the tendency is to highlight stories which are violent - wars, disasters with many dead, mass murder, violent crime. These stories get the lead, and they are lingered over.

It is my firm conviction that the purpose of the media is to entertain. Fullstop. I no longer believe that "the news" is an exception to this. Stories are chosen on their potential for stimulating an emotional response, and written in such a way as to get the maximum emotion response from the target audience. It's all about creatingwhat physiologists call "arousal" . Violent images, whether intended as entertainment, or as "news", do have an affect on us even if the effect is below the threshold of consciousness.

Constant stimulation is not good for us. One only has to consider that in the UK mental health problems have replaced back-pain as the the no.1 cause of time off work sick, and of people on incapacity benefits. The thing about a fast pace of life is that our bodies cannot get back to their optimum resting state. My current understanding of depression is that it results from over-stimulation and an inability to process the physical effects of that stimulation. I recall an experiment we did in the 6th form on earthworms. Poke a worm and it writhes about vigorously in something analogous to our fight or flight response - it is making itself difficult to catch and eat. Wait till it stops and poke it again and it will respond with less vigour. Repeat this and the worm gives less response until after only 3 or 4 times it is unable to response to being poked. The lesson here is that constantly provoking a fight or flight response wears you out. I believe this is why depressed people avoid contact and anything stimulating - at worst they lie in bed in darkened rooms not moving.

Whether you realise it or not seeing violent images produces arousal in the body. This is generally short of the fully fledged fight or flight response. It can be sustained over longer periods and with more repetition. But it's clear that for many people it is happening too much, too often.

The knee jerk Buddhist reaction is to say that violence is a breach of the first precept, and violent images are in the same category. I think there is some truth to this, but it seems to me that it is more helpful to take a different tack. The Buddha liked to point out that the unenlightened are obsessed with, intoxicated by, totally caught up in sensual experiences - including the mind-sense. The Enlightened still have sensory experiences, but they have unhooked themselves emotionally from these. They are no longer caught up in the show, they no longer suspend disbelief. If everyday experience is intoxicating, then the media is like amphetamines, and media violence like crack cocaine.

Like any addict we do get a "hit", some kind of pay off, from the drug. Thanks to Will Buckingham of thinkbuddha.org I recently read Cordelia Fine's little book A Mind of it's Own. In it she makes the point that physiologically speaking it virtually impossible to tell the difference between emotions: her example focuses on fear and anger which are physically indistinguishable. The only difference is in your thoughts apparently. Emotion, she says, is arousal + emotional thoughts. What seems to be happening in the West is that we are seeking out more and more stimulating experiences, at the same time as substituting virtual contact via the internet, email, and virtual reality games, for real human contact. The media reflects this desire for more intense and more frequent stimulation. However this is a characteristic of addictive substances also - the addict needs more frequent, and higher strength doses, in order to get the same effect. Overdose is not uncommon because of this.

The Buddha's advice for those unable to disentangle themselves from sensory experience was to apply appamāda (vigilance*), and guard the gates of the sense; or as my teacher Sangharakshita says: reduce input. I decline to watch violence violent images in the media these days as I can tell that they have a lasting deleterious effect on my mental health.

Live long, and prosper.


* appamāda can be translated more literally as not blind drunk on the objects of the senses. I expand on this a bit in my essay on the Buddha's last words.

01 March 2008

More on Confession

I've been following up my research into confession in Early Buddhism. It is clear from the Pali texts that no one short of Awakening is expected to be able to act ethically at all times. So there are procedures for monastics which deal with confession in quit some detail. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post on the confession of Ajatasattu, there are also some paradigms for confession which are not specifically for monastics. A model is put forward in a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya (A i.103).

The first step is to realises that you have done something wrong. Often Buddhists will insist that there is no right and wrong, that actions are skilful or unskilful. Right and wrong create a too rigid dichotomy. The texts do however talk about "faults" and "transgressions". Transgression is quite a good word because it reminds us that we measure our behaviour against the scale of the ethical precepts that we take on as Buddhists. The Pali word is accayo which literally means "going on, or beyond". There are boundaries to behaviour. Until we have Awakened it may no come naturally to act in ways that cause no harm, either to ourselves or others. The metaphor in Pali, as it is in English, is that we "see" that we have transgressed. We see it for ourselves through reflection and introspection. We may not always be very good at recognising transgressions, but practising awareness heightens ethical sensitivity as well. Often it is a matter of, as Sangharakshita says, an imaginative identification with the other person.

It is important to recall here that what the Buddha meant by kamma was cetana - intention or volition (A vi.13). Karma was originally the ritual actions carried out by Brahmins to restore them to ritual purity. The Buddha turned the notion of "purity" on its head and said that it consisted in pure conduct - not breaking the ethical precepts. The vinaya talks quite explicitly about the purity/impurity of monastics in these terms (Vin i.124). Confession, in this way of thinking consists in two aspects. Firstly having seen one's transgression as a transgression, one reveals this to another person. Secondly one resolves to be restrained in the future.

The Ratana Sutta emphasise that one should waste no time in confessing (Sn 232 and SnA i.278). One should not conceal a transgression for even a moment. I think the reason for this relates back to the idea equating action with intention. The intention to hide a transgression is not a skilful intention. As I said in my earlier blog post it can be difficult to feel motivated to reveal a transgression with the threat of punishment hanging over you. However it is better to get it out! The Vinaya says that having transgressed and wishing to be pure again, should confess because revealing makes him comfortable (Vin i.103). With regards to who we should confess to, the Ratana commentary suggests a teacher; a wise person; or a fellow practitioner. The point of confession in very many of the passages I have been studying is "restraint in the future". Confession - experiencing remorse, revealing a transgression, and making a resolution not to transgress again, helps us to keep the precepts in future. In case it is not clear we do this in order to minimise harmful effects on ourselves and others.

Having returned ourself to purity we are in a position to hear, to accept in the Pali terminology, the confessions of others. This necessity for prior purity is emphaised in the Vinaya which sets out procedures for monastics to follow if, for instance, everyone in a particular monastery has "fallen into a fault". One monk must go and seek out others to whom he can confess and return to accept the confessions of their fellows (Vin i.126). This quid pro quo is quite important for the functioning of a spiritual community, although I do not think that strict ritual purity is necessary for non-monastics (see my rant on superstition and ritual purity). If we have taken on precepts, however, then we do need to have someone sympathetic with whom to talk over our practice of them. Accepting a confession need not be an empty ritual. In the Majjhima Nikaya 140 the Buddha does not immediately accept Bhaddhali's confession. It is clear that the Buddha knows Bhaddali quite well, and knows that he is a bit half-hearted and inattentive at times. Bhaddali must request acceptance three times and endure quite a severe reprimand in order to convince the Buddha of his contrition: at one point the Buddha says to him "weren't you, Bhaddali, at that time an empty, vain, failure?" (M i.440). Ouch!

One last thing which caught my eye this week is that the Vinaya does not allow for collective confession. Over the years I have seen a number of discussions of so-called "collective karma" - does it exist or not. In one story in the Vinaya however a monk who mentions that he is not the only one to have fallen into a particular fault, but that everyone in the monastery has also. But the message is clear: it is no business of yours whether another has or has not fallen into a fault: take care of your own faults! (Vin i.127) So, even if there is such a thing as collective karma, you are still responsible for your own actions.

image: www.ordinarymind.net
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