Monthly Archives: July 2008

Conceptions of the Ultimate

At the heart of the Samkhya school of Hinduism are the concepts of purusha and prakriti. Purusha is a passive, inert, witnessing consciousness. Prakriti is the active principle, the essence of subtle matter. According to the Samkhya school, the world we normally see -– called samsara or maya -– develops because purusha becomes fascinated with prakriti, which begins to divide and multiply. Soon purusha loses itself in the infinite variety of prakriti, which has now become the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth in all their manifestations.

The Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci writes:

“Having assumed all the characteristics of the prakriti . . . maya spreads out over all that exists, while God, the Absolute Soul, one or multiple – when imprisoned in the illusory individuality of maya – remains inert, taking colour, like a crystal, from the reflections projected on to him by the passions with which maya is stained.” (from ‘The Theory and Practice of the Mandala’, p55).

According to some Hindu yogis, the path to liberation can be described in terms of achieving a ‘oneness’ or unity with everything. Some yogis see maya as the active force of the Creator God, so that the phenomenal world, in all its variety, has a divine quality. Through identifying this divine quality both within himself and in the world, a divine ‘oneness’ is revealed within diversity, and the yogi becomes ‘one with everything’.

The Madhyamaka school of Buddhism puts ‘emptiness’ (shunyata) in a similar position to the Creator, because samsara is seen as an illusory manifestation of emptiness. For this reason emptiness is sometimes described as a ‘mother’. In ‘Song of Emptiness’ the Tibetan scholar Changkya Rölpai Dorje says:

“These various apprehended [objects] and apprehenders [minds] are the manifestation of the mother. This birth, death, and these changing [things] are the falsities of the mother.” (quoted, ‘Heart of Wisdom’, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

However, although all phenomena are said to be of ‘one taste’ in emptiness, the Madhaymaka school does not go so far as to say that emptiness is a ‘oneness’ pervading everything, because emptiness is not an entity in its own right and in emptiness there is no ‘number’, such as one or many. In the ‘Heart Sutra’, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says:

“Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics [such as number] . . . They have no decrease and no increase.” (quoted, Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso)

To say that all phenomena are empty does not mean that all phenomena are one entity, because emptiness is not separate from the diversity of phenomena. Emptiness does not possess positive attributes of its own such as oneness or manyness, it is a mere negation of the mistaken inherent existence of phenomena. Emptiness is, strictly speaking, a negative conception of the Ultimate.

In Hinduism there are both negative and positive conceptions of God, most prominently in the Advaita-Vedanta school (which owes a historical debt to the Madhyamaka). In Advaita-Vedanta God can be understood either as nirguna (without attributes) or saguna (with attributes). The negative way of understanding God is considered more profound. Negative ways of understanding God (viae negativae) can also be found in Christianity in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and in Judaism in the work of Maimonides in his ‘Guide for the Perplexed’.

Within Buddhism the strongest assertion of the positive attributes of the Ultimate is found in the doctrine of Tathagathagarbha or (Buddha nature). The teachings on Buddha nature are sometimes considered to be part of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma along with the teachings on Mind-only (Chittamatra). The First Turning is preserved in the scriptures of the Theravada Buddhist school and includes the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The Second Turning is the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, which are the core teachings of the Madhyamaka school.

Depending on whether a weak or strong interpretation of the Buddha nature teachings is employed, all sentient beings are either said to have the seed of Buddhahood within them (weak), or to be in some sense already enlightened (strong). In his book ‘Mahayana Buddhism’ Paul Williams says that the

“tension between innate, inherent enlightenment and becoming enlightened is a tension at the root of the Tathagathagarbha tradition” (p97).

Buddha nature is present in all living beings. While it is accompanied by defilements we remain ordinary, but when the defilements are removed the Buddha nature becomes the Dharmakaya (Buddha’s enlightened mind). A good example of positive qualities being attributed to the Dharmakaya and the Buddha nature can be found in the ‘Srimala Sutra’, where the Dharmakaya is described as:

“beginningless, uncreate, unborn, undying, free from death; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal; intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement store; and accompanied by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable.”

Paul Williams also says that “the Tathagathagarbha is said to be a substratum which is permanent, steadfast, and eternal.” (ibid p101). This is a strongly positive view of the ultimate, so it is clear that there is considerable scope for disagreement between those who believe that the emptiness teachings are definitive versus those who believe in the Buddha nature teachings.

As we might expect, positive and negative conceptions of the ultimate have been a major point of debate within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is possible to reconcile these views using a quote by the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, who said:

“Everything is the nature of the mind. Mind is the nature of emptiness.”

When practicing the first part we can concentrate on positive qualities such as the radiant, brightly shining nature of the mind, when practicing the second we can emphasise the negative, empty qualities of the mind.

In the ‘Anguttara Nikâya’ I.8-ll the Buddha says:

“This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the citta [mind]. This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is freed from defilements which arrive. This is understood as it really is by those noble disciples who are spiritually educated, so they do develop the citta“.

Peter Harvey comments:

“A key idea is that whatever defilements or stains there may or may not be on the ‘surface’ of the mind, even if they have deep roots, these do not penetrate to the inner depths of the mind. The mind has a ‘radiance’ whether or not it is ‘corrupt’ and ‘defiled’ or ‘clarified’ and ‘freed from defilements’. Even the corrupt person destined for hell thus has a ‘brightly shining’ citta ‘covered’, so to speak, by the defilements which obscure it. The defilements ‘arrive’, like people arriving at a guest house . . . “Beneath the surface level of mind, which has such things as anger, pride, jealousy, worry etc., there is something ‘brightly shining’ – intrinsically stainless, a basic goodness, perhaps an ‘original sinlessness’. However terrible a person’s actions, which may lead to weighty karmic consequences over a long period, the seed of perfection is never destroyed, only more deeply covered over. Whatever heritage of previously developed character faults a child brings into this world, the seed of perfection is there to be developed. This expresses a very positive view of human nature and, indeed, of the nature of all beings.”

A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed

These are the edited notes from a Dharma teaching received by the editor of ‘Politics of Soul’

When we focus exclusively on ourselves, on our own welfare, we suffer, we are unhappy. When there is a genuine feeling for others’ welfare and for others’ suffering, our own suffering diminishes and we are much happier. What would happen if I stopped thinking of myself altogether? What would happen if my concern were exclusively for others? What would happen if I cherished only others, if I dropped self-concern altogether? How would I be affected? How would others be affected?

We need a special method to be able to cherish others to the exclusion of ourselves, and to reap all the benefits of so doing. That method is ‘Exchanging Self With Others’, and in particular identifying with the body and mind of others, imputing “I” on others’ aggregates [Sanskrit: skandhas, meaning the basic components of a person such as body, feelings and thoughts]. Whenever we perceive another’s body, for example, we think “I”.

Shantideva says:

“Just as I am familiar with developing the thought “I”, “I”
When perceiving my body, which arose from others’ sperm and blood,
So should I become familiar with developing the thought “I”, “I”
When perceiving others’ bodies.”

from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’,
Chapter 8, verse 158 (Tharpa Publications, 2002)

This body itself has arisen from others’ sperm and blood, yet due to familiarity we think “I”. Later on there will appear a completely different body [when we are older or reincarnated], yet in dependence upon its appearance we will think “I”. Therefore we can think “I” in dependence on the body of another living being we perceive right now. We can identify it as if it appears to be ours. In the future when we see another body we will think “I”, so now when we see another’s body we can think “I”.

We can also think “I” on the basis of another’s mind, feelings, and thoughts. We can think “this is what I am thinking, this is what I am feeling”. How can we do that? Do we know another’s mind? We don’t know our own mind, but we are quite happy to think “I” in dependence upon whatever it is! We imagine what a person may be thinking or feeling, and in dependence upon those thoughts and feelings we can think validly “this is what I am thinking, this is how I am feeling”.

It doesn’t matter if we don’t know directly what a person is thinking or feeling. A mother looking after her child doesn’t know directly the mind of the child, but she identifies with it very strongly anyway. She believes that her child is having certain feelings or thoughts that are making it suffer, and she identifies strongly with those feelings or thoughts. She tries to help her child change those thoughts or feelings, because they are the nature of suffering.

Through the force of the mother exchanging herself with the child every day of her life she gets to know the child better and better until she is sure that she knows the child’s mind. “I know how my child is feeling”. Other people don’t, they just see the child sitting on the floor – they don’t know how the child is feeling – but the mother does through the force of exchanging herself with her child. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know others’ thoughts directly – this is an excuse we make in order to hold back from making the exchange.

Why does this method work? It is because we naturally cherish the self. If we identify with another’s body and mind thinking “I”, “me” then naturally we cherish that person as self. Everyone considers themselves to be “self”, “I”, “me”. Through the force of this exchange, imputing “I” on others’ aggregates, naturally we will cherish them because they have become our self. Their body, their feelings, their thoughts and so forth have become ours. We consider them to be mine. We naturally always cherish what we consider to be mine. Very clever isn’t it? We cannot help but to cherish others through this exchange.

We will cherish the body and mind of others, which they believe to be “mine”, and in the same way we believe to be “mine”! What is so special about this method is that we can learn to cherish and love everyone no matter what they are like. Even if they have a horrible body, even if they have a horrible mind, we will love them because we are imputing our self on their body and mind. We may have a horrible body and mind, but we still cherish ourself! It doesn’t matter what a person’s body is like or what their mind may be like, we love them regardless. Their feelings matter to us. We love all people as they are, through exchanging self with others. This is not difficult to understand, but perhaps difficult to practice due to resistance in our mind.

What is so special about this method is that we are no longer affected or disturbed by what other people may be thinking about us. Usually, because of what we believe others are thinking or feeling about us, we are affected or disturbed. We are always considering what people are thinking about us. Sometimes we feel certain we know what others think about us: “I know what they thinking!”. But then, when we receive encouragement to practice exchanging self with others, we complain “but I don’t know what they are thinking”!

What we will understand through such a practice is that everything really is just projection of mind. Our mind is projecting everything: the kind of person somebody is, the kind of person we are.

We continue to cherish the self, even our self. But it is a self imputed upon others’ bases. Whenever we perceive another’s body we cherish that self. We cherish our self in dependence upon the appearance of another’s body or mind! Their suffering becomes my suffering, and their happiness becomes my happiness. We feel in our heart that through the force of this exchange another’s suffering or happiness has become ours. So naturally we will work to free that self from any suffering and to find happiness for that self. We want to be rid of that suffering. We don’t want that suffering to be experienced by that self – our self. Also, if there is any happiness, we identify with that pleasant feeling and we feel very happy. That person has found happiness – we have found happiness.

The basis of this person [our present body and mind] has become another’s basis, and has thereby become unimportant, because we have exchanged self with others. The suffering and happiness of this person [our present person] have become the suffering and happiness of another, and therefore insignificant. We have identified with others’ bases so strongly that we feel “self” with respect to other and “other” with respect to self. We feel that it doesn’t matter what happens ‘here’ anymore. At the moment it matters because we are self-centered.

One of the greatest results of exchanging self with others is that the pain of our suffering is eliminated because our self has moved to a place where it cannot be harmed – the place of others. It cannot be harmed there. Our own suffering becomes bearable because we are no longer harmed by it. Others’ suffering becomes unbearable, yet we are not harmed by it either. How about that!

Shantideva says:

“The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.

Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.”

from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’,
Chapter 8, verses 92-93 (Tharpa Publications, 2002)

Suffering is unbearable where there is a cherishing of the person who is experiencing suffering. At present we cherish ourselves, so our suffering is unbearable. If we cherish others then their suffering becomes unbearable. We think at the moment we find our suffering unbearable because it is our own suffering. This is incorrect reasoning. The reason we find our suffering unbearable is because we cherish ourself. It is in dependence upon the mind of cherishing that suffering becomes unbearable. Furthermore, we do not necessarily experience pain when finding suffering unbearable. Finding others’ suffering unbearable we feel no pain – we are not harmed. All harm or suffering comes from self-cherishing. Our self has moved to a place where it cannot be harmed, the place of others. Please think carefully about this.

We will experience no greater happiness than the happiness that arises from this practice. We will discover an inexhaustible fountain of happiness within our own mind through the force of exchanging self with others.

We are able to help others more and more effectively. When exchanging self with others we develop such a profound empathy – understanding what a person wants and needs. We come to understand them much better. As well as learning about others we learn a lot about ourselves too. When we move into that world of others, thinking “I” with regard to them and thinking “other” with respect to our present self, when we look back at our present self we discover an awful lot: good things and bad things. But we don’t develop pride or discouragement because these arise from being self-centered. We see ourselves from another’s perspective, and we learn what we need to do to change.

As we gain success in this practice we come to know much better what a person needs and when they need it, just like a mother and her child. And we understand what we need to do, that if we are to fulfill all the needs and wishes of others we need to change into a Buddha.

Not a Chameleon

In my articles Baptism of Fire and The Labyrinth I describe the importance of forging character, which requires psychological striving and acceptance of the complexities and difficulties of life. Character can be seen as the underpinning of personality. We all need stable personalities through which we relate to the world, and the world relates to us. Personality is our interface with the world.

Although a Bodhisattva has great fluidity underlying his or her personality, which provides the flexibility to benefit others in a myriad of different ways, I believe that the Bodhisattva’s personality itself is stable, providing a consistent interface. In other words, people “know where they stand” with the Bodhisattva, who is able to develop rapport with a wide variety of people, but is not a chameleon.

Chameleon-like behavior –- trying to be all things to all people -– often comes from weakness of character. The chameleon personality is not underpinned by a consistent set of core values. The chameleon does not know who he is, which is why he does not project a consistent personality to others. He may appear very clever, but his cleverness is undermined by his unreliability. Character development is required in order to ground or root our personality and make it effective.

The personality is constructed then stabilized by character development. Then we can compare peoples’ personalities using all the wonderful categories we are so fond of: Republican / Democrat; right / left; conservative / liberal; Christian / Muslim / Buddhist; orthodox / unorthodox; cleric / shaman etc. If we like we can plot everyone along a spectrum of personality types, and then we can argue amongst ourselves about which is best. But the most important thing is that each individual has a personality which functions well for them and those around them, is a healthy interface with the world, and enables the development and expression of the core human values of love, compassion, generosity, wisdom, insight etc.

Our social, economic, political and religious worlds are inhabited by our personalities, and their health and our health are intertwined. But there is a deeper level of existence, a deeper level of who we are, the realm of being. Our personalities are like the tips of icebergs, but most of who we are is under the surface, and actually we are all floating in the same ocean, regardless of how different the ‘bergs look up top. Many great teachers have tried to describe the realm of being, but all categories break down because it is “beyond words, thoughts and expressions”.

Once we have a healthy personality we should try to explore the realm of being. We should not wait until we have the perfect personality, because the spiritual path is not to be found in endlessly tweaking and refining of personality. In ‘Toward a Psychology of Awakening’ John Welwood writes:

‘The subtle spiritual pitfall of psychological work is that it can reinforce certain tendencies inherent in the conditioned personality: to see ourselves as a doer, to always look for the meaning in experience, or to continually strive for “something better”. Although psychological reflection can certainly help people move forward in important ways, at some point even the slightest desire for change or improvement can interfere with the deeper letting go and relaxation that are necessary for moving from the realm of personality into the realm of being, which is only discoverable in and through nowness –- in moments when all conceptualizing and striving cease.” (p116)

Compassionate Media Activism

Media Lens is a UK media watch service. In this interview Media Lens discuss with Matthew Bain how they have been strongly influenced by the Buddhist ideal of compassion and the role model of the Bodhisattva – the hero who practices six great virtues known as ‘perfections’.

Bain: Please can you explain what Media Lens is?

Media Lens: Media Lens is an online, UK-based media watch project, set up in 2001, providing detailed and documented criticism of bias and omissions in the British media. The Media Lens team consists of two editors (David Edwards and David Cromwell) and a webmaster (Oliver Maw). Through our free email Media Alerts, we provide detailed analysis of news reporting in the UK media, concentrating on the ‘quality’ liberal print and broadcast media. Our aim is to expose bias, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, omissions and untruths. We challenge journalists and editors by email and invite their response. We then collate and analyse the material and distribute a Media Alert to members of the public who have signed up for the service. We urge our readers to adopt a polite, rational and respectful tone when emailing journalists -– we strongly oppose all abuse and personal attack.

We often then follow up our alerts with updates containing analysis of and commentary on mainstream responses to our alerts, our readers’ emails, and so on. Media Alerts are archived at the Media Lens website ( We also send out Cogitations to a separate list of subscribers –- these explore related themes from more personal, psychological and philosophical perspectives.

Bain: How much success has Media Lens had?

Media Lens: This isn’t really for us to say. We try not to worry too much about results. The veteran Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger wrote this in the foreword to our book, Guardians of Power (Pluto Press, 2006):

“The creators and editors of Medialens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, have had such influence in a short time that, by holding to account those who, it is said, write history’s draft, they may well have changed the course of modern historiography. They have certainly torn up the ‘ethical blank cheque’, which Richard Drayton referred to, and have exposed as morally corrupt ‘the right to bomb, to maim, to imprison without trial …’. Without Medialens during the attack on and occupation of Iraq, the full gravity of that debacle might have been consigned to oblivion, and to bad history.”

On the other hand, the BBC’s Andrew Marr said (when he was still political editor):

“I’m afraid I think it is just pernicious and anti-journalistic. I note that you advertise an organisation called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting so I guess at least you have a sense of humour. But I don’t think I will bother with ‘medialens’ next time, if you don’t mind.”

So take your pick!

Bain: You have said that you intend compassion to be the basis and motivating force behind the Media Lens project. How does this work in practice?

Media Lens: We try to do whatever we believe is most likely to relieve suffering. There are several aspects to this. We try to focus on the most urgent issues of the day. If our government is trying to persuade the public to support a war against Iraq, we try to publicise arguments against mass violence as a solution to human problems. We point out the costs of violence and the benefits of responses rooted in restraint and compassion. Before the March 2003 invasion, we referred readers to credible estimates of the likely disastrous consequences for the civilian population of Iraq.

We indicated the deep flaws in US-UK government arguments to show that war in fact was not at all necessary, that genuine peaceful alternatives existed. Basically, we tried to encourage peaceful opposition to our government’s determination to wage war for profit. The same with climate change -– it now threatens unprecedented catastrophe, the destruction of billions of human and animal lives. So we encourage readers to challenge newspapers on their promotion of cheap flights and mass consumerism generally.

But in discussing specific issues we are hoping to raise awareness of deeper systemic problems inherent to political and economic systems rooted in the pursuit of unlimited profits. For example, how honest can a newspaper really be about the root causes of climate change when it depends for 75% of its revenue on big business advertising -– on precisely the companies selling the cheap flights, the new cars and so on -– in its own pages?

We believe that we all need to acquire the tools of intellectual self-defence so that we can resist propaganda provoking hatred of foreign and domestic ‘enemies’, and adverts stimulating greed, so that we can trust our own capacity for independent, critical thought. Our society encourages passivity and childlike dependence on authority. We encourage people to challenge authority, to have faith and confidence in themselves. We encourage people to challenge us, too – nothing should be taken on blind trust.

A third theme is that we encourage people to seek confidence and rationality in compassion, rather than in anger, say, or conformity. We emphasise peaceful challenges to authority. We reject not only violence, but also anger. Given that compassion, tolerance and patience are great virtues, then leaders promoting violence and greed are ideal objects for meditation. We can use them to strengthen our compassion and wisdom.

Bain: Why are leaders promoting violence and greed ideal objects for meditation?

Media Lens: In our view, Tony Blair, for example, has consciously deceived parliament and public in pursuit of a war of aggression -– the supreme war crime according to the Nuremberg tribunals. Blair’s actions have resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand innocent people, as well as almost limitless pain, injury, anxiety, grief and other physical and mental torments. The motive, we also believe, is rooted in Western greed for control of natural resources in Iraq and in the Gulf. Is it possible to feel compassion for this man?

We can reflect that Blair is a product of conditions -– he sees the world in a way dominated by his education, upbringing, friends, family and colleagues. Would he think and act the same way if he had been exposed to different conditions? Is he to blame for the conditions that influenced him? Is he the sole destructive actor or condition, or is he merely one tiny link in a vast chain of cause and effect that precedes and transcends him? We can argue, for example, that what has been done to Iraq is actually the culmination of billions of selfish thoughts in limitless individuals over decades, even centuries. After all, where does corporate greed for oil come from? Where does militarism come from? Does it come from Blair? Hardly.

We can reflect on Blair’s lack of inherent existence –- who or what actually is Tony Blair? Is he his mind? Which part of his mind –- which thought? Is he any particular thought? Is there a creator of thoughts that we can call ‘Blair’, or do thoughts merely arise from conditions beyond the control of some creator in the background (and would the ‘creator’s’ decisions and thoughts simply arise from conditions?), like bubbles forming and rising in a glass of lemonade? We can imagine the suffering Blair will undergo as a result of his uncompassionate actions and as a result of ageing, sickness and death. We can reflect that if we can muster some compassion for him then this strengthens our compassion for other people who appear less guilty of terrible crimes, less harmful. We visit a gym to lift weights to become stronger, do we not? If we can compassionately ‘lift’ Blair in our minds, then our compassion will surely be untroubled by most other tests in life.

Bain: Your compassionate approach is inspired by Mahayana Buddhism, which offers the role model of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by great compassion, continuously wishes to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to benefit all living beings without exception. The way of life of the Bodhisattva is the six perfections, the great virtues of generosity, moral discipline, patience, effort, mental stabilisation and wisdom. You have said that you aspire for your Media Alerts to embody these six perfections. Is such an aspiration achievable?

Media Lens: The aspiration is certainly achievable although even to aspire to attain an enlightened state is an awesome achievement. Can we actually embody the six perfections in our work? Definitely not, at present. We are complete beginners who are far, far away from being able to embody these exalted mind states. However, we do aspire to value compassion, generosity and patience; and we do try to be motivated by concern for others rather than concern for our own welfare.

We feel it is appalling for any journalist to compromise what he or she writes out of concern for career, status or the health of a bank account when real people like us are being killed in their tens of thousands, for example, in Iraq. Particularly when one reflects that if the media had done their job in 2002-2003, war would not have been possible. We believe that by aspiring to be more compassionate it is possible to make some small improvement and perhaps help others. But we are constantly aware that we may even be doing more harm than good -– making people more angry, more critical of others and less compassionate -– we keep this possibility very much in mind.

Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of generosity is giving fearlessness, in other words protecting other living beings from fear or danger. Your Media Alerts point out that mainstream news organisations cover some of the world’s most serious problems while obscuring their causes, and that as a result media consumers find themselves filled with feelings of anxiety and fear, not to mention powerlessness and apathy. Are you deliberately trying to release people from this state -– to give fearlessness?

Media Lens: As you know, the roots of fearlessness also lie in a realistic appraisal of the situation we are in. If we think it’s safe to abuse, exploit and kill other beings, it is no bad thing to be made aware of the terrifying consequences of such actions. This dis-illusionment can lead from ignorance through fear to fearlessness. Similarly, we are quite happy to discuss the terrifying realities of climate change, war, and the compromise that makes these possible.

But a major aim of what we’re doing is to address people’s confusion. The media is deeply bewildering –- the reality is summed up by the title of media analyst Danny Schecter’s book The More You Watch The Less You Know. Providing rational frameworks for understanding specific issues -– Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, climate change -– and broader issues -– how the media works, the motives driving foreign policy – surely gives people greater confidence that they can make sense of the world, and that they can therefore rely on their own judgement. We also try to explain the advantages of concern for others over self-cherishing. We don’t want people to feel dependent on us, we want them to feel that the issues are really not that complicated, and that anyone can form sensible judgements with a modicum of hard work.

We also try to promote fearlessness by encouraging compassionate rather than angry responses to problems. We believe that anger is deeply demotivating, in fact crippling, whereas great compassion provides an inexhaustible, and in fact increasing, source of energy and inspiration.

Bain: One of the aspects of a Bodhisattva’s moral discipline is not to criticise others, but to focus on his or her own faults instead. The Buddhist master Atisha said:

“Do not look for faults in others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood. Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.” (Quoted, Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, 2000, p.261).

Some of your Media Alerts are very critical of the work of individual journalists. Aren’t you breaking the Bodhisattva’s moral code by criticising others in this way?

Media Lens: This is a question that concerns us greatly. We try to make clear that our focus is on faults in the arguments of journalists rather than in the journalists themselves. Typically, we will present a mainstream journalist’s arguments, contrast these with an alternative range of arguments based on verifiable facts and multiple credible sources, and invite readers to decide which arguments are more or less credible. Often we point out that an erroneous argument is actually part of a pattern that stretches right across the media, so that we are pointing to institutionalised bias rather than individual ‘bad apples’.

We often point out that the vast majority of journalists are not deliberately deceitful – it’s not that they’re bad people, liars and so on -– there is no wicked conspiracy. We encourage readers to understand the systemic factors behind individual performance: journalists are selected because they have been educated to hold the right views by corporate media that are designed to maximise profits. The whole cultural, political and social system puts immense pressure on privileged journalists to hold ‘the right’ views about the world -– it is not their fault that they have little or no access to alternative arguments. On another level, one can even argue that it is not really their fault that they believe it is ‘realistic’ to prioritise their own self-interest above the interests of others –- that’s what the whole culture tells them to do.

There are a couple of other considerations. Journalists who advanced arguments for war against Iraq in 2002-2003 were vital parts of a media-military machine that have resulted in the deaths of over one million Iraqis so far, and the devastation of an entire country. By themselves promoting mass violence as a solution to human problems, by persuading others to take those arguments seriously, they were causing immense harm to themselves and others. In his book, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Peter Harvey writes:

“Asanga says that a Bodhisattva will lie so as to protect others from death or mutilation, though he will not lie to save his own life. He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh, severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action.” (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.139)

In the Commentary on Dharmaraksita’s The Poison-Destroying Peacock Mind Training, Geshe Lhundub Sopa writes:

“If you should encounter some erroneous teaching that leads other beings into great suffering, such as rebirth in hell, you should not be indifferent. Rather, you should take action to combat such a harmful teaching. If you do this, you will be acting with a form of jealousy. This is not like ordinary jealousy, which is just the desire to ruin someone’s happiness, rather it is the desire to root out the wrong teaching so that the correct teaching will endure. While it appears to be jealousy, it is actually different; it is motivated by the concern that the source of happiness will be destroyed if the correct teaching disappears.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Peacock In The Poison Grove, Wisdom Books, 2001, pp.254-5)

In The Six Perfections, Geshe Sonam Rinchen writes:

“The tenth [way of assisting others] consists of giving support by castigating those who are engaged in detrimental activities. This may entail taking stern measures to stop them, since one should not condone or indulge others’ fondness for harmful actions.” (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections, Snow Lion, 1998, p.40)

So although it is unpleasant to criticise journalists, and is risky both for their psychological welfare and our own –- it’s easy to become habitually negative, cynical and even angry in this work –- we believe it is important to do so.

Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of patience is not retaliating. Some of the journalists you have singled out for criticism have responded harshly -– basically they have retaliated. Isn’t this a natural response? Have you retaliated in return?

Media Lens: If it was a natural response it would occur invariably in all people and cultures around the world. This is not the case. In her book, Ancient Futures, the linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge reported a remarkable absence of retaliation in the Buddhist culture of Ladakh, even amongst children. We believe that Buddhist practitioners meditating on the benefits of patience, the faults of anger, and the lack of inherent existence of the targets of anger, can completely remove the impulse to retaliation.

We worry very much that by generating anger in journalists we are inadvertently causing harm. This may well be exacerbated by our encouraging members of the public to write to journalists. At the end of every email we append these words:

“The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.”

People do not always heed these words and sometimes send angry abuse to journalists. This is a source of real concern to us; it’s something we strongly discourage. Is it outweighed by the fact that receiving large number of mostly polite and rational emails can persuade journalists and newspapers to reconsider their stand on war, on the impact of rampant consumerism on climate change, as we believe has sometimes happened to some extent? We hope so.

We do occasionally get angry, but generally we try to respond to abuse without anger, with restrained and polite emails. This emphasis on self-restraint is unusual in left-leaning political debate. We’ve noticed that this seems to have had quite an impact on both journalists and readers. Even journalists who have to deal with large numbers of emails – which is not something anyone enjoys –- have responded positively to our work. In recent months senior journalists like Peter Barron (editor of Newsnight), Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) and film-maker John Pilger have all commented on our restraint and politeness. This is not normally something senior players in the rough and tumble world of journalism would focus on –- this is encouraging. For example, the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, wrote on the BBC’s website last November:

“One of Media Lens’ less ingratiating habits is to suggest to their readers that they contact me to complain about things we’ve done. They’re a website whose rather grand aim is to “correct the distorted vision of the corporate media”. They prolifically let us know what they think of our coverage, mainly on Iraq, George Bush and the Middle East, from a Chomskyist perspective. In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.” (

Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of effort is overcoming discouragement. Do you ever get discouraged and, if so, how do you overcome it?

Media Lens: Discouragement is often a sign that a compassionate motivation has given way to some kind of self-centred concern -– perhaps anger, or frustration at the lack of some kind of reward (recognition or praise, for example).

We also sometimes feel discouraged when we read the latest news indicating that climate change has already reached the point of no return -– that we are guaranteed environmental catastrophe on a massive scale regardless of any actions we now take. We try to put that out of our minds and just keep going. We tell ourselves that human beings are amazingly resourceful -– maybe we can do something unexpected. Maybe the lessons we’re receiving in terms of the consequences of selfishness can shatter our conceits about inherent existence, the exaggerated value of selfishness, the under-rated value of compassion, and so on.

The wider point, though, to reiterate, is that discouragement is often a sign that compassion has given way to self-cherishing, particularly to anger. Then we need to reflect that our job is to work for the benefit of others -– anger is an indulgence neither they, nor we, can afford.

Bain: Traditionally the perfection of mental stabilisation means meditation. In your work you quote stories of Buddhist meditators who spend years meditating on compassion. Would they be better off campaigning like you, or would you be better off meditating like them?

Media Lens: We can’t think of a more remarkable or important achievement than being willing and able to meditate single-mindedly on compassion for years. In our opinion, people able to do this are a real cause for hope. If political activism has any meaning, it is because it is rooted in compassion. But that compassion must be rooted in an authentic, profound and living tradition –- something that requires the realisations of individuals able to travel to the far reaches of understanding and to return with the personally experienced truth of the power and importance of compassion.

This is really vital work. No one able to devote themselves to this kind of thing should abandon it for the kind of work we’re doing. We see our work almost as an attempt to make use of the compassionate raw materials mined by these people.

On the other hand, we feel we need to do as much as we can to develop compassion and wisdom in ourselves. There are two ways of doing this: first, our political activism should be rooted in compassion, it should be an expression of compassion, not something separate. Second, activism should be supported by a serious commitment to developing compassion and wisdom in ourselves through meditation, reading, discussion, study and so on.

Should Buddhists spend more time in understanding the insitutionalisation of greed, hatred and ignorance in modern society? Stephen Batchelor writes:

“The contemporary social engagement of dharma practice is rooted in awareness of how self-centred confusion and craving can no longer be adequately understood only as psychological drives that manifest themselves in subjective states of anguish. We find these drives embodied in the very economic, military, and political structures that influence the lives of the majority of people on earth.” (Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs -– A Contemporary Guide To Awakening, Bloomsbury, 1997, p.112)

We agree. While we understand that Dharma traditionally focuses on removing the obscuring afflictions in individuals, the problem today is that institutionalised psychological ‘pollution’ is making it extremely hard for individuals to even +consider+ the need to work on such issues -– quite the reverse. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the corporate goal

“is to ensure that the human beings who [it is] interacting with, you and me, also become inhuman. You have to drive out of people’s heads natural sentiments like care about others, or sympathy, or solidarity… The ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another, who don’t care about anyone else… whose conception of themselves, their sense of value, is ‘Just how many created wants can I satisfy?’” (Quoted, Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.134-135)

How can that not be an issue for anyone who cares about human suffering? If it’s for strategic reasons –- Buddhists know they will be labelled as ‘political agitators’ and ‘troublemakers’ and targeted by the propaganda system -– that’s one thing. If the issue isn’t even acknowledged or discussed, that’s something else again. We can’t imagine how that can be justified.

Bain: The perfection of wisdom means understanding the ultimate nature of reality. It is the supreme attainment of a Bodhisattva and can only be achieved by abandoning attachment to wealth, reputation, praise and pleasure. Although you are a writer and journalist, your Media Lens project means that you have little chance of ever making a living from or having a position of respect within the mainstream media. Is the sacrifice worth it?

Media Lens: Remarkably, exactly the opposite is the case. You’ve probably heard this famous story:

“I used to hold up people by day and rob villages at night; but even so, food and clothes were scarce. Now that I practise Dharma, I am short of neither food nor clothing, and my enemies leave me in peace.” (Quoted, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Rinpoche, Wisdom Books, 1997, p.336)

When we started Media Lens, we both had fledgling careers in the media -– we had both published books, had both published articles in a few mainstream newspapers and smaller magazines. It’s possible we could have developed careers as freelance writers or as media journalists. The question behind Media Lens was this:

‘What happens if we no longer give any thought to being published, being paid, being respectable, being liked by commissioning editors? What happens if we just tell the truth as we see it about suffering and the causes of suffering?’

It seemed to us few media analysts had ever really tried it -– people are generally hoping to make money from this kind of thing –- and before the internet they couldn’t reach anyone anyway. So we thought this would be a great experiment and it fitted perfectly with what is, for us, the absolutely central proposal of Mahayana Buddhism. Here are two versions that have inspired us greatly:

“Come to an understanding that no matter how it may seem, the root of all suffering is in actuality the desire to accomplish our own benefit and our own aims, and the root of all happiness is the relinquishment of that concern and the desire to accomplish the benefit of others.” (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche)

“As much as you can, cherish all the beings – human and animal – around you with a good heart, and try to benefit them by giving them whatever help they need. Give them every single thing you can to make them happy: even a few sweet words or some interesting conversation that benefits their minds, that stops their problems and makes them happy. Use every opportunity, every action of your body, speech, and mind, to increase your virtue.” (Lama Zopa Rinpoche)

We also had an increasing sense of outrage at the fact that journalists, ourselves included, would be willing to subordinate the welfare of others to career concern. How can we be willing to cooperate so meekly with this compromised, corporate system of media power when the consequences are so horrendous for living beings? It seemed so cruel, so narrow-minded -– even if the attempt was a laughable failure, it felt like a good idea to at least try to rebel against the selfishness in ourselves and as entrenched in the media system itself.

The satisfaction of writing out of this motivation is incomparably greater than that of writing in hope of respectability, status and financial reward. Everything we send out is free, it’s intended as an act of generosity and support. The responses we’ve had have been amazing –- messages of love (there’s no other word to use) from all corners of the world. It’s been really astonishing. We’ve had criticism too, of course, but people are clearly very eager to read media analysis uncompromised by corporate control, career concerns, and the like. And of course the irony is that because they appreciate what we’re doing we have received financial support that has helped us keep going.

On respect, the curious thing is we do seem to have won some respect in the mainstream. A very credible media insider told us that there is an undercurrent of impassioned dissent in the BBC –- journalists who are deeply unhappy at the way they are being used as a mouthpiece for government propaganda -– for whom Media Lens acts as “a rallying point”. Journalists who care about honesty in the media, who recognise the massive constraints on freedom of speech, strongly support what we’re doing -– they have often sent us private messages of support. They are frightened to speak out, much less to be associated with us, but they do respect what we’re doing. One journalist working for the Observer (a paper we have heavily criticised), told us:

“Thanks very much. It goes without saying, many thanks for providing the inspiration/facts and for all your and DC’s [David Cromwell] good work. You are a constant needle, comfort and inspiration. Great stuff.”

Bain: The ultimate reality understood by the perfection of wisdom is that everything is empty of inherent existence. In this discussion you have talked of the importance of “shatter[ing] our conceits about inherent existence”. Yet the passage from Stephen Batchelor which you quote above implies that negative states of mind ‘inhere’ in our political and economic institutions, making them inherently bad. Traditionally, kindness is the main quality that Buddhists are encouraged to see in economic and political institutions -– or at least in the people who work in them –- because they provide us with vital services or because they give us problems which enable us to develop such virtues as non-attachment, patience and compassion. Do you think that our present economic and political system is inherently bad?

Media Lens: The Canadian lawyer, Joel Bakan, describes how corporations are abstract concepts that are legally obliged to subordinate the welfare of people and planet to profit. Because charity and compassion are illegal under corporate law, except insofar as these increase profits, Bakan argues that corporations are essentially psychopathic in nature. Bakan quotes a key 19th century pronouncement by an English law lord, Lord Bowen:

“…charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Lord Bowen, quoted, Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.38-39)

According to The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, the corporation

“stops people from having a sense of empathy with the human condition”; it “separate[s] us from who we are… The language of business is not the language of the soul or the language of humanity. It’s a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy”. (Ibid, pp.55-56)

So what should our response be? Insofar as this system benefits us, we can recognise its kindness, as you say. Insofar as it harms us, we can practice patience. This isn’t so hard. It is far easier to understand that a corporation is an abstract, non-inherently existent entity than it is to understand the same of an individual person. It’s clear that a corporation is just a label applied to a large number of buildings, constantly changing personnel, bank accounts, business principles and so on. We know General Motors isn’t a person with a personality that we can hate. People might hate the chairman or CEO –- although their hands are tied by shareholders, corporate law, and so on –- but we can’t hate a label.

But insofar as the corporation is harming others we should work with all our might to prevent that harm. We need to raise awareness amongst the public of the extraordinary costs of the unlimited pursuit of corporate greed for people and planet. We need to work to rein in the worst destructiveness and then work to reform the political and economic systems that make this possible. This means democratic movements rooted in compassion and respect for life, movements that promote freedom, equality and justice. All of this should be rooted in compassion for suffering, not anger.

Our guide in reforming the system can be our awareness that selfish greed is inherently harmful. We need only reflect that corporate law enshrines not just greed, but infinite, unrestrained greed as a legal principle that must not be compromised. This is the cause of many of the problems facing us today. The root of that, in turn, is that selfish individuals have created these laws to protect their interests. As ever, positive change begins with a recognition of the negative consequences of self-cherishing and the benefits of caring for others.

Authoritarian and Humanistic Religion

In his book Psychoanalysis and Religion Erich Fromm draws a distinction between two types of religion: authoritarian and humanistic. He writes:

“The essential element in authoritarian religion and in the authoritarian religious experience is the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue of this type of religion is obedience, its cardinal sin is disobedience. Just as the deity is conceived as omnipotent or omniscient, man is conceived as being powerless and insignificant. Only as he can gain grace or help from the deity by complete surrender can he feel strength. Submission to a powerful authority is one of the avenues by which man escapes from his feeling of aloneness and limitation. In the act of surrender he loses his independence and integrity as an individual but he gains the feeling of being protected by an awe-inspiring power of which, as it were, he becomes a part.”

In his book Free to Be Human David Edwards expands Fromm’s description of authoritarian religion (which he renames power religion). He writes:

“Power religion, unlike true religious endeavour [for which Fromm used the term ‘humanistic religion’], has nothing at all do with the search for fundamental, adequate answers to human life, but is purely a means of justifying, enforcing and facilitating the exercise of power. Power religion does not consist in a particular set of beliefs, but in a set of functions supporting power. Because these functions remain essentially constant, we discover close similarities between versions of power religion widely separated by historical time, geography and superficial appearance. The differences between these beliefs represent a sort of superficial clothing over an essentially identical framework of underlying function. This unchanging framework operates to ensure that the mass of people:

1. Be over-awed and pacified by esoteric knowledge incomprehensible to, and therefore unchallengeable by, mere mortals who are not ‘in the know’.

2. Be incapable of forming a coherent picture of the world on the basis of which they might offer criticism of power.

3. Be intimidated into obedience and loyalty by reference to life threatening, ‘demonic’ enemies.

4. Be seduced into conformity by the promise of utopian future happiness.

5. Defer to and idolise their leaders.

Two versions of power religion which, while outwardly different, both satisfy the above requirements, are:

1. Traditional, theistic, church-based religion and
2. Modern, atheistic, corporate-based religion.”

In contrast, Erich Fromm’s description of humanistic religion is as follows:

“Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men and his position in the universe. He must recognize the truth, both with regard to his limitations and his potentialities. He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings. He must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. Religious experience in this kind of religion is the experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love. Man’s aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s experience of thought and feeling, not assent to propositions on credit of the proposer. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and of guilt.”

There is a relationship between the types of religion and the types of love: authoritarian religion is related to paternal love; humanistic religion is related to maternal love. In The Art of Loving Erich Fromm writes:

“This experience of being loved by mother is a passive one. There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved—mother’s love is unconditional. All I have to do is to be—to be her child. Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved. But there is a negative side, too, to the unconditional quality of mother’s love. Not only does it not need to be deserved—it also cannot be acquired, produced, controlled. If it is there, it is like a blessing; if it is not there, it is as if all beauty had gone out of life—and there is nothing I can do to create it.” Our ability to trust in ourselves as humans, and therefore to practice humanistic religion, springs from our innate confidence in our own self-worth, which is acquired partly through receiving a mother’s unconditional love.

“The relationship to father is quite different. Mother is the home we come from, she is nature, soil, the ocean; father does not represent any such natural home. He has little connection with the child in the first years of its life, and his importance for the child in this early period cannot be compared with that of mother. But while father does not represent the natural world, he represents the other pole of human existence; the world of thought, of man-made things, of law and order, of discipline, of travel and adventure. Father is the one who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world. Closely related to this function is one which is connected with socio-economic development. When private property came into existence, and when private property could be inherited by one of the sons, father began to look for that son to whom he could leave his property. Naturally, that was the one whom father thought best fitted to become his successor, the son who was most like him, and consequently whom he liked the most. Fatherly love is conditional love. Its principle is “I love you because you fulfill my expectations, because you do your duty, because you are like me.” In conditional fatherly love we find, as with unconditional motherly love, a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is the very fact that fatherly love has to be deserved, that it can be lost if one does not do what is expected. In the nature of fatherly love lies the fact that obedience becomes the main virtue, that disobedience is the main sin—and its punishment the withdrawal of fatherly love. The positive side is equally important. Since his love is conditioned, I can do something to acquire it, I can work for it; his love is not outside of my control as motherly love is.”