Category Archives: Buddhism

Self-Power and Other-Power

Buddhist Stupa in Kesariya, Bihar, India

Buddhism generally advocates ‘self-power’ as the path to liberation, advocating that we are responsible for purifying our own minds to bring about our own liberation. This is particularly evident in the earliest (Theravada) teachings. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana) display more ‘other-power’ tendencies, identifying something or someone beyond our control which / who has the the power to purify our minds for us if we accept / submit.

An example of a Buddhist school in which ‘other-power’ is strongly emphasised is the Pure Land tradition of Japan. The main practice of this school is nembutsu, reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Amida in Japanese) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” (1). Shinran developed an extreme ‘other-power’ view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works”.

However, I believe that Sufi Islam is the culmination of ‘Other-power’ because it has Tawhid at its heart. Pure Land Buddhism can be very effective because Amitābha, meaning Infinite Light, is one of the names of God. However, because Buddhists represent Amitābha visually they imply his separation from other Names and miss Tawhid. By insisting on Allah’s Oneness, Islam correctly identifies the Other on whom to rely / submit, providing the basis for the straight path to liberation. It is through complete submission / reliance on the Divine Other that we annihilate our self, then only Self remains.

Brief history of self-power and other-power in Buddhism

The earliest (Theravada) Buddhist teachings are from the Pali Suttas, the only teachings directly attributed to the historical Buddha by conventional historians. These teachings date from about 500BC and primarily emphasise self-power, though they hint at the possibility of the other-power of the mind (chitta), in the form of underlying radiance. In the ‘Finger-Snap Sutta’, 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 chitta. 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 chitta“.

Already we can see the possibility of abiding in the pure nature of mind, the other-powered path of letting go, so that defilements naturally subside and the pure radiance of the mind shines through. Early Buddhism starts to objectify the radiance of the mind around 400BC with the building of stupas, physical representations of the enlightened mind of the Buddha. With the origin of Mahayana Buddhism around 200CE, non-historical celestial buddhas such as Amitabha start to be envisaged, who embody various aspects of the enlightened mind. Devotional practices of reliance on the liberating other-power of such buddhas and bodhisattvas start to be developed.

One of the classic formulations of other-power in Mahayana Buddhism is the dakini, who appears to the Abbot Naropa (956–1041CE) in an ugly form and, in a manner familiar to Sufis, makes him realise that his years of formal practice and scholarship (self-power) have failed to purify his mind. “All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman”(1). “The dakini is the “other”. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.”(2)

Tibetan Buddhism revolves around such manifestations of other-power. My former Buddhist tradition emphasises the name Dorje Shugden, meaning ‘Possessing Indestructible Power’, whose manifestation as other-power is the source of so many of the fears and hopes of the Tibetan people.

(1) ‘The Life and Teachings of Naropa’, Herbert Guenther, Oxford University Press (1963)
(2) ‘Dakini’s Warm Breath’, Judith Simmer-Brown, Shambala Publications (2001)

Mind and Heart

Crown Chakra

Here are some thoughts on the Buddhist view of mind . . . The Buddhist school particularly associated with the statement “It’s all mind” is the Chittamatra, meaning ‘Mind-Only’ in Sanskrit. It is also known as Yogācāra because of its emphasis on meditative (yogic) practices of concentration. The most famous exponent of this school was Arya Asaṅga (c. 300-370 CE).

One feature of Chittamatra is the idea of multiple levels of mind. The deepest or most subtle level of mind (known as the root mind, or ‘consciousness-basis-of-all’) resides in the heart chakra. The heart chakra is not the same as the physical heart organ. It is at the level of the physical heart, but directly in front of the spine (by about two finger-widths). The heart chakra is part of the network of inner channels or meridians through which subtle energy winds (prana) flow. Mind rides these winds like a rider on a horse. The gross levels of mind are associated with the gross winds flowing through the 72,000 outer channels, but root mind is associated with the very subtle wind residing in the heart chakra.

According to Chittamatra, it’s root mind which transmigrates from life to life, carrying with it the accumulated karmic seeds. These seeds ripen as worlds, environments, bodies, minds, experiences etc, which is where the claim that “it’s all mind” comes from. While we continue to accumulate karma contaminated by ignorance, we remain trapped in the cycle of contaminated rebirth (samsara), and the worlds, bodies, minds etc which we experience are contaminated. Arya Asanga’s teacher Maitreya said that when our mind is pure our world will be pure.

The Beautiful Irony

A valid comparison can be drawn between money addicts and heroin addicts. Neither group can be trusted, but it is not appropriate to hate either heroin or money addicts because they are both sick. Addicts shouldn’t be allowed to run our industries or invest our money but we shouldn’t hate them. They are not in control of their own behaviour – they are not themselves. Not being themselves, they are incapable of experiencing empathy and compassion. The beautiful irony is that the self is entirely unselfish when it is at its healthiest. Only the diseased self, full of fear and insecurity, grasps onto what it perceives as “mine” at the expense of other people.

Elite education can drive out co-operative instincts like empathy and compassion. However I don’t think this is inevitable, and I believe it is possible to learn techniques of intellectual and emotional self-defence to protect against this brutalising effect. These techniques are widely applicable because, as George Monbiot points out (1), in modern society we are besieged by advertisements trying to undermine our healthy, intrinsic self-worth. Through causing alienation, corporations seek to refocus our self-esteem around their superficial products and brands, and delude us into pointless competition against each other.

Fitra is the Islamic concept of the underlying purity of the self. Fitra means ‘pure primordial nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ and is an Arabic word appearing in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said that every child is born with perfect fitra (1). Subsequent human impurities are ‘adventitious’, i.e. they arise due to upbringing, circumstance etc. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion which perfectly expresses this pure primordial nature because fitra is naturally drawn to the One God, to Whom the Muslim monotheistic practice of tawhid is the best path.

In his essay ‘Fitra: An Islamic Model for Humans and the Environment’ (2) the Sufi scholar and leader Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti discusses the relationship between fitra and care for the environment. He argues that spiritually healthy people (whose fitra is being well expressed) will naturally care for the environment and other people. For example, they will naturally be contented and will not require large quantities of consumer goods. He therefore argues that the solution to the environmental crisis must have a spiritual element – namely the clearing away of obstructions to fitra. Non-spiritual solutions on their own will not suffice.

The concept of fitra is similar to the concept of ‘Buddha nature’, which is also described as our natural, primordial purity. Buddhists believe in the interdependence of all life, and say that our Buddha nature is best expressed when we break down the egotistical barriers that falsely separate us from others. Therefore they say that “compassion is our Buddha nature” because, without a false ego and a diseased sense of self, like the Buddha we will naturally empathise with the suffering of others and want to relieve it.


1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (

2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441. “No child is born except in al-fitra and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”

Indicting The Self

The story of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha and his insulting cook sheds light on the practice of indicting the self. When Venerable Atisha took Buddhism from India to Tibet he also took a rude cook with him who was in the habit of insulting Atisha. The Tibetans, who held Atisha in high esteem, were astonished at the cook’s behaviour and offered to find a replacement but Atisha told them that he needed this man. Everyone else was so polite and respectful to Atisha that this rude, contemptuous cook was a precious resource.

Atisha was a practitioner of training the mind, a special branch of Buddhist practice that subsequently became known in Tibet as lojong. Practitioners of training the mind are very skillful at transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path – at making positives out of negatives. The heart of this practice is indicting the self. This is what Geshe Chekhawa means when he says “gather all blame into one” in Seven Verses of Mind Training. Atisha and his followers, known as the Kadampa Geshes, recognised that all of our problems, suffering and unhappiness are caused by our false sense of self-importance. Therefore it is appropriate to indict or blame this false sense of self.

Atisha’s cook was a valuable resource because he reminded Atisha of the negative aspect of himself while everybody else was busy venerating and respecting him. Because Atisha was a humble spiritual practitioner he would not have lightly dismissed the cook’s insults, thinking “I will accept these insults patiently but really I know that they are false.” Instead, Atisha would have considered the insults carefully, examining his own self for faults. If the cook accused Atisha of arrogance, heartlessness, or fakery then Atisha would have scrutinised himself, suspecting that the cook may be right. This is why the cook was such a precious resource. Atisha advised us not to think about our own good qualities but instead to think about the good qualities of others, and not to think of the faults of others but instead consider our own faults and purge them as if they are bad blood.

If we do not indict our false sense of self-importance it will inflict misery on ourselves and others. The Koran calls the self (Arabic: nafs) in its raw state “the self that commands to evil” (Sura 12:53). The next state is the “self-accusing self” (Sura 75:2). This corresponds to the Kadampa practice of gathering all blame into one. The self-accusing self is our conscience, which is able to objectively see our own faults. Objectivity is key, because it is important not to turn the practice of indicting our self into a process of beating ourselves up, causing low self-esteem. We should identify and analyse our own faults, skillfully turning negative situations into opportunities for personal growth, but we shouldn’t invent faults that aren’t there. Atisha would have taken his cook’s insults seriously, and checked to see whether he really had the faults he was being accused of. However, if he concluded that the fault wasn’t present then he wouldn’t have engaged in caustic over-analysis or self-berating.

By gathering all blame into one through indicting the false sense of self, we reach the stage the Koran calls the self “at peace” (Sura 89:27). We achieve a happy and peaceful mind and are no longer subject to misery and fear, because we have eliminated its root cause, our false sense of self-importance.

Self Power and Divine Power

November 2008

On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.

Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).

Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The  main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.

One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.

Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:

“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6

In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.

As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:

“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.

Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:

“the Dakini is the ‘other’. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).

As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”

Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.

What Is The Self?

June 2008

A Swiss couple on vacation in India found a beautiful picture in a store. They bought it, and in order to protect the picture the store-keeper rolled it up and slotted it into a long cardboard tube.

The couple continued to travel around India and so for the rest of their journey they had to carry the tube everywhere they went. It was long and awkward, and they were forever trying to protect it, to stop it getting bent or dented as they climbed into buses, or clambered out of rickshaws.

Eventually they took the tube home to Switzerland where they opened it, only to discover that the store-keeper had deceived them — he had never put the picture inside. All the time they had been carrying around an awkward tube, trying to protect it, when really it was empty!

At first they were angry, but then they laughed.

Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.

Evolution and Perfection

The atheist Richard Dawkins uses the theory of evolution as a weapon with which to attack religion. He argues that when Charles Darwin proved evolution he disproved religion. There are many moderate scientists who believe that evolution can co-exist with religious faith, but not Dawkins. He believes that once we grasp evolution we must necessarily dispense with religious beliefs such as God, soul, mind (that is not produced from the body), and reincarnation.

When used as a weapon against religion (and I would suggest this is not its best use) the theory of evolution can be quite effective in challenging a number of theological notions. In his recent TV program Richard Dawkins asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams whether God had set up the mechanism of evolution. The Archbishop was happy to say yes, and agreed with Dawkins that once evolution was up-and-running there is no need for divine intervention. Dawkins turned this against the Archbishop, arguing that if there is no need for divine intervention in evolution or history, surely there is no basis for miracles?

This argument is quite effective because it attacks a particular theological notion of perfection. If God is perfect, and uses mechanisms such as evolution as instruments of creation, why should he ever need to intervene in history? Of course, many creationists argue that evolution doesn’t exist because God created everything perfectly right from the start, but some of them take extremely naive, science-denying positions in order to maintain their belief. What Dawkins wants us to admit is that creatures including humans are flawed, therefore God could not have created them, because God, and by implication his creations, must necessarily be perfect.

Mainstream Buddhism is less vulnerable to Dawkins’ attack than the monotheistic religions because it does not posit a creator God, instead arguing that the natural world and the forms we take are created by our minds, and that whilst our minds are contaminated by ignorance, craving and negative karma, we should expect to be reborn in imperfect forms and environments with the nature of suffering. Dawkins would nevertheless still be hostile to all the metaphysical and devotional (‘unscientific’) elements of Buddhism.

The Buddha took suffering as the starting point for his philosophy, and clearly there is a lot of suffering in the world. Suffering challenges naive conceptions of God’s perfection. Why would God create tiny wasps that bore into grubs, lay their eggs in them, and paralyze them so that they can’t move but can still suffer as the eggs hatch and they are eaten from the inside?

In addressing this question it is worth noting that any concept of perfection must have a functional (teleological) element. Things are perfect for particular functions, not in abstract. The plumage of the bird of paradise is perfect for attracting mates, a duck’s beak is perfect for scooping food from a pond, and a chameleon’s eyes are perfect for all-round vision. The world is full of things that do not seem to be perfect because they do not seem to have any particular function (e.g. the human appendix) or because they do not perform their function very well (e.g. the British Parliament). It could be that we simply do not yet understand their true function. Are male nipples really antennae to pick up cosmic rays? Is Starbucks really the first wave of an alien invasion?

The Mahayana Buddhist sage Shantideva wrote that

“Even suffering has good qualities. Because of suffering pride is dispelled. Compassion arises for beings trapped in samsara. Evil is shunned, and joy is found in virtue.” (from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’).

If we were to consider the world as God’s training and testing ground for humans then we could argue that suffering is a necessary part of the design, and in some sense ‘perfect’. However, we might lament the enormity of the suffering with which God sees fit to test us, and pray that his mercy might take precedence over his wrath.

We can also move towards more subtle notions of perfection. In the Fukanzazengi the Zen Buddhist master Dogen writes:

“Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the Way is perfectly pervasive, how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is necessarily unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it? And yet, if a hair’s breadth of distinction exists, the gap is like that between heaven and earth; once the slightest like or dislike arises, all is confused and the mind is lost.” (from ‘On Zen Practice’ by Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, Wisdom Publications 2002, p13)

Here master Dogen is arguing for the natural perfection underlying reality and the mind. Natural perfection does not need to be refined, but must be recognized. While we fail to recognize perfection it appears as imperfection. The irony of Zen practice is that while natural perfection surrounds and permeates everything, so that recognizing it should be the easiest thing of all, letting go of our false conceptions requires effort and training. It is the path that is ‘neither easy nor difficult’.

How can the imperfect be perfect? In Buddhism anger is considered to be imperfect and faulty. Shantideva writes:

“There is no evil greater than anger,
And no virtue greater than patience.
Therefore, I should strive in various ways
To become familiar with the practice of patience.

If I harbour painful thoughts of anger,
I shall not experience mental peace,
I shall find no joy or happiness,
And I shall be unsettled and unable to sleep.

Overcome by a fit of anger,
I might even kill a benefactor
Upon whose kindness I depend
For my wealth or reputation.

Anger causes friends and relatives to grow weary of me
And, even if I try to attract them with generosity, they will not trust me.
In short, there is no one
Who can live happily with anger.

Although the enemy of anger
Creates sufferings such as these,
Whoever works hard to overcome it
Will find only happiness in this and future lives.”
(‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’, Tharpa Publications, Ch.6 vs 2 -7)

Although anger should be abandoned, it is a manifestation of the underlying purity of the mind and of emptiness (shunyata). Relating to anger in this way is a skillful method to come to terms with and eventually abandon it. John Welwood writes:

“A further step on the path of awakening involves learning to be with our experience in an even more direct and penetrating way, which I call unconditional presence. Here the focus is not so much on what we are experiencing as on how we are with it. Being fully present with our experience facilitates a vertical shift from personality to being. Being with anger, for instance, involves opening to its energy directly, which often effects a spontaneous transmutation. The anger reveals deeper qualities of being hidden within it, such as strength, confidence or radiant clarity, and this brings us into deeper connection with being itself. From this greater sense of inner connectedness, the original situation that gave rise to anger often looks quite different. Beyond transmutation there lies the still subtler potential to self-liberate experience through naked awareness. Instead of going into this anger, this would simply mean resting in presence as the anger arises and moves, while recognizing it as a transparent, energetic display of being-awareness-emptiness”
(from ‘Toward a Pschology of Awakening’, Shambala Publications 2000, pp126-7)

Drawing out the full implications of these passages is beyond me, suffice it to say that there is a close relationship between perfection and imperfection. Those who fail to see the relationship between evolution and perfection, and cling to one side or the other, drive us further from reality.

Comparing Buddhist and Muslim Attitudes to Scripture

Please note the limited scope of this article, as it does not compare attitudes towards ‘secondary’ literature such as hadith in Islam and Abhidharma and Mahayana Sutras in Buddhism.

It can be useful to compare the roles that scripture plays in different religions, for example Buddhism and Islam.

Muslims are united in their belief in the Qur’an as their definitive scripture. The Qur’an is the revelation that Mohammed received from God via the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is definitive, but there are four classical schools of Qur’anic interpretation, and Muslims disagree over the scope for ongoing interpretation. ‘Moderate’ scholars such as Tariq Ramadan argue for a relatively wide scope for interpretation compared to ‘fundamentalists’.

In Buddhism there is some debate over which scriptures are authentic. The Theravada tradition denies the authenticity of Mahayana scriptures such as the Perfection of Wisdom and Lotus Sutras which are central to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. (For a Sutra, authenticity means that it was spoken or authorized by the Buddha himself.)

The earliest Sutras (or Suttas) were written in the Pali language, and preserved by the Theravada school in the Pali canon. The Buddha did not write down the teachings himself, nor is it likely that they were transcribed by any of his immediate disciples. Instead they were transmitted orally for a number of generations until the Buddhist Sangha decided it was important to preserve them in writing.

“According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what was remembered as the authoritative ‘word of the Buddha’, took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rajagriha in northern India when 500 arhats took part in a ‘communal recitation’ (samgiti). This event is commonly referred to in modern writings as ‘the first Buddhist council’.” (from ‘The Foundations of Buddhism’ by Rupert Gethin, Oxford University Press 1998, p40)

Gethin goes on to say:

“the notion of a fixed canon of Buddhist scriptures is somewhat problematic. And we must be careful not to impose inappropriate notions of ‘canon’ and authenticity – derived say from Christianity [or Islam] – on the Buddhist tradition. Even in the accounts of the first Buddhist council we are told of a monk who, on hearing the recitation of the Buddha’s teaching by the 500 arhats, declared that he preferred to remember the teaching as he himself had heard it from the Buddha.” (ibid, p46)

This latter comment is interesting because, although the two are held to be mutually supportive, Buddhism prioritizes direct personal experience over scriptural understanding. It is one thing for scriptures to be authentic, it is another to have an authentic realization of Dharma. Correct scriptural understanding is excellent, but deep personal experience is truly liberating. The Theravada monk Ven. Analayo writes:

“The philosophical setting of ancient India was influenced by three main approaches to the acquisition of knowledge. The Brahmins relied mainly on ancient sayings, handed down by oral transmission, as authoritative sources of knowledge; while in the Upanishads one finds philosophical reasoning used as a central tool for developing knowledge. In addition to these two, a substantial number of the wandering ascetics and contemplatives of that time considered extrasensory perception and intuitive knowledge, gained through meditative experiences, as important means for the acquisition of knowledge. These three approaches can be summarized as: oral tradition, logical reasoning, and direct intuition. When questioned on his own epistemological position, the Buddha placed himself in the third category, i.e. among those who emphasized the development of direct, personal knowledge.” (from ‘Satipatthana – the direct path to realization’ by Analayo, Windhorse 2003, p44)

Whilst emphasizing the priority of direct, personal knowledge:

“the Buddha once illustrated the dangers of relying entirely on one’s own direct experience with the help of a parable. In this parable, a king had several blind men each touch a different part of an elephant. When questioned on the nature of the elephant, each blind man gave an entirely different account . . . Although what was experienced by each of the blind men was empirically true, yet their personal direct experience had revealed only part of the picture. The mistake each made was to wrongly conclude that his direct knowledge gained through personal experience was the only truth, so that anyone disagreeing must be mistaken. This parable goes to show that even direct personal experience might reveal only a part of the picture and therefore should not be grasped dogmatically as an absolute ground for knowledge. That is, emphasis on direct experience need not entail a complete rejection of oral tradition and reasoning as auxiliary sources of knowledge.” (ibid pp.45-46)

In comparison to the Buddhist scriptures, the interval between the Qur’an being spoken by the Prophet and written down by his followers was much shorter:

“An inner circle of his followers wrote down verses of the Qur’an as they learned them from the Prophet and there are records of there being a total of twenty-nine scribes for this. By the end of the Prophet’s life (632 CE) the entire Qur’an was written down in the form of uncollated pieces . . . The standard Muslim account is that, during the second year after the Prophet’s death (633 CE) and following the Battle of Yamama, in which a number of those who knew the Qur’an by heart died, it was feared that with the gradual passing away of such men there was a danger of some Qur’anic material being lost. Therefore the first caliph and successor the the Prophet, Abu Bakr, ordered that a written copy of the whole body of Qur’anic material as arranged by the Prophet and memorized by the Muslims should be made and safely stored with him.” (from ‘The Qur’an’, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press 2004, pp.xv-xvi)

The Qur’an is the source of authoritative knowledge in Islam, but understanding the Qur’an also implies a commitment to understanding the world and one’s own soul. William C. Chittick says that the Qur’an:

“tells us repeatedly that God creates the world by speaking. Just as the Qur’an and other scriptures are collections of God’s “signs” or “verses” (ayat), so also the whole universe is a vast collection of God’s signs and verses. In effect, God creates the universe by revealing three books – the universe, the human self, and scripture. In each book he displays his signs and writes out his words. Once we understand that reality is configured by speech, we see that the human task is to read and understand what has been written and to follow the instructions. The interpretation of the Qur’an is the foundation and fruit of all Islamic sciences, and it has always entailed the simultaneous interpretation of the universe and the soul. Every Muslim, by accepting the Qur’an as God’s Speech, has accepted the responsibility of understanding what God is saying . . . Every soul will answer for its own reading, not only of scripture but of the other two books. And, given that the soul’s understanding is written out in itself, the soul’s own book is the all-important determinant of its destiny . . . The crux of knowledge, then, is to understand one’s own soul.” (from ‘Ibn Arabi – Heir to the Prophets’ by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications 2005, pp57-58)

What Remains Is God

“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.

The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:

“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.

“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.

“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.

“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.

“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.

“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”

(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from

In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.

In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.

“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Desire Me
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”

(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)