Category Archives: Philosophy

Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

The role of conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path



I want to offer a perspective on conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path. I will mainly draw on Buddhist source material, but will also include some references to Sufi Islam. In his ‘Root Text on the Mahamudra’, the first Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsän, says

“The mind that is free from conceptualization
Is merely a level of conventional mind;
It is not the mind’s ultimate nature.
Therefore seek instruction from qualified Masters.”

The Panchen Lama’s point is that it is possible to overestimate the importance of eliminating conceptuality. The Panchen Lama was/is one of the most eminent Lamas of the Yellow Hat tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by Lama Tsonghapa, this tradition sees itself as the heir and protector of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ path of Buddhism introduced to Tibet from India by scholars and sages such as Kamalashila, Shantarakshita, and Atisha.

A crucial moment in the history of Tibetan Buddhism was the 8th century CE debate at the Council of Lhasa between Kamalashila and the Chinese Chan (Zen) monk Hashang. In this debate Hashang advanced the characteristic Zen position of ‘sudden enlightenment’, emphasising the elimination of conceptuality, whereas Kamalashila maintained the position of ‘gradual enlightenment’ which employs conceptuality as a tool until the advanced stages of the Bodhisattva path. By most accounts Kamalashila was deemed the winner and Hashang had to leave Tibet. Yellow Hat Lamas such as my own former teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso have sometimes seen it as their mission to protect Tibetan Buddhism from the return of Hashang’s view. So, in his book ‘Understanding the Mind’, Geshe Kelsang writes:

“Some people believe that all conceptual thoughts are bad and should be abandoned. This mistaken view was taught by the . . . Chinese monk Hashang, who misunderstood what Buddha taught in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and believed that the way to meditate on emptiness was simply to empty the mind of all conceptual thoughts. This view still has many adherents today, but if we hold this view we will have no opportunity to progress on the spiritual paths.”

The Yellow Hat reading of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras hinges on the word ‘subsequently’. The relevant section from the ‘Essence of Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra) is:

“whatever Son or Daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should look perfectly like this: +subsequently+ looking perfectly and correctly at the emptiness of inherent existence also of the five aggregates. Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.”

In his commentary ‘Heart of Wisdom’ Geshe Kelsang provides the following explanation: “Here the word ‘subsequently’ has great meaning. It indicates that the mind with which we should first understand emptiness is an inferential cognizer, the Tibetan expression for an inferential cognizer being rendered more literally as ‘subsequent realization’. An inferential cognizer is a type of valid mind, or valid cognizer — a valid cognizer being a mind that realizes its object non-deceptively. Such a mind will never deceive us with respect to the object it ascertains. There are two types of valid cognizer: inferential valid cognizers and direct valid cognizers. They are distinguished by the fact that an inferential valid cognizer relies upon a sign, or reason, to know its object, whereas a direct valid cognizer knows its object directly without the need to rely upon a reason.”

Inferential cognizers involve conceptuality because they depend upon reasoning and the intellect. In ‘Understanding the Mind’ Geshe Kelsang writes:

“When we first realize subtle objects such as impermanence [or emptiness] in dependence upon inferential cognizers, we attain an intellectual understanding of them, but we should not be satisfied with this. We need to deepen our experience of the object through meditation. In this way we will gradually attain a profound experience induced by meditation, and finally a yogic direct perceiver that realizes the object directly. Inferential cognizers are seeds of yogic direct perceivers. Until we attain an actual yogic direct perceiver realizing a particular object, we need to continue to meditate on the continuum of the inferential cognizer realizing that object.”

What Geshe-la and the Yellow Hats propose is a gradualist epistemology starting with valid conceptual inference leading to ‘yogic direct perceivers’ (equivalent to ma’arifa in Sufi Islam). The conceptuality involved in generating inferential cognizers is seen as an important pre-requisite for gnosis / enlightenment / ma’arifa.

The effectiveness of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ method hangs on whether conceptual reasoning really can generate inferential cognizers. In other words, can conceptual reasoning actually cause our minds to alight on profound objects of meditation and engage with them so as to bring about spiritual transformation? The short answer is: only if we are using conceptual reasoning to genuinely challenge our deeply-held misconceptions about how we and the world exist.

For example, when meditating on “form is empty” using conceptual reasoning, it is not enough merely to deconstruct the body in abstract using Nagarjuna’s method. Rather, it is vital that first we clearly identify the object of negation, which is the inherently existent body we grasp at (the image of our body that we normally relate to). Once we have identified this body we try to find it among its parts or as the collection of its parts. We consider whether our body is our arm. Or our leg. Or our fingers. Or our head. And we conclude that it is none of these. We then ask whether the body is the collection of all these parts. But how can a collection of non-bodies be a body? How can the quality of ‘bodiness’ ever arise from non-bodies?

It is at this point that our clearly-held sense of our own body starts to shake and crumble. We are like a person who knows definitely that they parked their car in front of their house and is shocked and amazed to find that it has gone! Our mind sees only an absence where the image of the body used to be, and this absence is shocking and meaningful — it means that the body we normally relate to does not exist.

Once, when Lama Tsongkhapa was teaching the meditation on the emptiness of the body he noticed his disciple Sherab Senge grabbing at himself. Tsongkhapa saw that Sherab Senge had developed an inferential cognizer of the emptiness of his body and had felt his body disappear so he instinctlively tried to grab onto it. Sherab Senge later became the teacher of the 1st Dalai Lama, Je Gendundrub.

When we have generated an inferential cognizer we do not continue with discursive, conceptual reasoning. Instead we remain in meditation on the transformative realisation of emptiness that we have generated. Eventually we become so familiar with this realisation that we no longer need conceptual reasoning to bring it to mind.

The next place I am going with this is to emphasize that reason only functions as a spiritually liberating force if combined with purification of the soul. This is a key message I took away from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s (AHM) teachings at the Al-Ghazali Retreat I recently attended.

Al-Ghazali’s ‘Ihya‘ is a manual for the purification of the soul, and AHM positioned Al-Ghazali as a psychologist engaged in muraqaba to the greatest extent, understanding himself and others. Al-Ghazali is famous for his refutation of Ibn Sina, who attempted to assert reason (in the form of Greek philosophy) over revelation (the Qur’an). But Al-Ghazali did not reject the role of reason per se, only its usurping of revealed truth. He recognised that reason is necessary to interpret revelation.

However, according to AHM “reason deployed by an unrefined ego is a disaster” (he cites the example of Iblis). The ‘Ihya’ is a manual on how to sort yourself out so you can reason correctly. Here AHM points out the necessary relationship between Sufism and Sunni Islam: only through the practices of Sufism can a Sunni scholar purify him/herself in order to arrive at a non-egotistical reading of the Qur’an. The intellect will not work properly unless the nafs is at peace. AHM suggests that Al-Ghazali’s own spiritual crisis of 1095 CE was caused by his fear that all his eminent philosophical works to that point had been contaminated by egotism. He finally took the plunge into Sufism that his brother Ahmad Ghazali recommended, and eventually emerged to write the ‘Ihya’.

The classical Greeks, Sufis and Buddhists wouldn’t recognise Western ‘philosophy’ today, because it plays with reason in isolation from any serious attempt to discipline or purify the soul. In Islam, Sufism is a prerequisite for Sunnah and Fiqh so, within Buddhism, meditation and moral discipline are prerequisites for philosophy. Meditation (Sutra), moral discipline (Vinaya) and philosophy (Abhidharma) are the ‘three baskets’ (Tripitaka) into which the Buddha’s teachings were organised at the 1st Buddhist Council c.400 BCE. Together they form the whole corpus of Buddhism and anyone who wishes to realise the profound philosophical truths (Abhidharma) taught by Buddha must not neglect the other two baskets.

I’ve talked about the role of conceptual reason in providing a launch pad for the mind to alight on hidden, virtuous objects of meditation such as emptiness, but although conceptual reasoning is necessary it is not sufficient. The blessing [baraka] of Allah swt is also required (unmediated or mediated by a spiritual guide). Geshe Kelsang writes: “It is said that all the virtuous minds of sentient beings are the result of the enlightened activities of the Buddhas. The two principal ways in which Buddhas help sentient beings are by giving teachings and by blessing their minds. Without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise. All sentient beings have at some time or another received Buddha’s blessings.” (UTM). Poetically, Shantideva says in his ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ (ch. 1)

“Just as on a dark and cloudy night
A flash of lightning for a moment illuminates all,
So for the worldly, through the power of Buddha’s blessings,
A virtuous intention occasionally and briefly occurs.”

Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) talks about the function of the nafs as maintaining the continuum with the primordial memory of the day of Alastu Bi-Rabbikum, yet we are normally veiled from this deep level of our self by its grosser levels (“we are veiled from ourself by ourself”). These grosser levels of self must die (fana) in order for us to return to our true self (baka). We cannot achieve this unveiling just through the force of our own reason or effort — we need the help of God and his friends the auliya. AHM says that the mere presence of a wali activates our self, by reminding us at a deep level what the self is supposed to be (it can be frightening or exciting to be confronted by our self).

So even though reason can take us a certain distance we need faith to reach our goal. AHM says that “reason cannot storm the gates of heaven”. The rules of logic are part of the created world — they could have been different — whereas Ruh transcends the world and is our bridge of access to what lies beyond. AHM says that the Ruh partakes of infinity and eternity, it is something of Allah swt within ourself yet beyond ourself. The heart is the locus of the Ruh, and it is the heart that experiences the revelation of the Divine who “sent it down into your heart” (Al-Baqara 2:97).

However, if we don’t use reason we are like the Bedouin who trusts God but fails to tie his camel. The correct way of practice is to do everything we can from our own side and pray continually to Allah swt for his blessings. God has endowed us with the precious possession of reason and it is our responsibility to use it: “God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive.” (An-Nisa 4:95).

Practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy

a leaf

a leaf

The most common, practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is mentally deconstructing compound objects. This sounds technical but is relatively simple with practice. It is one of the most important Buddhist practices, but it is not exclusively Buddhist, in fact it is universally applicable because it is based on reason and sound philosophical principles.

Buddha famously taught ‘anātman’ (no-self). He taught that people are made up of five constituent parts or ‘aggregates’: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness. Form = body and the other four = mind. People are compound objects because they are composed of these multiple constituent parts. The ‘trick’ come when you search for a real self or essence among these parts — when you look for the +real+ person. Buddha said that if you systematically look for the real person within the body and mind you will not find it, and the implication is therefore that it doesn’t exist: that there is no real person, self or essence in the aggregates. You have mentally deconstructed the compound object that is the person and found ‘anātman’ (no-self). The same technique can be used on any compound object (i.e. anything which has parts), e.g. tables, chair, cars, sports teams, armies, forests, trees, leaves etc. In the passage below David Edwards deconstructs the England football (‘soccer’) team using Nagarjuna’s technique ( )

“What do we mean by ‘the England football team’? On the face of it the question is absurd – obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff. But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not – he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams – there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played. Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely ‘parts of the team’, not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 – if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same – but because something beyond the individuals involved, ‘the England team’, had failed to win. The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals – none of whom are the England team – they might suddenly transform into an actually existing ‘England team’. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team – Beckham, Rooney, Lampard – there is nothing left, no England team. In fact, of course, ‘the England team’ is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind. The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, ‘England’ – a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals – has ‘lost’ or ‘won’. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose – a label is just a label, a mental construct.

“It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent – the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called ‘trees’ – but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is ‘a tree’? In fact a ‘tree’ is just a label applied to a collection of parts – it is nowhere actually to be found, just like ‘a forest’ and just like an ‘England team’. Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an ‘army’, we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns – the term ‘army’ is just a label. If we look for a ‘book’, we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers – none of which is the car – but which we label ‘car’ and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks: “Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature.” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)”

The phrase ‘inherent existence’ means absolute or real existence, or existence ‘from the side of’ the object. Following Nagarjuna we can conclude that everything in the world is empty of inherent existence: if we go looking for the real object we will not find it. However, this doesn’t mean that objects are completely devoid of existence: they can have a relative or conventional existence. If you offer to give me a lift to the airport in your car I will say ‘thank you very much’ rather than deny your car exists. Even though there is no real car to be found in its parts, your ‘car’ functions as a workable, conventional label to describe a set of gears, wheels, seats etc which can convey me to the airport. The problem is that these conventional labels become sticky. We get so used to them, and they work so well, that we assume that something ‘out there’ in the world really corresponds to the label. In technical terms we ‘reify’ (or thingify) the label.

What is the relevance of this to Sufi Islam? The immediate relevance is that Nagarjuna’s technique is philosophically valid and demonstrates that compound objects have no essence or real existence, whether or not we are atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians or whatever, therefore we need to take it on board. Moreover, from the position of ‘tanzih’ (incomparability) Sufism accepts that nothing in the world is real, because ‘there is no real but the Real (Allah)’, and Allah is not in this world. Nagarjuna’s philosophy therefore helps us to understand Sufism, particularly the work of Ibn Arabi.

Once we have established no-self (anātman), or ’emptiness’ (shunyata) as Nagarjuna called it, then we can enjoy considering how things appear from their emptiness or lack of self. In so doing we move from the ‘profundity of the ultimate’ which Buddha expressed as “form is empty” to the ‘profundity of the conventional’ which he expressed as “emptiness is form”. In a similar way, once we have established Allah’s Oneness, we can enjoy considering how the myriad things appear.

The Politics of the Soul


This is my remembrance / reworking of some of the many ideas in Prof Milbank’s paper.

Prof. Milbank started by stating that the soul (psyche) is what makes us human, it is the human realm par excellence. He cited Aristotle’s ideas from De Anima, talking about the bodies of humans and animals being the nature of their souls, and yet the soul as transcending mere matter.

He then moved on (or back) to Plato, citing the ‘Gorgias‘ where Plato relates politics to the soul, saying that politics is to the soul as medicine is to the body, and that the politician’s function is to make people’s soul’s good just as the doctor’s function is to make people’s bodies well. Politics is therefore psychological, but it is about collective psychology and the collective good, so the politician does not correspond to the modern psychologist who treats individuals.

Plato warned against the possibility of a type of personal political narcissism in which the individual learns too well to govern himself and subdue his passions, just for its own sake. Plato compares this to a general who undertakes unnecessary battles for the sake of glory.

Plato prefers to look upwards and outwards, locating the individual soul as an active participant in the polis (city), with the political function helping to minister to the individual’s soul just as the individual enriches collective life. Psychology is therefore political.

Plato talked about the importance of ritual, myth and liturgy in connecting the polis to the Divine, and of the necessity of a religious community within the polis. In Plato’s case this was the class of religious philosophers, but Prof. Milbank said it could be the Sangha, the Ummah, or the Ecclesia depending on the culture. This religious community performs a public function and is neither secret nor elite.

Prof. Milbank provided an extensive critique of liberalism. He argued that 17th century liberalism was a reaction to the European religious wars of the preceding centuries. These had been wars over ‘the truth’, with different Christian sects fighting for their own versions. Liberalism sought to create a neutral metaphysical space as a basis for public life, replacing feudalism which had based itself on a particular view of the human soul in relation to God. But liberalism’s neutrality has degenerated into a materialist metaphysics and is no longer a neutral space, and my displacing the soul from public life it has displace humans. Liberalism is therefore anti-humanistic.

Within the modern and post-modern world the human has become debased or at least marginalised from public life. Classical economics, with doctrines such as diminishing marginal utility, does not take account of truly human phenomena pertaining to the soul such as sentiment and virtue (whose utility does not diminish as they increase). Instead it emphases the trivial functions of human base matter such as food, shelter and copulation. Materialist ideologies appeal to base human instincts such as hatred of the other (immigrants, classes, races, religions). On the other hand the individual is disempowered from political involvement through liberal doctrines such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which pretends that these occasionalist, individual consumption patterns have some aggregated force. Even when liberalism attempts transcendence it debases humans further in its search for a soulless ‘brave new world’ of augmented bio-technological humans. Milbank calls these two modes of liberalism disenchanted immanence and transcendence.

Milbank characterised as ‘optimistic’ the pre-liberal Christian idea that people are fundamentally good even though this goodness is obscured by sin. He characterised as ‘pessimistic’ the Hobbesian liberal idea that people are fundamentally bad and must be restrained if we are to avoid the natural state of the ‘war of all against all’. He noted that Rousseau painted a more optimistic liberal picture of isolated people being good in the state of nature. However, following Rousseau, liberalism tends to rely on a system of contracts to bring about good behaviour once people are placed together, whereas non-liberal traditions like anarchism and socialism point to natural existing societies as manifesting harmony without the need for contracts.

Milbank promotes an ‘enchanted transcendence’ which he believes is the message of William Blake and other Romantics. He contrasts this with the ‘enchanted immanence’ of Spinoza and Goethe which he suggests compromises the (Western) monotheistic tradition. However Milbank’s vision is Christo-centric.

Synthesis & Analysis

“We are the inheritors of categorized knowledge; therefore we inherit also a world view that consists of parts strung together, rather than of wholes regarded through different sets of filters. Historically, synthesis seems to have been too much for the human mind — where practical affairs were concerned. The descent of the synthetic method from Plato through Augustine took men’s perception into literature, art and mysticism. The modern world of science and technology is bred from Aristotle and Aquinas by analysis. The categorization that took hold of medieval scholasticism has really lasted it out. We may see with hindsight that the historic revolts against the scholastics did not shake free from the shackles of their reductionism. ”

Stafford Beer, preface to Autopoiesis and cognition: the realization of the living by Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela (p63)

Photograph: Chandeliers in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, France.
© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Faith and Cosmos

In his book ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ the economist E.F. Schumacher argues that science on its own provides a one dimensional, ‘horizontal’ view of reality, and we need faith in the metaphysical to give us a ‘vertical’ dimension — to connect us to heaven.

Faith is necessary as well as science because faith leads us from the part to the whole, enabling us to see the wood as well as the trees. Faith and imagination allow us to make the leap from atom to cosmos. Reason provides the power to analyze and dissect; faith, imagination and intuition give us the power to build a coherent whole, which is the cosmos. Belief that we live in a cosmos rather than a chaos is an essential point of faith. Belief in cosmos is belief that the universe is fundamentally good, is fundamentally in harmony. This faith needn’t be explicitly theistic — I like those Buddhist teachings, such as Chogyam Trungpa’s, which emphasise the basic goodness of the mind.

Taoism provides a useful framework to explore the ideas of cosmos and harmony. If we have faith in fundamental goodness and harmony, we can learn to discern then in many situations, and understand how those situations reflect the coherent whole. According to Taoism, all situations are microcosms, containing within them the essential elements of the cosmos (yin and yang). The Tao itself is the harmonic principle bringing meaning out of chaos, and is always present, even if hidden. For me, God is similar to the Tao. God’s jamal (beautiful) and jalal (majestic) qualities are like yin and yang.

Many scientists are in awe at the complexity and precision of the natural laws they study. However I think there is still a “glass half empty or half full?” question, and which side one comes down on depends on faith. On their own, complexity and precision are meaningless — cancer and weapons systems can also be complex and precise. So it is the question of goodness which is key. Genesis tells us that when God created the world he saw that it was good.

The Meaning of Life

February 2009

Dear Friend,

You wrote:

We can apply the Zen debate between sudden and gradual awakening to the question of faith, refuge and salvation. My local vicar in Sussex once told me that there is a difference between salvation and sanctification. Salvation is sudden and occurs the moment you give your life to Jesus. Sanctification is the gradual process that follows. Perhaps the act of faith is necessarily a sudden shift to the objective perspective, whereas the assessment of our faith is part of the gradual subjective process. In this sense, in one moment of pure faith we are already outside samsara. Sure some Pure Land teacher must have said this? And if this moment of pure faith occurs at the point of death, perhaps this means we lock into the objective perspective – forever, or until we freely decide we need to work on our subjective side again.

Your thoughts resonate with some of my recent contemplations. In the film ‘The Meaning of Life’ by Monty Python there is a scene in which a group of corporate executives discuss the meaning of life in the boardroom:

Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.

Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.

Exec #3: What was that about hats again?

This idea of bringing the soul into existence by a process of guided self-observation with the assistance of an outside spiritual energy does indeed seem to me to be the meaning of life. Its relationship to salvation and sanctification might be as follows:

Salvation corresponds to initial baptism / baptism of water. At this point one enters religion and receives the protection of God. However, one has not yet been sanctified. Sanctification corresponds to baptism with the holy spirit. This latter baptism is normally associated with the Pentecost. The Catholic Catechism describes what was granted to the Apostles at Pentecost as the “full Outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. sanctification).

In between initial baptism (salvation) and baptism with the holy spirit (sanctification) is the baptism of fire. This confusing stage is the process of transforming the soul from its raw to its cooked state or, to use Rumi’s specific form of this of analogy, transforming the wheat of the soul into cooked bread:

The heart’s like grain, and we are like the mill.
Say, does the mill know why it whirls around?
The body’s stone, the waters are the thoughts —
The stone says “Oh the water understands!”
The water says “No, ask the miller, please —
He sent the water downhill — ask him why!”
The miller says: “Bread-eater! — should this cease
To move, say then, what would the baker do?”

Perhaps sanctification is when the baker puts his seal of approval on the cooked bread, before serving it to his customers?

Dear Matthew,

I remember the Monty Python scene about the soul from when I saw it in the cinema. It intrigued me then. They almost certainly got it from Gurdjieff. It was an important idea for me at the time, but graudually I found it reinforcing a type of self-grasping and causing tension. What I like about Mahamudra and the wisdom teachings in general is that our fundamental nature is already pure and in a sense enlightened. We need to relax into our enlightened (and eternal) nature rather than create it through effort. Gurdjieff”s teaching on the soul gave me the feeling that I needed to create my own immortal nature, and thus increased unnecessarily the tension an over emphasis on self power creates. I realize now I misunderstood the teaching. Have you heard of the two types of Buddha lineage which Geshela taught in Great Mother of the Conquerors, the naturally abiding lineage and the developing lineage? As the names suggest, the naturally abiding lineage is something we’ve already got, and refers variously to the emptiness of our mind, the clarity of our mind, or the clear light mind. The developing lineage is what grows through spiritual practice. I like to see soul as a pattern or order that gradually emerges out of our chaotic “uncooked” nature, the fully developed soul being symbolized by the Deity within his mandala that embraces the whole universe, having fully transformed chaos into cosmos. I might have got this idea from you. The development of soul is therefore closely related to the accumulation of merit, which I sometimes see as a song or chant that begins with a lone voice but graudually brings together an entire football crowd.

I think you could argue that until our soul pattern has reached a certain degree of stability there is no individuality within us that can reincarnate. Specific actions have been created which lead to specific effects, and on this causal contiuum we can impute an I linking the two, and therefore speak about rebirth, but this is not the same as a reincarnating soul.

Gurdjieff taught that soul is created through self-remembrance and conscious suffering. Self.remembrance seems to correspond to the mindfulness and alertness of vipassana, and concious suffering to the practice of patience as described in How to Solve our Human Problems. These two practices do seem to me to be the basis of any genuine spiritual practice on the self-power side.

An Interview with Humanists – by Sally Bannister

April 2009

Jane Bannister is chairperson of Dorset Humanists and is involved in Bournemouth’s Big Green Fortnight in May 2009.  Dennis Bannister is currently holding a series of talks on Evolutionary Theory at Bournemouth U3A.  In this interview, they both give their personal take on the Humanist perspective.  Their responses are not necessarily representative of the Dorset Humanist group or the British Humanist Association.  They both embrace a secular approach to Humanism.  The interview begins as a formal Q&A session and evolves into a more in depth discussion, particularly regarding the issue of dogma.

Sally Bannister: What does the word ‘Humanism’ mean to you?

Jane Bannister: To me it means trying to lead a good life without the need for a religious influence.

Dennis Bannister: I’d say it was freedom of thought, being totally free to think as you wish, experiencing a lack of dogma.

SB: What do you mean by ‘a good life’?

JB: Making the most of our potential as human beings which I think would come from doing our best to try and help other people’s lives to become better, starting from our family and working out from there.  This indirectly improves the quality of our own life.

SB: What would you say was the most important guiding principle in life?

DB: Empathy.

JB: Love.

SB: What is Love?

DB: Sympathy; empathy; self-sacrifice; desire for another person’s happiness.

SB: Does the Humanist movement have an agenda? If so, what is it?

JB: Humanists like myself focus on campaigns against injustices imposed by religious institutions, but Humanists vary so much.  There would be people that don’t agree with this approach and feel we should remove religion altogether from public life and make it a purely private concern.

DB:  One of the Humanist agendas is to give people who don’t hold religious beliefs a voice, for instance in the education system.  We oppose single-faith schools.  Humanist organisations strive to represent all those non-religious people who need to speak up against the enforcement of religious viewpoints in law/statutes/politics/education/marriage/civic ceremonies etc.   The secular perspective should be acknowledged as a choice but it is often overlooked in our society as Church and state are still combined.

SB: What about injustices that are not imposed by religion? Are these not of concern to Humanists?

JB: We tend to focus on religious injustice in particular because part of the reason for forming the Humanist group is to offer support and help to those people that are being discriminated against by religious institutions.  Our gay and lesbian members say they feel comfortable with the Humanist philosophy as religious organisations can often be archaic in their official stance on sexuality.

SB: Mark Vernon was a guest speaker at the Dorset Humanist group.  He claims that the diversity of different forms of Humanism is a strength.  Would this lack of consensus amongst Humanists not make it harder to form a set of distinct guidelines for humans to live by?

DB: It is a splinter group, which doesn’t make for effective policy forming.

JB: Even within Dorset Humanist group there is a division between those people that feel we should form a set of aims and objectives, and those who feel this would be too dogmatic.

SB: Are you happy to be defined negatively (i.e. by what you don’t believe) and does this not alienate potential Humanists?

JB:  Yes this could be alienating which, of course, is something we would want to avoid.  We recently had Jonathan Miller as a guest speaker at the Dorset Humanists.  He isn’t religious, but feels that he shouldn’t have to have a label such as ‘Humanist’ or ‘atheist’.  The word ‘atheist’ means without God, rather than against God.  He said that although he doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy he is not forced to have a label for this lack of belief, and so claims it is equally ridiculous to feel the need to adopt a label for anything else that he doesn’t believe exists.

SB: Do you see any positive role for religion either in society or for the individual?

DB: For the individual, if that’s what they wish to believe, but not for society.

SB: Is there ever a time when it is better to believe something that is not true? For example, a bereaved mother that lost her child under especially unpleasant circumstances, such as a murder, might have her happiness overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of loss for the rest of her life.  If she is to believe that she will be reunited with her child in heaven (a falsehood, in your eyes) her pain will be greatly reduced.

JB:  If that belief helps relieve her suffering then it’s fine to hold it, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.   Ideally she would come to terms with her loss through bereavement counselling.

DB: No. It’s better to feel pain than delude yourself.

SB: Is being a Humanist likely to lead to individual happiness and fulfilment more than spiritual belief/activity.  If so why?

JB: I think it depends on the individual.  For me it works as I feel it gives me freedom to take responsibility for myself.  If a person thinks that there is some higher force/omnipotent being in their life then maybe feelings of freedom would be reduced.  Having said that, a religious person can get a lot of fulfilment from their beliefs and so it is up to the individual to decide what makes them happy.  Humanism does not function to stop people having religious belief, it exists to ensure that people without religious belief can go about their life without other peoples faith impinging upon their freedom or welfare.  The only time a Humanist believes there is need for more active interference is when people’s health is put at risk by a society’s predominant religion.  The act of female genital mutilation might be an example of this, or the refusal to use contraception in countries where there is an AIDS epidemic.

SB: This sense of freedom is something that one of the original secular Humanist thinkers, Jean-Paul Satre, discussed.  Religious systems of belief often attribute a meaning to life that has value over and above the individual.  Existentialists, such as Satre, claimed the reverse – that ‘existence comes before essence’.  In this sense there is no moral yard stick or standard external to oneself by which an individual can measure their behaviour.  Satre’s perspective can be criticised for potential moral relativism.  He also admitted himself that the immense freedom that a person has thrust upon them by their very existence can be nauseating and causes great anxiety. How does the Humanist deal with these criticisms?

DB: An understanding of science and evolution is important with regards to the first point.  We’ve evolved as social creatures.  Society couldn’t exist if it didn’t have moral codes of conduct.  People recognise that in order to protect the welfare of their society/group it’s in their interest to behave in a considerate way towards other members of that group – it is in our instinct as human beings.  That ‘group’ can include all members of the world.  With regards to the point about moral freedom being a great burden – maybe religion is there as a crutch for the weak minded that can’t come to terms with this uncomfortable responsibility.

SB: A naturally evolved morality is a nice idea, but we don’t have to look far to see that the world is full of violence and aggression – both directed internally – towards our own social network, and directed towards other peoples countries.

DB: Throughout history, violence and religion have been intertwined.  The dogmatic nature of religious institutions has meant that religion has often been used to justify acts of violence ‘for the greater good’.

SB: This might be true, but do you not feel that this is more an indication of human tendency, particularly when in power, to become dogmatic.  Shouldn’t the way a person holds their beliefs be even more important than the beliefs themselves?  For instance, most of us agree that democracy is a favourable political system to dictatorship yet the valuable approaches of liberalism and democracy have been dogmatically and aggressively forced upon other societies by the West.   Usually the real reasons for war involve power and greed, and the excuses given by leaders are whatever they can get their hands on at the time.  ‘Political freedom’ is currently the fashionable excuse used by western politicians to justify aggression towards other countries.  This is a secular excuse, not a religious excuse. If Humanists believe that dogma is a bad thing, and believe that there is something intrinsic to religion that is dogmatic, then one would have to conclude that in order to eradicate dogma from society we would have to eradicate religion.  But we also know that there are many atheists that can be dogmatic, just as we know that there are many religious people that are very accepting of other people’s alternative beliefs.  Is there not a danger that Humanists appear to claim that religion has a monopoly on dogma?

DB:  This might be because religious people are so certain that they are right, and so there is a lack of flexibility and an inability to move with the times due to the fact that they are often referring to documents that are hundreds of years old for their moral guidance.

SB: Do you not feel, though, that there is a difference between having confidence in one’s own beliefs and being inflexible?  Rigidity comes from a lack of willingness to cooperate with others or attempt to understand their viewpoint.  Both religious and non-religious people can be guilty of this.  Would it not be more constructive for Humanists to focus on those moral concepts that they share with religious believers/that unite us as human beings, and work from there, rather than paying great attention to the differences?  Many of the principles that you both mention at the beginning of the interview would be happily endorsed by pretty much anyone.  There are many religious people who acknowledge that dogmatic attitudes hold human beings back from communication, cooperation and peaceful relationships.

DB: 30 – 40% of the British population are non-religious and have no adequate representation in the areas I mentioned earlier.  That is why our activities centre on the non-religious.  It is not that we are trying to exclude anyone, but we do feel that there is a growing minority in the world, particluarly the west, whose interests are being overlooked.  This is not only a problem for the individuals concerned but is also a problem for society as a whole.  Religious believers and leaders will often monopolise moral debate, sometimes ignoring or holding back scientific progress.  The non-religious need a moral voice-piece.  Humanist organisations attempt to provide that.

SB: In relation to this issue of scientific progress, some people argue that religious influence will decline as society advances scientifically.  This suggestion does not seem to be supported by the example set by the United States.  The U.S. is considered to be one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world yet its percentage of adults who adhere to “no religion”’ is below 10%.   Across the globe religion plays a significant part in the personal, social and political life of many individuals.     If Humanist groups are keen to see a world free from indoctrination and dogma, could they not set a precedent by forming a set of secular principles/moral guidelines that did not have secular belief as a prerequisite?  These principles would still be secular in the sense that their endorsement would not be dependent on religious belief.  They would also be characterised by a mature pragmatism and universal appeal.

JB: I will put that idea forward to the Dorset Humanist group for discussion.

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.