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Humanism and Religion – part 2

The principal reason why some religious teachers are not humanistic is because they distrust human nature and have a pessimistic view of human beings. These religious teachers tend to downplay the humanity of the founders of their religions, emphasing their superhuman or even divine qualities. 

Traditional Christianity teaches that due to our Fall from the grace of Eden, humanity is in a state of sin and that this original sin passes from one generation to another as part of our human nature. The only redemption is considered to be through Christ, whose nature is believed to combine divinity with humanity. Therefore traditionally Christians were encouraged not to rely on or trust their corrupt human nature but instead to rely on the divine Christ their saviour.

In Buddhism there are different understandings of how human Gautama Buddha was. While all schools accord him a special status as the ‘wheel turning’ Buddha who presented the Dharma (doctrine/law) for his age, some schools play down the significance of his own human struggle in this life, claiming that he was already an enlightened being at birth and that he merely ‘manifested’ his actions of ascetism followed by meditation under the bodhi tree as a kind of act. 

There is a strand in Buddhism which distrusts human nature on the grounds that it is ‘samsaric’, the karmic product of impure causes and conditions, and contends that to achieve the ultimate fruits of the spiritual path we must abandon our ordinary human bodies and impute ourselves instead on subtle bodies of light. While developing and associating with our higher energies and potentials is surely a good thing, there can be a danger that practitioners will distrust and become alienated from their normal human urges and energies, which would not be a humanistic approach.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has a fundamentally positive attitude towards human nature. Muslims believe that, although Adam and Eve fell from the garden, their human nature was not corrupted or tarnished. Therefore there is no original sin passed from one generation to the next. Instead, Muslims believe that everyone is born with their basic purity (fitra) intact and it only through the vagaries of our upbringings and the difficulties of the world that we develop sin and alienation. Because of this basic postive view of human nature Islam does not require renunciation of the body. Therefore “there is no monasticism in Islam” unlike in Christianity and Buddhism. Bodily urges such as sexual desires are considered fundamentally healthy and to be enjoyed within “marriage [which] is half of the religion”.

No Muslim would claim that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was divine, because the fundamental tenet of Islam is that “there is no god but God, without partners”. Muhammad is considered fully human, the best of creation, and a perfect model for believers. God said to Muhammad ﷺ “but for you I would not have created the world” because Muhammad, as the perfect human (al-Insan al-Kamil), is most able to appreciate God’s truth, beauty, and love.

Through emulating and loving Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims are able to share in his grace and experience something of the truth, beauty, and love he experienced. This is why the following story of  Muhammad ﷺ and his companion ‘Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is recounted: “We were with the Prophet and he took the hand of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. ‘Umar said to Him, “O Messenger of God, you are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet said, “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) until I am dearer to you than your own self.” Then ‘Umar said to him, “By God, it is now that you are dearer to me than my own self.” The Prophet said, “Now, O Umar (your faith is complete).”

The point here is that the Muhammadan nature is the essence of human nature, and that by embracing this nature we fully embrace our humanity and are able to experience all its peace and blessings. We do not need to deny our humanity, but we do need to efface our normal, limited sense of self in order to achieve closeness to God, and become like his beloved.

To efface ourselves in Muhammad ﷺ we need to transcend our personality but not our humanity because Muhammad ﷺ is the epitome of humanity. Also, because Muhammad ﷺ was suffused with light (noor) we will find that, by cherishing him, our humanity becomes suffused with light and takes on a higher quality.

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 ( http://www.medialens.org/index.php/current-alert-sp-298539227/cogitations-archive/67-the-curious-case-of-the-disappearing-football-team-part-1.html )

“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 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 (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/10/11/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?”

Politics and Religion

The two basic points are 1) every religion has a valid political dimension 2) every religion has suffered from being harnessed to political interests which have no basis in religion.

Buddhism has a valid political dimension. The Buddha gives clear advice to rulers in the Kutadanta and Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttas. Islam and Judaism have more obvious political dimensions because both Mohammed and Moses were law-givers. The Qur’an and Torah both provide the bases for legal systems to govern polities of various shapes and sizes.

The Qur’an and the Torah both combine the eternal and the temporal, and this reveals the nature of politics. God is eternal and Truth is eternal, but the actual, temporal conditions in which man finds himself are far from God. Man must find a way back to God so, through the prophets, God reveals His spiritual truths and His laws for good-living.

Politics is an aspect of humanity’s collective striving for good. In our political activity we should be guided by the religious truths to which we are the heirs, but we must not make the mistakes of over-literalism, dogmatism, sectarianism, etc. which have so bedevilled our civilisation.

Within the Islamic world the Islamist tendency over-emphasises the political dimension of Islam at the expense of the spiritual. Because it is has lost connection with the loving aspect of God it is prepared to contemplate or perform violence and terrorism to accomplish its sectarian goals. Islamism has more in common with Trotskyism than it does with Islam.

Although Islamism is a corruption of Islam, this does not mean that Muslims should withdraw entirely from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is important that Muslims who are in touch with the spiritual heart of their religion should be socially and politically engaged, in order to reduce the space available to Islamists. Muslims have an important role to play combating the ever-strengthening tide of greed, materialism, addiction, violence and environmental destruction. Organisations like Christian Aid provide an example of how religious people can make vital contributions if they engage with the key political issues of our time.

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.

Two Buddhist Approaches to Economics and Development

Buddhist Values: Schumacher
In his essay ‘Buddhist Economics’, E.F (‘Fritz’) Schumacher says

“Right Livelihood is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.”

The value of human labour is a central element of all economic theories but conventional, materialist economics devalues human labour, seeing it largely as a cost that should be stripped out of the production cycle completely or ‘offshored’ to a cheaper location. Materialist workers themselves often idealize the elimination of their own labour through dreams of winning the lottery so that they never have to work again!

Fritz Schumacher says that on the other hand

“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” (my italics).

Under this definition work has value in and of itself; it is not merely a means to an end which should be eliminated if possible.

“It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.”

Schumacher goes on to say

“While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is ‘The Middle Way’ and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics therefore is simplicity and non-violence. . . Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: ‘Cease to do evil, try to do good.’”

Because simplicity and the value of human labor are at the heart of Schumacher’s conception of economics, his strong preference is for technologies which enhance rather than diminish these factors. He distinguishes two types of technology, “one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave”. The second type of technology is often the focus of western ‘development’ aid: huge dams or road-building projects for example which displace people from their traditional ways of life and force them into the cities. On the other hand the first type of technology can be termed ‘appropriate technology’ as it enhances people’s traditional ways of life.

Followers of Schumacher have devoted great time and energy to sponsoring the development and deployment of appropriate technologies, embodied in the work of the NGO Practical Action.

Buddhist Terminology: Sarvodaya Shramadana
As well as the core Buddhist values of simplicity and non-violence, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka also utilizes explicitly Buddhist terminology in its economic and development activities.

‘Sarvodaya’ is Sanskrit for ‘the awakening of all’. The movement began in 1958 when, inspired by Gandhian and Buddhist ideals, a high school teacher named A.T. Ariyaratne took a handful of his students and started social work programs in poor, remote villages. Today the movement has spread to over 15,000 towns and villages and is now the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, offering an alternative to the Western industrial model of development. The Sarvodaya movement defines development as

“not necessarily the transfer of technology or foreign aid schemes or steel mills or nuclear plants, but a “waking up” on every level — personal, spiritual, cultural, economic.”

(from Joanna Macy’s essay ‘Sarvodaya: For the Awakening of All’, which can be found on Buddhanet. Subsequent quotations are also sourced from this article.)

“Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with very beautiful people who are beset with the crushing problems endemic now to Third World societies — inflation, joblessness, deforestation, growing poverty, and hunger. In the Sarvodaya experience, Buddhism serves as a resource for social change. It is used to define what development is in terms that are meaningful to the people.”

The awakening of Sarvodaya means

“waking up to the degenerate condition of our village, waking up to work together and harness our energy, waking up to our capacity for compassion and joy and responsibility. The Four Noble Truths are even expressed in these terms, painted with illustrations on the walls of village centers . . . It is not expressed abstractly, but very concretely in terms of repaired roads, de-silted irrigation canals, nutrition programs, and schools . . . On Sarvodaya charts and murals the Four Noble Truths are illustrated with wheels of causation featuring the interrelationship of disease, greed, and apathy, or between nutrition, literacy, ‘metta’, and self-reliance, for example.”

The method for waking up is Shramadana, where ‘dana’ means generosity and ‘shrama’ means human energy. ‘Dana’ is a central Buddhist virtue and what the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement has done is to widen the scope of ‘dana’ and present it not just as alms-giving but as the gift of one’s time, energy, skills, goods, and knowledge to the community. In practical terms the movement offers

“collective work projects which a village chooses and undertakes, such as cutting an access road, digging latrines, roofing the pre-school.”

At the heart of the movement is the practice of the Four Brahmaviharas: (1) love is the loving respect for all beings that liberates you from self-involvement; (2) compassion is getting out there, “digging or dancing, to improve the common lot”; (3) joy is the pleasure found in service; and (4) equanimity keeps you going in spite of criticism and setbacks. The Four Brahmaviharas

“are on the lips of every village organizer and painted on the walls of village centers. Every meeting, whether it is a village gathering or a committee on latrines, begins with two minutes of silence for ‘metta’ meditation, extending loving thoughts to all beings.”

Joanna Macy writes that

“some fellow scholars of Buddhism, whom I had consulted, considered Sarvodaya’s reinterpretation of doctrine — such as in its version of the Four Noble Truths — to be a new-fangled adulteration of Buddhism, lacking doctrinal respectability. To present release from suffering in terms of irrigation, literacy, and marketing cooperatives appears to them to trivialize the Dharma. When I asked very learned Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka what they thought of this recasting of the Four Noble Truths, I did so with the expectation that they, too, would see it as a corruption of the purity of the Buddha’s teachings. Instead, almost invariably, they seemed surprised that a Buddhist would ask such a question — and gave an answer that was like a slight rap on the knuckles: “But it is the same teaching, don’t you see? Whether you put it on the psycho-spiritual plane or on the socio-economic plane, there is suffering and there is cessation of suffering.” In other words, you are not diluting or distorting the Noble Truths by applying them to conditions of physical misery or social conflict. Their truth lies in the contingent nature of suffering, however you view it. Because it has a cause, it can cease. Because it co-dependently arises, it can be overcome.”

She concludes that

“the notion of dependent co-arising is empowering to social action, because there is not one single cause you have to seek out and attack — be it malarial mosquitoes or local interest rates. Everything is so interrelated that whatever you do, whether you decide to organize a pre-school, a community kitchen, or a craft cooperative, each is equally valid. Each endeavor toward human well-being pulls a prop out from under the house of suffering. I find that very applicable to social change here in North America. Whatever our contribution, it is of great value; we need not feel torn between responses to different aspects of the global crisis: “Oh, should I go out and try to protect the whales, or should I go march for disarmament at the U.N.?” If you simply stick with trying to stop the strip-mining, you’re helping to save the whales, because it is all interwoven.”