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The Beautiful Irony

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

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

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

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

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


1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (

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

Sustainability & Autonomy

In order for any system to be sustainable (i.e. viable over a long period) all of its components must have a high degree of autonomy. The reason why natural ecosystems are sustainable (if humans don’t destroy them) is because their components such as plants and animals are autonomous. Plants, for example, autonomously photosynthesize and extend their roots to draw nutrients from the soil. Meanwhile, herbivores autonomously nourish themselves by eating plants, and carnivores by eating herbivores etc.

All systems face two principal types of threat: internal and external. External threats are many and varied: depending on the system they include strikes by meteorites, flu epidemics, bank failures and so on. A typical internal threat to a system is when one of its sub-systems predominates at the expense of the others, annexing a disproportionate share of the system’s resources and threatening the very survival of the whole, including the dominant sub-system itself.

Every viable system has a sub-system responsible for preserving the whole, and for maintaining the system’s essential organizing characteristics over time. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana called this sub-system ‘autopoietic’, meaning ‘self-making’ in Greek. The British cybernetician Stafford Beer coined the phrase ‘pathological autopoiesis’ to describe a situation where this sub-system malfunctions, and attempts to preserve itself at the expense of the whole. It starts to construe ‘self’ too narrowly, mistaking the welfare of the sub-system for the welfare of the whole system.

Our modern political sphere is full-to-overflowing with examples of pathological autopoiesis, where elements of government or public life which are supposed to benefit the whole merely seek to preserve or enrich themselves. Banks and MPs are two obvious examples. Typically these pathological sub-systems protest that they are acting in the interest of the whole when they are clearly not. How many times have we heard ‘the national interest’ invoked to justify the crazy wars in Iraq and Afganistan, even after we explained that they are “not in our name”?

Fortunately, because all of its components have a degree of autonomy, it is possible for the system to survive even when some of its sub-systems are establishing a pathological hegemony. In the political sphere this autonomy is known as ‘democracy’, and it is a prerequisite for the long-term viability and sustainability of the human race. Democracy offers us the chance to wrest power and resources from pathological sub-systems before they destroy us, and ironically themselves too.

Indicting The Self

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

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

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

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

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

Self Power and Divine Power

November 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:

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

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

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

What Is The Self?

June 2008

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

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

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

At first they were angry, but then they laughed.