Monday, November 28, 2011


‘There is hope for whoever does not know what to believe.
Human belief is a combination of superstition, gullibility and mental laziness.
We need not believe anything; we need to find, to see, to know.’

Forgive me if I return to a familiar theme. I have often said that one of the great things about being a practising Buddhist – with the emphasis on the word practising – is that there is no need to believe anything … and nothing to believe.

Now, even within Christianity there have been some enlightened souls who have written of the dangers of belief. Take, for example, that great Modernist of last century, Harry Emerson Fosdick (pictured left), who famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’

Having just re-read Brideshead Revisited – a book which, despite the author’s apparent intentions, fails to convince me of the reasonableness of Catholic Christianity over non-belief – I say, good stuff, Dr Fosdick, but why believe at all? Belief is not a criterion of truth. What is real does not become any more real because we believe that it is real, nor does the proposition ‘X is true [or real]’ become any truer because we believe that it is true.

For me, the Biblical prayer, 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' (see Mk 9:24), would be better expressed as, 'Lord, I believe; help me instead to know and understand.' Yes, follow the advice of the psalmist: 'Be still, and know that I am God' (Ps 46:10).

The current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Peter Morales (pictured right), the Association’s first Latino president, has stated:

‘Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe. I would even go a giant step further: Belief is the enemy of religion. Let me repeat that: Belief is the enemy of religion.’ [Emphasis in the original]

Morales goes on to say that any religion that is focused on belief is ‘a dangerous corruption of true religion.’ True religion, according to Morales, is ‘about what we love, not about what we think.’ It’s ‘about what you and I hold sacred.’ The Unitarian Universalist movement, says Morales, offers religion beyond belief, ‘religion that transcends culture, race and class ... religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.’ That is the kind of religion – or metareligion – that I embrace.

But what exactly is the problem with 'beliefs,' you may ask? Well, Shakyamuni Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). These thought coverings or veils do not reveal reality, indeed they distort reality. How? Well, they prevent us from knowing and experiencing things as they really are in all their directness and immediacy. Belief is conditioning. Knowledge is experiential.

I have always found helpful these words attributed to the Buddha: 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.' There is also this sound advice from the Pāli texts:

In what is seen, there should be only the seen;
in what is heard, only the heard;
in what is sensed, only the sensed;
in what is thought, only the thought.

Yes, we need to safely 'navigate' our way through life, but beliefs actually stand in the way and hold us back. What we really need is ... knowledge ... and understanding.

It was that great meditation master Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw (pictured left), the founding father of the Sunlun way of Buddhist vipassanā meditation, who taught that there is so much that we can know. We can know that we are alive … in the sense of being part of the flow or procession of life. We can know that we are persons among persons. We can know that sensations arise in us, and as respects each such sensation we can know the fact of its existence … as well as the fact of its strength or weakness. More importantly, we can know each sensation - as a bare fact - as and when it arises … and as it truly is … in all its directness and immediacy.

Yes, there is so much we can know that, well, there is simply no need to believe anything at all. In any event, the very act of formulating a 'belief' causes an otherwise present reality to die away, because (as Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw would constantly point out) the very nature of a belief is a mental construct based on an already past reality. That is, by the time a particular belief has been formulated, the reality upon which that belief is purportedly based is no longer a present reality. It is now the past. Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs imprison. They do not liberate. They are chains that bind us.

You may ask, ‘Is that all there is to life? Is there no more than that? Just life as it arises? As we see and experience it?’ Well, I suspect that we cannot truly know more nor less than that, but either way it is enough for me. Direct and immediate contact with reality – of that we can be truly mindful. And for that we should be truly thankful.






Friday, November 18, 2011


Whatever arises is impermanent (anicca). Sensations (in the form of thoughts, images, ideas, feelings, bodily sensations, external physical sensations, and so forth) come and go. They wax and wane. They arise and vanish. Reality – what is – is that which comes and goes, waxes and wanes, arises and vanishes. Mindfulness enables, indeed empowers, us to live in the immediacy and directness of the arising and vanishing of that which is truly present in the now.

In order for there to be an immediacy and directness about our moment-to-moment experience of life, three events need to occur more-or-less simultaneously. Those three events are ... touch (or sensation), awareness, and mindfulness. If those three events are not simultaneously experienced, then the chances are that what will be experienced will be nothing but ... the past! Yes, the reality of the immediate experience will subside. Indeed, it will die! Any consciousness of it will be in the form of an after-thought or a memory, as we glance back to re-experience, and (sadly, yes) evaluate, a past experience.

No wonder we talk about people who live in the past! However, we all do it when we are not mindful of events in the immediacy and directness of their arising and vanishing. There is one thing – more than all others – which keeps alive and reinforces that false, illusory sense of ‘self’, and that is when moment-to-moment sensation is experienced not as something which is happening, of which we are mindfully aware, but as something which is happening to ‘me,’ or which ‘I’ am suffering ... that is, as something being ‘inflicted’ upon us.

Don’t let reality die on you. Don’t experience it as a past event. Let your mind penetrate sensation, not by anticipating it. No, that is not the way to go. Nor should you constantly reflect upon or evaluate sensations as they arise and vanish. That is also not the way to go. Let each sensation arise and vanish of its own accord. Watch it closely, without analysis, judgment, evaluation or condemnation – indeed, watch it, without thinking any thought associated or connected with the sensation. Otherwise, you will instantly lose the immediacy, directness and actuality of the experience.

Shakyamuni Buddha advised us to observe and watch closely ... that is, mindfully ... whatever is occurring in time and space in the here-and-now, in the moment, from one moment to the next. Not only watch, but the Buddha went on to say, ‘and firmly and steadily pierce it.’ Pierce the reality of each here-and-now moment-to-moment experience. Only then can you truly say you are alive and no longer living in the past.

You may ask, ‘How am I to have any insight into what is happening if I don’t reflect upon, analyse, evaluate and judge what is happening?’ I say to you, ‘How will you ever have any insight while you continue to do those things?’ The piercing of reality of which the Buddha spoke is itself a penetration into the core and nature of reality, that is, into the arising and vanishing of each moment-to-moment spatio-temporal occurrence. That penetration is itself moment-to-moment ... but it is insight into the nature of reality as and when it unfolds from one moment to the next. You can do no better than that! We are told to ‘seize the day’ (carpe diem), and that is not bad advice, but you can still do better than that. I say to you, seize the moment ... pierce it!

So, stay mindfully aware, in order for you to have immediate and direct access to the real. Observe. Watch closely. Pierce the moment!

‘Open one's eyes and penetrate the heart of matters,
like the monkey's golden eyes did.’
Signed in Japanese, ink [inscribed], Kôju Sokuhi Sho [written by Kôju Sokuhi]
[with two artists’ seals]. Not dated.
Edo (Tokugawa) period 1615–1868.






Thursday, November 10, 2011


In my most recent blog I put forward the thesis that Jesus understood the Buddhist teaching of anattā (‘no-self’ or, more correctly, ‘not-self’), even though he expressed it in his own distinctive way.

In this blog I wish to explore the extent to which, and the manner in which, the other two bedrock Buddhist teachings (anicca and dukkha) are presented in Christianity.

First, the teaching of anicca, which affirms that everything is ... impermanent! (You can see how the teaching of anattā is inextricably bound up with the idea of anicca. If everything is impermanent, so are those ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ which we mistakenly believe constitute a separate, isolated, independent ‘self.’)

The concept of anicca (or ‘impermanence’) can be found all throughout the Bible. Our days are ‘few’ (Jb 10:20), 'as grass' (Ps 103:15), ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’ (Jb 7:6), and ‘as a shadow, and there is no abiding’ (1 Ch 29:15), indeed, ‘as a shadow that passes away’ (Ps 144:4). Our life is ‘wind’ (Jb 7:7), ‘even a vapour, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away’ (Ja 4:14), ‘as the morning cloud, and as the early dew that passes away, as the chaff that is driven out of the floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney’ (Ho 13:3).

Further, we are told that ‘all flesh is grass, and all its goodliness is like the flower of the field: the grass withers, the flower fades’ (Is 40:6, 7). One generation passes away, and another generation comes (Ec 1:4), and ‘time and chance happen to us all’ (Ec 9:11). No wonder we are told to ‘remember how short [our] time is’ (Ps 89:47). We are also reminded that we have ‘no certain dwelling place’ (I Co 4:11). Indeed, we ‘are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (Ec 3:20; cf Ge 3:19)

Yes, all things change. Indeed, the only certain and changeless thing is just that ... all things change. ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’ (Ec 3:1). There is ‘a time to get, and a time to lose; and a time to cast away’ (Ec 3:6). Our life is ‘fleeting,’ our days are ‘fleeting,’ for that is our ‘portion in life,’ our ‘struggle under the sun’ (Ec 9:9).

True, the Bible affirms that there is a Power and Presence, which is Life, Truth and Love, which is unchanging and eternal. That One is God. However, everything material is impermanent and will pass away. Not even the ‘soul’ is immortal, for only God is said to be immortal (see Jb 4:17; Ec 3:20; 1 Ti 6:16). The Bible makes that unambiguously clear.

Now, the teaching of dukkha (‘unsatisfactoriness’), which affirms that unsatisfactoriness is part of our lives ... or, if you prefer, that life is characterised by unsatisfactoriness. (That is not to say there is no joy in life. The teaching of dukkha simply affirms that unsatisfactoriness is inescapable and ever-present in our lives in varying degrees from one moment to the next.)

There is no one single English word that is adequate to describe or rather compress all the aspects of the meaning of the word dukkha. Traditionally, the EngIish word 'suffering' has been used. However, I have chosen, for want of a better, the word ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ because I think that English word includes almost everything which dukkha embraces ... things such as (but not limited to) unfulfilled desire, suffering (both physical and mental), distress, dissatisfaction, discomfort, discontent, disquietude, disharmony, pain, sorrow, affliction, bodily ailments, misery, unhappiness, anguish, angst, anxiety, depression, stress, tension, insecurity, conflict, separation, alienation, frustration, emptiness, insubstantiality, etc, etc. Here are the written words of Shakyamuni Budhha on the nature of dukkha:

‘This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha. Presence of objects we loathed is dukkha; separation from what we love is dukkha; to not get what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.’

Yes, negativity in any way or form is dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness. Being born, aging, sickness, death, separation – all those things are dukkha. The Bible affirms the truth of that teaching as well, for we are told that all our days are sorrows, and our travail grief, with there being no rest in the night (cf Ec 2:23). Indeed, the whole creation ‘groans and travails in pain together’ (Ro 8:22). The psalmist writes, ‘My heart is sore pained with me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me’ (Ps 55:4). Our days are ‘full of trouble’ (Jb 14:1) and ‘are passed away in thy wrath’ (Ps 90:9). Indeed, there is ‘trouble and darkness, [and] dimness of anguish’ (Is 48:10), for ‘all things are full of labour: it is simply inexpressible’ (Ec 1:8). Yes, we are ‘consumed ... [and] troubled’ (Ps 90:7).

Christianity – but not Judaism – teaches the doctrine of ‘original sin,’ and that all sickness, suffering, the pain of childbirth, and even death itself are said to be the result of the so-called ‘Fall.’ Much of what Buddhism describes and refers to as dukkha is ‘sin’ or the result of original sin in Christianity.

Now, it would be misleading of me to suggest or imply that the Bible has no ‘solution’ to this generalised state of dukkha, for clearly the Bible does present a solution ... a way out. I referred to that solution in my previous blog. We need to come to the realization that our problems are for the most part of our own making, that those problems arise from a mistaken belief in ‘self’, that ‘self cannot change self,’ and that freedom from the bondage of self is possible if we are ‘born anew.’ That happens when, in the words of the Prodigal Son, we say to ourselves, ‘I will arise and go to my father’ (Lk 15:18) ... that is, having 'come to [ourselves]' (cf Lk 15:17), we ‘wake up,’ and say, ‘I don’t want to live this way anymore. I choose to live differently and mindfully from now on.’ Call it repentance, if you like, the Greek word of which that is the English translation [viz metanoia] denotes not just 'a change of mind' but a 'total about-face' or 'complete turn-around' ... that is, a radically fresh view about oneself, the world, and matters spiritual – a psychological mutation.

That, as I see it, is the essential message and truth of both Buddhism and Christianity. What a shame that this simple yet very profound truth has been almost lost in all the ‘butcher shop theology’ of mainstream Christianity!


Sunday, November 6, 2011


Was Jesus a Buddhist? No, he was a Jew – note that, a Jew, as opposed to a Christian – but that does not necessarily mean that Jesus had not been exposed to Buddhist thought and teachings in his lifetime. In that regard, we now know that Buddhist monks and teachers had travelled to the Holy Land at and before the time of Christ and had there taught the message of the Buddha.

So, it is quite possible, although by no means certain, that Jesus was aware of some of the key ideas and teachings of the Buddha. Indeed, several of Jesus' key teachings and sayings [eg 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Mt 4:44); 'The kingdom of God is within [sic] you' (Lk 17:21)] are quite non-Semitic but entirely consistent with Buddhism.

Now, it has been written, ‘No anattā doctrine, no Buddhism.’ Indeed. The concept of anattā is bedrock to Buddhism. Anattā means ‘no-self’ or, more correctly, ‘not-self.’ The Buddhist teaching of anattā affirms that there is no actual ‘self’ at the centre of our conscious - or even unconscious – awareness. Our so-called consciousness goes through continuous fluctuations from moment to moment. As such, there is nothing to constitute, let alone sustain, a separate, transcendent ‘I’ structure or entity. We ‘die’ and are ‘born’ (or ‘reborn’) from one moment to the next.

Yes, we have a sense of continuity of ‘self’, but it is really an illusion. It has no ‘substance’ in either physical or psychological reality. Our sense of self is simply a mental construct composed of a continuous ever-changing process or confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’ brought about and put together by thought) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way which appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own.

Actually, within each one of us there are literally thousands of ‘I's’ and ‘me's’ ... the ‘I’ who wants to go to work today and the ‘I’ who doesn't, the ‘I’ who likes ‘me’ and the ‘I’ who doesn't like ‘me’, the ‘I’ who wants to give up smoking and the ‘I’ who doesn't, and so forth. All these 'I's' are the result of thoughts and feelings of attachment or aversion or clinging of some kind or another. Without such thoughts or feelings there is simply no 'I' as a separate, isolated entity. Think about it for a moment ... how can the ‘self’ change the ‘self’, if there is no self? It's simply impossible. William Temple, who as Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the worldwide Anglican communion, clearly understood this teaching of anattā. He wrote, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’

So many of our problems arise from self-identification, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centredness. We cling to the ‘self’ as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, indeed that we are that self ... that is, those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning, fading-in and fading-out stream of consciousness. To borrow a couple of phrases from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, the result of our misbelief in a separate ‘self’ is ‘self-will run riot’, and the regular practice – note that word practice – of Buddhism is able to relieve us of the ‘bondage of self.’

Now, what did Jesus have to say about this matter? Did Jesus teach anattā? I think he did, for it is written that he said, ‘I can of mine own self do nothing’ (Jn 5:30), and ‘My Father is greater than I’ (Jn 14:28). It is also written, ‘He must become greater; I must become less’ (Jn 3:30). Yes, these verses can be interpreted in various ways, but when read in conjunction with other Bible verses attesting to the need to ‘deny’ or ‘crucify’ oneself (cf Lk 9:23, Rom 6:6) and to ‘lose’ one’s life (or self) in order to ‘find’ it (cf Mt 10:39), I think a strong case can be made that Jesus attributed the source of his identity, being and power, not to some supposed ‘self’, but to the ‘Father within,’ that is, the divine and universal source and essence of all life perceived and experienced as an indwelling creative presence and power at the very core, centre or ‘heart’ of one’s own being ... and of all being ... for despite what many Christians would have you believe, Jesus never claimed anything for himself that he didn’t also claim for us.

Both Buddhism and Christianity affirm the need for a ‘power-not-oneself.’ True, in most forms of Buddhism you must be your own ‘saviour’ (even though others can point the way), whereas in conventional, mainstream Christianity Jesus Christ is perceived as the Saviour and the Way. However, Jesus made it very clear that ‘Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; only those who do the will of my Father, who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21). He also said, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Lk 9:23).

As I see it, that is how Jesus ‘saves.’ He shows us the way out of the hell and the prison we have made for and of ourselves. He shows us how we can be relieved of the bondage of self and thereby gain true freedom and happiness. Not only that, he lived out the truth of ‘not-self’ in his own life and, even more importantly, in his death on the Cross. Powerful stuff.