Archive for the ‘Buddhist philosophical’ Category

This essay presents a general and critical historical survey of the Burmese Buddhist alms-boycott (pattanikujjana) between 1990 and 2007. It details the Pāli textual and ethical constitution of the boycott and its instantiation in modern Burmese history, particularly the Saffron Revolution of 2007. It also suggests a metaethical reading that considers Buddhist metaphysics as constitutive of that conflict. Non-violent resistance is contextualized as a soteriologically transcendent (“nibbanic”) project in the common life of believing Buddhists—even those who, military regime and martyred monastics alike, defend a fidelity to Theravāda Buddhism from dual divides of a political and humanistic fence. Presented to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS) conference, Taiwan, June 20-25, 2011. First published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, April, 2012: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2012/04/16/the-burmese-alms-boycott/

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In November 2005, Ram Bahadur Bomjon or the popularly known ‘Buddha Boy’, a Nepali youth who began meditating beneath a pipal tree in his local village of Ratanapuri, Bara district, in May of that year, claimed he would achieve full Buddhahood within six more years of deep meditative practice. Bomjon’s claim followed an initial feat of ten months of apparently uninterrupted fasting, also in sustained meditation; other apparent miracles ensued following his exposure to the world media, the scientifically curious, and not least the Buddhist faithful in his native Nepal, in south Asia and much further afield, in the West.

It is six years now, in late-2011: is Bomjon now the Buddha he is believed by many to be? Hundreds of thousands of his sympathisers wait on his every word with bated breath.

The resonance with the original is telling: the Buddha of our aeon, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, also came from Nepal, 2,600 years ago, his mother had the same first name of Maya Devi, he also performed extreme austerities for six years before attaining enlightenment beneath a pipal tree. (Voluntary fasting was a large part of Siddhartha Gautama’s, and general, yogic practice then and before, and still is now among the Hindu ascetics of modern India.) Bomjon’s family are from the Nepalese Tamang community, many of whom are devout Vajrayana Buddhists. He was in 2005 by his own lights already a rinpoche, or precious reincarnated being with already profound levels of realization, but he has become for the popular spiritual imagination a living Buddha. He is also, however, a pop-culture figure for faux-worship and satire, made the subject of bumper stickers and You Tube cartoons.

Bomjon’s extraordinary physical feat of meditating for at least ten months apparently without food or water, is remarkable by any standards, especially if it is true. (There is in this some uncertainty due to interrupted medical observation of Bomjon subsequent to the critical period of fasting; he was also thought to have moved, perhaps taken sustenance, when behind a hessian screen put up periodically for his privacy.) There are of course many thousands, if not millions, of authentic yogis in South Asia, in and outside of monasteries, many of whom have been documented to have achieved almost unimaginable feats of voluntary bodily control and apparent immunity to a range of normal biological requirements for survival. This does not make their achievements miracles, nor their practitioners living enlightened Buddhas.

Which is where the advent of Ram Bomjon is genuinely compelling: his messianicity has been proclaimed from the beginning. It is already curious that while claiming a solitary ascetic practice that sought no attention, Bomjon began sitting in a place conspicuous to the local people who know him. What then appeared in late-2005 as an espousal of him by the local Tibetan Buddhist Sakyapa hierarchy became a first religious contextualization of Bomjon, as both a Buddhist avatar, and more specifically a Tantric yogi who had so mastered his nervous system as to be able to sweat at will, in mild conditions and without any bodily movement. (Marlon Brando was well-known for doing the same in some of his early auditions!) Bomjon’s teenage brother also speaks humbly of a topknot manifesting spontaneously in Bomjon’s long hair, as in one of the physical signs of the Buddha. Other apparent miracles can be observed on YouTube footage—a naked Bomjon performs puja in the flames of a fire, or he is described as unaffected by a cobra-bite.

After the initial ten-month period of apparent fasting, Bomjon disappeared into the jungle of Bara district in March 2006 to seek another place for less-disturbed meditation. At this point also the police froze the bank-account of the local committee managing the crowds of pilgrims who had come to him with donations—an amount then of more than Rps. 600,000. Much of this revenue came from an entrance-fee to view him, and the pamphlets, books, cassettes and DVDs sold promoting Bomjon as a new Buddha. Bomjon’s formal religious (rather than purely ascetic) status was further authorised by the monastic title of Palden Dorje—again confirmed in an ‘official website’: http://www.paldendorje.com, which offers sensitively framed footage of Bomjon’s various public addresses since 2007.

In a lay-yogi’s robe, Bomjon sits on a newly-built raised vasana painted white and gold, with steps on each side. Pilgrims come from near and far to hold worshipful puja, burning incense and making prayers, or line up inside a cordoned area to offer katag to the near-Buddha. It’s a peaceful and uncanny vision, redolent with the saffron succour of old India and its oldest myths of the salvation of the soul through the form of a youthful enlightened being. It is hard to imagine that not far away in neighbouring thick jungle, and not too long ago, Maoist revolutionaries have for decades lived clandestinely and fought the national army in a bitterly-contested bid for freedom. The promise of freedom, even in an old culture such as that of Nepal, comes in many guises.


Available for a global audience on You Tube are Ram Bomjon’s two speeches of August 2007, one of which is closed-eyed, the other longer and more open-eyed. They are similar in their effect, and what I suggest below of the ‘closed-eyed’ speech can also be said of the ‘open-eyed’ one. Bomjon speaks in the monotonous tones of an adolescent reciting a reasonably well-memorized speech. There is no sign of a smile or an emotional gauge of his audience. He keeps his eyes closed for virtually the entire roughly eight minute performance. He pauses now and then, it seems in nervousness, at having lost his place or of being uncertain how to proceed. The broadcast in Nepali on the “Supreme Master TV” station offers an onscreen English translation of this speech, but even without translation Bomjon’s diction suggests a disconnect between syntax and the natural speech-rhythms required to express it. About five minutes into the speech he repeats, then corrects himself, and for the very first time lightly smiles, bashfully, a very human and self-conscious gesture, as any young performer in a school presentation would before he regains his place after stumbling.

The speech given in October 2009, an appeal against the mass animal slaughter of the Gadhi Mai Festival in Nepal evinces still more the same ‘performative glitch’. It is a movingly painful performance: also roughly ten minutes long, it begins boldly but from 8.30 Bomjon’s uncertain delivery, his own discomfort, is palpable. Who has written a possible original text—Bomjon himself? or an uncredited mentor? One Western witness and blogger, a seeker sympathetic to Bomjon, writes that “Strangely, he concluded halfway between a sentence, trailing off, letting the words, both spoken and unspoken, hang in the air,” before “the brief spell of serenity quickly degenerated into a frenzy again as Palden Dorje returned to his pedestal and people began lining up to receive darshan.”

The verbal content of Bomjon’s speeches might be uncharitably described as Buddhist platitude, if its somewhat alarmist and righteous, even apocalyptic, urgency were not so clearly sincere in intent. In a corrupt and fast degenerating world, it is only the law of dharma that will rescue all beings from the current irreversible results of negative action. It is the karmic function of the bodhisattva, of whom Bomjon is one ‘on the way’, to proclaim the Buddha’s holy truth in such times as these. Bomjon’s worthy truth is unsurprising; its high-messianic tone however is. Rarely does missionary Buddhism become so personalised; but this is not normal missionary Buddhism when the speaker is an ostensibly enlightened Buddha.

Does poor public speaking alone disclaim Bomjon as such? (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also reports his great apprehension when as a novice he was first called upon to speak to crowds of thousands in the early fifties in Tibet.) The answers are not so simple, but the given facts and the questions they raise certainly muddy the waters of the orthodox Buddhist representation surrounding Bomjon himself, willing but inadequate poster-boy (it would appear) for the religious hierarchy that guides him.

If Bomjon is a visionary near-Buddha who has spent the previous four years in a profound and virtually mute immersion in esoteric planes barely conceivable by even seasoned meditators, he is also an amazingly natural, human, and in that sense ordinary, one. His performative paralysis is only a brief if consistent moment, but it betrays, resoundingly, an authentic natural humanness amidst all the built-up ceremony and high-flown spiritual rhetoric. There is little sense of a new Buddha having spoken, of the gravitas, charisma or power of a highly-realised mature being offering his own natural words and self-won insight into the nature of reality. Indeed, the previously-quoted witness writes that “The young man suddenly shifted gears into overdrive, ludicrously blessing with a pace so quick he was practically bonking people on the head with the dorje as they passed.”


Religious Buddhism holds that an authentically enlightened being can most effectively transmit its values because they are concentrated in him, or her, in their purest, most essential, unalloyed, uncorrupted or corruptible, realized form. In Bomjon religious Buddhism receives a partly convincing and telegenic messianic throwback to the archetype of Sakyamuni Buddha, a young man who appears to fulfil all the needed criteria. There is nothing cynical here, Tibetan Buddhism is if anything globally respected for its general lack of taint, of maintaining a record for transparency: H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama is of course its universally-respected paragon.

Unless of course the claim is simply not true: that Bomjon is not a bodhisattva or Buddha, but rather a highly gifted young ascetic. H.H. the Dalai Lama has only ever claimed the status of a simple monk (despite the supreme religious office he has been called upon to assume). Bomjon however loses this modest representation from the beginning. Bomjon is reified (by himself and by significant others) in a way that can only work in an old primary culture where religion serves symbolic and archetypal ends, not purely epistemic ones, and where gods are still respected and worshipped as such, where literal truth is not something that carries the primary value it does to the Western mind. On this level, a psychologically and culturally very real one, little blame can be placed.

However, in the West at least, which (arguably) prides itself on its capacity for impartial discrimination, ontological exactitude and epistemic integrity, it is increasingly impossible to take on faith something which is only uncertainly true at best. Culturally, psychologically and ethically it is proving difficult for agnostic Western culture to sustain the myth of reification (though theistic religion, and scientistic ‘faiths’ like contemporary neo-Darwinism, hold on tenaciously) when more provisionally true, multiple, cross-fertilising and mutually-productive interpretations can do a good working job of understanding what ‘the truth’ might ultimately signify. Fifty years of recent Western philosophy has at least reached such a consensus. We live in an hermeneutic age, not an absolutist one: this is of course the enormously threatening gauntlet held out to Islam and fundamentalist Christianity alike. Even in terms of Buddhism itself ‘enlightenment’ is merely a word, one which carries a varying wealth of signification, wears an infinitude of guises (or even, most radical of all, none at all). Even if Bomjon’s Sakyapa entourage mean only the global good in elaborating in messianic terms the possibly much more prosaic nature of Bomjon’s attainment, doing so is still manipulating the reception of whoever it is he might more authentically be.

If this is a deception of a kind, then however benign it also unfortunately succeeds in compromising whatever is of value in Bomjon’s public ‘ascendency.’ What would be of inestimable use would be if Bomjon were able to offer in his own words a description of his yogic and other experience as it is, without metaphysics—and with or without the sustenance of food. (Regarding such austerities the Buddha made it explicitly clear that such extremes of tapas were of no essential benefit or use to anyone vis-à-vis achieving enlightenment: hence the Buddhist ethico-pragmatic ‘Middle Way.’) Because Bomjon embodies a far more complex, and confused, nexus of religious, metaphysical, mythological and ethical forces and subconscious cultural assumptions than those that have been simplistically projected onto and then publicly represented by him. Those complexities are rich, real and interesting, and it would be enlightening to explore and perhaps come to understand them.

Instead, what the world is offered is a closed term: Bomjon-as-Buddha, seated on a throne, reifies a complex human person to be a single, essential ‘something’ in ontologically disturbing ways. By absolutising something as fixed in an essential identity, little room is left for nuance, natural ambiguity, irony, shifts of emphasis, undirected trajectories of unexpected influence. Its translation into the common cultural currency tends to require a univocal, often dogmatic, form of interpretive transmission. It implies monolingual authority rather than a dialogical mutuality. A symbol taken as really-existing catalyses a chain-reaction of associated demands and conditions that can, and do, become economic and political, that enter into manipulations of power indistinguishable from the enmeshments of saṃsāra. It is disturbing to discover, more recently, that Bomjon has been accused during 2010 of violently assaulting young men come to disturb his meditative retreat. It would be impossible to verify this also; its mere appearance smacks of slander, but that only rehearses, all too inevitably, the enmeshment already alluded to.

In Nepal, as elsewhere in the Buddhist world, the criteria for belief, for better and for worse, remain steeped in mytho-poetic tropes of deep cultural continuity as well as social conservatism. Where the individual autonomy of scepticism might be seen as a threat to deeper social cohesion and identity, it is diminished as a form of existential integrity. Where the depth of tradition still provides much of the psychic social bulwark for increasingly unstable and erratically modernizing societies, of which Nepal is a prime example, the old forms of security cannot go questioned, let alone deconstructed.

Who would demand they should be? If Ram Bahadur Bomjon may never redeem and ‘save the world’ from its real misguidedness, we can at least be grateful that he gives us all pause to consider that misguidedness itself, and perhaps his own as well, and provide for that rare space in which all of us, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, can try to dream again. We look to see how much of that all-too-possible freedom he will invite us to dream along with him in the time to come.

(2010; August- December 2011)

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High-classic Gandhara style, Pakistan. Circa 2nd/3rd century AD. Carved from a hard grey schist. Recovered from Swat, Pakistan, early 1960’s.

 In his well-known advice to the Kalamas, who have expressed confusion and doubt around the truth-claims of different spiritual teachers, the Buddha makes a remarkable injunction. Walpola Rahula calls it “unique in the history of religions.” [1] In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha says that

Yes, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’.[2]

This extensive list of negations begs the question of just where the Kalamas might find the reassurance they seek. If Buddhism is valued as a religion teleologically grounded in praxis rather than metaphysics, such an injunction clearly carries a primary significance. The Buddha also, of course, recommends the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path and encourages the institution of a renunciate order which embodies and substantiates that model. Yet here at least the implicit suggestion is that prior to any concession to it, must come individual (rather than consensual or authority-mediated) judgement of the model as such.

One implication of the Buddha’s words is that the only source the Kalamas can look to for any certainty is one that is already in their possession, in their own capacity for judgement for what is (the Buddha goes on to say): ‘good and wholesome’ (kusala). The question still remains then, in what precisely does such judgement consist? And more specifically, in what final subjective authority does such judgement inhere? Because the Buddha has already made it clear that in virtually every sense it cannot derive from an external or social, and so in some sense unreliable, source. It can’t even, finally, rely on the revelation of the Awakened One himself: “a disciple should examine even the Tathagata himself, so that he might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher”.[3] This clearly begs another question: How can a disciple judge the true value of a teacher without having some prior sense or understanding of what it is that makes a teacher valuable? That is, of knowing already, in some sense, what the teacher claims to know?

Siddhartha Gautama faces the same problem. He at least twice leaves everything to seek his own way.[4] He enters into a second renunciation when he leaves first his Brahmanic (probably Sankhya) teachers, and then his yogi colleagues after six years of forest austerities and practice with them, for an absolute solitude without the validation or religious succour of a worldly authority, or a rishi, or a father figure[5].

This moment of the Buddha’s pre-enlightenment experience – what I’m calling his second renunciation – has received little if any exclusive scholarly attention[6], and its possible ‘genetic’ relation to the developmental shifts of Buddhist practice beyond its traditional cultural bases, essentially none at all[7]. In their recent university-level textbooks for example, each published within the last 5 years, Prebish & Keown, and Donald Mitchell, are typical in framing Gautama’s progress as simply that of an aspiring mendicant who remains technically unsatisfied with existing yogic disciplines and their results. The question of autonomy as such, or its implied need, is not raised.

But Gautama’s second renunciation, much less generally remarked than that of his first, is different and more subtle because it appears to be a response to his own failure in the mission he has originally abandoned his worldly life to pursue. The deliverance Gautama has hoped to secure with his Sankhya teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta has left him dissatisfied, despite the great discipline and awareness to which he has attained.[8] (Karen Armstrong at least, in her biography of the Buddha, thinks so). Gautama needs to go back, by going forward, to look at the assumptions and first ground from which he has started out. His received religious and intellectual structures have internally failed him, and the only thing he has left to guide him is his own intuitive process. That’s a rudimentary characterisation, but all that can really be said on the evidence, yet it is still telling enough for that. Because if it sounds familiar it might be because a similar state of spiritual affairs is being articulated with increasing transparency by many (not all) of the elders of what is known as ‘Western Buddhism’.

In a discussion of Buddhist studies in a postmodern context, the American scholar Mark Unno suggests that “the power to doubt thoroughly, to examine critically, and to recognise the truly radical character of intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity in a multicultural world are integral to the project of Buddhist thought in a postmodern world”.[9] Such doubt finds a lucid respone in the well-known theses of Stephen Batchelor, as a self-described “agnostic [now in 2010 an atheist] Buddhist.” Without dwelling on Batchelor’s well-rehearsed interpretations of rebirth, karma and Mahayanist cosmology, it is more to the point here to focus on how he grounds his sense of doubt in the existential immediacy of the question from which it emerges. He says,

The way of the Buddha is a living response to a living question. Yet whenever it has become institutionalised its vital response has become a well-formulated answer. The seemingly important task of preserving a particular set of answers often causes the very questions which gave rise to those answers to be forgotten.[10]

Stephen Batchelor

Batchelor values as primary the “stammering voice that asks the questions”[11] because without it authentic spiritual enquiry becomes compromised by that shift of focus which, after Heidegger, supplants “meditative questioning” with “calculative questioning”[12]. For Batchelor, calculative questioning based on a prescriptive reliance on dogma renders the original imperative of all spiritual practice misdirected: “Belief, whether in a teacher, a doctrine, or even one’s experience, retreats from the questions behind a shield of protective views and concepts”.[13]

For Batchelor, original ignorance is compromised by a largely conceptual, even defensive, frame of representation inadequate to the depth of need which introduced enquiry in the first place. Conceptual security is more serious than a category mistake, because what is really at risk is not so much truth as genuine insight. Significantly, the doubt that questions is also potentially “a response that leads not to further knowledge about any particular thing but to wisdom as a whole”.[14] He also suggests that “this existential perplexity is the very place within us where awakening is the closest. To deny it and adopt a comforting set of beliefs is to renounce the very impulse that keeps one on track”.[15]

Batchelor’s proposition points up a paradox: the doubt that maintains an authentic and so groundless frame for itself “can never rest content with any answer”,[16] yet it is only via such a consistent modus of uncertainty that questioning ultimately, at least for Batchelor, provides the space for a “wisdom of the whole” – not an ‘answer’ per se but a ‘response’ to questioning as a Gestalt – to emerge. The form the response takes cannot be necessarily pre-empted by any one view, Buddhist or otherwise – even where such a response might identify as a Buddhist one.

John Makransky’s critique of Batchelor’s “bad habit” of ahistoricism in “[asserting] a new hegemony over Dharma by re-constructing it narrowly within the presuppositions of his own place and time (in his case, a post Western-enlightenment agnosticism)” overstates the case, but would be true enough if Batchelor’s intention was purely that of an attempted re-authentication of the Buddha’s original teaching. But that is the lesser concern of Batchelor’s project, which is oriented purely to effective, meaningful praxis. And praxis in this case is a-historical, insofar as self-reflexive consciousness has no choice but to engage with the givens of its own phenomenological content, rather than try to historically objectify (and so conceptually mediate) everything it perceives.

Why Batchelor’s apparent bias towards a ‘post Western-enlightenment agnosticism’ is such a bad place to start from is also unclear. The position is shared by much of the advanced contemporary mind in its engagement with the latest research in science, social theory, ethics as well as religion. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, for example, is very sympathetic to its sane humanity, as against (for example) exclusivist fundamentalism of any colour. Batchelor is only being true to his time, which on Makransky’s own analysis of the evolution of the dharma is what all travellers on the dharma-path must be in any case. How any temporal, conditioned, socially-constructed view is capable in any case of “asserting a hegemony over Dharma” (Makransky uses a Capital D), is left unexplained. Batchelor would be the first to disclaim even that possibility, and the dharma under that designation would seem big and old enough to look after itself. Despite the doubt and scepticism from which it emerges, Batchelor’s working position however is succinct and unambiguous, even while it leaves all answers open: “The end for which the Buddhist path is a means can only be the penetration of this mystery of being thrown into birth only to be ejected again at death”.[17]

Such an existential focus is central also to the work of Professor David Loy. As a speculative philosopher and Zen-contemplative of transpersonal social identities, Loy has for twenty years articulated many of the shifts of emphasis in evolving Western representations of the dharma. In Lack and Transcendence (1996), his recontextualisation of Buddhist doctrine provides a philosophical underpinning to the kind of emergent dharma evident in a wide cross-section of contemporary Buddhist practice.[18] Loy proposes that a deep intuition of the ontological un-reality, or groundlessness, of the subject-self, gives rise to the complex of anxiety and displacement reactions that characterise contemporary unhappiness.[19]

Professor David Loy

He says

our lives suffer from a lack of meaning that disguises itself as consumerism and a host of other addictions. Having lost our spiritual grounding […] and more recently our faith in technological progress as an alternative of self-grounding, we experience our groundlessness as an unbearable lightness of being. The tragic dialectic between security and freedom reasserts itself: having attained some measure of self-determination and confronted the lack at its core, we now crave the grounding that would connect our aspirations with something greater than ourselves.

Yet, we soon find, as does Siddhartha Gautama in his initial religious project, that such grounding isn’t ultimately forthcoming: the terms shift, states arise and pass, no final certainty waits on either the secular or religious horizon.

Loy describes both Western existential and psychoanalytical analyses of the ensuing anxiety as ones which recognise the repression of death-awareness (in Becker and Heidegger), as well as the ontological ‘nothingness’ inherent in consciousness (in Sartre), as the bases of human suffering, but suggests both analyses are inadequate to the further analysis which Buddhism provides: the ultimate emptiness (sunya), of selves, the phenomenal world, and consciousness itself.[20]

For Loy, Western anxiety as an epiphenomenon of ontological doubt is in fact a necessary and useful signal of authenticity: he aligns it with Kierkegaard’s positive analysis of Angst which when deeply contemplated potentially yields to an apprehension of the presence, and salvation, of God, or in Buddhist terms, the actual emptiness of self.[21] Unconscious Western attempts to displace the ontological insecurity of an illusory ‘I’ in reifying self-investments in fame, material wealth or the romantic projection of personal love, are all deferring the profound truth modern anxiety might be pointing to: that the foundational image of ‘self’ that Western civilisation both exacerbates and struggles with, in a vicious circle of dependency, has reached a critical point of self-doubt in the same way that Zen Buddhist contemplation, for example, deliberately struggles with its Great Doubt in order to ascertain the ‘right view’ of sunyata.[22] Religious (including Buddhist) faith itself might therefore for Loy function as only another ‘displacement’ of doubt, an aggrandisation of the illusory self, so still another form of ‘bad faith’.[23] In Loy’s analysis then, and much like Batchelor’s, doubt is a directly functional, already-pervasive and essential, element of authentic spiritual enquiry – ironically, the ‘ground’ of an ultimately illusory struggle that nonetheless is precisely the grist for the spiritual mill that must be faced before the truth of the so-called ‘Buddhist’ apprehension of sunyata might be realised.[24]

We can now briefly return to Gautama, the soon-to-be Buddha. Why does he register such repeated doubt, such moves toward some version of autonomy, a total freedom from his prior context? What is it saying about his process, that he is compelled to do so at all? Is it a frustration, or an essential development? John Caputo, with respect to the contemporary Western philosophy of religion, approves of a Derridean “messianic postmodernism”, or negative theology that is both radically subjectivised (after Kierkegaard) and post-secular, and with Derrida he invokes the Abrahamic “I am here!” as its fitting expression. Kyongsuk Min responds to such a focus on a radical, subjectivised alterity with the suggestion that “a periodic ‘contamination’ of religion with negative theology should be a wholesome exercise that would challenge each religion to transcend its determinacy and probe its own messianic depth for the impossible possibility of the wholly other.” Note the use of the word “wholesome”, or, returning to the Kalama Sutta, the Pali “kusala”. I would claim a congruent dynamic in the current case, both of Gautama’s process (pace progress), and some dimensions of that of Western Buddhism at the current time.

The Buddha’s ‘second renunciation’ interrogates the notion of progress itself, because most simply it is not clear what there is to be won. It is a moment that appears to escape, for example, a convenient explanation of ‘perennial’ vs. ‘culturally-constructed’ mystical experience (as if such experience need be so temporally-framed). The force of Gautama’s action, simple as it is, is both negation and aspiration towards an unknown, it metaphorises a nexus of conclusions, as well as new beginnings, to his journey. The Buddha is not yet a Buddha, he is a man merely, paradigmatic of the human condition in a form he will later not be accessible to as the Awakened One. There is a threshold between Gautama’s profane status as a man, and that of his divinity, where he will become both epiphanic Man, and wholly unrecognisable as ‘one of us’.[25]

Another senior Western post-Buddhist, who has made a career out of the testing of ambiguity is Alan Clements. As a former monk, Buddhist teacher, culturally engaged dharma-activist, stage-monologuist and (self-described) “spiritually-incorrect revolutionary of the spirit”[26], Clements is concerned to ground dharma practice in individual subjective experience, particularly insofar as that subject responds to the pressing background of human rights and critical global conditions.[27] Clements has spoken of his own apprenticeship as a monk  in Burma under the guidance of Sayadaw U Pandita:

I apprenticed with him [and]…learned the artistry, so to speak, of manifesting a more liberated expression of being. In that process, however, there was something else that came through that I would call ideology, dogma, religion…Suddenly, here was this whole Buddhist cosmology – a doctrine of totality – right in front of me. Resplendent with karma, rebirth, heaven, hell, nirvana, psychic powers and Buddhahood, spiritual perfection itself… One predicated on the belief that the Buddha was omniscient. It took me seven years…I downloaded an entire religion.[28]

Alan Clements

After seven years as a monastic, Clements disrobed to work as a lay retreat-leader and teacher of Vipassana meditation. Some years later the country that had sheltered and taught him the centuries-old authentic practises of Theravada self-enquiry was engulfed in totalitarian tyranny: his fellow-monks and friends imprisoned or killed by the rampaging military of General Ne Win, threatened by the nation-wide thirst for democracy. Clements re-entered Burma illegally, with a spontaneous desire to aid his friends in their hour of need: a remarkable impulse, when he might easily have returned to the comfort of worldly security in the U.S.A. He describes the return as such: “Once in, my heart cracked open. No amount of meditation or spiritual training could have prepared me for what I witnessed. I walked into a full-scale ‘ethnic cleansing’…My views about life and the dharma have never been the same”.[29] His subsequent experiences in the former Yugoslavia during 1995, perhaps still more horrific, only confirmed this profound confrontation with life unmediated by a frame of potential transcendence, release into nirvana, hopes of a pure realm: such intentions became, literally, irrelevant.[30] The confrontation, however, could only result in a deep awe of actual conditions, not a supposed transcendence from them. It seemed to Clements that if there was such a thing as ultimate ‘freedom’ from such conditions, a state where their currency of suffering didn’t exist, it would only be by enquiring radically into the self-nature of the world as it is, rather than, emptiness-wise, as it isn’t, that it might be found.[31]

Further, the assumption of a transcendent freedom might have its own bases thereby interrogated, only narrowly engaged with the task of being ‘in’ life, rather than outside of it – somewhere, hypothetically, ‘else’.[32] Clements’ extreme experience was able to deliver a powerful moment of insight, an awareness of the indivisibility of experience as both the mysterium tremendum and only ontological ground from which to perceive the same: “there is no other life”.[33]

For Clements Buddhist practice also becomes grounded in a paradoxical reversal as well as fidelity to its traditional formulation: unless it is inspired by a thorough investment in this world and its multivalenced process (as against, for example, the total renunciation of the Theravada), it is a gratuitous project which loses meaning precisely by virtue of its unworldliness.[34] Yet insofar as it grounds itself in a commitment to the Other, it is also a classically Mahayana path, which only insists that renunciation, also, be revisioned as an engaged but unattached relation to the world, rather than a dualistic dismissal of it.[35]

Clements perhaps goes further than Batchelor in dismissing the idealist claims of full Buddhist enlightenment while preserving a genuine commitment to the dharma as a rubric of relatively ‘enlightened’ and compassionate action in the world from a cognitive dimension that perceives interdependent reality more accurately and truly.[36] While his repudiation of teleological enlightenment as unhelpful to his intentions now disclaims him as a Buddhist,[37] Clements is centrally concerned to acculturate Western, individualised agency to the kind of “revolution of the spirit” he adopts from Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Again, like Batchelor, Clements’ scepticism towards the full spectrum of metaphysics doesn’t deny a fully engaged commitment to Buddhist ethics in lived life. With this realisation, and his subsequent evolution into what might be described as a non-aligned, non-religious, life-affirming, existential-immanent dharma, Clements articulates a difficult spiritual value that is both wholly traditional as well as radically contemporary. It is a position that valorises both, focussing deeply on its own expression of authentic freedom: that it is to be found in the given context of everything that has formed the unique self, rather than it’s ‘not-self’, even where that self partakes freely in an ancient and coherent class of universal religious values.[38] Clements is facilitating that empowerment in which the unique actual self, in its engagement with a plethora of competing metaphysics (even within the buddhadharma alone, let alone other religious systems), is able to enter into a process of awakening, itself necessarily unique, from the authentic ground of experience as-it-is.

The Buddha famously described the dharma as a raft that is used to cross the river of dukkha, but that it may confidently be relinquished once the other side of suffering is reached. The statement implies a truth the value of which is not merely that of a literal, diagnostic prescription, but more deeply symbolises the dharma as a container, a vessel, an alchemical crucible for the transformation of immaterial consciousness, and it too as empty of inherent existence.

Batchelor, Loy and Clements similarly seek a revalorisation of the primary, even primordial, intuitions of Buddhist enquiry: without such a focus on the properly individual sources of existential disquiet, any subsequent adoption of a rationalised schema for belief or action potentially risks neglecting the origins of authentic spiritual transformation. Such a stance, defined in the three moves of doubt, groundlessness and autonomy is confirmed almost to the word in Unno’s claim that

Doubt as a formal principle of enquiry, critical reason as an autonomous faculty of systematic thinking, and the self-reflexive location of subjectivity as integral to a larger, discursive objectivity are three important moments in the development of theology and religious studies in a diverse postmodern world…

But the story still requires a conclusion. Near Uruvela, on the banks of the Nairanjara River, Siddartha Gautama almost dies during his period of crisis. Armstrong vividly describes him as clad in hemp, or naked, growing dangerously malnourished, subsisting sometimes on only his own faeces and urine. Is this derelict the future Buddha? What has happened here, where are his dignity, his signs of inevitable transcendence? His spine meets his navel, his hair falls out, his skin withers and blackens. Even the gods, passing by, ignore him because he seems already a dead man. These details are in the Majjhima Nikaya, but what do they signify? Why would the Buddha be reduced to this just before his miraculous breakthrough? Because he must endure such trials in order to discover the unparalled life that lies on the other side of them? If so, is that also the case with what immediately follows?

Because what follows is that Gautama realises he has failed his ascetic companions, who look to him as their superior, and must leave them too. He could give up and return to his earlier teachers: for the company, to belong if anything to some human guild; he could even return to his wife and child waiting in the palace. (In some sense he hasn’t really succeeded even in leaving there, is still as “doomed to rebirth” as any householder).

But he doesn’t. He leaves – again. There is no-one who can tell him, now, where it is he needs to go. He could simply stay where he is, but he goes again, to somewhere new, and this time he goes there on his own. 

(A paper presented at the Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies (AABS) conference, Sydney, Dec. 2007)


Copyright © 2007 Martin Kovan


[1] Rahula suggests it is “unique in the history of religions” (1974: 2-3).

[2] Sharma, Arvind 1997: 140

[3] Ibid. p. 141

[4] Armstrong, Karen 2000, p. 56-9.

[5] Trungpa, Chogyam 1985: 11-12.

[6] Prebish & Keown (2006: 33-35) and Mitchell (2002: 16) are representative in framing Gautama’s progress as simply that of an aspirant mendicant who remains technically unsatisfied with existing yogic disciplines and their results. The question of autonomy as such, or its implied need, is not raised.

[7] Doubt, however, as a functional dimension of dharma practice is considered in Sharma, 1997, Goldstein, Joseph 2002; cf. Nishitani, Keiji1983 and Abe, Masao 1986, 1997, on the “Great Doubt” of Zen.

[8] Armstrong, op.cit.

[9] Unno, in Jackson & Makransky, 2000: 196.

[10] Batchelor, Stephen 1990: 3

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p.37 ff.

[13] Ibid. p.3

[14] Ibid. p.4

[15] Ibid. p.16

[16] Ibid. p.4

[17] Batchelor, op. cit. p. 10

[18] Loy’s thinking works within a Western philosophical academic frame informed by a decades-long Zen Buddhist practice and residence in East Asia: any study of Buddhist theory requires, from the beginning, more than a purely cognitive apprehension of its ideas. By its nature, Buddhist metaphysics points towards a thorough cognitive, self-reflexive exhaustion of (erroneous and other) conceptual frames, with the direct view to seeing-into and beyond them. (Loy, 1996: 24, and Abe, 1986: 4). Similarly, in a discussion of the norms for contemporary academic Buddhist theology, Cabezon sees such equal valorisation of theory and contemplative praxis as grounded historically in the Indo-Tibetan tradition: “…it’s attempt to balance theory and practice – the conceptual study of doctrine and its internalisation in meditation – serves as a continual reminder that the Buddhist theological task must take both into account, and that it can be reduced to neither” (Jackson & Makransky, 2000: 34. Cf. also Alan Wallace, B. 2000: 67 ff. in the same volume.) This point also applies equally well to the work of Batchelor and Clements as longtime meditation teachers.

[19] Loy, 1996: 12ff.

[20] Ibid. p.xiii. Similarly, the Buddha struggled with a binary polarisation between the essentialism of the Hindu Vedanta and the substantial existence of an atman-Self, and the nihilism of absolute non-existence, before he could arrive at his own apprehension of the Middle Way emptiness of dharmas and selves. (Nagarjuna, 1986: 9).

[21]Loy, 1996: 64-5. (For a parallel analysis, cf. Abe, 1986: 6-7).

[22] Ibid. p. 172

[23] Ibid. p.62

[24] cf. Abe, 1986: 14.

[25] Schuon points to the ambiguity: “To transcend the ego is to transcend the human, although one could say, from another point of view, that this transcending is “human” in the sense that it constitutes the specific excellence of man or his supreme aim.” Schuon, Frithjof 1993: 13-14).

[26] cf. also Clements Spiritually Incorrect DVD, 2006.

[27] Clements, 2003.

[28] Inquiring Mind, Spring, 2003 (hereaf. IM).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Clements, 2003: 183 ff.

[31] Ibid. p. 184-8

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. p. 195-6

[34] Ibid. p.186

[35] Ibid. p. 206 ff.

[36] Ibid. p.187

[37] personal communication, 6 July, 2006

[38] Clements, 2003: 244-9

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This audio interview with Mike Kewley (in Paris, August 2010) from the eclectically superlative www.beingordinary.org, discusses some broad dimensions of Buddhist and ‘trans-Buddhist’ social awareness and daily-life practice with a view to collective social transformation. It considers how the dharma extends beyond a purely religiously-grounded ethical rationale, to embrace a larger secular spiritual vision as well, while still maintaining the deepest of Buddhist values – those of universal compassion, responsibility and non-violence:


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Published 2008 Colloquy #15:  www.colloquy.monash.edu.au/issue015/kovan.pdf

This is a tripartite essay excerpted from a longer text which explores some of the central issues of a contemporary Buddhist ethics: how viable are Buddhist claims to awakening in relative terms? In which senses can they address the multitude of precipitous cultural, economic or religious determinations of different peoples with their often heterogeneous concerns? It asks how we read the ultimate metaphor of awakening in real terms, and in the asking, turns the question back onto the way in which our reading of it transforms, or fails to transform, our lived experience.

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An article written in 2006 that looks at the historical continuity of an aspect of the spiritual (in this case Buddhist) path, in which the security and identity made with a larger authority, more or less benign, is definitively left behind. Alan Clements is a contemporary maverick on the global dharma stage, a former monk in the Burmese tradition, whose provocative voice for a secular, engaged and dynamically creative autonomy is in many ways a re-casting of traditional elements of the biographies of the old Buddhist masters. The ‘second crisis of autonomy’ (after his departure from the palace of his family and kin) then refers to Siddartha Gautama’s eventual rejection of his contemporary teachers or authority figures as a condition for his own awakening. This article considers the nature of that ‘crisis’ and the grounds for Clements’ own passionately vocal version for our own time.

See Alan Clements’ World Dharma website: http://www.worlddharma.com/wd/media/interviews/Article%20-%20CrisisofAutonomy%20Martin.pdf

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Published in Journal of Buddhist Ethics # 16, 2009: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2010/05/10/violence-and-non-resistance-buddhist-ahi%e1%b9%83sa-and-its-existential-aporias/

A long essay looking at an episode described in Alan Clements’ book Instinct for Freedom. I consider the Buddhist ethical grounds for Burmese former monks taking up arms against their own military oppressors in the long resistance against the regime of General Than Shwe (and his predecessors). Derrida and Levinas provide non-Buddhist ethical perspectives which underpin my otherwise Buddhist discussion of the philosophical implications of a non-dual ‘ethics of emptiness’.

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