Archive for the ‘talk/lecture’ Category

February 18th, 2020


I wanted to take this opportunity to express how grateful and honoured I feel for my novel K. the Interpreter to be selected alongside my fellow short-listees for the 2020 Dorothy Hewett Award. I salute Terri-ann White and the UWAP, and the Copyright Agency, for making the award possible, and the three judges for taking the long time to engage all the entered works, and offer heartfelt congratulations to Angela, Caitlin, Robin, Kylie, and Karen, for the fruition of their literary labour. Let us never work in vain!

Unfortunately, I can’t be in Perth tonight on the 21st, as I haven’t travelled by air since 2011, and can’t afford to get to Perth, from Sydney, by train. Without wanting to hijack proceedings, I do want to briefly explain my absence. At the latter end of what has proved an unprecedented bushfire season in this country, it seems to me loud and clear that Australia, as elsewhere, is now faced with the fundamental challenge of securing existential security into the future.

Achieving that will and already does require the willingness to forego consumer convenience, to boycott existing fossil-fuel industries, and to make these substantial changes in one’s daily experience: to drive less, or not at all, and cease inessential air-travel which remains one of the major forms of CO2 emissions globally, and is growing worse. A very steep reduction of current emissions levels is now absolutely determinative: failing to achieve this will mean a collective failure to address the problem. Business as usual is over. We are moving into a radically new post-carbon age, or we are signing up for our own demise. Critical times call for critical measures—and they have to start now. Leaving it for tomorrow will be too late.

My thanks again to Terri-ann and the UWAP, the three judges, and my warmest congratulations to the winner of the 2020 Dorothy Hewett Award.

Thank you.

Martin Kovan

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A short talk for World Press Freedom Day celebrated at ExPPACT (Ex-Political Prisoners’ Advocacy, Counselling and Training) given Mae Sot, Thailand, May 1, 2011


The defense of genuine freedom of speech is one of the most critical issues in the world right now. It will decide a lot of things about our collective future. It also faces a lot of challenges. Everyone knows the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo is still behind bars despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and that his colleague the artist Ai Wei Wei has disappeared; that the great U Gambira still languishes in a Burmese prison; that writers like Arundhati Roy in India receive regular death-threats for trying to expose government injustice; that Thai intellectuals, just this last week, are spuriously charged with insulting the Thai king; and that journalists all through the war-zones of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are lucky to find the truth, let alone free to report it. Last month in Tibet a Buddhist monk performed self-immolation in protest against Chinese abuse: the only way, he doubtless felt, to have his voice truly heard. I’ve been talking about China, and other Asian countries, but press freedom also has a hard time in so-called open Western societies. Everyone also knows about the investigative journalists and rights workers in Russia, who sixty years after Stalin, are assassinated at the hands of political or ideological hit-men. But the problem is also much closer to home. The courageous but perhaps slightly crazy Australian whistle-blower Julian Assange is someone who with Wikileaks has challenged American neo-imperial self-interest in a way that changes the rules of the game for good. Whether or not you agree with Assange’s shock-tactics is your own decision, but few could deny that he deserves the full protection of the law, and certainly in the U.S. the First Amendment, before being demonised as a ‘criminal’ as even the Australian Prime Minister did of him as soon as the Pentagon whispered something in her ear. No-one knows yet precisely how Assange and Wikileaks should be judged and that’s how it should be. Freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, also implies that we are each free to come to our own informed opinion given all the facts we have at our disposal. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy task to find the right level of responsibility towards different stakeholders, as a writer or a reader. But the bottom line is that the more true accounts of an event we have, the more informed we are. That is what Wikileaks seeks to do and in presenting previously withheld facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange has done us all a great service. What really justifies Wikileaks’ guerilla tactics? The fact that these are our nations’ wars, we started them and now we have the right and responsibility for intelligently understanding them. The same thing can be said for the recent exposure of Guantanamo detainee documents. It often seems that freedom of speech is endangered, and I think that’s true, but Wikileaks, among many others, also proves that the defenders of press freedom are alive and well and ready to expose abuses of power; and that millions of journalists and concerned citizens stand behind them. But is it just by chance that Assange is currently also behind bars? Somehow I don’t think so. The long dark tunnel towards extradition has already begun for him, and he’s probably forfeited a real degree of freedom for the rest of his life, even if the U.S. Justice Department loses its case against him, as it probably will. Orwell once said that some of us are ‘more equal than others’, and it seems that in the U.S.A. as elsewhere, some are ‘more free to be free’ than others. But who has the right or power to decide who that is? No-one should have that right, or else everyone should. We know, of course, that genuine media freedom doesn’t really exist in Burma. Recently Burma was classified as the 2nd worst country in the world for Internet freedom, though recently President Thein Sein has promised more relaxed direct government censorship of print media. I’m not really qualified to talk about free speech in Burma, in front of men and women who have sacrificed so much for their beautiful country. But when I was there, in November last year during the so-called election, I did realize one thing I’ve never felt anywhere else. For more than a week during the election, Internet access where I was was completely shut down. I realized that at any moment, if they chose, the military could roll the tanks in, put up wire barriers and lines of troops, and there would be nothing me or anyone else could do. But what was almost worse was that it might prove pretty difficult, even impossible, to tell the rest of the world about it. For a moment I felt a fear I’d never known before. I could have been deaf or mute, completely locked in. That’s how it is for many in Burma and the world today, in their prison cells, or even in the privacy of their own homes: they can’t talk to us, or not easily, and tell us the truth. Or not until it’s sometimes too late. Think about this: were the passengers on the 9/11 planes, or the Twin Towers workers, any more free when they could phone their families and loved ones from cell-phones before the Towers went down? Perhaps it made all the difference to them to tell people how much they loved them, a radical freedom inside a certain hell. And in fact that is what Liu Xiaobo said, from his Chinese prison-cell. His Nobel Prize address was a love-letter to his wife; one of the most moving and original messages to come from any prison anywhere. I think all prisoners of conscience are really sending love-letters, sometimes in silence and sometimes in words, to those whose freedom they are trying to safeguard. Today we should recognize those who keep the value of free and transparent communication literally alive for the rest of us. They keep not only hope but the future itself alive. And the evidence is there: look at Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. They already prove there are no guarantees, but they also prove that hope dies last or not at all. The Burmese regime may be the next to fall, however long it takes. And it will be because of great defenders of the truth, like you here at EXPPACT, that freedom may be at hand. And for that we honour you.

(Originally published on the ExPPACT sites: http://exppact.org/?p=538http://borderlinereport.blogspot.com/2011/05/world-press-freedom-day-2011.html)

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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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