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Thought for the Day - BBC

by Vishvapani

Thought for the Day – Vishvapani

© BBC 2006, All Rights Reserved

Audio available at:


9 July 2006

When the weather's this hot it's easy to understand the Buddha's description of
Enlightenment as a cool cave, a refuge from the searing heat of the day, while 'nirvana'
means blowing out a flame. It's the flame of desire: the drives that propel us to
destructive reactions and lead to suffering.

Perhaps it's impertinent for a Buddhist to comment on the events unfolding in the Middle
East. But as we watch this complex, intractable, anguishing conflict spread with
apparently inexorable logic, I want to share the Buddha's perspective, which is timeless
and yet psychologically acute.

The Buddha reflected on how suffering arises and concluded that while there's a pattern
of events from which escape seems impossible, nothing is inevitable. What happens is
affected by external conditions – which we can't control – but also by our own responses.
When we experience pain we usually respond with anger. That leads to violence, which
causes pain for someone else. Then comes their anger and their violence, and the cycle

But we don't see things that way at the time. At each stage we believe our reaction to be
natural and justified. Each side in the present conflict feels they've been hurt and each is
applying a long-prepared strategy designed for such circumstances. Israeli actions have
been accused of being disproportionate but – as with the actions of their opponents –
there is a rationale. Each side is doing what they believe will lead to happiness, security
and eventually peace. Even bombing civilians or firing rockets at cities are, in the end,
attempts to find happiness and avoid suffering. But tragedy ensues when a strategy
produces the opposite result to what was intended – when our skewed ideas of what will
bring peace create endless conflict.

The Buddha said 'Hatred is not overcome by hatred'. For him, conflict is never inevitable
because human beings always have the capacity to choose, if only we can find the space
to reflect before our pain turns into anger. In circumstances as fraught and political as
those of the Middle East, such sentiments may seem like wishful thinking. But I believe
they express an important truth – an alternative that offers a reference point, like a cool
cave in scorching weather. The antagonists will need great calm and forbearance, but
after half a century in which conflict has replicated itself, it's surely time for old
strategies, old reactions to be radically reviewed.

2 August 2006

Metaphors are not Reality

When I first heard as a child that Europe was divided by an iron curtain I imagined a
huge wall of steel behind which everything was in shadow – and also freezing cold,
which was why people said there was a cold war. And when I heard the terms left- and
right-wing, I imagined all the politicians standing in a long line according to their views,
and shuffling about when someone switched policies.

These metaphors simplified the truth into an image, and when Tony Blair argued this
week that the terms 'left' and 'right' are outmoded, he was suggesting that the image no
longer matches reality. Rather, he said, we need pragmatic solutions that may cut across
'tribal' party lines, and be guided not by ideology but by underlying values.

There's nothing wrong with metaphors, but it helps to notice how they mold our thinking.
When we speak of 'progress', we imagine humanity moving in space. When we speak of
moral 'sickness', we think of the mind as if it were a body. But we easily forget that these
are images, not realities, and the ideas that develop around them can be a trap. Some
historians argue that American policy in Vietnam was governed by the image of falling
dominoes. If one falls they all will, they thought, forgetting that dominoes and countries
work in different ways.

Religion, especially, often understands life through images. There are ideas as well, but
these are usually embedded in stories and myths. The question for the Buddha was how
we respond to them. They may point us towards the truth, but if we're driven by a need
for certainty we'll fix them into dogmas and religious institutions that become ends in
themselves. He described his own teaching as a raft. It's useful – in fact essential – for
crossing a stream on the journey to wisdom; but once you reach the other shore and know
the truth for yourself, the raft can be left behind. Words, ideas and images are not reality.
Tribal politics is another kind of dogmatism that tells you where to line up on the left-
right spectrum. But you can't get away from metaphors. Tony Blair proposed a new
distinction between those open to global economic change and those closed to it. That's
another image that implies other assumptions and value judgments. To get at the truth for
ourselves we need to see past political and religious rhetoric, and then do something
much harder: look honestly at the biases underpinning our own beliefs.

18 November 2006

Good Morning. This week started with remembrance of war and each day we've heard
stories that turn on clashes of religion and culture from Iraq to university campuses. The
modern world's inter-connections are forcing people together as never before. Traditional
lifestyles have been transplanted to modern cities; religious believers are encountering
secular societies; and tensions are exacerbated by ethic rivalries, inequalities of wealth
and differing national interests.

How can we live together in this complex world, and how can religion cease to be part of
the problem? As a Buddhist what strikes me as important in the clash of ideologies is not
so much the content of our differing beliefs, as the emotions and attitudes that underlie

This is as true for Buddhism as for other faiths. It's easy for Buddhists, like western
liberals, to feel indignant about fundamentalism and argue that the exclusive claims of
theistic religions lead to conflict. Buddhism is indeed a liberal faith, and Buddhists
sometimes claim that no wars have been fought in its name. Yet in World War 2, Japan's
Imperial forces were cheered by the country's Buddhist establishment, who declared that
the war effort was a fight for the Buddha.

By the Buddha's standards, the way in which these leaders had understood his teachings
distorted them. A group of spiritual seekers once asked the Buddha how to decide
between competing religious claims. He replied, 'Don't believe something because it's
part of a tradition, because others believe it, or because it's found in a holy book. And it
isn't enough that something sounds convincing, or that you're used to thinking in that
way, or even that you've worked it out through reason.'

The test the Buddha proposed was whether a teaching promotes the welfare and
happiness of oneself and others. Beliefs that do so, he suggested, spring from kindness
and a deep understanding of life. What matters is not whether one believes in God, or life
after death, or the Buddha's Enlightenment, but the inner needs that are met by that belief.
That may be a need for certainty that's born of fear, or a desire for freedom that accepts
life's unknowability and interconnectedness.

Whatever religious tradition asks us to think, in the end, our beliefs are our own, and their
character is established by how we hold them. Buddhists, like followers of other faiths,
have sometimes been led by an inappropriate attachment to tradition to promote it in
ways that create suffering. Religion often teaches that people should serve the ideals it
upholds; what we need are religions that truly serve people.

25 November 2006

Good Morning. Like many of my generation, my introduction to political activism came
with the huge CND rallies of the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of us gathered in Hyde
Park to oppose American cruise missiles and Margaret Thatcher's decision to develop
Trident. Scientists had set the doomsday clock – which measures the imminent danger of
nuclear war – at three minutes to midnight, and my friends and I were truly frightened
that an accident or miscalculation would end our young lives.

Armageddon never came, the cold war ended, and as the threat of nuclear conflict has
apparently receded, our emotions have cooled. A number of those I heard addressing the
crowds in Hyde Park are now members of the cabinet that this week announced its
unanimous decision to replace Trident.

Now that the doomsday clock stands only at seven minutes to midnight, opposition to
Trident is likely to be less urgent, but the case for replacing it is also weaker. Advocates
of a British deterrent can no longer argue that it stands between us and a Soviet invasion,
and they're saying nothing ...

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