On Holy Books

Thursday October 12, 2006


Currently it’s the middle of Birmingham’s annual book festival. I’m involved a bit in the festival myself, as I designed their website, and it’s been great to be a part of what is probably one of the friendliest book festivals around. Last night I went to hear Richard Dawkins who, along with his wife actress Lalla Ward, gave a fascinating and highly entertaining reading of his new book The God Delusion.

Although the title of the book may suggest that it is about questions of knowledge and truth – which indeed, to some extent, it is – it does not sufficiently convey the deeply serious moral force of Dawkins’ arguments. Known popularly as an anti-religious crusader, Dawkins is in fact a far more subtle and nuanced thinker than he is often given credit for. He is also far from being deaf to the poetic resonance of great religious texts. But he is surely right when he calls into question the virtues of holding up religious texts such as the Bible and the Koran (or, for that matter, certain Buddhist texts) as moral authorities. The argument that religious texts are repositories of ethical teachings simply by virtue of being religious texts is one that enjoys a bafflingly widespread acceptance.

In his book, Dawkins quotes Bishop John Shelby Spong who claimed that those who claim to base their morality on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it. And, for anyone has ever read the Bible through from start to finish, it is hard not to agree with him. Of course, the apologists say, it is a matter of interpretation, of hermeneutics. We need to interpret the texts to bring to light their moral teachings. But it is hard to know what hermeneutic somersaults are necessary to interpret away the following passage from I Samuel 18:

20. And Michal Saul’s daughter loved David: and they told Saul, and the thing pleased him.
21 And Saul said, I will give him her, that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him. Wherefore Saul said to David, Thou shalt this day be my son in law in the one of the twain.
22 And Saul commanded his servants, saying , Commune with David secretly, and say, Behold, the king hath delight in thee, and all his servants love thee: now therefore be the king’s son in law.
23 And Saul’s servants spake those words in the ears of David. And David said, Seemeth it to you a light thing to be a king’s son in law, seeing that I am a poor man, and lightly esteemed?
24 And the servants of Saul told him, saying, On this manner spake David.
25 And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies. But Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.
26 And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king’s son in law: and the days were not expired.
27 Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.
28 And Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal Saul’s daughter loved him.

If I am committed to saying that the Bible is a uniquely ethical text (as, for example, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas does), then I have a problem. Is this passage suggesting that, should I be poor and have a daughter or marriageable age, two hundred foreskins belonging to enemies of the Lord will do just as well as a dowry? Perhaps not. But if I am not to take this literally, then how can such a text be read as an allegory? What is it an allegory for? The problem, however, goes still deeper. To make this turn to hermeneutics, and to say that we must decide which passages in any religious text we are to take literally, requires an independent sense of what is moral, one that does not itself depend upon scripture. And, as Dawkins rightly asserted, this contradicts the claim that scripture is the source of morality.

At this point, Buddhists might smile with a kind of satisfaction that their own texts are not at all given to such moral ambiguity. But this is simply untrue. As an example, we could take the tantric Kalachakra tradition, every bit as disturbing as the most bloodthirsty passages from the Old Testament. This tradition, it should be said, is by no means a minor or fringe tradition: the Dalai Lama has given thirty Kalachakra initiations since 1954, the most recent being held in Amaravati in India in 2006.

Despite claims that the texts associated with the Kalachakra tradition were taught by the historical Buddha, it seems that they originated around the early eleventh century, and that they clustered around the myth of Shambhala. Written after the arrival of Islam in India, the texts tell of the way the kind of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, Cakrin, will assemble a great army that will surge forth and eradicate Islam. As John Newman points out in his brief essay on the texts, this is in clear disagreement with the Buddhist principle of non-violence, and this conflict is resolved by the experts in Buddhist hermeneutics in two ways. Firstly, the war is explained to be “a mere magical show the [king] emanates to convert, not destroy, the Muslims”; and secondly it is claimed that the myth of an external war is an allegory for “the victory of gnosis over spiritual nescience” (See John Newman’s essay in Buddhism in Practice). Here is a section of the text to get the flavour:

Adam, Noah, and Abraham – there will also be five others of darkness in the family of demonic snakes: Moses, Jesus, the White-Clad One, Muhammad, and Mathani, who is the eighth – he will be blind. The seventh, Muhammad, will clearly be born in the city of Baghdad in the land of Mecca, where the mighty, merciless idol of the barbarians, the demonic incarnation, lives in the world… At the end of the age Cakrin, the universal emperor, will come out from Kalapa, the city the gods built on Mount Kailasa. He will attack the barbarians in battle with his four-division army… Ferocious warriors will strike the barbarian horde. Elephant lords will strike elephants; mountain horses will strike the horses of Sindh; kinds will strike kings in equal and unequal combat. Kalkin [the king], with Vishnu and Siva, will destroy the barbarians in battle with his army. Then Cakrin will return to his home in Kalapa, the city the gods built on Mount Kailasa. At that time everyone on earth will be fulfilled with religion, pleasure, and prosperity. Grain will grow in the wild, and trees will bow with everlasting fruit – these things will occur.

It is hard to much any distinction between texts such as this and the genocidal texts of the Old Testament, and it is hard to see how such a text could be the basis for any kind of aspiration for world peace, unless it is the peace that comes in the aftermath of the slaughter of all one’s enemies. Puzzled as to this clear contradiction, I turned to the website of Alexander Berzin, , an authority on the Kalachakra, hoping to find some kind of illumination. Berzin offers the following apologia for the text:

Based on the historical context of the Kalachakra literature, it is inappropriate to conclude that Buddhism at that time was anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, or anti-Christian, or that it is now. Buddhism was merely responding to the spirit of the times from the Middle East to northern India at the end of the tenth century. In the face of widespread fear of an invasion, an apocalyptic battle, and the end of the world, and the popular preoccupation with the coming of a messiah, Kalachakra presented its own version of the prediction.

To face the threat, Kalachakra recommended a policy already followed by Hinduism and the ruling Abbasid Muslims. The policy was to show that Buddhism too had open doctrinal doors for including other religions within its sphere. An essential foundation on which a multicultural society needs to stand in order to face a threatened invasion is religious harmony among its people. Joining others in a Kalachakra mandala symbolizes this commitment to cooperation. However, as was the case with Hinduism and Islam, the implication of the Shambhala King’s tactic was that Buddhism offered the deepest truth.

The Kalachakra depiction of the non-Indic prophets and its prophecies of a future war with their followers must be understood in this historical and cultural context. Despite the recommended policy, neither Buddhist leaders nor masters at the time actually launched a mass conversion campaign to bring Hindus and Muslims into its fold. No one held a Kalachakra initiation with such an aim in mind, nor launched a Buddhist holy war.

The kind of justifications Berzin offers for the text – that it “must be understood in its historical and cultural context” and the fashionable appeal to multiculturalism, with the “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” argument – are exactly the kind of arguments familiar from the defence of similarly indefensible texts from other traditions. But they do not go any way to addressing what is most troubling, what is most disturbing, about these texts. And when Berzin also claims of one of the vast public Kalachakra initiations that,

The event is open to the public, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. The purpose of the initiation is to provide an opportunity for people of all faiths to gather in a peaceful atmosphere to listen to teachings on love and compassion and to reaffirm their commitments to upholding the pure ethics of their traditions

then the contradiction is so extreme as to be laughable. Of course, we could turn to the defence of the text from the point of view of allegory, saying that it is a question of mistaking an allegorical text for a literal one. But the boundary between literalism and allegory is never as clear as all that, and a severe difficulty with taking these texts allegorically, is that elsewhere on Alexander Berzin’s pages, in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, he speculates bizarrely that Shambhala is perhaps another world where flying saucers come from , and the Dalai Lama replies as follows:

It is not on earth. If it were, we should be able to find it. However, it is probably in our universe, but we need pure karma to reach it. I wonder if we can really get there directly by just some sort of mechanical vehicle, like a space ship. Why I think like that, I don’t know.

Aside from the fact that both Berzin and the Dalai Lama seem, for a moment, to be entirely away with the fairies, the very fact that they are contemplating such questions must surely strip away the “allegory” defence of the text. If the greatest authorities upon the text can wonder about the physical location of Shambhala within the universe, quite without irony, then it is clear that neither of them take the text allegorically. We are entitled to ask what is going on.

When it comes down to it, within religious traditions, many are happy to denounce the texts filled with brutal, violent nonsense belonging to other traditions; but they often go to any lengths to defend their own texts filled with equally brutal, violent nonsense. Isn’t it time, however, to say that this stuff – whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, or none of the above – is destructive of genuine human kindness? Isn’t it time that the mystique of holiness around texts such as the Kalachakra Tantra – texts of all traditions – was stripped away? Wouldn’t it be better for scholars of such texts – if they are genuinely interested in the establishment of peace – to turn away from speculations about flying saucers and spaceships, and to ask the difficult questions that they seem so keen to brush under the carpet and explain away? And might it not be time to explore the possibility that the source of goodness, peace and ethics might lie not in ancient and bloodthirsty texts of spurious derivation, but rather in our own attempts, here and, now, to make sense of the world, and of the mainfest sufferings that surround us?

Image: himalayanart.org

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#1 · ck

13 October 2006

Will, this is why I haven’t ‘converted’ to Buddhism, although I read Shambhala Sun and am very attracted to much of the metaphysical and ethical aspects of Buddhism.

I have yet to find a purely rational religion, which faces up to the problems in the world, and provides solutions that don’t resort to ‘fairies’ in some way.

Any thoughts on whether such a religion/philosophy exists, or whether a Westernized Buddhism (stripped of fairies, multiple lives and such) is something you have respect for?

Just curious.

#2 · AK

22 October 2006

There seem to be interesting similarities between the Christian book of Revelation and the Vajrayana Buddhist Kalachakra text; both are apocalyptic literature and both were written when the the members of these respective communities were being heavily persecuted.

It is estimated that the Christian text of Revelation was composed during some severe persecutions of the Christian community that were authorized by the Roman Emperor Domitian (late 90s CE)

The Buddhist university at Nalanda was destroyed by Muslim invaders early in the 12th Century and there had been destructive invasions by Mohammed of Ghazni during the 11th Century.

So this fits pretty well with the estimated date (11th Century) of the composition of the apocalyptic Kalachakra text.

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