Friday, September 09, 2005

Reflections on Buddhism, Christianity and Jesus in the Contemporary West

The Dalai Lama's recent visit to Switzerland was incredibly popular. Tens of thousands of people turned up to his public lectures, quite apart from the private visits which were possible for the really rich and distinguished.

I have been reflecting on why India, the country in which Buddhism was founded, eventually rejected Buddhism. Equally, I have been reflecting on why, while the Churches continue to be surprisingly popular in the contemporary West, Jesus himself is so unpopular with the Western elite.

It is worth recollecting that Buddhism was, in essence, a movement to break the hold of the corrupt and corrupting Hindu caste system, which had come into existence some centuries earlier. At one stage, something like half of India was Buddhist - the other half gave its allegiance to the competing reform movement of Jainism, which is now practically unknown outside Indian circles. Buddhism, however, was internationalised as a result of the missionary activities of the Emperor Ashoka who sent out missionaries with diplomatic status to all the surrounding countries. As Buddhism grew in numbers and in countries which were geographically diverse, it absorbed many of the features of these cultures (as happened with what is now the Roman Catholic Church in Europe initially, and has now happened with it worldwide). The result was that a corrupt priestly caste developed in Buddhism too. And, as far as I can discover, that is the main reason that India then rejected Buddhism - if Buddhist priests were going to be as corrupt as the Hindu priests has been earlier, then there was no reason to be Buddhist! This rejection was facilitated by Hindus who incorporated the best aspects of Buddhist thought and learning into our own philosophy and practice (for example, in what came to be called "Advaita" philosophy). For a fuller discussion of the history of the development of Indian religion and philosophy, see my short publication, Indian Spirituality, available for free download on my website.

In any case, the story of the Buddha (the enlightened one) provokes many questions. Here is a young man who suddenly awakens to human suffering, gives up his life of princely comfort, trains himself in the disciplines of yoga and undergoes the physical trauma of other ascetic practices, faces tremendous temptations, eventually awakens to enlightenment, and goes on to teach others how they too can find his way to enlightenment.

It is worth asking:

- Where did this young Prince's intense awareness of suffering come from? And from what source came the compassion he felt? Why do some people feel such compassion more than others? Why do some people apparently never feel such compassion? Why do those who feel it, not always follow its impulses?

- Why in all his seeking and thinking and teaching, did the Buddha neglect or ignore the question of the existence of social and political evil?

- To fight such evil in the world, is it enough to simply focus on the psychological dimension of individual peace as Buddhism does?

- Does the peaceful idividualism of Buddhism actually explain its lack of interest in tackling political and social evil, as is clearly seen (with few exceptions) in countries which have been Buddhist for centuries?

- Might it be the case that we have here also the secret of the popularity of Buddhism in the West as well as the secret of the current unpopularity of Jesus in the West? Is it possible that Westerners are so exhausted by the emotial battering of daily life that they are attracted to the Buddhist offer of personal peace and comfort, and are equally happy with the comforting rituals of Christian Churches, but do not wish to cope with the demands of the teachings of Jesus, who offers us a living relationship with God on condition that we are willing to die to our own interests and spend our lives fighting ignorance, disease, scientific and technological irresponsibility, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, political oppression and social injustice worldwide? Sphere: Related Content

Amartya Sen on Democracy

Amartya Sen is highly respected both for winning the Nobel Prize in Economics and for his wisdom and humaneness.

His latest book, The Argumentative Indian, among other things documents for how long and how extensively the world has strained after democracy.

However, he fails to answer or even raise some key questions:

- why was it the case that the only cultures able to create, nurture and maintain a democratic culture for more than three generations have been Protestant ones?

- Why do non-Protestant cultures (tribal African Tanzania with "Uhuru", China under Mao, Japan since WWII, Russia under the Marxists, Iran under the Shah) accommodate democratic tendencies only so far as to begin to clean up the usual kleptocracies and initiate "participatory reasoning and public decision-making", but then become static as has Japan for the last two decades or descend into chaos as has Russia since Gorbachev, or return to authoritarianism as has Russia under Putin? Or as Ukraine seems to be doing now? Sphere: Related Content

The current situation of Hedge Funds

A few weeks ago there was a news item in the UK's Financial Times: "Hedge funds flat in dodging bullet".

I hope it was hugely reassuring to everyone now playing hedge funds.

However, it did raise some interesting questions:

- are the "sophisticated financial customers", to whom these sorts of funds supposedly sell under UK law, actually as sophisticated as they appear, if they are willing to pay more as fees to hedge fund operators now than was the case when these funds were new, innovative and in scarce supply?

- are these "sophisticated financial customers" perhaps even a little stupid, if they are paying more in fees now, when hedge funds are broadly losing money, than was the case when hedge funds were clearly making a lot of money?

- why is it that a supposedly intelligent marketplace allows hedge fund operators, who take no risk, to cream off 20% or more of the upside, while not sharing in the downside?

- in what other business is it the case that an involved party can share in the upside without sharing in the downside?

- should hedge fund operators be allowed to share in the upside only if they also take on the burden of sharing the downside? Sphere: Related Content

On the Prospects of Democracy in China

Liberal Westerners often express the view, "Sooner or later China will embrace democracy".

However, I have never heard a Chinese national, let alone a Chinese official, express this view.

Have you?

So how much do these liberal Westerners know of China? Are they aware that China has not had democracy for some 5000 years? Are they aware that China has done very well for the last 20 years without democracy - indeed precisely because of a lack of democracy?

Terrified as the Communist Party is of losing power, as well as of domestic chaos, what will ever prompt it to want to loosen the handcuffs?

If the international community is interested in seeing democracy come to China, it has to do more than simply crow a bit.

We have the ridiculous situation of having, as a Member of the UN Security Council, a country that has, systematically and openly, never stopped flouting the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

So, for a start, how about a campaign agains companies that invest in China - unless China implements basic human rights of association and freedom of thought and religion and association, to which it has already signed up? Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The difficult question of the rate of immigration

One key issue is the rate at which immigrants can be absorbed.

The question is: absorption into what?

Clearly, there is an economic dimension: "too many" immigrants could certainly lower salaries. However, this dimension is well understood and has historically been paid enough attention (moreover, we have at least some tools with which to examine this issue).

Then there is the emotional dimension. That has been thrust to the forefront recently in the UK when it emerged that the recent London bombers were "homegrown". So the issue is: at what rate can the receiving country ensure that new immigrants *lose* their old allegiances and develop sufficiently strong new ones? A politically incorrect question for some people! And the political incorrectness is intimately related to the following point, which is the most important of the three and the one for which there are the least number of tools.

That is the "values dimension". Immigrants bring their own values with them. If they can make the transition to accepting the values of the receiving country, then genuine integration can happen. Race, religion, educational level are contributing factors, but are neither absolute enablers nor absolute precluders.

The challenge is that receiving countries, at least in the West, often no longer have a clear sense of what their "own" set of values IS....and without such clarity, the task of enabling immigrant groups to immigrate in terms of values is of course much more difficult.

The reason receiving countries have no clear sense of their "own" set of values is that, in the West, it is part of a contested discourse: is Europe a "Christian" continent? Every Muslim and every Hindu understands instinctively that that is so. Not every European, agrees, however (and the ruling establishment in Europe certainly does not agree at present). But even that question cannot be answered without being clear about what exactly is meant by "Christian"? Nor is the job made easier if we simply abandon the word "Christian" and substitute "Humanist": what exactly is meant by that?!

The simplest way of resolving this "values dilemma" is not by trying to clarify definitions of such words as "Christian" or "Humanist" or "European", but developing a sophisticated and detailed contrast between "the way in which things are done" in the receiving country as against that in the sending country.

To the degree that the contrast is in fact sophisticated and detailed, it will be easier to set up ways of nurturing, examining, monitoring and "rewarding" integration at the level of values.

What exactly might be covered if one is to develop a "sophisticated and detailed analysis of the way in which things are done" in the receiving country as against that in the sending country?

Well, here is a starting list, for discussion:

- education (purpose of, pattern of, style of...)
- friendships (how deep? How wide? ...)
- love, sex (public displays?)
- marriage (Arranged?...)
- work (ethic of, remuneration for....)
- politics (how active is one expected to be? What routes are there for ambition? Dissent?....)
- morality (bribery and corruption...)
- private sphere versus public sphere.....
- role of individual versus role of family versus role of community...
- conversational style (polite? Confrontational? Explicit? Wordy? Gestures? ....)
- attitudes to hierarchy....
- attitudes to history....
- attitudes to time....
- attitudes to language...
- attitudes to dress.....

The difficulty is that, in the US, discussion of such issues has been banned to the private sphere since the 1930s (in Europe, since even earlier, probably the 1880s).

So the earlier ban needs to be reversed and we need to re-commence, now, a discussion of the values of receiving countries, with the intention of becoming clear at least about the actual culture of the receiving countries.

ENDS Sphere: Related Content