Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don't be evil

Creative Commons License photo credit: hartlandmartin

Google’s motto is ‘don’t be evil’ and the company has built its code of practice around this guiding principle which aims to ensure that everything they do is ‘measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct.’ Many people think that money is somehow tainted, that there is something rather unsavory about it, and that the rich cannot also be the good.


Of course, there are lots of ways to make money, and many of them are decidedly evil. There are crude and violent ways of making money, like robbing a bank, blackmailing people or running protection rackets. People sell drugs, traffic in people, run prostitution rings and exploit people, usually the weak and vulnerable.

Then there are more subtle, but obviously dishonest ways of making money. I get dozens of e-mails each week telling me that I’ve won some lottery, or that a government agency is giving me millions of dollars, or that someone has left me money in their will. I guess people must fall for these scams or else they wouldn’t keep sending the e-mails.

I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t dream of doing these kind of things, but of course there are even more subtly dishonest ways to make money. Using legal loopholes to get out of paying tax, not owning up when you get given too much change, all kinds of little dodges and tricks we use to profit. We can tell ourselves ‘it’s not that bad – anyone would have done the same thing,’ and that’s probably true, but we still know that we have acted dishonestly, and it still leaves a bad association about money in our mind. And this is the problem.

Monday, January 15, 2007



I have been fascinated by the idea of reincarnation for a long time. Those who suggest that reincarnation is real point to a number of phenomena which hint at the possibility.

We connect so well with some people – even people we’ve only just met – that it’s almost as if we can read their thoughts and they ours, yet we have very difficult relationships with others, failing to understand each others’ perspectives again and again. Often, this latter group comprises members of our own family!

Some people are born with natural talents so advanced that we are at a loss as to explain them: how is it possible that a six year old can write a concerto?

There is huge inequality in life. At university, I met many people who were rich, good looking, bright, sporty and attractive. After doing well in their degree, they went on to have successful careers and a comfortable life. Others, such as some of the children I used to teach in England, are born into deprivation, have low IQ, are not attractive or talented and have very little future so far as the material things of the word are concerned. The inequalities in the wider world are much broader than this, of course.

Then there are the many people who claim to remember details from past lives, sometimes while undergoing some kind of hypnosis, but often spontaneously. Numerous such cases have been documented, perhaps Shanti Devi being the most famous.[1]

The idea of reincarnation seems to make sense of all these phenomena, but they hardly constitute proof.

What is reincarnated? What do we mean by ‘soul’?

In the Buddhist view, the individual consist of five ‘aggregates’ or skandhas. These are:

* Material processes (body)
* Feeling
* Perception
* Mental formations (mind)
* Consciousness (sentience)

A central tenet of Buddhism is that of anatta, usually translated as ‘no self.’ A common understanding of this terms is that the five aggregates are constantly shifting and, since the self is composed of the five and nothing else, there is no stable, unchanging ‘self.’ That is to say, ‘self’ is an illusion.

However, Buddhism also has a strong belief in reincarnation, which immediately begs the question, ‘what or who is reincarnated?’ If it is just some kind of impersonal energy disturbance, then it doesn’t make sense to say that ‘I’ am reincarnated, yet Buddhism strongly insists that the individual is indeed reincarnated, and that the Buddhas can recall all their previous lives. It seems that the common understanding of anatta is at fault.

My understanding is that anatta is ‘not-self’ rather than ‘no-self.’ There is nothing that can be pointed to and described that is the self. The self is not the body, not the mind, not the perception, and so on. If we identify these things as self, we are deluded. But, nonetheless, the self is there: it is just not what we think it is.

Matthieu Ricard suggests that the self is a ‘stream of consciousness – awareness of a stream of impermanent states with integral continuity’[2] This stream or vortex of consciousness – which we might call a soul – tends to cling to the aggregates and this explains why ‘those who separate from the body in near death situations report mental imagery, perceptions, sensations, feelings, and thoughts, while separate from the body. It appears the conscious being carries with it the memories (mental formations) and connections (feelings and sensations) of its past existence as well as a sense of continuity of self.’[3]

Clinging to the aggregates tends to propel the soul (as defined) onwards to a new existence, and enlightenment comes when the aggregates are finally shed and only the pure stream of consciousness remains. What is left, then? The Buddha said that the state of nirvana was beyond description, but I have an image of a current or a channel of water, endlessly flowing within the ocean of divinity which is the ground of all being. This state is, as Brooke wrote, ‘a pulse in the eternal mind, no less.’[4]

It is interesting to compare the Buddhist view with the Hindu or Vedic one. There are some differences, but the similarities are more striking.

According to the Hindu understanding, we consist of five bodies (koshas)[5]. They are:

* The physical body (anna maya kosha)
* The body of vital energy (prana maya kosha)
* The body of thought (mano maya kosha)
* The body of higher intelligence (vijnana maya kosha)
* The body of mystical awareness (ananda maya kosha)

These five can be condensed into three:

* The physical body (physical body, plus vital energy body)
* The astral body (mental body)
* The causal body (higher intelligence and mystical awarness)

The physical body dissolves at the time of death. The other two persist after death and, at the moment of rebirth, the astral body dissolves. The causal body reincarnates, so in this sense, although we shed personality and memory, we retain our higher intellectual and spiritual functions.

Underlying all these bodies is the atman, the essence of who you are. This is eternal and is of the same substance as God, the ground of being. This atman seems to be the same as the stream or vortex of consciousness: made of God, not separate from God but, as it were, a ‘disturbance’ in God. In the sense that there is nothing but God, we are all one, we are not separate, we are all ‘disturbances’ in God, though these disturbances have an eternal nature. It is not like a drop of water falling into the ocean, being assimilated and hence losing its identity, but rather a stream or current within the ocean, (a bit like to Gulf stream conveyor!) which is eternal, a movement in the ocean, not separate from it.

So one could give the following definition of soul: an eternal disturbance in the eternal God. This, according to Buddhist and Hindu thought, is the core of what is reincarnated, with other elements (call them what you like – causal body, ananda maya kosha or whatever) clinging to this core.

Christian and Jewish views on reincarnation.

It is clear that the issue of reincarnation was debated in the primitive Christian church. Several prominent early Christians believed in reincarnation: Origen’s scheme[6], based largely upon Plato’s thinking, is the most famous, but others also believed that the soul is reincarnated. Origenism was formally condemned by the church in 553AD at the second Council of Constantinople. [7] Most Christians now do not accept reincarnation, but the idea is gaining popularity.

Perhaps Jesus was what one might call an ‘advanced soul,’ a soul which had been through many reincarnations and had reached a point where he felt almost completely in tune with God. This explains why he was able to perform miracles[8] and why he spoke about God constantly and as if the presence of God was obvious and imminent. It is possible that Jesus ‘was God’ in the sense that he had reached enlightenment (for want of a better term) and had chosen to incarnate in the form of an ‘avatar,’ but the earliest layers of the Gospel[9] suggest that neither Jesus’ followers nor Jesus considered himself to be divine.

Reincarnation has been a persistent feature of Judaism and Kabala. In recent years, Jewish reincarnation has been championed most prominently by Rabbi Gershom[10], who has written a number of scholarly works on the subject.


[1] Sture Lonnerstrand, I have lived before: the true story of the reincarnation of Shanti Devi.

[2] Quoted by Greg Stone in

[3] Ibid

[4] Rupert Brooke, The Soldier, 1915.

[5] The five koshas are described in the Taittiriya Upanishad.

[6] An informative presentation of Origen’s scheme, along with the thinking of some other early Christians, is given at See also

[7] See

[8] I do not regard the Gospels as reliable historical documents, and it seems likely that the accounts of Jesus’ miracles are exaggerated, but I believe there is probably at least a grain of truth here.

[9] The idea of the Gospels having two ‘layers,’ an early layer which is historical and a later layer which is ‘history metaphorised’ by the church is taken from the writing of American theologian Marcus Borg. See, for example, The God we never knew, 1997.

[10] See Gershom’s website,

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ten day Vipassana Course

In the summer of 2004, I attended a ten day Vipassana course at the Honk Kong Vipassna Centre. Here is what I wrote as a record of my experiecnes shortly after returning to the 'real world.'

The teaching was very precise and clear. Goenka's daily discourse was always most amusing, full of stories and anecdotes, and very encouraging. This was always the highlight of the day.

The location itself was very secluded, and I found the peace and quiet very restful. Not having to talk to people was, in some ways, a great relief. There was no idle chatter and, though we lived in very close quarters for ten days, we were complete strangers for nine of them.

The regime of the course was very tough. Getting up at 4am was something I got used to: I could manage to sit for the fist hour or so of the 4.30am sitting, but I usually found it extremely hard to stay awake during the second hour. Again, I managed an hour of the three hour morning sitting without much trouble but the remaining two hours were a real drag. The four hours in the afternoon were broken up into three sessions, the middle of which was more structured, but the long third session was very dull. I found the meditation sessions too long, I experienced a lot of pain, though this did improve later and I was able to sit with more equanimity, and was very bored some of the time. Goenka chanted in Pali a great deal in his low pitched voice and, after a while, this really stated to irritate me. I felt it distracted me from the meditation and couldn't really see the point of it. I was also irritated by his interminable, repetitive instructions: I appreciate that repetition is the key to remembering, but I felt he went on and on a bit too much.

When we weren't meditating or eating, there was absolutely nothing to do. The compound itself was tiny and so there was nowhere to walk, nothing to see and, because it was so hot, one couldn't even sit outside for long. We couldn't read a book or write a journal, so we usually just went to sleep. This lack of intellectual stimulation was a really difficult thing to cope with.

The facilities of the centre were generally very poor. It was a ramshackle New Territories village environment. There were four toilet / shower cubicles to be shared between everyone, though only two of the showers were of a decent quality and even these were temperamental and on two occasions the ignition didn't work so I had to have cold showers. The cubicles themselves were made or corrugated metal sheet and concrete; the floors were concrete and were green with all the water which had flowed over them. Each cubicle has an orange plastic concertina door with a small plastic ring attached to the handle which could be hooked over an old piece of metal to act as a lock. All four cubicles were quite dirty and full of spiders, beetles, cockroaches and other insects.

The male dorm contained eight poor quality bunk beds made of thin metal frames, painted red, each containing a very thin mattress and a mosquito net which had to be arranged over four metal poles which had been attached to the top bunk. It was very crowded and there were no cupboards, shelves or wardrobes, so we were forced to live out of a suitcase. The two small air conditioners were inadequate for the job, were noisy and didn't provide much cooling. Again, the dorm was home to a variety of insects and also a rat which I saw scurrying through a hole between the dorm and the kitchen, which were adjacent, on several occasions.

There was a real lack of privacy. The camp was tiny and we could go nowhere to get away from other people.

The male dining area was outdoors, next to the Dhamma Hall, and consisted of a large makeshift table, on which the food was laid out in trays, and three smaller tables with plastic chairs for us to sit around when eating. A bowl, chopsticks and cup had to be acquired by each student and kept by them until the end of course.

The quantity of food was definitely insufficient: toast for breakfast and two small bowls of rice and vegetarian food for lunch. We we allowed a couple of bananas for tea. There was no dinner. I was always hungry in the evenings but, having said this, I didn't starve and I think it was a good experience to go hungry for a while: it makes one more appreciative and less liable to complain about things. The food itself was plain and there was little variety from day to day. Often, I didn't want to eat the food since it was so tasteless, but I forced it down because I knew there'd be nothing until 6.30am the next day. There was nothing to drink except warm water from the 'cooler' (which obviously didn't work), some herbal tea and horlicks.

All of this did go to highlight just how attached I am to the things I enjoy in my daily life and which I largely take for granted: a hot shower in a clean, spacious environment, tasty food in a nice hotel or restaurant, a cold glass of beer, a good book, a movie, a clean, spacious and comfortable bed, privacy. I have certainly enjoyed these 'simple pleasures' since coming home.

In spite of all the deprivations, pain, inconvenience, boredom, plain food and poor facilities, I actually felt really good when I returned to the 'real world'. I felt clean and whole. I didn't feel tired. I felt alert and alive. I felt full of peace. I've feel as if I don't want to waste another moment of my life on negativity.

I went to a hotel restaurant and then walked around TST in the afternoon of my return and I felt great. I didn't mind the crowds, the pushing, the shoving. I didn't hurry. I didn't get annoyed or angry. I just enjoyed myself. I had a phone conversation with my parents and sister in the UK which was one of the nicest, most positive conversations I'd had with them for a long time.

I'd spent a long time looking for 'enlightenment,' but now I felt as if I've had an experience which wass not what I expected, and not enlightenment, but a great change for the better. Whether it is the practice of Vipassana, as taught by Goenka, which made me feel like this, or just the plain, simple life I was living, I don't know.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.

The daily schedule.

4am. Get up and shower

4.30-6.30am. Meditation in the hall, the last of hour of which is a tape of Goenka's Pali chanting.

6.30-8am. Breakfast and then sleep.

8-9am. Meditation with the assistant teachers.

9-11am. Meditation in the hall without the assistant teachers.

11am-1pm. Lunch and then sleep. Interview with the assistant teachers if requested.

1-2.30pm. Meditation in the hall without the assistant teachers.

2.30-3.30pm. Meditation with the assistant teachers.

3.30-5pm. Meditation in the hall without the assistant teachers.

5-6pm. Tea and sleep.

6-7pm. Meditation with the assistant teachers.

7-8.15pm. VCD discourse given by Goenka

8.15-9pm. Meditation with the assistant teachers.

9-9.30pm. Questions to the assistant teachers if needed. Otherwise bed.


The Vipassana Website. (user: oldstudent, pass: behappy)

Dhamma books. and

Global pagoda.

Vipassana research institute.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Genuine Spiritual Teacher or Fake?

I have bumped into a few organisations and individuals on the Internet and in the course of my reading on spirituality. Some of these people make grandiose claims about being 'enlightened' masters, sages, etc. Some seem to be money oriented, and I am exceedingly skeptical of anyone or any group who has a slick website full of merchandise, books, tickets for speaking engagements and the like. Most are just in it for cash and ego. A small handful seem to be quite genuine. I think a good rule of thumb in discerning the few sheaths of wheat from the mountain of chaff is: if anything is asked of you, whether time, money, membership, belief, or anything else, steer clear. Real purveyors of the truth don't expect anything from you, especially blind, unreasonable belief or the compromise of your intellect. Belief is one thing, truth is another. We cannot but have beliefs - we cannot function in the world without them. When I get on a bus, I believe that the driver is competent, sober and sane. When I go to the dentist, I believe that he will not deliberately injure me. But these beliefs are reasonable, founded on my experience of the past. Christianity is often defined as a belief system, and on one level, so it is. But it is a reasonable belief. If anyone expects you to suspend your common sense and intellect and just 'believe,' then run a mile. I would recommend caution in the fundamentalist wings of Christianity. What I love about the Anglican church is that one is encouraged to think, to doubt, as part of one's faith. I often think that faith means an openness to the truth. Hinduism and Buddhism put more emphasis on experience than belief. The Buddha, for example, said that nobody should take what he said on faith but should go and test it out and if it was found useful, use it, and if not, don't. However, these Eastern religions have become more popular in recent decades due to increasing globalisation, and many, many groups offering spiritual progress, enlightenment, etc. for a western audience have sprung up related to them in some way. Often, these groups have leaders with a strong personality cult and one needs to be extremely careful in one's dealings with them. One only has to think of the NKT or Sathya Sai Baba to examples of cultish organisations which are derived from mainstream Eastern religions. Hinduism is an inherently Indian expression of spirituality, and the very idea of Hinduism adapted to a Western culture seems simply bizarre to me.

For me, the warning signs of charlatans are that

1. An individual claims to be enlightened, a master, a sage, etc. or such a claim made about an individual by an organisation. Warning bells should start to ring loud and clear whenever an individual is venerated or given honorific titles, or whenever claims are made that so-and-so is the reincarnation of God, Christ, Krishna, Vishnu, or whatever. Often, a cult of personality will be present, either directly instigated and maintained by the individual 'guru' or 'swami' or perpetuated indirectly by the organisation or followers (though often this will have been set up or encouraged by the so-called guru). It is one of my basic contentions that a guru is not necessary. We do not need intermediaries, swamis, gurus, masters and all the rest. A true teacher isn't a teacher at all: like Anthony De Mello, he's just dancing his dace, doing his thing, and if people benefit, fine! If they don't, fine! But never does he set himself up as a teacher. The whole concept of the guru and the guru-disciple relationship is entrenched in the Indian spiritual tradition. From what I've read, it's more often than not an abusive relationship based on a power differential and very likely to cause harm. When you see a guru, run as fast as you can! I think a spiritual director can be helpful, but not necessary. God comes to us and invited us into a direct relationship.

2. They make extensive use of complicated, technical language or foreign words and/or talk about initiation, secret knowledge and rituals, or circles of followers with progressively greater access and privilege. Usually, suspect organisations will borrow from established traditions but try to hide this fact by using complicated or obscure language. They may also try to hide their spiritual shallowness by claiming that only initiates have full access. Often, this access will come at a price. It is another contention that spirituality is totally practical and has everything to do with day-to-day life. There is no need for secret initiations, special knowledge.

3. They offer something for sale - this can be simple merchandising - books, meditation aids, cushions, pictures, prayer beads, etc. - which is relatively harmless but does, I feel, indicate a certain shallowness. More disturbingly, a price may be put on access to 'special' or secret teachings or access to the guru or swami or whatever. Another of my contentions is that the truth is free of charge. I believe we should be deeply suspicious of those who ask money in exchange for spiritual advancement. Even cost-covering bothers me. The worldwide Vipassana organisation, for example, would not be able to function without donations but is never asks participants to make these donations and, in fact, it will not accept donations from people who have not completed a 10 day course.

The term enlightenment is often used by so-called spiritual leaders. It seems to me that the term is essentially meaningless. Certainly, I believe that we are separated from the fullness of reality, and that we can glimpse the glory of the truth of God (whatever that means). But this is God's gift and the experience will be different for every individual, since we are all unique and the truth of God is infinitely diverse. Also, we are all at different stages on the path to God, so some will see God's glory more fully than others. I believe that we will spend eternity experiencing God in more and more sublime and wonderful ways. So to say that you are 'fully enlightened' is to say that you have experienced God in all His fullness, which is impossible, and to say that you are 'enlightened' is simply to say that you have experienced God to some extent, which can be said for anyone.


Mary Garden writes intelligently and informatively, from her own experience, on gurus: