The Three Poisons distinguished in Buddhism, namely attachment, aversion and delusion, or greed, hatred and folly, are not safely placed out of reach on some dusty shelf, but are the very element in which our lives are immersed. It is not that we might inadvertently have taken a sip of them from time to time. They have entered our bloodstream and they wreak havoc with us as long as we breathe. Without any of the morose and lugubrious qualities we have attached to the notions of sin, or Original Sin, these Buddhist concepts attest an unflinching moral realism. The analysis and cure of the three poisons is proposed in a calm way, without any accusatory procedures. If Christianity has some of the drama of the courtroom, Buddhism is more like a well-run hospital, busy with diagnosis and remedy and not interested in tracking guilt. Meredith’s lines, ‘In tragic life, God wot, No villain need be; passions spin the plot’ refer to the passions of domestic strife. In a Buddhist context they take on a larger meaning. The force that impels us to destruction, the force whose effects are writ large in the tortured and slain bodies of our killing fields, concentration camps, mass graves, is none other than the force of passion.
The passion, or poison, which has dominated the third millennium in its infant years is that of anger. ‘Now is the time for anger!’ was the louder cry after 9/11, not ‘now is the time for forgiveness’. Psychologists tell us that ‘anger develops as a natural response of the failure of others to meet one’s needs for love, praise, acceptance, and justice’. There are three mechanisms for dealing with it: denial, expression, forgiveness. I would note that precisely the possibility of forgiveness undercuts the claim to see anger as simply ‘a natural response’. Rage-management should be supplemented with rage-prevention, to keep this poison from lodging in us. Moreover, much of the anger in the world is not natural and spontaneous, but a cultivated and sustained resentment.
The idea that evil passions are at the root of much that goes wrong in the world might seem to be confuted by Eichmann, the characteristic villain of our times, who went about his murderous business without emotion. A depersonalized technological and bureaucratic efficiency, it seems, and not passion, is the force animating our most powerful agents of evil. Even our terrorists are cold fish, and the flamboyancy of Osama Ben Laden is an exception, a throwback to the Middle Ages. It was not attachment to the Fatherland, or aversion to the Jews, that kept Eichmann going, but mere insensitivity to the human consequences of the technology he mastered so well. Have we succeeded then in inventing a modern poison, unknown to the Buddha, and unknown to the New Testament as well?
Yet the subjection of emotion to technological rationality is not an escape from passion into some transhuman mode of functioning. The Nazi functionary or the terrorist may have transcended self in their devotion to the Cause, but this is not a nirvanic release from passion. For the third poison, called delusion, is the most basic. The grip of the unreal is more potent than any object of desire or hatred. The unreality that pervades the discourse of bureaucrats and technocrats, that we compulsively produce whenever we open our mouths, that is seething all the time in the busy effervescence of our minds is more addictive than the livelier passions of love and hate. Even if we were drained of love or hate, we could not escape the toils or throes of this third poison, which has infiltrated itself so subtly and is so difficult to detect. We live in a cocoon of delusion, loth to hear the voices that would wake us from it (including the voices of Buddha or Christ). The tragic condition of madness, in the ordinary sense, is a mirror of the power of delusion and alerts us to the more diffuse madness that has us all in our grip, in our constant pursuit of nothingness and allergy to being.
The passion of anger itself can take the cold form of indifference to the sufferings of its target. Destructive extremism can carry all the appearances of cool reason. The smirk of satisfaction that some newspaper readers feel when they hear of some atrocity of which they foresee some good political effect belongs under this rubric. Rage is a choice weapon of war, and we do not sufficiently fear its dehumanizing effect, its contamination. In civil life, rage is currently a weapon that is almost sanctified when used by the victims of crimes. Thus processed and systematized, unforgiving anger becomes a starch clotting the arteries of human community.
Deeper than feeling lies passion. Passion can hold people in an iron grip for long years, commandeering not just their emotions but all the machinery of their thinking as well. Prejudice, for instance, or egoism, are mighty passions. A person operating under the dominance of a passion may be cool and collected, perfectly sure of the rationality of his or her behaviour. But as soon as something arises that threatens the basis of the ruling passion the person can flare up in sudden emotion. When Buddhism talks of evil passions it is such unconscious governing structures that it has in mind.
According to Lacan, anger is ‘what occurs in subjects when the little pegs don’t fit into the little holes. Meaning what? When at the level of the Other, the signifier, which is always more or less the level of faith, of good faith, someone is not playing the game. Well, that is what arouses anger’. When Sinead O’Connor ripped up the Pope’s photograph she expressed rage against a symbolic order in which she herself found no place. The city of Prague is dominated by the sprawling castle on the left bank of the Vltava, a castle that always seems near, yet to which one may have trouble finding the way on foot. The castle is a magnificent symbol of the Other – that order that demands something of us, that pervades every behaviour, even the most intimate, that provides a magnificent array of signifiers, including those of religious liturgies, and yet that remains elusive, and that can leave us in the lurch, when the signifiers lose meaning. Kafka captured all this in The Castle: ‘So he went forward again, but it was a long way. For the street, this main street of the village did not lead to the castle mount, but only took one near it, then as if intentionally it veered away and though it did not distance itself from the castle either, yet it did not come any nearer to it’.
The failure of the signifying system can reduce one to a non-person, as so many homeless or unemployed have found. If one’s insurance or one’s pension runs out, the reassuring signifiers of the social order may turn into so many hostile barriers. Usually we cannot do much when the system is generally dysfunctional, or does not play the game on particular occasions. Suicide may be the ultimate expression of rage against the system. Perhaps all rage is suicidal? Perhaps prophetic rage is not cleanly distinguishable from the rage born of disappointment and frustration. Jesus’ rage against the temple vendors and Luther’s disgust at the spectacle of Rome are gut-level reactions before they take form as prophetic doctrines.
‘This is an outrage!’ We rarely find ourselves in the position to make this declaration in a fully satisfying way. Most of the irritations of life do not amount to issues one can take a stand on, and most of the misery of the world is chronic, a perpetual outrage that does not make news. So incidents like the Iraq invasion channel our frustrated urge to protest against all that is wrong with the world. They focus our anger and give it a solid target, without which it would turn in on itself, ulcerously. When that occasion of rage is removed, we may find our spleen at the ordinary aggravations of daily life reviving.
Bush and Blair set up Osama and Saddam as just such punching bags for venting public anger, and in the process they unwittingly became punching bags themselves. The two leaders have acquired a therapeutic function for the world community, and when they are gone (soon, one hopes), there will be a sense of anticlimax. Such figures are people we love to hate, people who give our anger focus and body. Of Swift Yeats said that he ‘created a soul for the people of Dublin in teaching them to hate their neighbour as themselves’, and indeed rage is experienced as soul-building, as a generous and uplifting passion. Rage strikes back at an unjust world, and even ineffectual rage is a release from the dull and depressed passivity that is our ordinary reaction to injustice.
One of the least disputable facts about the Iraq misadventure is that the primary casus belli, the one that was most eloquently hyped up by the belligerents, namely, the famous Weapons of Mass Destruction, did not in fact exist. It was a war about Nothing. The same could be said about World War I. Perhaps wars about nothing go on longer, become more intractable, and end more unsatisfactorily than wars about something.
As the original war pretexts faded, one heard the promise that the US must ‘stay the course’ and ‘see it through’. See what through? Was it simply a question of not losing face? Perhaps the concrete unthinkable about which any thought of leaving ran up was something as solid as oil or as military bases assuring hegemony in the region. Or perhaps it was just something as wraithlike as vanity or stubbornness.
The discipline of Hinduism carries over into Buddhism, but in a still more interiorized form. Buddhism does not merely advise detached action; it probes the roots of action, bringing to light the illusions that poison it. Faced with such a passion as anger, it urges us to analyze our feelings and to step back from them critically. To be sure there are angry deities in Buddhism who flank the entrance to temples and are guardians of the Law. These no longer rage unchecked, but are subordinated to the Buddhist insight into the fabric of the passions. Their rage is no longer impulsive or unmeasured, but becomes a wisely deployed skilful means.
Thanks to the challenge of Buddhism, Vedic thought, culminating in Sankara, had taken on a lean, ascetic look. The Kashmir Sivaism sought to retrieve the Upanisadic view of deliverance as realizing the fulness of one’s being, uniting in the lived present the earthly joys usually dispersed, discordant and thus pervaded by pain. The purpose of indulging anger would be to understand one’s passion, to overcome it, and to redirect its blind energy to a more constructive end. The transfiguration of common experience, through releasing it from the narrowness of ego centred perception, is achieved by imaginative exercises. The instability of everyday consciousness is taken not as a symptom of beginningless ignorance (avidyâ) but as reflecting the élan of the absolute consciousness, which one must rejoin.
There may be a place in Buddhism of a more esoteric and tantric kind, as there is in the tantric Sivaism of Kashmir, for a spiritual technique of deepening one’s rage and expressing it to the full. Certainly a reintegration of earthly passions occurred in Mahâyâna Buddhism. In Japanese Shingon Buddhism or Mikkyo, anger is a force that can be directed against evil desires. In the goma ceremony – the word comes from Sanskrit homa – objects representing these desires are cast into a fire. Anger becomes a purifying force. The Zen slogan ‘Passions themselves are enlightenment’ suggests that insight into the fabric of our passions is already enlightenment. The ideal is not elimination of the passions, but understanding of them, in mindfulness and creative control. That chimes with some parts of Scripture: there is a prophetic wrath in which one is not mastered by passion but deploys it in response to the sight of evil. In Mark 1:41 the alternative readings ‘moved by pity’ or ‘moved to anger’ suggest that anger is the other side of compassion. Jesus is master of a compassionate anger.
The Bible gives too much leeway to anger, and has too little to say about moderation and compromise. The horrific texts that troubled us in chapter two stem from the cultivation of cold anger to the point of fanaticism. Buddhism, of all religious, is the one most skeptical towards any form of extremism – except perhaps in the tales of compassion, where bodhisattvas offer their lives to save humble animals. The Buddha at the very start struck out on a path that avoided the extremes of hedonism and austerity. His spirituality is guided by reason and based on analysis; all its expressions aim at spiritual liberation; and it never indulges in agonies of flagellation or ecstasies of devotion as if they were their own justification. Thus is it guarded against fanaticism at every turn.
Intellectual extremes are also held at bay, both those that tend to the heresy of substantialism and those that tend to the opposing heresy of nihilism. Skeptical over against all substantive claims of existence and identity, especially when put forward by the ego, the Buddhist also keeps his distance from the excesses of skepticism that undercut the order and stability of the conventional world and make wholesome practice impossible. In the modern world, a Buddhist sensibility would cut through the impressive but hollow claims of capitalism, of media hype and political hubris, but it would also reject anything tending to the other extreme of anarchism. Any cause, however noble, is analyzed as a potential source of delusion and bondage.
Many people object to the Buddhist attitude. They see is as a self-serving posture. Is the middle way not the very epitome of smugness? And has it not in practice allowed Buddhists to identify uncritically with the status quo, notably in the Zen collusion with fascism as analyzed by Brian Victoria and others. Avoidance of extremes can be politically weakening, since the voice of moderation has little chance of being heard amid the thunder of demagogues.
To set oneself up as a sage, who has undone all the illusions of ego, and sees all ‘offences’ and ‘enemies’ as delusory constructs, towards which one many direct a compassion controlled by equanimity, but which one would never be so foolish as to be upset about – is this the summit of sanctity or is it a way of disconnecting oneself from humanity? I would say that in the circumstances of real life the claim to have attained a sage-like serenity is most likely to be a denial of hurts and resentment, which continue to operate at a hidden, repressed level, burrowing away in the unconscious, and likely to erupt in gestures of uncontrolled anger. To be sure, we can defuse many a lesser annoyance and not inflate it into a casus belli, we can turn a critical eye on our resentments and unmask them as reactions of slighted vanity, and even among peoples who are stereotyped as hotheaded there is a fund of pacific wisdom that variously serves to let the spirit of compromise and reconciliation prevail over touchiness and vengefulness. Many people say that they have no problem forgiving their neighbor because they have nothing to forgive, and indeed have probably hurt others more than they have ever been hurt themselves. But this placidity can be another name for complacency. It can be a failure to react when reaction is called for, especially when the rights of defenseless victims are at stake. The clergy are under fire for just such complacency at the moment, and if they affect a sage-like Buddhist calm they are likely to enrage their critics who will see in it the ultimate refinement of hypocrisy.
There are tensions and antinomies here which cannot be automatically resolved by an appeal to Buddhist dogma. I think it would not be in the spirit of Buddhism to iron them out. Rather they provide koans for further analysis. But we should not despair of the Buddhist path until it has been tried. It claims to be rooted in a clear vision of the way things are, and this is a strength that cannot be measured by the yardstick of immediate political efficacy.
In one respect, Buddhist wisdom is beyond criticism, and that is in its practical concentration on present facts. If the emotion of anger testifies to a vision of present reality or if it enables this vision, well and good. But very often it distorts vision and fixates our responses, so that it becomes part of the problem rather than of the solution. Serenity and equanimity are not an escape from painful reality but a precondition for tackling that reality lucidly, and that includes tackling the emotions of anger that may be an inherent part of that reality. Buddhist serenity may seem a disengaged, escapist attitude, a mockery of the grief of the downtrodden, a refusal of solidarity with them, and a return to the de-politicized complacency that gives a blank check to the oppressor. But it could also be an instrument of liberating action, enabling one to face the full horror of situations of suffering, to accompany the sufferers compassionately, and to work constructively with them toward bettering their situation.
The Buddha whittled down to size the immense panoply of Indian myth and mysticism. Later, Zen Buddhism effected a similar downsizing on the vast corpus of Buddhist lore. Its watchword was: ‘No reliance on words and letters; direct perception of the human mind’. Zen lay down ‘where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ (Yeats) and that is also the place where the Son of Man lays his head. Buddhist meditation consists essentially in mindfulness, in honest attention to the world around one and to one’s own drives and motivations. Buddhism is just as incarnate a religion as Christianity, just as passionately engaged in the world of the flesh. The passions of casual eroticism or of drummed up political rage are mere chaff. The passions that are guided by mindfulness put down deep roots, and change into something deeper even than passion. The passions of pity, or of prophetic rage, or of the thirst for justice, lose nothing of their reality when they become suffused with the equanimity that is born of mindful analysis. Purged of delusion and projection these passions can become what John of the Cross calls ‘the living flame of love’. Our half-lived passions scatter our energies, weaken and soil us. Follow passion to the root and it becomes a flame hard and bright as diamond. Christian love is such a flame.
The Reification of Evil
The Buddhist teaching of non-duality makes us suspicious of the radical dualism of good and evil. To posit absolute good and absolute evil is to set up on the one hand a substantialized object of worship and on the other a target for a nihilistic urge to destroy. To be on the side of the Good is a formula for boosting the ego and its delusions. To be implacably opposed to evil easily converts into hatred of those thought to be the bearers of evil or to be tainted with it. Evil, especially with a capital E, or as a noun, is a mystifying and dangerous word. It projects an image of evil as some kind of magically contaminating substance, to be rejected with a shudder. It is a word that leads to violence, for one easily imagines other human being to be bearers of this contamination. Racism and all other forms of prejudice are reinforced by the rhetoric of Evil and its hold on the imagination. In contrast, milder and more functional terms such as ‘bad’ and ‘unwholesome’ invite not instinctive condemnation but the lucidity of reflective judgment, which is always conscious of the relativity of good and evil. The principal aim of Buddhism is not to destroy evil but to dispel ignorance. In any situation, Buddhism brings the play of analysis to bear in all situations, refusing to be balked by ‘the mystery of evil’ as by some unintelligible surd. Wickedness is construed as bondage to ignorance. To condemn it is only the first, pedagogical step toward compassionate healing of the ignorance that gives rise to it.
If we try to think of evil as the product of ignorance, the temptation of hate and destroy those we conceptualize as evil persons yields to compassion for the ignorance that holds them in bondage. They become objects of positive benevolence. Such an attitude refuses to allow negativity a place to stick. Even a Hitler can be seen as pitiable, in bondage to ignorance, and drawing on himself the karmic consequences of his acts. Karma looks after the punishment of crime – the dread that bad people will ‘get away with it’ has no place in Buddhist psychology. In any case the dualism of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ has no place in a world where all are suffering, due to the passions arising from beginningless ignorance. The duality of wisdom and ignorance is not a stark dualism. Wisdom is born of ignorance as the overcoming of it; ignorance contains the latent possibility of wisdom.
Ignorance is not a blurry state of mind that we can pity sentimentally, as if dealing with mentally incapacitated people. The Sanskrit word avidya means not only absence of knowledge, but deviation from correct knowledge. Ignorance is a false knowing, an irresistible certitude, that seems utterly lucid and rational in its own eyes. Those in the potent grip of a rationally argued mythology or ideology such as that of Soviet Communism or Neoconservatism suffer from ignorance in this sense.
To argue ourselves out of such established systems of ignorance is almost impossible. In practice we can only wait for them to self-destruct, having run aground on the contradictions of the real world or on their own inner incoherence. Sometimes a dead ideology, a long-established system of prejudices taken for granted, is harder to dislodge than a virulent ideological passion.
The ability not to take the conventional world with undue seriousness can be invaluable when it comes to breaking the deadlocks that arise from tendencies to absolutization. The forgiving spirit that enables one to do business with those one abhorred as evil is facilitated by a sense of relativity. Human evil is always a situational matter, and part of the situation is that the one who condemns is rarely himself free of involvement in some comparable evil (see Romans 2). Forgiveness of sins deconstructs the absolute categorization of the other as sinner and constructs new perspectives within which the other can be dealt with more flexibly In fact the Ulster peace-keepers have gone beyond the paradigm of forgiveness. In active forgetting, they have jettisoned tired identities and put their hands to the wheel of present history. This is a transgressive, almost blasphemous liberation, especially in an age of vengeful political correctness. Perhaps all religions need to find such freedom from inherited paradigms, treating them as useful conventions that can be put on the back burner when they become dysfunctional.
Crime and Punishment
Current American attitudes to crime and punishment provide a juicy target for the application of these Buddhist insights:
If we are all somewhat insane, then the insanity defense is always somewhat applicable. The universality of greed, malice, and delusion means there can be no presumption of unfettered free will or simple self-determination. Freedom is not a matter of the individual self-will (often motivated by greed and the like), but a result of overcoming that kind of willfulness; it is not gained by removing external restraints, but a consequence of self-control and spiritual awakening. This denies the distinction that we are usually quick to make between an offender and the rest of us. According to Buddhism, the best method of treatment is education... The Vinaya supports this notion that our preoccupation with guilt is based on an erroneous understanding of human nature and an erroneous conclusion about the best way to change human nature. ‘Guilt says something about the quality of the person who did this and has a “sticky”, indelible quality. Guilt adheres to a person more or less permanently, with few known solvents. It often becomes a primary, definitional characteristic of a person’. In contrast, Buddhist emphasis on the transience of everything means that there is nothing indelible about our unwholesome mental tendencies. Deep-rooted ones may be difficult to eradicate, but that is because they are a result of past habits, not an ‘essential’ part of us.
Do human beings have the right to punish, that is, to inflict suffering on others? Punishment supposes a righteous self on one side and a reprobate self on the other. But for Santideva these rigid distinctions of self and other are false to the texture of reality. Instead we should focus on reducing suffering wherever it arises. To inflict suffering on others is tantamount to inflicting it on ourselves. Punishment we can leave to the cosmic justice of karma. The ethos of righteous punishment envenoms the business of law. If justice is to be attained, then primary emotions of the sort drummed up by US prosecutors should be kept rigidly at bay. Imprisonment should be a regrettable necessity, not a cause for vindictive glee, and it should have an educative and rehabilitative purpose. This is utopian, yet more profoundly rational than the litigious victim-culture of today, which ends up causing individuals and nations to become querulous and childish as they pursue the delusive ideal of 'closure' for their traumas. The obscene and barbaric culture that has grown up around capital punishment in the United States is partly the result of an adversarial legal system that excludes any healing of the tragic human situation, and that invokes emotion only in a manner likely to undermine one's faith that verdict and sentence are the fruit of reasoned reflection. The victims’ relatives leave the court unsatisfied, so they seek closure or catharsis in the spectacle of execution.
Punishment or revenge must force its object to assume an unnatural stability – it must be the same person who committed an ‘offence’ in the past and who now ‘atones’ for it; and of course the punishing self is fixated in a rigid stance as well. To sustain the delusion of identity underlying ideas of punishment or revenge we have to keep on telling the hateful story, keep on constructing our own identity as offended and the other's identity as offender. Forgiveness dissolves the ‘offended’ self and the rigid representation of the other, in order to resume an interchange between the momentary occasions arising and passing away here and now in the space of the present connection of the two parties. Neither the offense nor the forgiveness are states: they are acts and processes lived in the constantly changing moment. When the Gospel insists that the one who refuses to forgive is not forgiven, the reason is that forgiveness is primarily directed at the forgiver, dissolving the rigid ego that takes offense and bears a grudge. One who cannot dissolve this rigidity cannot benefit either from the gracious dissolution of a rigid image of him that is effected when he is forgiven by another. The one forgiven may not have developed any repentant consciousness; in which case the blessing of forgiveness will return on the head of the one forgiving. We need not be always waiting for the other to make a move in the dialogue of reconciliation. Forgiveness is a blessing primarily to the one who forgives, a release from sclerotic illusions of ego.
The Northern Ireland peace process has brought a massive suspension of the desire to punish, through the release of killers on both sides. To many this is felt as a body-blow to their sense of identity and to their sense of justice. Few will find it cathartic. But when we consider that even the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland were committed in the name of justice, while the instruments of State justice itself were corrupted by being dragged into the war, this suspension of justice can be seen as something more than craven opportunism. It is an admission of the conventionality and the limits of human justice, which always needs to be inserted into a wider context of education, rehabilitation, and elimination of the social roots of crime. Thirty years of bloodshed have left a legacy of moral anxiety that cannot be dissolved by summary processes of law. It is handed back to the community, to be dealt with in penitent reflection. If no such movement of educative clarification occurs, then the wounds will continue to fester silently for all the time it takes for the events to fade from living memory.
A principal effect of the peace process is the retrospective glorification of IRA terrorism as patriotic, and the remarkable success of Sinn Féin in positioning themselves as the party of peace and of pure intentions. This cool political exploitation will disappoint those who hoped that the peace process would bring a conversion of minds as well as a dismantling of weapons. Still, politics at any time is likely to be shabby, and when one comes out of conditions of festering violence, even the retrospective whitewashing of murder can seem a tolerably shabbiness, if there is a least a cessation or diminution of violence as the reward for it. In the absence of heroic political virtue, the deft manipulator or the passionate demagogue will steal the show, and may even pass for inspiring leaders.
Religion has become a trap by its projection of really existing vices and errors and by a converse reification of virtue and truth. Since the virtue and truth are the imaginary correlate of the vice and error to which they are opposed, the mind that hypostasizes them is caught in a vicious binary dualism, belonging to the imaginaire (in Lacan's terminology) though in our theological cogitations we convince ourselves that it has the objectivity of the symbolic order. Dogmatic truth satisfies a clinging to an imagined stability, and needs as its counterpart some demonized heresy. Candrakîrti (on MMK 23.14) tells of a magician who produces the phantasm of a woman. Troubled by desire of her a monk diligently reflects that she is a bad object, impermanent, painful, empty, void of personal substance. But his efforts are misguided since the woman does not exist at all. To a dependently arising situation his imagination has given a supplement of illusory substantiality, and all his subsequent deconstruction overlooks this initial positing. In the same way, much Christian overcoming of error, vice, sin, guilt, overlooks the initial error of judgment that posits the substantial existence of error, vice, sin, guilt in oneself or others. Meditation on sins has the effect of undercutting illlusory conceptions of oneself as flawless, but it can also substantialize the sin, project onto the accidental occasions an imaginary coherence, and thus substantialize the sinner as a really subsisting atman. Conviction of sin is the work of the Spirit (John 16.8); it cannot consist in fixating the identity of the sinner, but rather in setting it in motion, as the Spirit is in motion. Candrakîrti’s strange statement that the extreme of desire is the extreme of detachment, the extreme of aversion the extreme of the absence of an object, and the extreme of error the extreme of emptiness suggests that to reify oneself as a sinner is the same thing as to reify oneself as righteous; it is the opposite of the existential dynamic of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator or of Chesterton's ‘the saint is one who knows he is a sinner’. Reified orthodoxy is the same as reified heresy, and the opposite of that flexibility of thought and questioning which is true orthodoxy or wholesomeness.
It is not easy to do away with human beings. Just to triumph over the moral scruples that beset us, we need explanations that release us from all culpability. American jurisprudence to this day not only has not renounced the death penalty: it is an integral element in the US legal system. There the idea prevails that anyone, an eighteen year old, a twenty five year old, once identified as an offender by the State, belongs in the electric chair. He falls out of the human community, and there is no need to ask questions about what slum he grew up in, whether he ever had a mother, how he felt when he was five years old, what complexes afflict him – that is all of no interest.
Capital punishment is not just an integral part of the US legal system: death is the backbone of American justice. And the system has a liking for death that is thoroughly brutal, death that kills justice itself. The killing of the innocent or of the mentally retarded has been as the seal of the majesty of this institution. The edifice of justice is sustained by a blank injustice at its heart. Drewermann does not note how much the system is laced and lubricated by the barbaric sentiments of revenge, masked in the therapeutic language of ‘closure’. The word ‘forgiveness’ in this context sounds like an obscenity. As Drewermann adds: ‘I think a clearer contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount in dealing with good and evil cannot be found’.
The Power of Projection
In a multicultural metropolis we are all supposed to be revelling in cultural difference. Yet racism is on the boil more than ever. ‘Confronted with ethnic hatred and violence, one should thoroughly reject the standard multiculturalist idea that, against ethnic intolerance, one should learn to respect and live with the Otherness of the Other, to develop a tolerance for different lifestyles, and so on – the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred: hatred directed at the common political enemy’.
Sankara begins his central work with a discussion of superimposition, ‘a passage more studied and memorized by students of Indian philosophy than probably any other passage in the entire literature’. He illustrates this simple psychological mechanism with the examples of a rope taken to be a snake, a post taken to be a man, mother-of-pearl taken to be silver. Superimposition (adhyâsa) is at work when we transfer to the subject, which is self-illuminating intelligence, the properties of the objects of awareness, and vice versa. We identify ourself, the subject of awareness, with objects of awareness such as the body, or the contents of mind or memory, or the activities of everyday life. Indeed without this constant misidentification life could not go on.
Built into our perception of the world is a basic injustice, which gives rise to an arrogance and aggression of which we are not even conscious. We are all to some extent narcissists, who believe that the world revolves around our own ego. The reality of other people receives only scant attention, or is dragooned into our ego-centered project. We are quick to spot the exorbitant claims, the overbearing grandiosity, the wishful thinking of narcissistic personalities, which invite ridicule. But their excesses are only an enlargement of the deftly concealed ego-centeredness of the average person. If narcissists commit an injustice against the world, they also sin against themselves. For the ego that they place on a pedestal is a hollow sham, not a living, vibrant personality. It is a dead object masquerading as a subject, and condemning the true subject to live in a dark prison of servility.
Psychoanalysis has made us aware of the huge role played in our lives by projection, and other mechanisms of delusion, so that even without the lofty theories of Indian thought we have an arsenal for a penetrating critique of the delusions in which we are caught up all the time. To overcome illusion is no easy matter, but requires such difficult and long-drawn-out strategies as psychoanalysis and meditation. But the tragedies we bring on ourselves by the blindness we live in can play the role of a psychoanalyst or a meditation master, awakening us to the radically deluded nature of our convictions and passions. ‘Instinct is our surest guide’, wrote Raymond Radiguet, ‘a guide that leads us to our doom’. If the tragedy of Iraq has been an awakening for Americans, that of Northern Ireland has been an awakening for many Irish people. But it has been perhaps a cruel and destructive awakening, destroying the pride of nationalism and the security of religious adherence, and leaving only cynicism in their place.
In both cases the awakening has been the discovery of a mortal illness affecting the history and culture of the nation. Certainly it is depressing to discover that one is gravely ill. Yet it is also an encounter with reality, that faces one with a challenge and an imperative. The symptoms, whose significance had been long denied, must be interpreted. ‘Eat your symptom!’, says the Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. ‘Eat your shame!’ is what Iraq says to Americans and what the nightmare of Northern Ireland says to the Irish. To reach down to the roots of the illness, and to undertake the necessary regime change, becomes a task we cannot shake off. Admittedly, few communities have faced up to such a task, or at least not fully. Post-Nazi Germany is perhaps the most striking example of national self-critique, and even there not without strong, recurrent resistance. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, or the house-cleaning of Vatican II, are other imperfect examples of such radical correction. It is never undertaken unless there is no alternative. There have been many violent revolutions in history, but few of the revolutions have undertaken their own self-critique. Triumphant revolutions blow their own trumpet. Subsequent history plays the role of critic, as the seeds of evil in the revolution bear fruit. Then all that was good in it is vilified, with an equal lack of intelligence, as Marxism is vilified today.
In situations of hatred and violence we are caught up in the confusion caused by superimposition all the time. We superimpose on our hate-objects attributes that dehumanize them, and we allow no space to their subjecthood and its freedom, including its freedom to change in response to reasonable persuasion. We superimpose on flags and causes and names the kind of spiritual status that properly belongs only to subjects.
Yet superimposition is instructive. It opens the field of conventional knowledge in which we must orient ourselves as we navigate to the absolute, to the transcendental knowledge of Brahman. Discerning the thoroughly delusional projections of passion from the conventionally reliable notions that guide us well in the world of pragmatic affairs, is a valuable exercise, preparing for the higher discernment that discovers the pragmatic world to be unreal in comparison with the supreme reality, awareness, bliss of Brahman.
A Field of Delusion
The thirty year nightmare in Northern Ireland provides a field for such reflection and discrimination. It has inspired poems and dramas, and many volumes of sociological and political reflection. The theological response has been scantier. When ‘the troubles’ were at their height, it was hard to find an impartial and serene context in which to pursue reflection on their causes and conditions. But the owl of Minerva flies at twilight; it is only now, as the dust begins to settle, that the deepest theological lessons can be drawn from the conflict. These lessons will not amount to a total understanding. As in the case of the Holocaust, theological inquiry serves to deepen our sense of ultimate bafflement. But at least the effort to reflect on the painful episode prevents us from simply writing it off as a regrettable lapse into ‘unchristian’ behaviour, a simple failure to remember the teachings of Christ, or as merely a political imbroglio in which religion had no essential role.
I should like to explore the hypothesis that our entire way of constructing our identities, including especially our religious identities, has been fundamentally deluded. Such delusive constructions of rigid identities are just the kind of thing Buddhism is good at diagnosing and healing. Buddhism has a powerful, liberating message for Ireland, at a moment when the country is poised between the fixated identities of the past and the loss of all identity in the present. But to receive the message, self-examination is called for. If we just drop the whole sorry mess of the Troubles into the dustbin of oblivion we may condemn ourselves to repeat a history we have not understood. People do rake over the past zealously, when they can hope to convict the other side of wrongdoing and wring an apology or compensation from them. But a comprehensive examination of what went wrong seems beyond the resources of Irish Christendom, and there is an understandable desire in any case to look forward to a brighter future rather than touch the still fresh wounds of a nauseating past. Unfortunately, a retrospective normalization of politically motivated violence smoothes over the human and moral obscenity of the deeds committed. It sanctions a view of the world as a bloody battlefield in which one has a licence to kill when it is the quickest path to having what one wants. The failure of a society to resolve its conflicts by peaceful, political means is masked when those who resorted to violence emerge from the fray calling themselves peacemakers. Having failed to sustain a political culture, the society accepts a good, dirty fight as a normal method. That is the lesson that may be drawn by default and passed on to future generations.
Why was this gracious reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area. Such cordiality would be the fruit of mutual apology and mutual forgiveness, but even that seems to be far from people’s minds.
The twenty-five nations in the European Union are bound together in a framework of law that effectively prevents them from going to war with one another, as they had been doing for centuries. Keeping at bay the possibility of war forces the nations to resolves their differences by political means. Had terrorism been similarly rendered impossible in Northern Ireland a progressive political solution to the problems of that society would have been achieved long ago. But terrorism is predicated on exploiting the weak spots in the rule of law and dragging it down to its own level. Its anarchic radicalism despises the compromises out of which politics is woven. The champions of the ‘armed struggle’ spoke of their cause in the quiet tones of assurance that priests use when talking of sexual morality or any other issue in which the Catholic Church is deemed to be infallibly wiser than a muddled and compromised world. Terrorism always mantles itself in a consciousness of purity and virtue. When terrorists rule a country, as in the bloodiest years of the French Revolution, or as in Afghanistan under the Taliban, bloodshed is no longer a regrettable necessity, undertaken with a consciousness of guilt, but a proclamation and confirmation of moral superiority.
Wisdom certainly sweeps away a lot of fixations that may seem necessary to compassion but that ultimately block its exercise. Wisdom pulverizes the projections that attach to the names of ‘Irish’ and ‘British’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. These terms are merely linguistic fabrications, having a possible use in conventional contexts, but without an ultimate substantial referent. They easily become a net that traps us, and then we feel that it is our moral duty to remain trapped in that net, through upholding stale forms of loyalty and solidarity. Buddhist compassion begins at a point beyond these conventional self-identifications. The illusions of ego that wisdom demolishes are a source of suffering, and compassion, starting from this premise, takes on an educative mission of freeing people from these illusions.
Buddhism is boring and has no taste, whereas violence is spicy and exciting. To wean oneself away from violence, from the glee one feels at seeing the enemy die, is an unpleasant exercise, like swallowing one’s spittle. How much glee was felt on all sides in 1991 as people cheered the downfall of Saddam or the difficulties of America! But even ‘legitimate’ violence of the battlefield or of a resistance movement should be attended with grief rather than glee, for the sight of humans killing other humans is always an unnatural one. It threatens all humans, if not physically, then morally. If we cheer, we are inviting the killers to come for us next, or at least we are subscribing to a morally degrading view of humanity. Hollywood has conditioned us to cheer on revenge killings and mass slaughter, as a harmless entertainment. It is only a slight step from this to cheering real life slaughters reported in the media, when the slaughtered are those we happen to disapprove of at the moment, be they Iraqis or Americans. Defusing our instincts and replacing schadenfreude with prudent and grave reflection is a loathsome task for those accustomed to the quick gratification of movie violence.
The Northern conflict has had a paralyzing effect on the minds of many in the Irish Republic. We have been reluctant to devote mental energy to a situation which has generated so much heated rhetoric and so little fruitful discussion. Buddhism brings a neutral and fresh perspective, allowing calm examination of the mass of diseased discourse. When the Three Poisoons -- clinging, aversion, and delusion -- put forth such ripe fruits as in Northern Ireland, they provide promising material for a diagnosis of bondage that can become a map of release. The tragic wastelands of the past can be transformed into goldmines yielding nuggets of insight. The exercise may arouse the same distaste, the same fear of contamination, as does the early Buddhist practice of meditating on the unpleasant (asubha-bhavana), such as dead bodies or disgusting physical processes, in order to grasp the truth of impermanence and attain spiritual equanimity. Most nations and churches prefer to forget historical trauma rather than to learn from it. But educational responsibilities towards new generations of citizens or believers may demand an unflinching gaze at the historical record and what it reveals. Otherwise the new generations will be 'condemned to repeat' the mistakes of the old.
Ireland, cast in the role of eternal victim, fails to see that the role has become stale and rotten, and that the crimes recently committed in the name of that victimhood are not a glorious affirmation of unchanging identity but a proof that identity is a process of perpetual change, for the glorious patriot of yesterday is revealed as the contemptible terrorist of today, yesterday's victim as today's sadist, yesterday's visionary of freedom as today's myopic obscurantist. People feel that it is wholesome and uplifting to swear by an unchanging identity, religious or national. To realize that any identity, any orthodoxy, is no more than a provisional arrangement, a story that may serve a useful purpose, allows one to engage with the treasured past of one's ethnic or religious tradition in a more skilful way. This frees one to criticize the past with the confidence that one's identity, always a provisional and changing matter in any case, will benefit from the exercise. To recognize the gap between my present and my past ego, or between the present ‘Ireland’ and the past ‘Ireland’, is to be freed from a fixated sense of identity. To cling to an essentially pure and unchanging self (or nation or church) is to be at war with the empty texture of reality and of history, and so to condemn oneself to an exhausting struggle.
If fixated notions of identity acerbated the strife in Northern Ireland, the Buddhist dismantling of such notions could remove the seeds of future conflict. Each of the Three Poisons brings the others in its wake. To hate is to grasp at a fixated sense of one's own identity and a delusive image of what one hates. Buddhist meditation discerns and dissolves these unwholesome passions and the reifications they project. Meditation is advertised clumsily as ‘spiritual cultivation’, suggesting an effete luxury. But meditation produces the calm insight that can create a less toxic world, by dissolving the basis of many forms of violence. People in the grip of rage or fear are unlikely to be open to the arcane wisdom of Buddhism. But that wisdom become less arcane when conveyed through a method of immanent analysis or deconstruction, showing that rage and fear themselves logically entail Buddhist insight into the illusoriness of their bases.
Discussion of the three poisons has another advantage. It does not immediately drag in the notion of ‘sin’, another topic that has a paralyzing effect on the Christian mind. Whether or not anybody ‘sinned’ is a question that does not arise in Buddhist analysis. It offers no sticking-point for the blame game. Its aim is merely to understand, by observing the empirical facts and detecting their causes, causes that are not hidden in some obscure depth of the ‘sinful soul’ but lie open to view, ready to be inferred from their results. The causes may be unconscious, but they can be brought to consciousness, with full clarity. They do not remain in the nebulous realm of ‘sinfulness’.
‘Attachment, aversion, delusion’, or, more crisply, ‘greed, hate, folly’ may seem to provide a rather banal explanation for the evils of history. Of course Buddhist scholasticism developed these notions as systematically and as subtly as it could, but within a monkish framework of understanding. The force of Buddhist analysis can be retrieved today only by new accounts of the how the three poisons work in the conditions of our culture.
The Northern Ireland tragedy thrived on essentialism, which in Buddhism is the most fundamental form of ignorance (avidyâ). Ignorance is better described as false knowledge. It is not a vague, indeterminate blur, but a set of clear convictions, which are uncontested. In Sankara’s vision the solid world itself is nothing more than the sum of such convictions, all fundamentally delusive. ‘Irish’ and ‘British’, ‘Unionist’ and ‘Nationalist’, ‘Loyalist’ and ‘Republican’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ were positioned over against one another in rigid, dualistic alterity. All of these words now make us feel nauseous. They represent a circle in which obsessed people have turned for too long, and they have no bearing on contemporary reality. To be Irish or British, Catholic or Protestant, is not a matter of the first moment. One ‘is’ not any of these things. They are abstractions useful only for purposes of bureaucratic classification. These categories were constructed to fit an older world, in which, for example, the opposition of Catholic and Protestant had a substantial ideological, political and military significance (whereas today it is merely a contrast of styles). They are out of sync with the rhythm and texture of the contemporary world. To oppose ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ is as silly as to oppose ‘American’ and ‘Russian’, forgetting that the end of the Cold War has robbed this opposition of its sense.
But people invest their sense of identity in these abstract labels, thus giving them a purchase on their souls. But this ‘sense of identity’ and this ‘soul’ are themselves abstractions, quite remote from the living, breathing subject. The more unreal something is, the more fragile, and the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable, and the more vulnerable, the more scarred by attack and ferocious in warding off the attack. Consider the fear and rage we feel when our inflated image of our self is dinted by telling criticism, or by the Buddhist teaching that there is no separate self and that we exist only as a sequence of dependently co-arising occasions. Adherents of religious traditions are gripped by the same fear and rage when their tradition is convicted of error or wrongdoing. They will elude the criticism by pointing to an inner core of the tradition that is immune from error or sin, just as we cling to the image of an idealized inner self. From a Buddhist point of view religions are merely skilful means, shaped in function of constantly changing historical conditions, so that a religion that boasts of its unchanging core is by that very token becoming an unskilful, dysfunctional affair, a blockage to enlightenment. It is certainly no coincidence that two Christian cultures notoriously resistant to change – Ulster Protestantism and le Catholicisme du type irlandais – should have been involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. The dispute between Nationalism and Unionism is on its own a deadly clash of essentialisms, but its religious underpinning fits it like a glove. Like faded beauties who are blind to their wrinkles, these traditions are oblivious to the mismatch between their self-image and the political and religious realities of contemporary Europe. It may be that the more deluded one’s self-perception, and the more ridiculous it makes one look to bemused observers, the more resistant it is to correction.
The Buddhist middle way is the way of emptiness, between substantialism (or essentialism) on the one hand and nihilism (or total loss of identity) on the other. There is no separate self. The self is dependently co-arising at every moment in intricate interaction with the various conditions of its existence, including past moments on the continuum of its karma. The self that exists now is not the self that existed in the past nor will the future self be the self that exists now. Instead of grasping at self as a separate reality and worrying about its survival we should deal with the here and now, with the conditions making for bondage and for release.
When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being – where has it come from, and where will it go?’
Letting go of representations of a fixed ego, a substantial soul, is a way to reconnect ourselves with the total interrelationships within which our existence in reality is taking place, to reconnect ourselves with the cosmos, or with the dependently arising thusness of things. Thusness (tathatâ), or the way things ultimately are, the ultimate way of things, is not correctly conceived as being to the exclusion of non-being, or as non-being to the exclusion of being, or as partially being, partially non being, or as neither being nor non-being. All these expressions are abstractions imposed on the living present.
Formations of continuity, such notions as career, success, lifework, vocation, marriage, or such notions as the soul, variously subject to the disease of sin and the healing of grace, are products of grasping. The temporal continuum such notions attempt to reify is full of discontinuities between one moment and the next. The self is a sequence of fleeting occasions. The continuity of a beloved other or of God is the continuity of a series of turnings to that other, the continuity of a constantly changing tale we tell ourselves about that other. Formations such as church, nation, race, ancestry are also products of grasping, collective ego-obsessions, painful delusions. Studying the historical process of the formation of the discourse that produced these entities one realizes their dissolution is inscribed in their construction. Their continuity is that of a constantly rewoven story and when the web entangles us it is time to start telling the story differently, or even tearing the conventional web to let some ultimate awareness come through, awareness that in the here and now there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, Irish or English, but only the irreducible contingency of dependently arising occasions.
The substantialized self is provided with a grandiose mythic history. We attribute a masterful continuity to our aims and acts, mistaking what is the product of habit formations or of a willed pose for an expression of our abiding essence. To measure this idealized self-image against the actual facts of one's performance inflicts a salutary narcissistic wound. The same is true of a nation’s idealized self-image. Revisionists seek out facts that show the heterogeneity of history and its shifting alliances, in order to reveal the unitary nationalist reading of history as a product of the imaginaire. As the differences between the present and the past come into sharper focus, the pure identities posited by ideologically shaped history are shown to be constructs of recent vintage. Revisionism does not fix the absolute objective truth about history, for that, too, is a delusory goal. But it can free us in the present from the fixated stories about ourselves that prevent us from apologizing for or forgiving the crimes of the past. To use revisionism skilfully for this purpose we should reverse the common approach whereby the ones accused seek to minimize their guilt while the accusers maximize their wrongs. In the ideal society of reconciliation, the historical aggressors would apologize even to excess for the wrongs inflicted, never giving themselves the benefit of the doubt, while the victims would seek to strip away the exaggerations and simplifications of received propaganda and to air the old grievances in a more modest and even deprecatory manner, conscious of shameful blots on their own record as well. This self-emptying approach is being achieved in much present discussion of Irish history.
The extreme of substantialism whereby one asserts oneself goes hand in hand with the extreme of nihilism whereby one negates the other. If we are real and substantial there must be another who is unreal and insubstantial, the reprobrate, the heretic, whom we have always been good at reducing to nothing. When we insist on the purity and completeness of the Catholic faith we tend in the next breath to negate the Protestant faith, failing to see that a blow against the Christian faith and practice of others is a blow at Christian faith as such. Dogma itself, the effort to hammer out foolproof definitions of the content of faith, can hardly be taken as an unambiguously benign achievement given the amount of blood spilled in its name. It breeds 'attachment to views' by its very nature, and instils in those with right views a sense of superiority to those with wrong. True, 'right view' (samma ditthi), knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, is the first step on the Buddhist Eightfold Path. If dogma were wholesome right view in a Buddhist sense, it would only be our excessive attachment to it that should be diagnosed as unwholesome. Perhaps there is something in the Four Noble Truths that discourages the arrogance of orthodoxy, much as the Sermon on the Mount does. The teaching is too practical in its challenge to boost the sense of mastery that dogmatic knowledge gives. In any case the fundamental Mahâyâna scriptures, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, consider all views to be ultimately wrong views. We are familiar with the idea that objectifications of God may be distortions. But for Mahâyâna, objectification of anything at all, as when we name or conceive such items as chairs and tables, is a false way of thinking, having at best a provisional, conventional validity. Perfect insight is nonconceptual; it is non-grasping, non-acquiring, non-addictive. It is perfectly detached from the conceptual formations arising in the realm of daily transactions, being peacefully attuned to the ultimate thusness of things.
Santideva has a rather Pauline sense of the interdependence of living beings, and his dissolution of a unified self intensifies this: ‘The bodhisattva should earnestly cultivate the idea of the equality of the other and the self, thus: "For all are joys and sorrows are the same; thus I must protect them as myself. Like the body, which is disunited because of the difference of its members, yet is deemed worthy of protection as one, so is the whole world of living beings, though different, precisely thus (to be protected as a whole), since sorrow and joy are the same to all’ (8.90-1; trans. Matics, adapted). I should be no less concerned about the sorrow of others than about the pain I myself shall suffer in future because of my present actions, for this future ‘I’ is after all no less alien to me than the person I see as other (8.98: ‘It is another who has died and another who is born’). ‘There is no “he” of whom there is sorrow; and because of this, whose will be this “his”? All sorrows, without distinction, are ownerless; and because of misery they are to be prevented. Why then is restriction made?’ (8.101-2). The non-existence of the self here becomes the direct foundation of altruism. The logic of this argument may be merely pragmatic, and it is conducted in any case at the level of conventional rather than ultimate reality. In fact, Santideva goes on to use another argument which extends rather than annuls the concept of self: ‘Because of habit, the concept of an “I” becomes located in drops of semen, in blood, and in things belonging to another, although in reality the concept is false. So why should the body of another not be taken as my own? It is not difficult, because of the remoteness of my own body’ (8.111-12). Here Santideva is avowedly trafficking in conventionalities, with the purpose of creating altruistic attitudes, culminating in the exchange of oneself and the other (7.16; 8.120). Whatever the status of the arguments, one point is made clear: suffering, the result of karma, is an evil to be healed wherever it is found, be it in the other, be it in oneself; a neat differentiation between my suffering and the other's suffering depends on an attachment to substantialized identity and is alien to the spirit of Buddhism.
Buddhist wisdom, then, brings a scathing scepticism to bear on the various hallowed identities over which people fight, but it is a compassionate scepticism, dissolving oppositions to discover a commonality of suffering in which the opponents are united. Where Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists, see in each other's chauvinism an offensive arrogance, the Buddhist perspective sees an identical suffering based on an identical illusion. Here is the chief cause of suffering, and the chief target of the educative mission of compassion. When church leaders speak for ‘their people’ they implicitly underwrite the tribalism that has poisoned religious identity, failing to bring into play the Gospel perspective that, like the Buddhist one, signals what the two sides have in common rather than what divides them. Religious faith has been cultivated in Ireland in opposition to the openness of the critical mind, and despite superficial changes since Vatican II this syndrome continues to operate.
Language about God like language about self, nation, world, has at best only a conventional validity. To insist emphatically on any view about God is to build too much on a fragile foundation. However, perfect insight does not entirely discredit our dealings with the conventional counters of speech and conceptuality. ‘Perfect insight is not different from the real nature of those characteristics of the attached mode which, conventionally, the perfection of insight is supposed to eliminate’. Even though the ultimate subverts all the fabrications and attachments of the conventional, and there is no bridge between the two levels, nonetheless what is really being aimed at in my delusive conventional language about God is retrieved at the ultimate level in a quite different key. Notice how these paradoxes affect the affirmation, ‘God exists’, one of the views to which religious people are likely to be addictively attached. We can say: ‘God exists’ is conventionally valid but ultimately invalid, in the sense that any naming or conceptualizing of God is a distortion. Or we can say that the ultimate truth intended by the statement, ‘God exists’, is established fully only at the ultimate level of perfect insight. Dogmatic assertion has, then, a very limited and modest role, and is always outstripped and overshadowed by a sense of its inadequacy to the ultimate reality that it seeks to point to from within conventional discourse.
Religious traditions are dependently arisen formations, human language serving as conventional vehicles of ultimacy, skilful means that often become unskilful when we forget their function as a mere means and try to make them substantial ends in themselves. If religion is a set of conventions empty of substantial identity, what then becomes of the substantial God of Christianity and the very concrete determinate identification of God in the scriptural word and in the Word Incarnate? Buddhism strongly affirms that the ultimate is not Brahman, not a ground, not a substance or personal being. Can divine ultimacy accommodate itself to these negations? The Johannine God is not substance but spirit, love, light – empty or nirvanic realities pervading the dependently arising world. The Incarnation of this God means that a certain disposition of conventional forms allows the emptiness of God to shine through – thus the story of Jesus becomes an eloquent Word revealing the empty face of God. This new understanding of the economy of New Testament revelation does not seem to me to contradict the doctrines of Nicea and Chalcedon; rather it moves to a new paradigm, a new language-game, largely incommensurable with the thought-frame of the Councils.
The construction of character in novels has an apotropaic function, warding off anxieties about the coherence of selfhood and providing models of identity for the society. In traditional usage 'God' functions like the stable character in a traditional novel, anchoring the coherence of religious and philosophical discourse. In current discourse God as stable character is yielding to God as space of deconstruction. If we think of God as a gracious encompassing reality, we also know that it is a reality that cannot be securely pinned down, and that reveals itself in its withdrawal, as what forever eludes our grasp. Similarly, the stable self to be redeemed, the soul, is yielding place to a process of liberation or redemption which goes on collectively and in which the individual's story finds its context. When we try to pin down our individual identity and its destiny we fall back on some frozen myth about who we are, and miss out on the changing life that is going on all around us. Joyce, who spent his life battling against the rigidity of mind he found in his homeland, pushes awareness of the constructedness and fluidity of identity almost to the point of a Buddhist deconstruction of self, as he shows how character is pieced together out of a protean bundle of possibilities or from the materials provided by the culture. Dismantling fixated identity, modernist writing recalls us to a focus on the moment of experience as it arises and passes. This penetrates to the true substance of human existence, purging away the projections inherited from the past. The self arising and passing is a non-self, a self that knows itself to be an ephemeral conventional construct. Joyce’s soundings of Irish speech and consciousness reveals how the mind is bound by cultural stereotypes and how a web of fabrications (prapanca) interposes between it and the real. All religious representations belong to that web too. Critical work on these fabrications may enable us to refashion them creatively as a skilful means conducive to enlightenment. The work of the artist is in this sense aligned with the Buddhist endeavour. Perhaps it is via literary rather than religious culture that Buddhist wisdom has its best hope of gaining entry into the Irish soul.
 Richard Fitzgibbons, ‘Anger and the Healing Power of Forgiveness’, in Robert D. Enright and Joanna North, ed. Exploring Forgiveness (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 63-74; here 64.
 Le Séminaire livre X: L’angoisse (Paris: Seuil, 2004), 23-4.
 See Michel Hulin, Le principe de l’ego dans la pensée indienne classique (Paris: Collège de France, Publications de l’Institut de Civilisation Indienne, 1978), 282. The school and its dominant figure Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) have been made known in numerous works of Lilian Silburn and André Padoux, published in the same series as Hulin’s classic study.
 Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996), 69.
 David R. Loy, ‘How to Reform a Serial Killer: The Buddhist Approach to Restorative Justice’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 (2000), 145-68.
 J. W. De Jong, Cinq chapitres de la Prasannapadâ (Paris: Geuthner, 1949), 195-6.
 Eugen Drewermann, Reden gegen den Krieg (Düsseldorf, 1991), 69.
 Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (London: Verso, 2000), 11.
 Karl H. Potter, Advaita Vedânta up to Samkara and His Pupils, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies III (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981), 69. The passage is translated in George Thibaut, trans., The Vedânta Sûtras of Bâdarâyana with the commentary of Sankara, (repr. New York: Dover Publications), I, 1-9, and in V. H. Date, Vedânta Explained: Samkara’s Commentary on The Brahma-sûtras (New Delhi: Manshiram Manoharial, 1973), I, 1-6.
 Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 2000), 552.
 Potter, 85.
 J. Hillis Miller, Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 94-100.