Monday, September 29, 2008

A Grand Celebration of 100 Years of UK Sangha

Buddha rupas in Sri Lankan style

On Sunday 28 September, I had the pleasure of joining about 1,000 people in commemorating the early origins of the British Sangha, when most notably in 1908 Ven. Ananda Metteya (lay name Charles Henry Allan Bennet), a fully ordained bhikkhu, took up residence in a home in London.

The Sri Lankan community had been commemorating his efforts for many years, but it was only a couple of weeks ago that I heard about it. Not knowing much about Allan Bennet's life, I started reading the Wikipedia article and the links that led off, especially the moving biography by Elizabeth Harris. I realised that this was a very significant commemoration so I felt I ought to attend and yesterday I duly made my way, reading about Ven. Ananda Metteya and his work on the train.

Wisdom of the Aryas

This event was organised by the World Buddhist Foundation, a UK registered charity, based at the Kingsbury Vihara, under the management of Ven. Galayaye Piyadassi MBE. The Foundation aims to advance the Buddhist religion through education and training and religious activities right across society.

The celebration took place in Brent Town Hall, an area I had never visited (I've not been to Wembley stadium!) The event had 3 parts, starting with an exhibition on Ven. Ananda Metteya and the pioneers of Buddhism in the UK, together with some nice pictures from Sri Lanka (of course :-) I think anyone interested in the early history would have been fascinated by the various books, leaflets, letters and other items that were circulating a century or more ago. It was evident that a lot of effort had been put into even just gathering these items.

Next door there was in progress in the mid-afternoon the second component, which was a workshop, which I only hovered near for a few minutes, having arrived some time after it had started. It was good to see different traditions represented and in constructive dialogue, from SE Asian Sangha members to Western Buddhists, though the time allocated was short. Perhaps the Londoners have set up regular gatherings to continue the process?

The main session was in the evening and it was quite a spectacle! To herald the arrival of distinguised guests (included several MPs) there was the blowing of the conch and beating of drums followed by a procession of VIPs. The evening was honoured by several speechs from very senior monks, particularly by the Most Venerable Udugama Sri Buddharakkhita Ratanapalabhidana, the Supreme Patriarch of the Siyam Nikaya, Sri Lanka. (I take it that is the Supreme Patriarch for the country), who also invited all those who wished to take the 5 precepts. For one quite senior in years, his chanting rang clear and strong!

Many monastic speakers were magnanimous in honouring Ven. Ananda Metteya and there was also a video of his life, played to the sweet accompaniment of 'Claire de Lune,' highlighting the Sri Lankan connection, especially how he and a close friend Dr. Cassius Pereira, had supported Ven. Nyanaponika in his work. Two keynotes from Profs. Richard Gombrich and Ananda Guruge pondered the significance of 100 years of Buddhism in the UK, particularly as regards the scholarly heritage. There were also numerous tributes and homages through music and dance. Contributions came from SE Asia - e.g. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand - but also families from Amaravati (Hemel Hempstead) sang three songs, all very harmoniously.

As we sat there, volunteers came round with bottles of water, sandwich boxes and cups of tea - service in situ!

I think the efforts of the Sri Lankan community are really praiseworthy - they have preserved and commemorated the Western Buddhist history in a very respectful and honourable way. One of the speakers observed that the media often pick up these kinds of Buddhist events if there is a famous personality involved - or else not such good news! In any case, I hope that their efforts on this occasion receive very broad and positive coverage irrespective of fame.

Our temple sent along Ven. Sarttra Thirapanyo, one of our bhikkhus from Wat Phra Dhammakaya (UK) (who has come here to teach meditation :-) and I think it may have conveyed to him a flavour of how things have been developing here. Actually, Thailand and Sri Lanka have long maintained mutually helpful relations - indeed the main Wat in Thailand has already been closely involved with Sangha organisations in Sri Lanka and this led to a special Universal Peace award for the Abbot, Ven. Dhammajayo Bhikkhu.

So best wishes for the next 100 years and beyond!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Problems in the Methodology of Difference

I have only initial impressions from reading a small fragment of Weber's work and a scholar's overview, but there are some issues which have emerged to do with his methodology and I think they are significant.

To paraphrase from my readings - Weber observed that in Protestantism, especially in Calvinism, there were beliefs and practices that had an important bearing on economic affairs; key was thrift, which was pleasing to God in that it reflected values that rejected this world and sought the divine. This led to the amassing of capital and the development of capital was a reflection of this process; it subsequently became something that was regarded as being of positive worth. This was a spark for Weber's main thesis that Protestant asceticism was a major factor that led to economic growth in Western Europe based on the 'spirit of capitalism.' Having written the early work 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' Weber sought to investigate more deeply religious phenomena with respect to the social context and thus he spends quite some time developing his notions and analysis, especially - as reported in my previous post - of the 'ascetic' and 'mystic.' He establishes that this ethic in relation to its creating conditions for the spirit of capitalism contributes to Western Europe having a pre-eminent position in terms of capitalist development.

However, from reading the literature the analyses vary about what is unique, the extent to which the religious practises caused the spirit of capitalism - some muffle it and just refer to it as a 'factor', in which case what were the causes, were there any?! I guess also that the views have shifted over time! I wonder with so much ambiguity, how far can this work be fairly called scientific? In terms of being systematic, what do academics agree upon? I'll try to indicate some of this variability below

In trying to develop such a broad systematic treatment, Weber inevitably had to make quite a number of efficiency gains (to use economic parlance!) He had to make deliberate choices ranging from particularities in definitions (as in his treatment of 'asceticism' and 'mysticism') through to methods designed to extract distinctive features and marked results. (The particularity of the choices becomes obvious as I start reading a rather different book - 'The Idea of the Holy' by Rudolf Otto...)

One of Weber's fundamental tools was to isolate on the basis of difference and attempted to do this in a way that accounted for subjective individuality, whilst avoiding complexity. For this he formulated the notion of 'ideal type.' For analysis at a particular moment in time I think this seems reasonable, but problems crop up when you start moving forward along the timeline because becomes completeness becomes critical ... and I wonder whether this notion is really adequate when analysing collective social situations?

In discussions on Weber's treatment of difference there's quite a diversity of views! Some claim or assume that Weber chose to base this on John Stuart Mill's Method of Difference, which he defined in his book A System of Logic (1843)], see e.g. Benjamin Nelson (1973): "tells us plainly that he applying Mills 'Method of Difference' and, therefore, looking for the factor or chain of circumstances which helped to explain some unique outcome of a given experiment" [sorry, I only have a second hand reference (further commented on below)].

Certainly, Nelson makes reference to it a year later: "Weber does not deal here in detail with the problem in the logic of the method of differences which he knew from the discussion of John Stuart Mill." p.274 [Max Weber’s “Author’s Introduction’’ (1920): A Master Clue to his Main Aims in Sociological Inquiry 44(4): 269-278]. I think that sentence is ambiguous - ir could read as "... deal with the problem in the logic..." though I don't think that's what was meant!

In notes on Max Weber: On Capitalism, John Kilcullen, appears to consider that Weber was indeed trying to apply Mill's method of difference to show that religion can be isolated as the factor that distinguishes the development of modern capitalist Europe from its Asian counterparts. However, he goes on to say:

"But Mill would have been horrified at such a crude application of his method of difference. It overlooks his warning that 'consensus' means, in social inquiry, that major institutions in one social context cannot really be compared directly with, and pronounced to be similar to, the 'corresponding' institutions embedded in another social context. This is drawing lessons from history in just the way Mill warns against (e.g. Logic, Book 6, ch.10, para.4). ['On the Inverse Deductive, or Historical Method']"

I better just note the definition!

Definition: Method of difference

If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon.
A B C D occur together with w x y z
B C D occur together with y w z
Therefore A is the cause, or the effect, or a part of the cause of x.

Again the problem is in knowing all the variables as well as the problem of abstraction indicated above.

However, it's argued against by others, including Stephen P. Turner [See The Search for a Methodology of Social Science: Durkheim, Weber, and the Nineteenth-Century Problem of Cause, Probability, and Action, Chapter 11, page 211 that Weber actually adopted an anti-Millian doctrine of cause. [I wonder why this book is so expensive - it doesn't help to promote a universal methodology!]

Returning to the comparison with Asian countries, what of the economic boom that developed there, especially in the second half of the 20th century in the 'Pacific tigers' such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia? It might be described as conspicuously capitalist. What gave rise to this? If we take the basic assumption about the Protestant ethic was unique in fostering the 'spirit of capitalism' that lead to capitalist economies and that ethic was uniquely Western European, then applying crudely Mills 'method of difference' implies that Asian capitalist growth must have its roots in Western Europe and to be consistent with that view capitalism was 'exported' to such countries (e.g. through invasion) and only then could it lead to similar kinds of economic development. Weber apparently considered this view.

This thesis, particularly the 'spirit of capitalism' being uniquely Western European in origin has (not surprisingly) been challenged from the East! See e.g. 'Max Weber revisited: Some lessons from East Asian capitalistic development' [Volume 6, Number 2 / April, 1989, Asia Pacific Journal of Management], which specifically contests Weber's Weber's thesis of the incompatibility of the Confucian ethos and rational entrepreneurial capitalism. Randall Collins, 'An Asian Route to Capitalism: Religious Economy and the Origins of Self-Transforming Growth in Japan' [American Sociological Review, Vol. 62, No. 6 (Dec., 1997), pp. 843-865, Published by: American Sociological Association] proposes a model "in which the initial breakout from agrarian-coercive obstacles took place within the enclave of religious organizations, with monasteries acting as the first entrepreneurs. This model is illustrated by the case of Buddhism in late medieval Japan." I haven't read these to check the validity of their particular claims, but papers like this at the very least point to the need for a weaker hypothesis - that doesn't claim the uniqueness of Western European Protestant ethic as providing the conditions of economic capitalism - but rather expressed in terms of looser religious orientations or dispositions of mind that are perhaps culturally-independent.

I think I shall now move on from Weber to get some other perspectives.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Asceticism and Mysticism

I've plunged right into the main text and swum towards content focuses on asceticism and mysticism, as these two concepts appears to lie at the heart of Weber's distinguishing analysis of religious communities. The main chapter in my particular edition of the Sociology of Religion (translated by Ephraim Fischoff and part of the series of 'Social Science Paperbacks') is Chapter XI: Asceticism, Mysticism and Salvation Religion. You should be able to find quotes conveniently via the book search in the Google Books rendering of 'Economy and Society' By Max Weber, so I'm dropping most of the page numbers.


Weber makes extensive use of "asceticism" - it's defined with very significant purpose for his works and probably because of this, as he concedes, the meaning doesn't have not the broadest usage.

He grounds many of his definitions in a salvific goal, detailed in chapter X: 'The Different Roads to Salvation,' which I find a reassuring basis for presenting religious practices at deeper levels. Thus, he then defines asceticism (in the penultimate paragraph): “Salvation may be viewed as the distinctive gift of active ethical behavior performed in the awareness that god directs this behavior, i.e., that the actor is an instrument of god. We shall designate this type of attitude toward salvation, which is characterized by a methodical procedure for achieving religious salvation, as "ascetic."” Weber indicates that for someone who leads a life without a keen focus on salvation: "The world is full of temptations ... more because it fosters in the religiously average person complacent self-sufficiency and self-righteousness in the fulfilment of common obligations."

Accordingly, the first words in chapter XI that introduce the general discussion on asceticism and mysticism are framed around the development of the path to salvation: “Concentration from the actual pursuit of salvation may entail a formal withdrawal from the "world"”. Weber contrasts between two constrasting modes or views concerning interaction in the world:

a) weltablehnende Askese ("world-rejecting asceticism"): One whose attitude is that participation in the wordly activities may be regarded as an acceptance of these affairs, "leading to an alienation from God."

b) inner-weltliche Askese ("inner-worldly asceticism"): a path of salvation that requires "participation within the institutions of the world but in opposition to them" according to the individual's own sacred religious dispositions and his qualifications "as the elect instrument of god." (Note that here "inner" qualifies worldly in the general sense of "world" - it's not referring to an individual's personal internal world. )

Wordly Asceticism

So Weber has defined "asceticism" using the world as a reference point and has defined two points of view. In the following pages he gives quite a number of examples, but they all seem related to inner-weltliche Askese, so I find it difficult to ascertain what is meant by weltablehnende Askese. It's meaning only becomes clearer when he contrasts it later with mysticism.

Characteristic of the inner-worldy ascetic type is the reformer/revolutionary: "he may have the obligation to transform the world in accordance with his ascetic ideals." Weber establishes the context in examples, including the 'Parliament of Saints' under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled with a strong puritan conviction (see e.g. Sir Charles Firth, Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England); and the Quaker State of Pennysylvania "and in other types of radically pietistic conventile communism." I'm mot sure what to make of the latter (probably because my knowledge of the relevant history is not extensive).

Weber highlights inequalities: "such a congery of ascetics always tends to become an aristocratic, exclusive organisation within or definitely outside the world of the average people who surround these ascetics." Yet isn't that inappropriate regarding the organisation of the Quakers? Quakers are egalitarian - there is no church hierarchy as such. (see e.g. Facts About Friends by Ted Hoare on the Religious Society of Friends Website); and their meeting houses welcome people from outside for many kinds of activities. Pennsylvania is known for its religious tolerance, following William Penn's 'FRAME OF GOVERNMENT OF PENNSYLVANIA' (1682) allowing freedom of conscience:

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil: wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same." "He is the minister of God to thee for good." "Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake."

Weber's interest is directly on the institutions - the collective involvement reflecting religious beliefs and having started with two basic views of asceticism, focuses further on the second option of world involvement; following on from forced religiosity (as may be considered under the Parliament of the Saints) he considers the case of not demanding religious conformance.... and the tension between the world being both a divine creation and full of sinfulness(pp. 167-168) and hence argues for the necessity of careful involvement according to a strict legal code. Hence, it is argued, for Protestantism the importance of loyalty to obligations. Weber claims "it is the sole method of proving religious merit" and it's easy to see that where the legal has something to say about work and financial management, that can lead to the storing of capital...

In summary, Weber writes: "the person who lives as a worldly ascetic is a rationalist, not only in the sense that he rationally systematizes his own personal patterning of life, but also in his rejection of everything that is ethically irrational, esthetic, or dependent upon his own emotional reactions to the world and its institutions."


Mysticism? There may be a problem with this word - as a detractor first quipped long ago: "myst-i-cism begins with mist, puts the I in the centre, and ends in schism." I once read a meditation manual that had a forthright statement as if in protest at its sense of vagueness and impenetrability, saying that this was not a book where one would find mysticism, but rather it was about developing keen insight! Yet, in practice it's a term that reflects the deeper contemplative life that is not immediately accessible to the everyday mind and so the way of a 'msytic' may appear at first glance a complete mystery.

To try and get a handle on Weber's view of mystics I turned to the index and worked forwards from the first entry. Overall, I find it difficult to pin down definitions, because it seems that Weber tries to develop in parallel multiple strands interwoven around a few themes. There's a lot of movement across cultures and traditions, a lot is implicit and perhaps biased to a culture that is no longer so evident, so definitions don't stand out very clearly, but rather seem to emerge gradually along the way, tied to the themes that themselves are emerging.

First reference appears to be on page 119, which is in a chapter entitled 'Intellectuals, Intellectualism and the history of religion.' However, it only describes an influence through the various writings of those with monastic orientation (Buddhist, Islamic and medieval Christianity] - particularly poets, about which Weber remarks: "This circumstance also accounts for the psychological proximity of mystical and spiritual emotion to poetic afflatus, and for the role of the mystic in the poetry of both the Orient and the Occident."

Subsequent references are concerned with involvement of intellectual classes, how intellectuals turned against the papacy, a period during which "Humanists displayed ... an individualistic mysticism, as in Germany during the first period." [I couldn't find a name, but from a quick search online I come across Johann Reuchlin, who was interested in Jewish Mysticism]. Throughout Weber displays considerable knowledge of classical history and literature.

It's really only in the chapter 'The Different Roads to Salvation' that I gain some idea. He builds up to it by a consideration of ritual, noting that "salvation may be the accomplishment of the individual himself without any assistance on the part of supernatural powers, e.g. in ancient Buddhism." (Buddhism certainly has been described as salvation without a saviour). For Weber the purpose of ritual is to bring about a "religious mood" as "an instrument of the divine", whence the rituals themselves become superfluous. Weber describes how the deepening of this practice can lead to pietistic devotion so that it becomes continuous and readily takes on a mystical character, but remarks that it often lapses into pure ritualism. There's a lot of discussion of rituals, religious moods, systematisation with particular attention to educational aspects and how that can lend itself to greater involvement in society (e.g. training in casuistry in Judaism).

Weber then starts to draw out some features "out of the unlimited variety of subjective conditions" where certain methodological procedures of sanctification are of central importance "not only because they represent psycho-physical states of extraordinary quality, but because they also appear to provide a secure and continuous possession of the distinctive religious acquirement. This is the assurance of grace (certitudo salutis, perseverantia gratia)." And these "May be characterised by more mystical or actively ethical coloration" He goes on to list a number of practices to be adopted (over transient sense-based practices): "principally by planned reductions of bodily functioning, such as can be achieved by continuous malnutrition, sexual abstinence, regulation of respiration and the like." (These prompts me to think especially of the group of the world-rejecting lifestyle followed by the 5 ascetics that accompanied the Bodhisattva Gotama until he went off to finally attain nibbana by himself: apart from sexual abstinence, these are not aspects of the Buddhist path, a middle way that would not seek malnutrition or to regulate the breath.)

Then Weber gives some examples of mind training, through concentration methods. He observes that these practices may be further streamlined (p.162):

"Similarly the monastic procedural plan for attaining sanctification developed increasingly in the direction of rationalization, culminating in India in the salvation methodology of ancient Buddhism and in the Occident in the Jesuit monastic order which exerted the greatest historical influence."

Thus a combined physical /psychological regimen with regulation of manners and scope of thought and action. [An interesting link between Buddhist practice and Jesuit practice].

Weber approaches a definition really only towards the end of the chapter by once again using salvation as the anchor: "But the distinctive content of salvation may not be an active quality of conduct, that is, an awareness of having executed the divine will; it may instead be a subjective condition of a distinctive kind, the most notable form of which is mystic illumination."

So the salvific content is without reference to the world. It seems quite fitting in terms of Buddhist goal of nibbana - where the grounding is not in the conditioned, but the unconditioned. Yet, even Englightened beings before they attain to parinibbana have to walk on the Earth, breathe its air etc, i.e. there is conduct w.r.t. to the world and the quality of conduct is important - so for someone on the path, activity tends to good kamma and ideally to kiriya - and to describe this conduct for non-theistic religions or at least those religions where divinity is not central, one might be able to substitute simply: "having acted in a holy way."

And what is the quality of the conduct of these practitioners? "... and among them only as the end product of the systematic execution of a distinctive type of activity, namely contemplation." I initially had difficulty scanning the first few words of this sentence and thus making sense of it, but found a clearer translation by Stephen Kalberg (which can be gleaned from a Google search, so you don't need to actually read the article) : "... only to be achieved as the end product ...". So even mystic illumination is to be achieved and not in a random way, but systematically.

Who can undertake this practice? Weber claims it is restricted to a minority with religious qualifications. Yet the contemplative path is fulfilled today by the practice of meditation according to the Buddha's teachings and that is arguably open very widely. In fact I've been taught that there are only three kinds of peope who can't meditate: dead people, people who are severely mentally deranged and people who just won't try!

What more does Weber say about mysticism? Weber makes clear then need for cessation of mental involvement in worldly concerns: "For the activity of contemplation to succeed in achieving its goal of mystic illumination, the extrusion of all everyday mundane interests is always required." and "According to the experience of the Quakers, God can speak within one's soul only when the creaturely element in man is altogether silent." He asserts further, "In agreement with this notion, if not with these very words, it all contemplative mysticism from Lao Tzu and the Buddha up to Tauler." Yes, I think quietude is universal for the contemplative, though I think it important to emphasize that there's inevitably some conduct in the world and that conduct can (always) be used as part of the holy life, else the impression can be given that the mystical life is exclusively about cultivating jhanic absorptions, say.

Mysticism vs asceticism

So having depicted the mystic contemplative, Weber then draws a distinction with world-rejecting asceticism: “Such a contemplative flight from the world, characteristic of ancient Buddhism and to some degree characteristic of all Asiatic and Near Eastern forms of salvation, sems to resemble the ascetic world view - but it is necessary to make a very clear distinction between the two. In the sense employed here, "world-rejecting asceticism" is primarily oriented to activity within the world.” I'm still not sure about the meaning - but (looking at some articles elsewhere) I think for Weber it means that one moves in the world, particularly earns a living there, without trying to change the world. On the other hand, the mystic contemplative leaves behind such society. (However, it seems more logical to me to say that any interaction in the 'world experiment' is going to have some effects, possibly negligible).

Hence "in contrast to asceticsm, contemplation is the primarily the quest to achieve rest in god and in him alone." Weber adds some fair descriptions of some mental states characteristic of this path: "It entails inactivity, and in its most consistent form it entails cessation of thought, the nemesis of everything that in any way reminds one of the world."

Although the Buddhist path is to minimise distractions, the issue of the rejection of the world needs care, I think. It is most commonly a personal statement of an individual who resolves with great determination to go from being a householder into homeless life - an example, roughly contemporary to Weber is Ven. Sunlun Sayadaw. However, a general application of an 'anti-' tone is questionable, and may not be consistent with the Buddhist practise of the Middle Way and accumulating perfections (paramis), which necessarily has to take place in the world. From a Buddhist perspective, there are many inaccuracies or problems with language in the descriptions: "By these paths the mystic achieves that subjective condition which may be enjoyed as the possession of, or mystical union with, the divine." The nearest to "the divine" would be considered to be Brahma and hence it's more accurately a description of Brahmanism, not Buddhism which teaches this as anatta (not-self).

Generally, Weber writes in a way that seeks to be fair and representative, but "This is a distinctive organisation of the emotions which seems to promise a certain type of knowledge." appears a weak description! What kind of knowledge? Evidently mystical! "...although it becomes more incommunicable the more strongly it is characterized by idiosyncratic content, it is nevertheless recognised as knowledge." Weber uses the term "gnosis" giving rise to a new orientation to the world. [The 'idiosyncratic' is a term relative to the mundane, of course; conversely, using the transcendent as a frame of reference, the worldly life may be considered idiosyncratic too.]

Weber's view of Buddhist formulations: "In Buddhism, no one becomes one of the illuminated by explicitly affirming the obviously highly trivial formulations of the central Buddhist dogma, or even by achieving a penetrating understanding of the central dogma." Highly trivial?! Weber goes on to indicate the requirements of following "procedures for winning salvation.", i.e. Magga (path). Fair enough.

For Weber, "we are not interested here in the details of the general problem [of communication of this knowledge], but only in the negative effect upon behavior which is distinctive of all contemplation." Weber often associates the word "negative" with the contemplative because of their stance of fleeing from the world, it is a is relative perspective w.r.t. to social and economic involvement. Weber carries on piling up a lot of negative language, depicting a sharply divided contrast between 'the ascetic' and 'the contemplative,' a dichotomy with opposing views about the path to salvation and, e.g. "the contemplation of the mystic appears to the ascetic as indolent, religiously sterile, and ascetically reprehensible self-indulgence ...". I wonder, though, if this rather heavy and forced view of negativity might prove erroneous. Surely these differences don't have to have such negative associations - a SammaSamBuddha teaches for the benefit of others, whereas a Pacceka Buddha doesn't teach - yet in the Buddhist view both are worthy of praise as having attained to nibbana and never self-indulgent.

In relation to sustenance, Weber speaks through his perceived ascetic view that "the mystic lives in everlasting inconsistency, since by reason of the very fact that he is alive he must inevitably provide for the maintenance of his own life." And goes on to argue that to be consistent a mystic must maintain his life only by voluntary donation "it accounts for the very strict prohibition (... found among the Buddhists) against receiving anything that has not been given freely." Weber asserts on the next page: "It will be recalled that the central and almost sole lay virtue among the Buddhists was originally the veneration of the monks..." (echoing what he says in Chapter XI: The Social Psychology of World Religions in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology' by By Max Weber, H. H. Gerth, C. Wright Mills: "Buddhism was propagated by strictly contemplative, mendicant monks, who rejected the world and, having no homes, migrated. Only these were full members of the religious community; all others remained religious laymen of inferior value: objects, not subjects, of religiosity.")

I really think there's a lot that can be contested in what Weber says here, not least whether his understanding of the ascetic view is truly reflective. Regarding the assertion that the Buddhist monastic "lives in everlasting inconsistency": if considering the Thai Sangha, for example, the negative associations with lay people is not a very accurate depiction except perhaps for a very small minority of dhutanga bhikkhus roaming forests. In practice the relationship between lay and ordained is not one of antipathy, but rather there is a veritable positive eco-system between Sangha and lay supporters - a relationship in which the lay community provides conditions amenable to progress for all, especially monks, yes, but also for each other; and traditionally this includes education and medical help administered by the Sangha to the lay people and encouragement along the Buddhist path.

Furthermore, the lay supporters themselves can share in the practice - they too are expected to cultivate dana, sila and samadhi, albeit less intensively; in the Buddha's time, these were formally upasikas and upasakas, two of the four groups commonly addressed by the Buddha as being his disciples. In Thailand, although most teachers are members of the Sangha, there are some very highly respected lay teachers (and not just the anagarika nuns) - indeed my mother's main meditation teacher, Ajahn Gaew, as a lay person instructed a group of bhikkhus because he was an advanced practitioner. And, I'm quite sure this is not just contemporary, but was true at the time of the Buddha - as argued amply by Jeffrey Samuels, especially concerning attainments along the path to enlightenment, in 'Views of Householders and Lay Disciples in the Sutta Pitaka: A Reconsideration of the Lay/Monastic Opposition', Religion, Volume 29, Issue 3, July 1999, Pages 231-241.

Weber goes on to express more curious views about Buddhism (p.171): "in any case Buddhism enjoined the avoidance of every type of rational, purposive activity, which it regarded as the most dangerous form of secularisation." This needs unpacking as I'm not sure what Weber means, but it sounds mistaken. A monk repairs his kuti in order to help with his practice during the rains retreat. That sounds rational and purposive activity to me!


Overall, I find it encouraging that Weber has tried to understand individual motivations at a deep spiritual level and his work has many interesting ideas flowing from this. However, from what I've read so far, I sense that whilst he has a good command of European history and thought, his analysis of at least Oriental religion contains contains too many misconceptions, which I suspect are based on preconceptions arising out of his own European conditioning. Perhaps further study, under an appropriate guide, will clarify what Weber is trying to say, the main points to be understood, but at the moment it reduces my confidence in the validity of his arguments (and subsequent conclusions).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: An evolutionary approach?

I haven't finished the introduction by Talcott Parsons, but I decide it's time to look at the actual book itself! Once again I'm going to make reference to my knowledge of Buddhism to sharpen the focus.

The preface and introduction are valuable, but it's still a pity there's no foreword from Weber explaining the approaches in chapter 1 onwards - I wonder if there might be a way of including relevant fragments from elsewhere (more possible for online editions). In the translation there's even some difficulty about the chapter title, given here as 'The Rise of Religions,' which according to the review by Reinhard Bendix may be fine as a rendering of 'Die Entstehung der Religionen' but may not be the right one!

Weber's opening remarks in the first chapter state that one can't define or say what religion is until the conclusion of study, "our task ... to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior." Presumably, one can know what conditions and effects are religious and can identify their characteristics, attributes, etc... , after the event. But is this a bit 'chicken and egg'? What kind of language do we need for the definitions? It makes sense to informally survey the scene to gain some clues as to the kind of theory needed, but how far do you take that? When do you stop? How do sociologists determine when they've reached appropriate milestones and can start codifying?

Parsons hinted at Weber's problem of being "understood" - and from reading his introduction and literature on the Web, it seems he wasn't always successful. That probably reflects the use of natural language. In contrast, a mathematical approach would use a formal notation, have definitions up front and use these in working forward, to derive initially some lemmas and work up to major theorems. Imagine if mathematical theories were subject to such vagaries of uncertainty in translation and interpretation!

The second paragraph indicates the scale of the challenge: "the external courses of religious behavior are so diverse that an understanding of this behavior can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subject experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned - in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior's 'meaning' (Sinn)." (Sinn is a German word translated as 'sense' or 'connotation' - for the same reference objects, there may be different connotations.)

The third paragraph talks about "elementary forms of behavior." So the initial perspective appears to concern the origins of religious activity in terms of primitive elements. I guess this is meant to be analogous to the way we can talk in science about atomicity/irreducible elements, simple forms and so on. And of course some branches of science try to make sense of this through theories of evolution, but it's a major/critical step to apply this evolutionary approach to society ...

Accordingly Weber asserts that [in primitive religion] the primary orientation is this world - and the quote from Deuteronomy is intended to illustrate such a "primitive" viewpoint: "That it may go well with thee ... and thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth." But it is just one quote and even a hundred such quotes can't be proof [by example]! What about other viewpoints, e.g. the pursuit of Heaven? Consider e.g. Job 14:14 - "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." (King James Version of the Bible, [see KJV online])

The historical viewpoint is further hinted at with the analogy with making fire, traditionally associated with signs of emerging civilisation in early homo sapiens - it's tempting to map religious development to such evolutionary theories. Compare (and contrast) this with, say, a Buddhist view of humanity's evolution. It's described as a cycle (of Samsara), in which there is both human evolution and devolution with lifespans ranging over many thousands of years (DN. 26 Cakkavatti Sutta - The Wheel-turning Emperor: partly translated into English, with an introduction and also a full translation). However, it's a moral evolution and devolution that the Buddha describes... it is the nobility and virtue of mind that is regarded by the Buddha as a measure of the evolved nature of a human.

Weber states that the "ends are predominantly economic." Is this just reflecting the fact that the approach observes only what is observable...? I wonder to what extent this viewpoint affects the [sociological] analysis of different religious groups today? Is there the assumption that the primary orientation is this world, implying it must be material? What methodologies are used? An appropriate tool might be to carry out surveys of literature and questionnaires of adherents.

Whilst I readily accept that "religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct," I would query the paragraph's concluding clause: "since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic." If talking about evolution, how about evolution of views within an individual during their life, an evolution that could go from material to transcendental, i.e. [internal, subjective] lower and higher orientations? Given Parson's indication of support for describing changes within spheres, I guess the theoretical framework could support this.

It's tempting to think that current society represents somehow an advance over earlier (and hence primitive) societies. Weber tries to identify early forms of spiritual activity in groups, again leaning on what is observable, and states (p.3): "orgy is the primordial form of religious communication." and goes on to describe how intoxicants induce ecstasy and the aids to reach that transient state: "he may employ any type of alcoholic beverage, tobacco or similar narcotics - and especially music ..." This is a description that could easily apply to many people today who go out for the night, roving pubs and clubs! In fact the run-up fits also: "Because of the routine demands of living, the layman may experience ecstasy only occasionally, as intoxication." This matches the habits of people unfulfilled in their daytime jobs, living only for the weekends and its night-time attractions. But would we call this 'religious behaviour'? I think not - just 'hedonistic behaviour' would be more likely and what can we deduce about evolved humanity then ...?

What about silence as promordial communication? Before the noise there was the silence. Yes? But silence may not be easily registered - it can be only momentary, yet deeply communicative.

Taking things further, what about observations of a monastery where most inhabitants spent most of their time in silent meditation? Most of the 'action' - in terms of experiences of rapture, altered states, jhanic absorptions and so on might be vivid and deeply meaningful, yet have little or no outward manifestation. One might argue that this is not characteristic of primitive religion, yet it is commonly said that children, unencumbered by too much thinking (rationality) can access deep states very quickly and perhaps the same applies to 'simple cultures' in general.

I think this is evidence of the problem of the external descriptive approach.

In theory, sophisticated religion evolves so that magic is left behind. According to Parsons, "In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the emancipation from magic, that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of Western culture." To what extent does that really hold today? Many of the top sports people still exhibit what might be regarded as superstitious behaviour: consider Rafael Nadal's pre-match routine just before play commenced at the classic Wimbledon 2008 final - the cameras showed him sipping out of one water bottle and then the next. More generally, what is/are the attraction(s) of the Harry Potter novels?

Weber then comes to the concept of the soul (which is acknowledged as not being universally accepted) and states: "...what is primarily distinctive in this whole development is not the personality, impersonality or superpersonality of these supernatural powers, but the fact that the new experiences now play a role in life." i.e. A raison d'etre (internalised) in themselves; and the example given is ecstasy. The example of burials is given, useful in showing particularly how the development of belief in the soul changes the associated customs and rituals, which have to accommodate more their needs after death of the physical body, resulting in extra parameters (positioning of body, items placed with the body etc). Of course, a further refinement in belief may remove some of these and not necessarily put anything in their place. There are also other implications we can read into these practices, including some belief in rebirth or reincarnation (or at least some contiguous existence).

Parson's introduction hints at considerable debate around the extent to which Weber's approach was evolutionary and remarks intriguingly that anthropologists were strongly anti-evolutionary. Was that some or most of them? I wonder what their views are today?

That's the last post for today and I still haven't got far into the text - I think before I post again, I need to read a fair bit more.

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Using Differentiation as a Key

Still basing my analysis mainly on Talcott Parson's introduction, I come to Weber's initial topic: primitive religion.

According to Weber, all human society possesses what sociologists would classify as 'religion,' being inter alia "conceptions of a supernatural order, of spirits, gods or impersonal forces which are different from and in some sense superior to those forces conceived as governing ordinary "natural" events...." It's mentioned in particular that work by anthropologists has confirmed that the belief in the supernatural is universal.

Weber is particularly interested in distinguishing between primitive and sophisticated forms. Parsons explains by making the distinction between "natural man," a man belonging to primitive history, and rational man, of more recent times (note the absence of quotes) - it's insisted that for the former "cultural baggage" exists, and only the latter has the level of consciousness to consider dispensing with it. Or is it's removal in practice more of an orphaning of or divorce from practices that contain relevant spiritual meaning?

Continuing the distinction, for Weber breakthroughs [from primitive religion] is an important topic, searching for the directions they take and so on. From what to what? He uses the method of binary differentiation related respectively to and within the spheres 'material'(utilitarian-oriented, associated with daily living) and 'ideal' (to do with meanings and conceptions of the supernatural and the experiential dimension). The binary approach is applied repeatedly to gradually draw out finer distinctions. The outcomes of binary decisions impact change: either evolutionary changes in established order or consolidation of the established order [and institutionalisation]. It's subsequently reiterated that the primary interest for Weber is religion as a source of the dynamics of social change, not stability, and I take it is looking for conditions for processes of change with breakthrough.

A key dichotomy is expressed in terms of the functions of magician vs priest as mediators between humans and the supernatural: the former's ad hoc use of formulas vs the more systematic 'cult' that uses ritual and worshipping agents. Around this is the development of conceptions of the supernatural ... and hence relationships, claims, obligations etc. (using intermediaries). Note that for him the existence of the supernatural doesn't imply transcendental goals, especially not for primitive society.

Their functions are distinguished especially by their handling of another fundamental dichotomoy - between ethics and taboo: priests are concerned more general and universal orientation, and pattern of actions, whereas magicians deal with specific prescription and proscription of actions.

A footnote to this post: the dispensing with cultural baggage has been quite topical in Western Buddhist circles - some want to detach themselves from what they perceive as unnecessary cultural trappings, particularly the rituals, which come from e.g. the Far East - so as to live the 'pure' and 'pristine' teachings of the Lord Buddha. This might in Weber's perspective be a reflection of sophisticated culture - indeed the removal of attachment to rituals would remove one of the lower samyojanas binding to the 'lower shore' of samsara, but that's a really advanced state of practice...

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Setting up the Theory

The introduction to this edition of [Fischoff's translation of] Weber's Sociology of Religion is given by Talcott Parsons, who appears to be a very distinguished American sociologist, the 39th President of the American Sociological Association. It's quite weighty and I'm not sure how much I'll read before I move on, but I'm grateful for any elucidation.

Early on, Parsons states:''his focus was not upon religion "as such," as the theologian or church historian conceives it, but upon the relations between religious ideas and commitments and other aspects of human conduct.'' The foundations were laid in his earlier work 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' (see e.g. the online transcription at the University of Virginia) - the Wikipedia entry describes how it is "an introduction into Weber's later studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economics."  In my first post I had highlighted the element of change and in the subsequent post, I picked up on Fischoff's attention to the processes of association.

Where does it all lead?  That earlier work's conclusion paints an image of how mechanistic working has become. "The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so."  He continues, "For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order." The detachment from the puritan roots, Weber reasoned, was reached post-reformation, without the Church, where most people couldn't determine for themselves a replacement religious authority apart from every day senses of achievement.  In the process of rationalization [Parsons emphasizes the centrality of this conception, pp. xxxii-xxxiii] there would be a tendency based solely on efficiency or calculation and so detachment from the religious roots.  It seems a very bleak picture (at least from a spiritual perspective).

Problems in Concepts and Analysis

After describing some context for Weber's work, Parsons introduces some of the major challenges in developing a systematic approach.  The first problem listed concerns our conceptual frameworks of the cosmos, covering divinity and religious interests. Do these influence mundane activities, e.g. economic action?

A second major problem is an analytical problem: the isolation of variables is sought so as to effectively measure their significance, which requires experimental methods that hold factors constant. It's then asserted that 'degrees of favourableness' of material factors approximate to the varying levels of development of capitalism. If all the materials factors can be held constant, the differing outcomes would point to religion being a significant factor.

So I expect analysis could be carried out between cities in Western Europe and South Asia and South-East Asia, not just overall, but at different levels of material wealth - what account should be taken at the extent of variability? I think it might be instructive to look especially at what happens at different levels of poverty, because it's often observed that, say, people with few possessions in Thailand and other Asian countries are seemingly quite content - since long before major economic development.  Is this contentment with materially little the case in the UK? Probably less so now than before because material expectations are greater nowadays (a facet of consumerism).

There have been many attempts at devising a global 'well-being' index, but different cultures have different values, so it's fraught with difficulty. For example, work on a Personal Wellbeing Index, devised in Australia indicates that objective measures are often idiosyncratic and thence, "With these issues in mind, the Personal Wellbeing Index has been developed to measure the subjective dimension of QOL – Subjective Wellbeing. "

A major issue is the completeness of variables in something so complex as society. It is readily acknowledged that there are many variables that would, for example, have a bearing on economic capitalism - the Wikipedia entry on the 'Protestant Ethic and Spiritual Capitalism' lists some examples: "the rationalism in scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration and economic enterprise." So isn't the method somewhat on shaky ground, because can we ever be sure when we have an exhaustive list?   I reflect that the challenge is to determine meaningful conclusions about causality needs to deal with complexity and yet be sensitive to the tiniest vibration - famously expressed in chaos theory as the butterfly effect - though I actually think causality needs a moral basis - as expressed in the Buddha's teachings on kamma-vipaka.

[Pause for reflection: consider how the Buddha instituted the Sangha, and the economics that flowed associated with that, a veritable ecosystem - here the economics clearly followed from religion.]


A couple of new terms for me:

(i) Idiographic methods (the book spells 'ideographic' but that seems to have another meaning) -- the study of the individual, which tends to specificity and deals with subjectivity.

(ii) Nomothetic - the study of cohorts - the methods of natural science, which tends to generalisation and deals with observation.

A theory of human behaviour needs principles, definitions of processes, propositions and so on.  As Parsons states: "Causes of human behaviour cannot be found and established without implicit or explicit use of abstract and general concepts and propositions." An illustration or two would have been helpful, but I take it that this will become evident.  He goes on to stress that Weber retains some elements of historicist and idealist traditions, but the shift to general observation evidently carries many risks and I'm not surprised at the remarks by Parsons about the prominence of positivist reductionism with "Behaviorism an extreme manifestation."  There comes to my mind scenes from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which the world is a laboratory experiment created by mice ... I think it reflects movement towards a kind of void.

One of the primary issues is a tendency to relativism, a term I've heard a lot with plenty of discussion, views and opinions etc.

Two foci:

  1. Interpret action by understanding motices from "subjective" viewpoint [i.e. understanding intentions], put oneself in their shoes; but use patterns of meaning.

    This leads to ideal types, a cornerstone in Weber's system, of which 'Protestant Ethics' and the 'Spirit/Esprit of Capitalism' are two such types.  [Weber defines this there as: "An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct. [The methodology of the social sciences (Edward A. Shils & Henry A. Finch, Trans. & Eds.; foreword by Shils). New York: Free Press, 1997 (1903-1917). p.88.] 

    Weber's concept of the "ideal type" was the main path to the formulation of a general theory which incorporated "subjective" factors, the method of Verstehen.  So this is the response to my query in my previous post about the collective orientation.  Will it work sufficiently well...?

    The word "ideal" may seem odd to an English language speaker as it's usual connotation is to do with a goal of perfection, but I've seen it before - ideals are commonly found in algebra, specifically in ring theory.  The algebraic concept looks similar in vein in that it deals with groupings/representations of elements that exhibit properties common among individual numbers.  The algebraic term was apparently coined by Dedekind, a German mathematician, so I guess the word has a subtlety of meaning in German that doesn't get carried over in translation.

  2. System of meaning (Sinnzusammenhänge): this links interests (motives) with situations to "understand" peoples' individual actions.

Weber was thus trying to develop a technical framework (German: Handeln) and found that a generalised framework was easier to work with than one treating specifics.

I'll end this post with a couple of questions.

  1. To what extent are religious teachings idiographic or nomothetic?  In comparison, the Buddha formulated systematic teachings himself - in his great teachings on Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) [a translation available] is about individual behaviours, but with collective effects.  It might be regarded as the epitome of process-oriented systems of thought! Incidentally, the fact that one may observe a group with same outward properties (e.g. a group receives an apparent windfall) doesn't imply any group actions to earn that windfall - the kamma could have been carried out separately by each individual, but with similar vipaka.]
  2. What are the implications of paying attention to external vs internals (of spiritual life)?  I think it leads to diminished significance of the spiritual life (and so works against Weber's wish to adopt the "subjective" point of view).

Monday, September 08, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Orientation

For my second post on Weber's Sociology of Religion, I now arrive at the translator's preface (I'm not progressing very quickly, am I?!)   I'm interested in viewpoints and see that here the view is on religious phenomena. I have to familiarise myself with the goals, approach, terminology - it's all new to me. Fischoff describes how Weber sought in his 'Religionssoziologie' a very systematic treatment of many topics - so could it be called an early form of 'sociological systems thinking'? The preface helps ease my feeling of disorientation by giving some idea about the context of this book, where it fits into the greater whole: "... in this new edition of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, the 'Religionssoziologie' section appears towards the end of the first volumne, in the second part." [p. xii]. 

We are informed that 'Religionssoziologie' is preceded by dealing with types of communital and societal institutions.  So I guess a whole lot of terminology is assumed, and much of the foundation work in terms of approach - important to know as we're informed that Weber tried to be systematic and adopt a scientific approach.  Stepping out and considering the sum of Weber's works, Fischoff describes how the work evolved from 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' plus a number of books describing world religions from a sociological point of view, including 'Indian religion: Hinduism and Buddhism.'  So a proper departure point for the study of Weber is no small task!

Why did Weber feel a need to develop a sociological theory?  Some indications are given, most notably the influence of religion on occidental rationalism, specifically capitalism (economic sphere). Fischoff treats the study of religion and its scholars and remarks that Weber possesses many remarkable qualities, particularly "disinterested and impartial observation."  So the contribution to the field comes from a combination of scientific detachment and sociological perspective to present an analytical treatment of human social activity. It all sounds impressive, but is there such an observer as described?  And does his system actually work?

On the question of methodology, Weber's major concerns appear to include broad learning, methodological refinement, and descriptive analysis. Regarding methodological refinement, I wonder what consideration is there of the validity of the method and checks for this?

Turning back to the content of the theory, the collective, group focus is especially key: indeed the subtitle (introduced on p. xii) is "Typen der religiosen Verge" - "Types of religious association" which could be various kinds of groupings as indicated above, here particularly that one associates with religion - e.g. 'church' and 'prayer group.'

We can probe into the question of what type of associations? Fischoff's explanation reads more into it: "suggests the definition of the situation for Weber as a sociologist, oriented to the social causes and influences as well as the social effects and interrelations of religion upon group life." i.e. how society and religion affect each other at the group level. This is giving more attention to the processes of association.  Further, the association might be (I think is) treated more abstractly, in terms of ideas, as in behaviour A is associated with the religious facet X (or vice versa) ..." [I'm trying to connect with the theory of "ideal types" introduced later on.]

More fundamentally, I wonder about the focus on group vs individual. When  considering the processes of association there's a familiar sense and meaning about people associating with other people.  In Buddhism the Maha Mangala Sutta is well known and has important advice about associations - the first blessing is "not to associate with fools!" and the second one is "to associate with the wise." However, this is an exhortation primarily aimed at the individual. Furthermore, associations are discussed in great detail in the Sigalovada Sutta, but again this is focused on the individual.  Of course, there may be groups of individuals behaving the same way, but that's not always the case, and the behaviours of groups with strong individual behaviours may not be explicable in terms of group modalities. Yes? No? What is lost through analysis at the group level?

Actually, I wonder more generally - beyond the context of associations - about the generation of a social theory that gathers itself primarily around the collective viewpoint.  Why not start at the individual and expand out?  For the Buddha taught: "in this fathom long body is the origin of the world, its cessation and the path leading to cessation." [Rohitassa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 4:45].  Viewpoints are so fundamental.  Perhaps I'm mistaken with the impression that this work is primarily built on a collective perspective or perhaps I'm missing some other point - I should read on!

Max Weber: The Sociology of Religion - My first sip

Having re-acquainted myself with the routines of a student during the recent Pali Summer School, albeit only for 12 days, I'm now delving into some of the reading material that I shall need to embrace in my forthcoming studies.

A couple of weeks ago, whilst ambling towards Oxford's city centre, I popped into a charity bookshop and spotted one of the items on the reading list, as given in last year's degree pamphlet. It's 'The Sociology of Religion' by Max Weber, translated from the German into English by Ephraim Fischoff with an introduction by Talcott Parsons, this edition published in 1966 in a 'Social Science Paperbacks' series in assocation with Methuen & Co. (nearest match I can find has different publisher but probably the same text).

I have not studied any sociology, at least not formally, and I can't recall ever having considered studying it in the past. It was not a subject that was taught at my secondary school and the subjects I chose to pursue at University over a period of about 8 years were mathematics and computer science. Sociology has seemed a world away from all this and although I worked previously at Derby University, where there was significant work in this field, my focus was on the I.T., multifaith activities and fundraising!

Now it's time to take a much closer look...  At this stage, before I attend any formal lectures or receive tutorials, I intend to examine some of the literature and jot down ideas, responses and particularly to try to go engage with the texts by questioning what comes my way, trying to make sense of it by comparing and contrasting with what knowledge I have in other fields.  I'll do this piecemeal in a number of posts - comments that may help me properly understand what this is all about are welcome!

Picking up the book, I notice it's a fair thickness, but not huge, though it does include two prefaces that combined amount to around 60 pages! Not having any knowledge, I expect these to shed light and indeed as I come to learn that this work is a fragment of a greater whole, it seems that I really will need a guide to the work.   So let's start then with the context, which is very broad - Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft - a huge opus in German, translated as 'Economy and Society' of which 'Religionssoziologie' (The Sociology of Religion) is one portion. Alas I can't read or write German, so I'm dependent on translation and am well aware that nuances can get lost and extra bits can get added in. Indeed, a review by Reinhard Bendix [Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 3, No. 2 (Spring, 1964), pp. 268-270], indicates particularly how some extra meaning has crept in. However, overall, as that review suggests, I think these will be minor and the translation will be generally fine.

Turning the front cover of the book reveals a short 100-150 word abstract which mentions "the casual role of religion in social change." What is meant by "casual"? Nowadays it tends to mean informal (as in 'casual dress') or only temporary, not permanent, as in 'casual worker,' but I assume here that it is more along the lines of 'what happens [to be the case]', from the Latin casus, meaning 'having fallen,' which could be in the sense "this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday."). So I guess a 'casual' role might be how religious occurrences and phenomena can be observed as affecting social change. It has an accidental, chance ring about it, something that's a byproduct, 'by the way.'

The change element appears key - the preface and introduction talk a lot about social action and the dynamics of change. We are informed that the focus is not on religion per se but its effects. Thus, it is establishing a basis for looking at how religions impact [in a major way] society and I see it would naturally lend itself to analysis of reform movements, engagement etc, rather than focusing on the static and conservative aspects.

It's probably worth spending some time looking at this deliberate decision and considering its implications. Analogous decisions are made in other disciplines - there's a weighing up of two analytical approaches oriented on what I call 'structure vs. flow' - crudely speaking what it is and what it does respectively. In my computer science research in formal methods, I learnt quite early on that a standard division is made between axiomatic techniques and process algebras. The kind of language you choose depends upon what you are seeking to model. Axiomatic techniques traditionally excel in data-rich applications, whereas process algebras suit modelling action-based behaviours, commonly used in safety-critical applications where you want to prove such a sequence of actions will/won't happen etc. In practice, elements of each are present implicitly or explicitly in a given language, but sometimes both are needed to completely model and analyse a system.

So let's have a pause there.  :-)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

[archive] A Mature Student's View on Applying to do Graduate Studies at Oxford

Update January 2016

How quickly things have changed! Since I wrote this piece, access to the Internet has increased considerably and Oxford University has decided to adopt Tribal SITS:Vision. It means that my technical guidance notes are out of date (hence the related links, as originally given for the Embark system, are now broken). Instead, please refer to the present detailed information on applying to Oxford and note the new entry point for the application form. (How long will these arrangements last, I wonder... ?). Also please note that funding mechanisms may also have changed, particularly for AHRC.

However, the general principles for applications probably still hold.


I thought it might be helpful to prospective students who are returning to full time study to share my experiences of the application process I went through to undertake a Master's degree at Oxford. In March I submitted an application to do a 1 year Master of Studies in the Study of Religion - for which I've already jotted down some motivating reasons.

The first thing that struck me is how the process is geared up for having everything done online, through the Web, with backup support by e-mail - it's the online option that it listed at the top of the application forms gateway page. Even so I expect submitting a hard copy will remain an option for the foreseeable future because if you are an overseas student with very limited Internet access the online submission would present an additional, perhaps discriminatory, barrier.

The second major aspect is the level of detail - this is not something you can complete in a couple of hours. Fortunately, the online system does allow you to chip away and fill it the form section by section and it can carry out some basic checks on completeness. Some items require time set aside and/or planning ahead:

  • Transcripts - nowadays these expect many details
  • References - the application form asks for three
  • Sample essays and a statement of purpose - this is where you really make your case

I won't say much about general concerns when applying as the considerations are many, but I think it's worth working methodically through the various steps described in the application process. The deadlines and gathered fields are crucial - you have typically more than one slot (maximum 6) in which to submit your application, the selection of slots varying according to the degree programme. In my case, by the time I had made up my mind to submit an application I was left with the last slot with a March deadline.

I think I went through each of the steps, partly just to convince myself that I really did want to go through with this! Having absorbed as much as I thought necessary, I summoned up some enthusiasm and energy (you do need to get some up and running to fill out the forms), and proceeded to dive into the application process.

The online application process uses software called Embark, a third party system developed in the United States. This has a mild effect on the system in that e.g. the country of origin defaults its first choice to the U.S., but generally the system doesn't show any major idiosyncracies.

So now I'll recap on the major components of my application - as a prospective mature student, who hadn't been studying full time for about 10 years there was a lot of work to do!

  • Transcripts: The University naturally needs to know about your academic qualifications and there was space to enter basic details for all three of my previous institutions and degrees. However, in recent years greater details have been required and these are usually issued in transcripts; the form indicates that title of award and classification are usually not adequate - so just degree certificates don't suffice. The first degree is usually a Bachelor's, the one with the most details, but also the one furthest back in time - in my case I had to get in touch with admin staff in the Southampton University Maths Department and they were very helpful and able to furnish me with all details - every unit and mark from quite some time ago! For the M.Sc. (by research) at Glasgow, I obtained a copy of a surprisingly detailed transcript from Central Admin, though it cost me a few pounds; but for Kingston University I was only able to obtain a degree certificate plus a covering letter from the head of research in computing. It was a bit of a chore, but it did provide a nice opportunity to re-establish contact with a few people.
  • References: You are expected to submit academic references from three people who taught you. One reference from each of my degrees seemed sensible, but it was problematic because two people who would have been good choices had passed away! Fortunately, I was able to provide references from my main Ph.D. supervisor, an Oxford academic who had taught me quite recently and one of my lecturers at Southampton who actually remembered me (and hadn't yet retired).
    When I enquired about the problems obtaining references (and transcripts), the Graduate Admissions staff acknowledged this as a common situation and indicated that this would be taken into account, but the application form itself doesn't indicate much leeway.

  • Statement of Purpose: You can write a couple of pages on this, so there is a lot of scope for expression. I guess that many undergraduates can point to lectures and tutorials they've particularly enjoyed, projects they've worked on and so on, but having spent the last 10 years working in I.T. I had to draw inspiration from elsewhere. I wasn't really sure how to angle this. This is a taught degree, but is also preparation for further research, so I felt I had to speak to these possibilities. I emphasized my mixed faith background and went for an inter-disciplinary focus, able to point to various content that I've made available online, floating some research ideas, and acknowledging work already taking place in Oxford. A problem is that there are so many different directions in which this could be taken!
  • Sample essays: I expected these would be scrutinised carefully - Oxford degrees involve a lot of writing and the M.St. is no exception. Two are required and I thought about composing new ones, but I didn't have all that much time and realised that I could at least submit the one journal article that's in this field (a review of What Buddhists Believe by Elizabeth Harris) plus an essay that I had submitted previously to an Oxford academic.
  • C.V.: This is again an important aspect for mature students to demonstrate relevant prior knowledge and experience. Not having a degree in a literary subject, I tried to highlight my interfaith activities and projects for both the Theology and Oriental Studies Faculties.
  • College choice: You can put down a first and second choice. Not having had a college affiliation before, but really had missed as a University staff member, I spent some time mulling over which would be suitable. The selection of Colleges available varies depending upon the course - I didn't register this at first as initially I thought of Merton, which I have found a peaceful retreat from Saturday shopping crowds. With its interdisciplinary study groups it looked promising, but it was not available according to the list of programmes of study by college. So I had to find somewhere else and browsed a number of college Web sites. After a while, I reflected that a graduate college would be suitable (bit quieter, more people with similar backgrounds) and I looked for one that was centrally located. Quick quickly I settled on St. Cross, drawn by its good location in St. Giles, the descriptions of friendliness, its international composition, the ease of exchange with the Fellows and the general inter-disciplinary nature, plus the advertisement of good food! Further, my previous exchanges with members of the college were positive and proved to be a deciding factor.
  • Funding. Study is a major financial commitment - tuition fees alone for myself as a home student (covering University and college) amount to more than £5,000. I was unable to find anything suitable from the various funds available, so I expect to fund myself from savings. The AHRC has an award called the Research Preparation Master's Scheme but I was ineligible as I already held a doctorate. :-( Yet they are interested in inter-disciplinary approaches - e.g. they have funded inter-disciplinary research in Buddhist studies. Even so I think my situation is quite mild as I know one Asian student who sold her flat and car just to be able to come across to study.

Other sections required some standard personal details, accommodation needs (Oxford is expensive, even in College), interview dates (but I didn't actually have an interview and I'm not sure how much they are used for graduate programmes), language skills - you could roughly indicate your proficiency for up to 4 languages. There is a section for other admission tests and in fact I once sat the GRE, but the marking scales have changed since then so after initially attempting to fill in details I deleted what I had entered.

After paying the application fee, that was basically that. There was no news or requests for further information until about 2 months later when I was informed that my application was successful. :-)

I found the Embark system generally works well - it takes all your input and uploaded files and generates a single PDF document that probably gets passed from person to person as your application gets assessed stage by stage. However, some familiarity with I.T. is implicitly expected. It's not just a matter of being able to use Web forms and fill in boxes: a lot of supplementary materials need to be supplied, including transcripts. Some of this may not be available in electronic form, so will need to be scanned, and furthermore, there are limits on the file size uploads (2MB, I think), so the image files may need to be compressed, but in such a way that the text is still clear. Further, there are constraints on file formats - Word DOCS or PDFs preferred. It's quite a lot to assume and perhaps it would be useful to have a section on IT requirements on use (technical, in terms of system and skills typicall needed). In practice, there's usually a friend or relative who can lend a hand!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sister Dr. Mary Hall: Interfaith Pioneer

[created 6 Sept. '08, edited 10 Sept. '08]

I've received news that Sister Mary passed away peacefully yesterday morning.

Sister Mary was a pioneer in interfaith dialogue - she was executive director of the Multi Faith Resources Unit (later renamed Multi-Faith Centre) in Birmingham, which was particularly active in the 1980s. The centre was based for a while in the lovely location of Harborne Hall, which belongs to the Sisters of the Retreat of the Sacred Heart. (Sister Mary contributed a preface to a history of the Hall).

The MFC worked in the areas of education, training and community development.

Sister Mary Hall(tallest person) in a group photo at the Multi Faith Centre, Birmingham

Sister Mary formed a multi-faith team from around the Birmingham area, being careful to choose people who were well rooted in the respective traditions. So visitors to the centre or indeed anyone who encountered members of the team could gain an authentic taste and enter into rich dialogue. I have copies of a few group photos from the MFC and I get the feeling that Sister Mary would be happy to be remembered for her work in this context - the interfaith family (in the above photo she is the tallest person and standing at the back). This was, of course, in addition to her relatives and other families within the Catholic Church, but certainly she seemed very actualised by the interfaith 'movement'.

She was an excellent trainer, with a varied background, including time spent running a convent in Pakistan. My mother worked with Sister Mary as a Buddhist member of the team for about 10 years and very much appreciated her vision and skill, learning a lot about other faiths and also more general skills in communication, organisation and so on. She could apply these skills when meeting a wide range of people - from the team itself through all those she met in various dialogues, perhaps the most adventurous of which was in New York State, including a session at the U.N. building (apparently a tough but appreciative group of participants with lots of questions!)

Sister Mary expressed her heartfelt gratitude for all the contributions made by my mother by kindly gave an address at my mother's cremation service paying warm tribute.

I myself didn't have that much contact with Sister Mary (I was at secondary school and then University), but from my mother's descriptions and brief meetings one could quickly notice her intelligence and strength of character; coupled with her height she made for quite a powerful presence (and I think she appreciated especially if people were likewise)! In sum, she made an important contribution to interfaith, which I occasionally hear about, but I think it should be more widely known.

I understand Sister Mary's funeral will take place at Selly Park Convent at 12.15 p.m. on Wednesday 10th September.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Multifaith symphony at the Buddhavihara, Kings Bromsley.

Multi Faith Forum at the Buddha Vihara, Kings Bromley

How to commemorate the first anniversary of your Buddha vihara? This was the question facing Ven. Dr Phra Khru Panyasiri (perhaps better known as Phra Maha Laow), the Abbot of the Buddhavihara in Kings Bromley. His solution was to bring together two gatherings:

In the UK, particularly the West Midlands, and especially Birmingham, some Buddhist centres have distinguished themselves with their active involvement in interfaith (to which my mother, Fuengsin Trafford made a significant contribution). However, I found this gathering particularly remarkable because of the various presentations on the interfaith theme from members of Thai Sangha, including some of senior rank. I'm sure my mother would have approved!

In fact it was one of her long-time Buddhist co-workers (if that's the correct term), Yann Lovelock, who passed on an invitation to the event and looking at the programme I saw it as a good opportunity to reconnect with people: the programme itself had considerable input from the University of Derby and the Multi-Faith Centre there; I had worked for both of these between 1998 and 2000 (the latter for fundraising and Internet-related projects). It gave me a chance to see again Paul Weller, Eileen Fry and quite a number of the steering group who had co-created the MFC and seen it through to completion over a long period.

Indeed Prof. Paul gave the keynote speech describing the rapidly contours of the British religious landscape and indicated how the handling of difference was critical to the subsequent development of good relations - else it can all too easily lead to sectarianism. And many speakers pointed to ways to bring about the happy, constructive path, not least learning how to listen in respectful silence. There was a considerable amount of useful input, particularly nice to see the Universities of Derby and Staffordshire develop some synergy in work on religion and spirituality.

The presentations were brought to a fine conclusion by Bhikkhu Sugandha, whose excellent command of English and dramatic style of delivery struck me as being rather unusual - no wonder that it turns out he is a Cambridge graduate! Bhante Sugandha cleverly played with a metaphorial image of an individual faith being like a violin - a superficial acquaintance can make it sound terribly scratchy and discordant, whereas a maestro can make it sound so melodious. However, what was really sought was the harmony of an orchestra where all maestros come together to play a symphony ...

Many monks, plenty of dialogue, lots of photos, supported by traditional Thai hospitality. The weather was reasonably clement - it only rained whilst we were inside the marquee and on the way back from the train I saw a couple of rainbows. :-)