Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Consciousness in the EBT

September 6, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

Thus, Ānanda, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an inferior [… repeated also for middling and superior] realm. (AN 3.76)

Consciousness (viññāṇa) as represented in the early Buddhist texts (EBT) has received relatively little attention in modern Buddhist literature, in view of its centrality in human cognition. It is highlighted in the EBT as the third of the twelve links of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), to which I will make frequent reference in this essay:

(1) ignorance → (2) formations → (3) consciousness →
(4) name-and-form → (5) sixfold-sphere →
(6) contact → (7) feeling → (8) craving →
(9) attachment → (10) becoming → (11) birth →
(12) old age, death, this mass of suffering.

In this role consciousness and name-and-form are said to whirl continually around each other to produce our whole conceptual world. In fact, in the seminal Mahānidāna Sutta , which omits the two links prior to consciousness consciousness, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning:1

(3) consciousness ↔ (4) name-and-form.

Therefore, consciousness actually depends on two conditioning factors, formations and name-and-form. Through form, according to the same sutta, it is also subject to the impingement of new sense data.

Consciousness also appears as the last of the five aggregates (khaṅdha) – which are form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness – that represent aspects of phenomenal experience, to which we will also make frequent reference in this essay. We will also see that consciousness tends to arise in the presence of craving. Consciousness is also mentioned as a dependent component of (6) contact.

This essay attempts a coherent overview of consciousness based on earliest texts, but also from the perspective of a (retired) cognitive scientist. I will begin with an illustrative example, then point out the various properties attributed to consciousness in the EBT, and finally outline how consciousness gets us into trouble and what we do about it.

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What is the Eye?

April 16, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

The eye seems like a commonplace enough and useful thing. Who would imagine that it would be so implicated in the human pathology, nor that understanding the eye would play such an important role in its resolution?

The Buddha attributes many, at first sight, puzzling properties to the eye in the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT), and equivalently to the other sense faculties – ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind. We learn that the eye is something that can be guarded or restrained, by not grasping signs and features of the forms it contacts, for Māra is constantly trying to gain access through the eye. More­over, “it is better for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin … than for one to grasp the features in a form cognizable through the eye” (SN 35.235). We learn that the eye is that by which one is “a perceiver of the world, a conceiver of the world” (SN 35.116). On the other hand, we learn that the eye is imperma­nent, and that its rise and fall can be discerned, and moreover reveals itself as impermanent with the devel­opment of concentration. Since the eye is im­permanent, it is suffering and cannot be a self.

We learn that “that sphere should be understood where the eye ceases and the perception of forms fades away” (SN 35.117). It is possible not to conceive the eye, in the eye, from the eye, or “this eye is mine,” and, as a result, it is possible to end conceptualizing and clinging. As we gain such direct knowledge of the eye, we are able to de­velop dispassion for the eye, revulsion for eye and thereby abandon the eye. Surprisingly, we also learn that the eye itself is old kamma, fashioned by volition and something to be experi­enced.

So, what is this eye the EBT speak of? And analogously, what are the ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind?

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Am I my five khaṅdhas?

February 21, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

pdficonOne day, the awakened nun Vajirā Bhikkhunī, having returned from Savatthi with her daily alms, having eaten and having set­tled down in the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding, was confronted by the infamous Māra, who tried to disrupt her samādhi by raising a thorny philosophical question: What is a liv­ing being (satta)? Her famous answer surprised and frustrated the Evil One:

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word “chariot” is used,
So, when aggregates are present,
There’s the convention “a living being.” (SN 5.10)

chariotSeveral centuries later, as recorded in the Questions of Milinda, the wise Buddhist monk Nāgasena won his first debate with the Bactrian Greek king Milinda by drawing on Vajirā’s analysis, pointing out that just as the king’s chariot is nei­ther axle, nor wheels, nor chassis, nor reins, nor yoke, nor something apart from them, Nāgasena is neither nails, nor teeth, nor skin or nor other parts of the body, nor any of the aggregates, nor something apart from them. No chariot can be found, no Nāgasena can be found, yet by convention we say “chariot” and “Nāgasena.”

The five aggregates – in Pali khaṅdha or in Sanskrit skaṅdha – are form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), fabrications (saṅkhārā) and consciousness (viññāṇa), products of cognitive analysis, as we will see. In later Buddhist thought Vajirā’s and Nāgasena’s analysis of the unsubstantiality of concepts like “char­iot” and “living being” was taken, not as laying bare the unsub­stantiality of concepts, but as an attempt to define these very con­cepts. Even in modern discourse, the five khaṅdhas are more of­ten than not defined as the five constituents of the person or psychophysical organism and sometimes translated “the five per­sonality factors,” rather than “the five aggregates.”

And so I wish to consider herewith: Are you or I five aggregates? And if so, are we really the five aggregates, or only as a matter of linguistic convention?

What are the five khaṅdhas, exactly?

The five khaṅdhas, as a matter of doctrine, appear to have a precedent in no pre-Buddhist tradition.[1] However, tradition tells us that the Buddha referred to this concept in his very first dis­course, “The Turning of the Wheel,” in explaining the first noble truth as follows:

“Birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five aggregates of attachment.” (SN 56.11)

Its occurrence here must have been puzzling for anyone not al­ready familiar with the concept. I suspect that either the expres­sion actually was already in common discourse, or a later redac­tor projected what had later become a fundamental concept in the Buddha’s teachings back into this early discourse. What we can infer from this first mention is that the five aggregates seem to encompass a wide swath of human experience and that they be­come a problem when attachment to them arises.

Given the foregoing analogy of a being and a chariot, we might expect each of the khaṅdhas to be a thing, a concrete part like an axle, a wheel, a chassis or a yoke, that can be assembled together to produce “me.” Again, the khaṅdhas in English and Pali are:

aggregate, khaṅdha
form, rūpa
feeling, vedanā
perception, saññā
fabrications, saṅkhārā
consciousness, viññāṇa

The names indicate cognitive capabilities. This might suggest that maybe the khaṅdhas are an array of mental faculties, functional units charged with interpreting the world. However, keep in mind that a khaṅdha itself is an aggregate, that is, a heap, a collection, an assembly, a pile or a bundle. The word khaṅdha unambigu­ously expresses plurality. Perception, for instance, cannot be a single something that perceives, but must rather be the heap, or stream, of perceptions produced by such an alleged perceiver, each of which arises, undergoes change and ceases. This makes sense in terms of the way we are instructed to contemplate the khaṅdhas:

Whatever kinds of form[…] there is, whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far and near, a bhikkhu inspects it, investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insub­stantial. (SN 22.95)

This passage is a pericope, a fixed formula repeated with slight variations. The suttas are full of pericopes. In this passage the same formula is then repeated four times, but each time replacing “form” with one of the other khaṅdhas. I will use the notation “form[…]” to indicate substitution of each of the five khaṅdhas in turn, starting with “form” in a pericope.

Consciousness, in particular, has been vulnerable in other con­texts to interpretation as a fixed functional thing, rather than as a stream of comings and goings. One day the Buddha summoned the monk Sāti, who was reported to have a pernicious view, and he states his view:

“As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.”
“What is that consciousness, Sāti?”
“Venerable sir, it is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”
“Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be de­pendently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? (MN 38)

Consciousness manifests contingently, not as a fixed thing. If we take up the khaṅdhas as topics of practice, it is important to be clear what we are supposed to look for; few teachers seem to do this. If we eat bread, we eat a morsel at a time, not all bread and not the bakery. It is in the morsel that we experience taste and texture. Likewise we experience perception and the rest one morsel at a time as phenomena that arise contingently. Let me try out, just for the time being, new names that avoid the ambiguity between mental faculties and their products inherent in the con­ventional name.

form, appearances
feeling, valuations
perception, features
fabrications, structures
consciousness, configurations

The khaṅdhas represent different facets of the world of increas­ing depth or complexity. Think of these as building layers of physical reality, unfolding progressively: colors and shapes, af­fective tones, things and qualities, structural relations among things and complex configurations of things and relations, as they arise in our experience interdependently. Let’s discuss each of these khaṅdhas briefly in turn:

form. The Pali word rūpa means “form,” “shape” or “experi­ence,” and therefore has to do with the physical world as it arises in experience.[2] “Body” or “matter” therefore would be a poor translation, though it is a common assumption by students of the Dhamma that form refers in this context to the physical body as part of the “personality.” However, this would give us no way to refer to the sensual facets of insentient objects in experience, such as our chariot, objects that are not our body or someone else’s body.[3] Moreover, as will soon be apparent, a body is consti­tuted of all the khaṅdhas.

feeling. This is defined as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and can be thought of as interest. This is the single affective instance among the khaṅdhas. Although the other khaṅdhas most typi­cally are aspects of physicality, the valuation that tags appear­ances, characteristics, structures and configurations plays a criti­cal role in determining where in the experiential situation con­sciousness and the other factors arise.

perception. This manifests as specific colors, recognizable shapes and other features of physical objects, at the level of words or concepts. An appearance can manifest as a face, for in­stance, or as a tree or as a dog, or as my dog, or as a chariot. Ex­perientially it is here that the designation “chariot” or “living be­ing” arises. Here we begin to see its insubstantiality. For instance, “chariot” might arise quite readily from a perception of a sound or motion.

fabrications. Structures are composites, things made out of pieces. From the parts, the whole emerges, for instance, from eyes and mouth, a face emerges, from conditions and goal a plan emerges. From sound and motion a chariot emerges. From attach­ment identification arises. Fabrications represent choices of inter­pretation or execution, and so are volitional or karmic in nature. This lends particular importance to fabrications, since this is where we learn to make better choices. Other khaṅdhas are actu­ally kinds of structures at different levels of complexity.

consciousness. An arising of consciousness can be far reaching in its discernment, insight, imagination and abstraction, generally pointing to something complex far beyond itself – notice that we are always conscious of something –, painting a picture of a real­ity often bordering on fantasy. The Buddha compares conscious­ness to a magic show.[4] It can see entire objects when only a tail or a tail fin is visible to perception, or tell us that objects ob­served at different times from different angles are the same ob­ject. It arises as an objective world “out there,” consisting of things and people, and convinces us that it is all real. It can even take shapes and colors flashing on a video screen and transplant us into a world of the remote past, as in a western movie, or into the future,as in a science fiction move, and make that world seem real. None of the other khaṅdhas exists without consciousness[5] – we wouldn’t know about them if they did.

Our experience is composed from the khaṅdhas, which present an unfolding of the experienced world, accumulating different facets of reality, level by level, element by element. The Buddha de­scribes the process with a metaphor:

“Suppose, bhikkhus, an artist or a painter, using dye or lac or turmeric or indigo or crimson, would create the figure of a man or a woman complete in all its features on a well-polished plank or wall or canvas. So too, when the uninstructed worldling produces anything, it is only form that he produces, only feeling that he produces, only per­ception that he produces, only fabrications that he pro­duces, only consciousness that he produces.” (SN 22.100)

The objects that arise layer by layer are insubstantial and com­posed of insubstantial elements, and therefore the objects are in­substantial. The Buddha makes the following analogies:

form, foam
feeling, a bubble
perception, a mirage
fabrications, a plantain tree (with no discernible core)
consciousness, a magic show

brushstrokesFor each, he says, “it would appear to [the observer] to be void, hol­low, insubstantial.”[6] This is why a chariot or a living being, or person, are insubstantial, they are fabri­cated in our experiential world from insubstantial elements.

We live in two worlds, an internal (ajjhatta) subjective world of direct experience, and an external (bahiddhā) objective world world which we imagine to exist with or without us. Khaṅdhas pertain to the internal world and only to the internal world. When Ven. Varijā says, “When the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a living being’,” she can only be referring to the composition of the being within internal experi­ence. When she breaks down the chariot into its component parts, she is speaking externally.[7]

It is critical that we recognize this distinction, for the Buddha pri­oritized the subjective world: It is the world in which suffering arises, it is the world in which we seek liberation; it is the world in which we immerse ourselves when we sit on the cushion, it is the world in which we awaken. Since this world is entirely of ex­perience, the question, “What exists?” does not apply, only the question “What arises under what circumstances?” Investigation of the external world is ontological, investigation of the internal is epistemological. The Buddha gives us alternative ways to view the world of experience, each highlighting different aspects. The main alternative is the sixfold (sense) sphere,[8] about which he spoke,

In the six the world has arisen,
In the six it holds concourse.
In the six it has woes. (SN 1.70)

How do we practice the five khaṅdhas?

A doctrine is only as good as the practices it supports. The doc­trine of the khaṅdhas concerns our world of experience and the factors that arise in experience, which is to say phenomena (dhammas).[9] It presents these as material for investigation and in­sight, on and off the cushion, specifically suited for the fourth foundation of mindfulness, dhammānupassanā, or contemplation of phenomena.

The qualities of our experiential world that come forward with the khaṅdhas are its constructedness and its insubstantiality, for it is a fragile reality fabricated in small cognitive increments, cogni­tive morsels. The Buddha applies a common formula to approach investigation of the khaṅdhas, that is, in terms of gratification, danger, and escape.

The gratification (assāda) of the khaṅdhas is the pleasure and joy dependent on khaṅdhas.

The danger (ādīnava) is that the khaṅdhas are imperma­nent, suffering and subject to change.

The escape (nissaraṇa) is the removal of desire and lust for the khaṅdhas.[10]

The first expresses where we begin in our practice, the second ex­amines how the first creates problems for us in terms of the salvific goals of practice, and the third is where we want to be in our practice. The Buddha stated with regard to this formula,

“So long as I did not directly know the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of the five aggregates of attachment, I did not claim to have awakened.” (SN 22.27)

Let me take these up in order.

Gratification. Our job here is to examine how pleasure and joy tend to come up around the khaṅdhas and moreover how these lead to attachment (upādāna), which in turn involves identifica­tion, appropriation and even the arising of pernicious views with regard to the khaṅdhas. Because the khaṅdhas really represented an unfolding of the experienced world, an accrual of different facets of reality, we might notice in our practice at which point in an unfolding experiences we crave or attach. For instance, I may be attached to, and even identify with, my chariot. What aspects am I attached to, or do I identify with? If it is the shine of the chrome trimmings, my attachment centers on form; if the quality of the wooden parts, the length of the yoke or the diameter of the wheels then on perception; if the many uses I find in my chariot and the prestige I gain by appearing on the byways and cross­roads in it, then on consciousness. We may discover that all of these play a role.

One of the functions of bringing such contemplations onto the cushion is that, as the mind stills, the experienced world folds up again, in particular retreating from consciousness, fabrications, perception, and so on, and, with that, the craving, attachment, identification and appropriation that accompany them. We begin to notice as the mind stills, the world undergoes a noticeable shift. This highlights the unsubstantiality of the khaṅdhas.

An oft-repeated formula shows how identification or appropria­tion occur within attachment.

“The uninstructed worldling sees form[…] as self, self as possessing form[…], self as in form[…], self as in form […].” (SN 22.1, etc.)

Khaṅdhas evoke attachments. The intersection of attachment and the khaṅdhas is called the aggregates of attachment or aggregates subject to attachment (upādānak-khaṅdha), a very important con­cept in the Buddha’s teaching. The nun Dhammadinna equated identity (sakkāya), one’s sense of self, exactly with the five aggre­gates of attachment (MN 44). Basically, you are what you attach to. But moreover, it is from attachment that specific views about identity – such as, “this I am, this is mine, this is my self” – arise (SN 24.2).

Danger. Contemplating the five aggregates of attachment, we ask, What is the problem here? Well, to begin with, the five ag­gregates of attachment are misery (SN 22.31), “form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, fabrications are burning, consciousness is burning” (SN 22.61). What we attach to we want to be permanent, so when we discover it is impermanent we have a problem.

“The uninstructed worldling regards form[…] thus: ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ That form[…] of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form […], there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displea­sure and despair.” (SN 22.8)

Impermanence is why craving leads to suffering. I often advice students that if they acquire a new chariot, the best thing they can do for themselves is to take out a hammer and put a few dents in it. Get it over with. Otherwise they will make themselves miser­able in anticipation before the first dent even occurs. Moreover, an uninstructed worldling who identifies with or appropriates forms, feeling, perceptions, fabrications or instances of con­sciousness is tethered to samsara, like a dog leashed to a pole. (SN 22.98)

Escape. The escape is renunciation, loosening the grip of attach­ment to me and mine. Just as kids lose their lust and desire for a sandcastle – also insubstantial and yet initially a locus of great significance and attachment – then destroy and scatter it, so we must destroy our lust and desire for the khaṅdhas and destroy and scatter what we have built (SN 23.2). This metaphor is directly en­acted by Tibetan monks who painstakingly construct a mandala of colored sand over many days, then sweep it away upon com­pletion. The scattering begins with the contemplation of the dan­ger of the aggregates:

mandala“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees as impermanent form[…] which is actu­ally impermanent: that is his right view. See­ing rightly, he experi­ences revulsion. With the destruction of de­light comes the de­struction of lust; with the destruction of lust comes the destruction of delight. With the destruction of delight and lust the mind is liberated and is said to be well liberated.” (SN 22. 51)

Most of the practices of the Khaṅdhasamyutta involve prying up the identification with the khaṅdhas. These are recurring refrains:

“This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”

“He does not consider form[…] as self, or self as possess­ing form […], or form[…] as in self, or self as in form[…].”

Sometimes it drills down into more detailed analyses:

“Bhikkhus, form[…] is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form […] were self, this form[…] would not lead to affiction, and it would be possible to have it of form[…]: ‘Let my form […] be this; let my form[…] not be thus.’” (SN 22.59)

Understanding gratification, danger and escape, we hope for lib­eration:

“If, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu’s mind has become dispassionate towards form[…], it is liberated from the taints by non-at­tachment. By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He under­stands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’” (SN 22.45)

The practices around the khaṅdhas and the upādānak-khaṅdhas are clearly very important. We should note that there is no men­tion in the suttas of a practice of investigating the person by de­composing the person into five parts.[11] That is not the role of the khaṅdhas in the Buddha’s teaching. Quite the opposite: the prac­tice is to deny the relationship of the khaṅdhas to the self.

Am I my five khaṅdhas?

The quick answer is: Yes, But! … Let’s consider how a person, me, arises in your experiential world. First certain colors and shapes arise, largely maroon in color. A sense of foreboding en­sues. The features arise “monk,” “shaveling,” then the discern­ment “worthy of offerings” The features arise “wire-rimmed glasses,” “wry grin” and finally “Bhikkhu Cintita,” then the dis­cernment “maybe not so worthy of offerings.” At some point in this process you are convinced that I really exist out there in the external world, independent of your experience of me. In this way you fabricate me and furthermore take this insubstantial fab­rication as real. I am in your experiential world fabricated en­tirely of five khaṅdhas. However, I am no different in this sense from the book you left lying on your table, nor your chariot, for they are fabricated as well of five khandas. So there is no reason, so far, to call the khandas “personality factors”; they are “every­thing factors.”

nickleNonetheless, lest the reader be disappointed with this conclusion, there is another and very interesting way I might be my five khaṅdhas: I have a flip side, which your book and your car do not. You will discern that I am much like you, and that just as you live in an internal world of experience, I must similarly live in a internal world of experi­ence, compose of five khaṅdhas, in which ob­jects of my experience will arise, including you. Although once again they are not “personality fac­tors” per se, we can at least say that person­hood, as conventionally understood, relies on having a flip side born of khaṅdhas.

Rohitassa in a previous life had been a deva who could travel at astonishing speed. He had tried, by running for a hundred years, to reach the end of the world where he expected to encounter lib­eration, but without success. In this life he asked of the Buddha whether this quest was even possible. The Buddha replied,

“I say, friend, that by traveling one cannot know, see or reach that end of the world where one is not born, does not grow old and die, does not pass away and get reborn. Yet I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end of suffering. It is in this fathom-long living body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.” (AN 4.45)

The Buddha’s enigmatic statement is resolved when we realize he has shifted his perspective from the conventional person to the flip-side of the person, where we have woes, where we practice and where we attain liberation.

The khaṅdhas answer the question, How do we experience? This is an epistemological question. The khaṅdhas provide insight into the constructed nature of the experiential world. We learn that if we imagine a personal identity this causes us problems, so our practice is to remind ourselves that the khaṅdhas are not our selves. Vajirā’s response to Māra was intended to emphasize the insubstantiality of that personal identity.

Early in Buddhist history the khaṅdhas were taken to answer an­other question, What is the person? The Buddha never attempted to answer this question.[12] Those who have, unfortunately, have generally been encouraged to offer an ontological answer in which the khaṅdhas are our selves. This resulted in a history of thorny metaphysical speculation,[13] eventuating in the idea of the “person” (S: pudgala, P: puggala) as a fully reified entity in the Pudgalavāda tradition.

As an afterthought, our understanding of the khaṅdhas allows us to gain insight into another puzzling issue. In the twelve links of dependent coarising, two of the early links are consciousness and name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) in a very tight relationship.[14] Now, the factors that constitute name-and-form (form, feeling, percep­tion, volition, contact, attention) plus consciousness come very close to the five khaṅdhas. Let us therefore take them as roughly equivalently as modeling our experiential world. Now, the puz­zling issue involves this passage:

“If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, Lord.”
“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

This passage has been use to justify a biological interpretation of a large segment of the twelve links for centuries, whereby name-and-form is equated with the person, or psychophysical organism, that acquires or sustains consciousness, much like the five khaṅdhas have generally been assumed to define the person dur­ing the same period.[15] However, there are several reasons why the biological interpretation cannot be right: First, the biological in­terpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, and provides no material for practice or insight. Second, the biologi­cal interpretation displaces a much more viable interpretation that lays bare the role of cognition in creating the subject-object dual­ity upon which craving depends, and that does provide material for practice and insight.[16] Finally, the role in biological concep­tion of consciousness makes consciousness into something sub­stantial that can move through space and enter the mother’s womb in order to run and wander through the round of rebirths, which seems suspiciously similar to Sāti’s pernicious view discussed earlier.[17]
The puzzle arises from confusing external and internal worlds. The person is clearly referred to twice in an objective sense, first as the occupant of the womb and then as the boy or girl. How­ever, the consciousness and the name-and-form, like the khaṅd­has, must refer to the flip side of the person, to the person’s inter­nal world, much as in the instructions to Rohitassa discussed above. This passage thereby serves to correlate processes in the internal world with external events as a means of demonstrating a causal relation between consciousness and name-and-form.

References

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 1995 [1984], The Great Discourse on Causa­tion: the Mahānidāna Sutta and its commentaries, BPS.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2016, :Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the sut­tas,” online at

Gethin, Rupert, 1986, “The Five khaṅdhas: their treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 14, 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue, 1996, Identity and Experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism, Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue, 2000, Early Buddhism: the I of the beholder, Routledge.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 1974, The Magic of the Mind: an Exposition of the Kālakārāma Sutta, Buddhist Publication Soci­ety, also 2007, Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya: Sri Lanka, also on-line.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 2015, The Law of Dependent Arising: the Secret of Bondage and Release (draft), Vol. 1-4, Pathgulala Dharmagrantha Dharmasravana Mādhya Bhāraya (PDDMB), Sri Lanka.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu, 2010, “The Five Aggregates: a study guide,” online at accesstoinsight.org.

 

Copyright 2018, Bhikkhu Cintita (John Dinsmore)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

1. Hamilton (2000, 70).

2. Gethin (1986, 36).

3. Gethin (1985, 40).

4. Ñāṇānanda (1974), based on the Kālakārāma Sutta (SN 22.95), explores this metaphor.

5. See SN 22.53.

6. SN 22.95.

7. Hamilton (1996, 194) states, “There is no suggestion in the Sutta Pitaka that the Buddha had any concern for ontological matters. … We don’t find information concerning what we are comprised of, but only how we work.” Gethin (1986, 49) points out furthermore that this particular way of constituting the person as five khaṅdhas would have no particular psycho­logical or logical merit.

8. The main source for the six-fold sphere is The Saḷāyatana Sutta (MN 137), also the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta (SN 35).

9. A phenomenon in western philosophy is an object as experienced by the senses, as opposed to a noumenon, which is an object as it exists indepen­dent of the senses.

10. This formula is repeated throughout the Khaṅdhasaṃyutta (SN 22), for in­stance in SN 22.26, and in MN 108.

11. There is, by way of analogy, a practice of contemplating the body as being composed of thirty-two parts found in many suttas, such as the Sati­paṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10).

12. Thanissaro (2010).

13. ibid.

14. For instance, see Ñāṇānanda (2015, vol. 2, 31-35).

15. On the biological interpretation see Bodhi (1995, 18).

16. Ñāṇānanda (2015), Cintita (2016).

17. The word commonly translated as “descends” in this passage can also mean “arises.”

 

Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (2/4)

February 12, 2018

Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Theravāda has been remarkably orthodox historically, although it did undergo some further development from the early Buddhist texts (hereafter EBT). This earliest layer of scriptures, as close as we know to what the Buddha himself taught, was supplementing very early on by the canonical Abhidhamma and, beginning around 500 CE, by voluminous Pali commentaries (atthakathā) on the EBT and on the Abhidhamma. Gombrich[12] notes that Theravāda has developed very little since the commentary days in the first millennium. It has been extremely conservative in its outlook, not participating in the fast pace of Indian Buddhism during that same period, nor the further developments in Mahāyāna lands. The conservationism Theravāda is probably a result of its geographical isolation in Sri Lanka during its early history and subsequently southwest Asia. Gombrich points out that the Tamil culture and language of Sri Lanka are also very conservative compared to the Tamil of southern India. Theravāda has also failed to produce the long line of brilliant and original thinkers that Mahāyāna has.

450px-cundi_bodhisattva_-_smallCharacteristic of Mahāyāna is a dramatic shift in the center of its scriptural basis from the EBT to the sometimes wildly original Mahāyāna sūtras and śāstras (treatises), which were unknown until the first millennium CE. Among the important themes expounded within the new Mahāyāna texts are the bodhisattva ideal, buddha nature, elaborations of cosmology including the attribution of superhuman status to the Buddha, emptiness, subject/object non-dualism and appeal to superhuman beings. Two main philosophical schools are generally held to have developed in Indian Mahāyāna: the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. the first centered around emptiness and began with Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and followed by the scholarly work of Nagārjuna and others. The second centered around subject/object non-duality, began with the Samdhinirmocana Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra, followed by the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu and others in the Yogācāra or Mind-Only School. But the scope of doctrine found within Mahāyāna is much greater than this.

This very gradual (centuries-long), but in retrospect dramatic shift represented by Mahāyāna has been evaluated from two conflicting perspectives, one by Theravāda and one by Mahāyāna, which Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Theravāda purism and Mahāyāna elitism.[13] The tendency for Theravadins, and undoubtedly many in the early sects of yesteryear, has been to look at Mahāyāna sutras with some alarm as inauthentic aberrations from the Buddha’s teaching, instances illustrative of an unraveling of the Sāsana. The tendency for Mahāyānists, on the other hand, has been to regard their sutras with some enthusiasm as higher teachings, a further unfolding of the Sāsana.[14]

A familiar example of the Mahāyāna attitude is the famous Heart Sutra, part of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, which has the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a mythical figure in Mahāyāna lore, lecturing on the Dharma condescendingly to the great Śāriputra (P: Sāriputta), an historical disciple and arahant at the time of the Buddha, known in the EBT for his great wisdom.

“Oh, Śāriputra, form does not differ From emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The same is true for feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness.”

In the Tibetan rendition of this sutra, we learn that the Buddha has been quietly listening during this discourse and at the end approves of Avalokiteśvara’s words.

Mahāyāna sutras typically have the basic form of the EBT discourses, reporting on the composition of an audience and the delivery of a sermon by the Buddha. A myth that often accompanies them – prominent in the Lotus Sutra, for instance – is that these texts indeed originate with the Buddha, but that they were preserved secretly for hundreds of years until the world was ready for them.[15] So profound are they, that before these works manifested, the world had first to master an inferior doctrine (the Hīnayāna). These texts were quickly embraced by the Mahāyānists as they became available, but neglected by more orthodox Buddhists, as they are by the Theravādins to this day.

Virtually all scholars agree that Mahāyāna sutras are, in fact, of much later provenance, and of uncertain authorship; they certainly did not originate with, nor anywhere near the time of, the Buddha.[16] Although this seems to support the common Theravāda purist view regarding these texts, the value of many of these texts must be acknowledged, for many are quite brilliant and important for the doctrinal development of Buddhism. Moreover, from the Mahāyāna perspective we could just as well concede that the Buddha was only the first in a series of great Buddhist thinkers, that he turned the wheel of Dharma once but that a second and a third teacher turned it again and again.

Indeed, the first millennium CE, the period during which these texts arose, northern India seems to have experienced a vibrant intellectual and spiritual life, encouraged by the great Buddhist universities suc as Nālanda. It is significant that among the Buddhist sects, the Theravādins played little role in this intellectual fervor,[17] nor does it seem in its history to have produced minds of the stature of Nāgārjuna, nor Vasubandhu, nor of later thinkers beyond India like Tsongkhapa and Dōgen. It was instead creating line-by-line commentaries on the EBT and Abhidhamma during this period.

Later in this essay I will describe what I see as a process of doctinal decline and recovery that has characterized the Sāsana historically. For now I point out that Mahāyāna seems to have arisen at a period of doctrinal decline in many sects particularly in northern India. In fact, it is probably partly in response to that decline that Mahāyāna arose, as we will see. Framed in these terms it will be evident that much of the enthusiasm for Mahāyāna ideas came not from some inadequacy of the Buddha’s early teachings, but from doctrinal corruption in certain of the early sects in the first few centuries of the Sāsana by the time the Mahāyāna movement was under way. Particularly important to the Mahāyāna response were the teachings of the Sarvāstivāda sect dominant and intellectually active in northern India for many centuries, which had developed a highly speculative and substantialist Abhidharma, and the offshoot Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect.[18]

Unfortunately, seeing early Buddhism through the filter of later corruptions, then underscoring this by the myth of higher teachings, resulted in a failure in the Mahāyāna to study and recognize the brilliance and sophistication of the earliest teachings.[19] Hence the dismissive attitude toward poor Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra. It is by deprecating what they understood as early Buddhism as “Hīnayāna” that Mahāyāna cut itself off from its own past. This was a grave error, for much of the coherent and remarkably profound system of thought that constitutes the earliest Buddhist texts would significantly have to be re-invented.

Meanwhile, Theravāda has been the bearer of a this same priceless and luminous EBT jewel and the sole custodian of the Buddha’s full turning of the wheel. Verily, this early corpus has, almost in its entirety, long existed as a part of the Chinese canon, but it has lied there buried, disregarded and almost completely hidden under heaps of later texts. Not only has the Theravāda tradition kept these texts alive over all of these years, it has preserved these texts in the Pali language, close to the language the Buddha must have spoken, giving Theravāda valuable access to the subtleties of the original language of these texts. These ground the tradition in an authentic foundation.

This brings us to the topic of authenticity. Every tradition is obliged to justify its teachings, to ground its teachings in something in which adherents have unshakable trust, to establish norms for correct understanding. Generally a claim to represent the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) is the primary criterion of authenticity. Theravada is grounded in the EBT, which is closely linked by tradition to the Buddha and modern scholarship substantially confirms its right to do this this.[20] The Theravāda commentary tradition purports to rest on the same foundation, which is to say, even where it might provide faulty interpretations, those interpretations can be challenged by matching them against the EBT. The canonical Theravada Abhidhamma represents a curious case. Scholars place it in the centuries after the Buddha, though it turns out to be quite consistent with the EBT. Nonetheless the canonical Abhidhamma is justified by means of a miraculous origin story in the commentary tradition, which involves the Buddha ascending to Tāvatiṃsa Heaven in order to preach to a group of deities, thereby establishing it as buddhavacana.

Authenticity is much more difficult to establish in Mahāyāna because Mahāyāna traditionally ignores or deprecates the EBT. At different times and places the clergy have been compelled to establish their own authority by advancing certain standards.[21] There are a number of ways Mahāyāna sutras and sastras are claimed to be authentic. The most common is to declare them to be words of the Buddha after all, purporting them to be authentic discourses of the Buddha as in the EBT, ones that even begin with Aananda’s words, “Thus have I heard.” Other sources indicate inspiration by contemporary buddhas dwelling in other-worldly realms or as revelations by deities, sometimes with books appearing in the hands of forest-dwelling ascetics, or found in caves.[22] Zen, for its part, describes itself as a teaching transmitted independently of words and letters from teacher to student going back all the way to the Buddha, the transmission of the lamp. Many Mahāyāna texts, such as the influential Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith were probably not even composed in India, even while they are purported to have been.[23]

Presumably as a result of these discretionary standards, Mahāyāna scriptures are, as one prominent scholar has described it, “a shifting mass of teachings with little or no central core, many of which are incompatible with each other and within which we can sometimes detect mutual criticsm.”[24] Mahāyāna is perhaps best regarded as an umbrella for many schools of many shapes and sizes an it is hard to make generalizations about Mahāyāna as a whole. Yet as mentioned, Mahāyāna has produced many brilliant and innovative thinkers and viable schools within its mix, often able to overcome deficits in its pre-Mahāyāna history. How this was possible will be explored in the remainder of this essay.

In sum, Mahāyāna has been cut off from its past and Theravāda from its future. Mahāyāna has been cut off from the EBT in which it is historically rooted. Not understanding its own roots, Mahāyāna has diversified into a wide variety of schools that stretch the bounds of what constitutes Buddhism, each school having to invent its own history in order to justify its own authority. Properly, we cannot say that Mahāyāna teaches the various doctrines listed here, only that they are found within Mahāyāna. As a result Mahāyāna has no widely accepted standards for assessing its historical and existing variations. Theravāda, on the other hand, has been cut off from the later innovations of Mahāyāna. Theravada contains within itself, in principle, all it needs to know, but has little flair for reformation.

The need for reformation remains to be argued. I will now turn to the tendency of Buddhism toward both decline and recovery. Specifically, I will argue that Theravāda froze in early on a number of faulty interpretations of the EBT, while within Mahāyāna correct interpretations have either been preserved or rediscovered.

Next episode, Part 3: Tendencies toward decline

Footnotes

12. Gombrich (2006, 21-22).

13. Bodhi (2013).

14.Anālayo (2014) traces this view to Tarkajvāla (6th century) and points out that it was promoted by the Japanese delegation to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions.

15. Kalupahana (2015, 4).

16. Williams (2008, 39): “However, source-critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account.”

17. Mahāyāna does seem to have made at least an appearance in Sri Lanka during the first millennium. See Williams (2008, 10).

18.Kalupahana (2015, 20-21). Interestingly the Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect, which also became prominent, split from the Sarvāstivādins in an attempt to distance itself from the Abhidharma, but failed to excise many concepts that in fact deviate from the Nikayas.

19. Kalupahana (2015, 5).

20. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) argue for the authenticity (as well aknowledge the limits) of the EBT according to a wide variety of criteria.

21. Sharf (2001, 14).

22. Williams (2008, 39-40).

23. Muller (1998).

24. Williams (2008, 3).

References

Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Muller, Charles, 1998, East Asian Apocryphal Scriptures: Their Origin and Role in the Development of Sinitic Buddhism, Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 6.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.
Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.

 

Buddhist-Rohingya Relief

December 14, 2017

I am soliticing donations on behalf of people recently displaced by violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and particularly the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and to other lands. Donations will be transferred to the International Rescue Committee, an agency that is active in the region, as they are throughout the world, and that has been given an A+ rating from Charity Watch.

rohingya5I am a Buddhist monk, American-born but Burmese-ordained, who has come to love the Burmese people and and their country, and who has based my life upon the wisdom of the Buddha. Unfortunately this people, this nation and this faith have been tarnished by this violence. I understand that the root causes of the tension in Rakhine State are deep and long – and have only marginally to do with religion! – but am sorry to see divisive narratives mixed with rumors, and the engagement of a brutal military force, without civilian oversight, prevail over voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. There are many similar crisis situations in the world, but it is because what is close to my heart has been tainted in this way that I choose to support this particular cause at this time.

buddhaThe Buddha warned us of the danger of views, and never condoned violence under any circumstances … ever. Yet, we tend to find refuge in narratives – about nation, religion, race and the hidden motives of others – that we use to justify our own reactiveness. The international press is full of such narratives and they are rampant among the Burmese, often drowning out the many many voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. We sometimes even believe these views to be true and, when they disavow the humanity of others, they give permission for unspeakable acts. I am not aware that any religion has ever succeed in eradicated the human propensity for such views among all of its claimed adherents, not Buddhism, not Islam and none of the others, much less so in lands undergoing rapid change. Forgiveness is in order.

Nonetheless, for the purest Buddhist the bottom line is human suffering and the allaying of human suffering. When families are losing their homes, villages are burned, people who just want to live decent lives and raise healthy children are assaulted or killed, deprived of livelihoods, forced to flee with no means of sustenance, no matter who these people are, all narratives become academic. Our urgent responsibility is to exercise compassion, to aid those in greatest need.

I would ask my readers to join me in helping to provide relief for the precious, suffering Rohingya refugees.

ircYou can donate to Buddhist-Rohingya Relief HERE. You can also go directly to International Rescue Committee HERE to donate directly, or to view their site. Direct donations seem to avoid some fees, but is harder for the other donors and me to track, though informing me of the donation might help.

Also, another way you can support this cause is to communicate this further by Facebook, Twitter, etc. Although I use email and this blog, I don’t use these other new-fangled forms of social media.

 

Sangha

September 15, 2017

This essay is updated from the chapter “The Buddhist Community” in my book A pdf_24x18Culture of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sasana.

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was, for the Buddha, a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

IMG_1240A monastic is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that same hand (not to mention cute as a kitten in his fluffy robes and with his bald head). Like a house pet, a monastic lives a simple life, needs and possesses little: He does not have a motorboat on the lake, nor a puppy he is working to put through college. He is a deliberate renunciate with a lifestyle that leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the accumulation of stuff, the quest for personal advantage, nor the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that he settles, if the mind remains steady, into a state of quiet contentment, a fertile field of practice indeed.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but does the same for the lay donor as well. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something, the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service, the monastic receives a gift. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human affairs. This is an economy of gifts,[1] one that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dāna, Pali for generosity.

The Buddha imagined a harmonious Buddhist community of laity and monastics and he brought this community to light by organizing the Monastic Sangha. His idea seems to have been that the presence of the Monastic Sangha would shape the entire community, the laity taking on its roles entirely voluntarily, in particular without formal obligations enforced by some kind of command structure or threats of excommunication.

The Monastic Sangha

Whereas we find the sublime in the Dharma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha is an institution. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones now and in the years to come.[2] Its founding charter provides the optimal training conditions for the practice that produces Noble Ones, it also sustains a wholesome and inspiring influence on the broader Buddhist community, and, as we will see, it ensures the future authenticity of the Sasana.[3]

The Sangha has striking parallels with science as an institution, the disciplined community of scientists organized largely within universities and research institutions. Each, the monastic community and the scientific community, is a complex system responsible for many things: for training its members, for authorizing its teachers, for maintaining the integrity of its tradition against many misguided and popular notions, for upholding pure standards whereby its results can be assessed, for encouraging the growth, prosperity and longevity of its functions, for rewarding patience where results are not immediately forthcoming, for maintaining harmony among its members, for nurturing a positive perception in the public eye. Just as scientific discipline is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of science, and science as we know it would collapse without it, Vinaya is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of the Buddha-Sasana, and Buddhism in all its depth would collapse without it. Both institutions are conservative, exhibiting relatively little change over the centuries, even while their products can be highly innovative. From these parallels I will draw helpful analogies to better understand the function of the Sangha in terms of the (presumably, for most readers) more familiar scientific institution.

It is not often enough stated that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monu-mental achievement. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who in-vented monastic life,”[4] that is who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet![5]

What is more, the Sangha is still entirely recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice and function after 100 generations! It was there as great empires, the Roman, Mongolian, Arab, Lithuanian, Mayan and British, arose and grew. It was still there as each of those empires collapsed. From India it extended its civilizing reach to Ceylon and Southeast Asia and into Indonesia, into Central Asia where it followed the Silk Road eastward into China and East Asia and westward as far as the Mediterranean. In modern times it has begun to board airplanes and to sprinkle down on North America, Europe, Australia, South America and even Africa. Buddhism has never penetrated new lands nor established itself without the Sangha.

Yet in spite of its robustness the Sangha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local communities (sanghas) of monks and nuns, its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy, with something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last? This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present and observed among the ascetics of his time, clearly articulated for it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. And this genius is the very same person who revealed the Dharma, among the most sophisticated and skillfully expounded products of the human mind, and the very same person who attained complete Awakening without a teacher to light the way, the threefold genius we call the Buddha.

The Functions of the Discipline

The Buddha most consistently called the body of his teachings not “Dharma,” not “Sasana,” and certainly not “Buddhism,” but rather “Dharma-Vinaya,” the doctrine and discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying to the surrounding monks,

“… what I have taught and explained to you as Dharma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher,”[6]

The Vinaya is fundamentally about community and about the monastic life style, the life in accord with the Dharma and thereby the most direct path to higher attainments. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout it emphasizes the responsibility of the Sangha to the lay community, and the expectation of support of the Sangha by the lay community. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burns brightly, through which it spreads to attract new adherents and through which it retains its integrity as it is passed on to new generations.

Here is the Buddha‘s mission statement for the Sangha in ten points:[7]

“The excellence of the Sangha,
The comfort of the Sangha,
The curbing of the impudent,
The comfort of well-behaved monastics,
The restraint of effluents related to the present life,
The prevention of effluents related to the next life,
The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

Let’s try to understand the functions of monastic discipline point by point in terms of this mission statement, and to recognize, as a means of further elucidation, their close counterparts in the discipline of science.

“The excellence of the Sangha”

The Sangha must be excellent because it sustains something quite sophisticated and precious, the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. The nuns and monks are the designated full-time caretakers of the Dharma. The Vinaya ensures the conditions for deep practice and study and for harmony within the Sangha.

Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. This is a critical point. Although membership is an opportunity offered in principle to all, its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dharma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In most cases it entails rigorous training in Dharma, meditation and Vinaya. Concentrated in this life among the renunciates, the Dharma burns most brightly.[8]

By way of analogy the scientific community must be excellent because it sustains something sophisticated and productive of rapid progress in understanding the nature of our universe. Science concentrates people of exceptional training into a persistent, stimulating and highly cooperative, if not always harmonious, community. Excellence also entails that its membership be exclusive, in this case ensured through years of intense education, evaluation and training, culminating in apprenticeship under a senior research scientist to acquire the competence to conduct independent research.

“The comfort of the Sangha”

The Sangha appears to have been planned as the ideal society writ small. The excellence of the Sangha makes that feasible. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality,[9] is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical.

At the same time, the Sangha is embedded in, and dependent on, a greater society, whose values may be often contrary but with which it must harmonize. Accordingly it takes care to conform, or at least provide the perception of conforming to the expectations of the wider society and certainly its standards of etiquette. It is worth noting that many, perhaps most, rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented in one way or another with the behavior of some monastics.[10] Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception, that is, not necessarily reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, laypeople pay respects to monastics but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha serves to distinguish them from ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and from the laity, who have a distinct role.

As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns depend completely on material support from the lay community. This affords them the leisure of practice, study and good works. Remarkably the Buddha not only makes receipt of this support mandatory (monastics cannot, for instance, grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then redoubles this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially of food, for which ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered![11] Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food or blessings for money. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for livelihood, ensuring among other things that the Dharma will not become a commercial product, tweaked for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results.

The scientific community analogously receives material support, through professorships, research grants, etc, from the broader society, both to sustain its (much higher) living standards and to offset the costs of research equipment, publication, travel and so forth that its functions entail. This permits its members engage in nearly full-time research, training and teaching, fulfilling the functions of the community. The assumption of academic freedom and the institution of tenure gives the scientific community a high degree of insularity from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability. It also means scientists can engage patiently in long-term research with no pressure to produce identifiable results.

“The curbing of the impudent” / “The comfort of well-behaved monastics”

The Sangha maintains high standards of behavior to ensure ethical conduct, conduct befitting the role of renunciate: celibacy, a nominal personal footprint, harmony of the Sangha, harmony between Sangha and laity, preservation of the reputation of the Sangha, reaching decisions as a group and restraint of self-gratifying behavior.

Regulations are enforced primarily through simple personal acknowledgment of infractions with the intention to do better next time. The Sangha has no forms of corporal punishment and implements justice largely on an honor system. More serious matters are enforced through peer pressure, through expulsion or moving impudent members to the uneasy fringes of the community for periods of time. For a very small set of very serious offenses the wayward monk or nun is, from that very instant, no longer of the Sangha. If one manages to hide such an offense one is simply a lay person in robes who is successfully impersonating a monk or nun. Those, on the other hand, whose behavior is unblemished garner a great deal of respect, generally among Sangha and laity alike.

Scientific communities also maintain high ethical standards, albeit in quite different realms having primarily to do with potential falsification of data and plagiarism, with disharmonious and unproductive discourse and debate, and with productive evaluation of results and theoretical proposals, scientific standards and methods by peers. Such communities are largely self-regulating, generally at the institutional level, with relatively little centralization of authority. Governance is often in a local university administration, but similar standards of professional conduct are generally recognized and enforced throughout the world scientific community. Institutions share common practices for expelling members or to move them to the fringes of communal activities through hiring, funding and tenure decisions. Pursuit of professional reputation is typically a strong determinant of the behavior of scientists, as distinct from monastics.

“The restraint of effluents related to the present life” / “The prevention of effluents … to the next life”

These two aims, alone among the ten, refer to the results of actual monastic practice toward Awakening. Effluents are unwholesome tendencies and views, the taints from which the human character is purified on the Path. The Sangha functions in this regard by securing for itself the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root, except in the mind. Into its stead flow the wisdom and compassion that, liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness, burst here and there into various stages of Awakening. In this way the Sangha, as long as it follows the discipline scrupulously, produces relatively effectively Noble Ones from among its ranks.

Monastics are allowed by their vows to do almost nothing for themselves. They are permitted no livelihood, nor trade, and are isolated from the conventional exchange economy. Their material needs are offered entirely by the laity. Monastics are proscribed, except in exceptional circumstances, from asking for anything, that is, they do not beg, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one, or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so these must be limited in size and quality. They also curtail frivolous speech, shows and entertainments and self-beautification, they observe limits on what they can own or store, and they do not eat after noon. Of course curtailing sexual activity is foundational to monasticism, obviating the most reliable and well-worn route to entanglement in Samsara.

On the other hand there are almost no restrictions on what a monastic can do for others: on teaching, pastoral care, good works, advice, even physical labor, as long as it is not compensated. Interestingly, the restrictions on the monastics’ aid to others for the most part apply to traditional priestly functions, such as predicting the future, healing or appealing to the mercy of deities. The Buddha created an order of renunciates, role models and teachers, not of priests.

Virtually all of the progress one (lay or monastic) is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up, physically and/or mentally: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligations like debt and car ownership, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or imbibing liberally, needy emotions of lust, greed, envy, pride, avarice, aversive emotions of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, denial and confusion, the distortion of self-view and having to be somebody. The Buddhist Path entails a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. The power of the monastic life is in setting high standards of physical renunciation and offering virtually no channel for the practical expression of the afflictive mental factors that refuse to let go and generally assault, for a time, even the most dedicated monastic heart. Within the monastic container, meditation and study quickly develop ripe and plump fruit.

The analogous discipline of science develops a different kind of quality in its practitioners: talent for research. It implements policies that provide very high standards for assessing its quality, for publicizing results and for allocating research funding and employment where future results prove most promising. Through continuous discourse at conferences, in published journals and in informal contexts, research results are continually refined and reevaluated cooperatively within the community to improve their quality. Peer review, and standards for hiring professors, granting tenure, awarding research grants, etc. also provide other forms of constraint and encouragement.

“The arousing of faith in the faithless” / “The increase of the faithful”

Where there are Noble Ones, trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The Noble Ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life, and tend to melt samsaric tendencies. They are adepts, consulted as authorities to which folk Buddhists will defer when Dharmic questions arise. They thereby constrain popular speculative views of Dharma with a firm anchor in the practice and understanding of the Noble Ones.

Although most people do not have first-hand access to scientists, the volume and continuous production of results gives science much of its reputation and influence in the world, most particularly in the production of technology, including the wonderful gadgets that now fill our homes, cars and pockets, along with popular published outreach in the media. Scientists are popularly regarded as the experts to whom others defer, thereby countering popular speculative views of science with the solid anchor of scientific research, inhibiting the former from devolving into pure fantasy.

“The establishment of the true Dharma”

Buddhism has been noted as the first world religion. It has proved remarkable in its resilience, especially considering that no other religion has been able to penetrate foreign cultures without military conquest as naturally as Buddhism. This has been possible because the integrity of the authentic Dharma is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and is actively involved in its own training. Something as refined as Buddhism might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance, even in its native culture, but the anchor of the Sangha is difficult to budge. This theme will be developed further in Chapters Six and Seven.

The integrity of scientific results is similarly preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, engages strong collaborative research, is well supported and is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Science might otherwise easily degrade into the superstition, magic or wild speculation from which it arose in the first place, but it doesn’t, even though the oddest notions about the domain of science are rampant outside of the firmly planted scientific community.

“The fostering of Discipline”

Monastic discipline is probably the most archaic element of Buddhism. While scriptures vary throughout the Buddhist world, particularly with the proliferation of the later Mahayana Sutras, the regulations of the Vinaya are nearly a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.[12] The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and who ordain nuns and monks who will maintain the discipline. As long as the discipline is maintained there will be arahants in the world, as well as the lesser Noble Ones. As long as there are Noble Ones in the world the Dharma also will not go too far astray.

Imagine by way of illustration that the Buddhist Sangha as a whole decided that from now on the support of a monk will depend on his popularity among the laity, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts, how many people read his books or listen to his Dharma talks, how well he avoids that most disquieting of words, “renunciation.” Such a change would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put its essential functions under outside less-than-adept influence. It would also compromise the restraint of effluents, because it would force the monk into the self-centered and perhaps competitive behavior of actively seeking approval of others as a matter of livelihood.

Imagine additionally that members of the Sangha were self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, “Venerable Bo Bo,” with no commitment to the renunciate life. This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to imagine how Buddhism would dissolve in a quick flash of unprecedented popularity. Influence over casual seekers would grow for a short time, but fewer and fewer people would be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma in the long term. The fostering of discipline is critical to the resilience of the Sasana.

The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved in a uniform document and not so deliberately studied as the Buddhist Vinaya is. Yet working scientists and university administrators have an implicit common sense of what discipline entails and how to regulate it, and are very sensitive to any assault on its integrity as a community. These various elements of scientific discipline are for the most part very old, implicitly understood by working scientists, and show every sign of enduring into the future.

Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that, from now on, salary and the ability to publish or fund research will depend entirely on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps measured in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his results, with special credit for writing a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under less-than-adept, outside influence: popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review. It would represent a race to the bottom.

Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, “Professor Bob, BA.” This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how serious science would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Scientific understanding would also be compromised when unqualified researchers publish results with little feedback from perhaps better qualified members of the scientific community, and when they ignore important aspects of research in favor of what sells. In the end science would be largely discredited. Luckily this scenario is unlikely to play itself out fully, because scientists have a sense of the discipline their community requires.

References

Ariyesako, Bhikkhu, 1999, “The Bhikkhus’ Rules: a Guide for Laypeople,” on-line at accesstoinsight.org.

Cintita, Bhikkhu Dinsmore, 2012, “What Did the Buddha Think of Women?,” essay available on-line at https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com.

Conze, Edward, 1959, Buddhism: its Essence and Development, Harper.

Gombrich, Richard, 2006, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge.

Gombrich, Richard, 2009, What the Buddha Taught, Equinox.

Horner, I.B., 2006, Book of the Discipline, Part I, Pali Text Society: Lancaster.

Jaffe, Richard, 2001, Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism, Princeton University Press.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997, “The Economy of Gifts,” on line essay at accesstoinsight.org.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2007, The Buddhist Monastic Code I, II, Metta Forest Monastery.

Walshe, Maurice, 1996, The Long Discourses of the Buddha (= DN), Wisdom Publications: Boston.

Endnotes

  1. Thanissaro (1997, 2009).

2. Noble Ones (ariya) have attained at least the first level of awakening, stream entry.

3. The Sasana is the playing out of the Buddha’s teaching in time and space, that is, from an historical and social perspective.

4. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.

5. Gombrich (2009), p. 2, makes this claim.

6. Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, DN 16, Walshe (1996), p. 260.

7. Translation is by Thanissaro (2007), p. 5. See also Horner (2006) , pp.37-8.

8 .Conze (1959, p. 53) writes in stronger terms that, “The monks are the Buddhist elite. They are the only Buddhists in the proper sense of the word. The life of a householder is almost incompatible with the higher levels of spiritual life. This has been a conviction common to all Buddhists at all times.”

9 .See Cintita (2012). Historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

10. The origin stories of individual rules found in the Vinaya reveal this.

11. Ariyesako (1999) provides an accessible overview of the monastic regulations.

12. The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001) and the discussion in later chapters.

Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (3/3)

August 18, 2017

pdf_24x18Sorry for the delay; I changed my mind a couple of times in writing this. So far, in parts 1 and 2, I have argued that the Buddha proposed a middle way between belief and practice function that gives us a lot of flexibility in our interpretation of Buddhist teachings insofar as we retain the functional integrity of the Dharma. I will now conclude with some examples of this process of interpretation. I will soon provide a link to the right → for a pdf of the entire essay, which will provide footnotes.

The Value of an Open Mind

We are a belief-centered culture. Modern culture has been fractured as long as it has been modern, with many internal contradictions along many fault lines – inter-religious, religious-secular, superstitious-rational, religious-scientific, spiritual-material, scientific-scientific and so on – each fault sustained by the dogmatic adherence of certain people to opposing beliefs, each holding the view “this is true and anything else is worthless.” We are at the same time a modernity in crisis, a modernity remarkable for its aggressiveness and acquisitiveness, a modernity suffering from a loss of human dignity, meaninglessness and spiritual malaise, a society in which appearance trumps substance, in which greed and fear are dominant themes and in which substance abuse, mental illness, suicide and violent crime are endemic.

Modernity has greeted Buddhism for the most part with a sense of relief. Buddhism has been widely greeted as kind, rational, unbiased, consistent with science, mystical, profoundly wise, serene, aesthetic. For some of us the entry of Buddhism into the modern space has felt like there is suddenly an adult in a room full of squabbling children. I don’t want to be unfair: there have been all along many adults in the room, but their voices had long been eclipsed by the perpetual squabbling all around them. Buddhism has entered as something apart, and many have been attracted to this charismatic new visitor. The voice of the Buddha tells us of an alternative way of being in the world, one rooted in kindness, harmony, simplicity, virtue and wisdom, a message that, if taken seriously, promises relief from the modern pathology. It is a radical voice, a voice that remains a challenge to most people even in traditionally Buddhist countries and all the more challenge to those in modern societies.

Unfortunately, these old fault lines continue to infect the thinking of many of us modern people even while we have embraced Buddhism, such that Buddhism itself is in danger, with time, of fracturing along these same fault lines, after which also the voice of the Buddha might end up eclipsed by the squabbling of children. We “convert” Buddhists – on the forefront of this epic encounter between an ancient tradition that has been transmitted through unfamiliar cultures, and modernity – must make wise decisions to get this encounter off on the right foot. “Off on the right foot” would mean that Buddhist teachings are made meaningful and accessible to moderns, at the same time that little of the transformative function of Buddhist practice, which has the potential to bring sanity to the world, is lost in the process.

In this section I attempt to provide some of this wisdom to inform our decisions on behalf of a thriving influential future modern Buddhism that makes a real difference in people’s lives and society.

A Principle of adaptation. There is a commodious space between practice function and belief. Practice function is the role of a teaching in upholding Buddhist practice. Belief, where it arises, collapses that space into a fixed view. The space itself represents the open mind, willing to take the teaching seriously, but holding loosely many possibilities of interpretation without insisting on a fixed view. The space comprises our wiggle room as we adapt Buddhism to modernity, as we make the teachings meaningful and accessible, as we make them our own. Belief comes from two significant sources: It may come from within a Buddhist tradition itself in which, over time, a fixed standard interpretation for any particular teaching may have been calcified. Or it may come from within modernity itself as an unquestioned presupposition often at one side of many of the fault lines running through modernity. Adapting Buddhist teachings to modernity may therefore require, at the same time, challenging the views of Buddhist tradition and challenging the views of modernity. It should be underscored that, at a minimum, Buddhism should challenge the presuppositions of modernity; otherwise why would we undertake the monumental task of bringing it here? At the same time this encounter with modernity will challenge, fortunately and at long last, whatever has become calcified in Buddhist traditions, perhaps not revisited for many centuries, to make Buddhism new and sparkling again.

As this is happening, it is fitting that we take each of the teachings seriously by default, at least until such time as we have a very good understanding of what its practice function might be. The alternative is to pare Buddhism down to the point of modern comfort when faced with a teaching we do not understand. This alternative challenges neither traditional Buddhism, nor modernity, and leaves us with a voice barely audible in the midst of the squabble over traditional fault lines. Unfortunately, this alternative has been chosen far too often by many of us “convert” Buddhists in recent years.

I hope this does not seem to theoretical. In the rest of this essay I will make this more concrete. I am a modern man, educated in science, without a religious upbringing, intellectual, by nature highly skeptical. At the same time, I have become a very devout Buddhist, and even a monk in an Asian tradition. Although I am still dealing with, and find myself right in the middle of, many of the challenges the encounter between Buddhism and modernity brings, through years of study, practice and teaching I have discovered the value of an open mind. This has provided a means to reconsider and gain valuable insight into what many of my Buddhist teachers have been telling me, and at the same time to better understand and question many of the Western presuppositions I brought with me at the beginning of this endeavor.

I would like, in this section, to take up a short list of teachings that have raised western eyebrows, teachings that westerners have been challenged to find meaningful or accessible. I do this not to put closure on these issues, but by way of illustration of how we might put our commodious wiggle-room to use to make these teachings our own while upholding their intended practice function. This list includes the usual suspects of karma, rebirth, rituals and monasticism, each of which at one time raised my eyebrows. This functional approach to the teachings – asking first, “What is its practice function?” than asking “How do I make sense if it?” – also forms the method behind my introductory textbook on early Buddhism, Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path.

The challenge of karma. Recall that karma is intentional action, but that we are the heirs of our own deeds, that is, our actions produce results or fruits that we experience, often after some time, in correspondence to the ethical quality of our deeds. The ethical quality, furthermore, is carried by the intention – for instance, kindness or hatred, greed or generosity – we bring to the deed. We have already seen above that this fundamental teaching has a profound practice function for ethical practice in equating, contrary to common sense, our own benefit with that of others.

Nonetheless, the teachings around karma are often a challenge for modern skeptics, who ask, “Is it really true?” In fact, if we look at these teachings simply as a generalization subject to empirical refutation or confirmation, we discover that this principle stands up remarkably well in our own experience:

First, if we are mindful, we find it feels good to act when our intentions are really pure, and there is, in contrast, at least a degree of stress or anxiety when we act out of greed or aversion.

Second, for those of us who habitually act with pure intentions, that purity becomes habituated, it becomes a mark of our character. Repeated generosity, for instance, makes us a generous person. As this happens, we develop, with time, an angelic glow and and uplifted spirit. Those who habitually act with impure intentions develop a furrowed brow and dejected mood. Repeated anger, for instance, makes an angry, unhappy person.

Consider Ebeneezer Scrooge, before and after. Although this is a fictional character, the reader should be able readily to find among acquaintances similar real-world examples. Habitual impure intentions even effect one’s physical health, and naturally result in being shunned socially or in retribution; no one wants the company of the the irate or of the dishonest. Scrooge (before) lived in a kind of hell realm right here on earth, trying to find solace in his wealth. On the other hand, habitual pure intentions improve one’s health, make one quite popular socially and result in others doing good in return.

Nonetheless, there are skeptics who question further, “What is the mechanism that makes all this work?” They might imagine some kind of cosmic accounting system to track when we’ve been naughty or nice and allocate future good or bad fortune accordingly, and, in fact, this seems to be a traditional interpretation of the principle of karmic results. But why assume a uniform mechanism? The last paragraph already describes a familiar set of processes that seem to conspire to produce these karmic results: human psychology, learning in human behavior, patterns of interpersonal responses and the mind-body connection. Psychologically we could say that virtue really is its own reward; it is not so much that good intentions bring happiness, rather that good intentions are happiness. This should suffice to establish abundant confidence in the principle of karmic results as a solid working assumption, and to enjoy the support that this gives our practice. We should acknowledge that cases are sometimes described in the EBT (Early Buddhist Texts) of a particular deed giving rise to an seemingly unrelated event, for instance, helping a stranger who is sick, then later winning the lottery a week later. However, these are actually extremely rare in the EBT and I see no reason to believe they are not entirely allegorical.

Going further, this principle of karmic results is often conceptualized as merit-making in EBT, earning merits for good deeds and demerits for bad deeds, which further encourages the image of an underlying accounting system, and which thereby adds to the confusion of modern people. Merit-making actually has a very familiar practice function. Suppose we take up some non-Buddhist practice, say, jogging. We normally will want to track how many miles we run each morning and how many mornings we run each week. Why? Because measuring keeps us consistent in our practice, it keeps us from backsliding. Similarly, if we take up a meditation practice, we will track how many hours we meditate each day or week and so on. This is all merit-making does. It is a crude estimation of karmic results, but it makes a big difference in our practice; we actually begin to search intently for opportunities to be of benefit to others and we are unlikely to backslide. Merit-making is a conceptual support that benefits our practice.

The challenge of rebirth. Rebirth often raises skeptical modern eyebrows through the roof. Our task is not to dismiss rebirth out of hand, but to find a way to interpret it, however loosely, that is meaningful and accessible to us. To dismiss the notion altogether is to lose the practice functions the Buddha attributed to rebirth, and therefore to corrode at least some of the integrity of the teachings. Nonetheless, not to dismiss rebirth is often a challenge in terms of prevailing modern presuppositions.

In his most recent work, Batchelor shows, quite impressively, how he has been doing the difficult work of turning the teaching of rebirth every way he can to make it more meaningful and accessible to his skeptical mind. He acknowledges, admirably, that its theoretical validity is subordinate to whatever practical benefit it might bring in cultures in which the notion is already widely accepted. He also refers to the scientific evidence of early child memories of previous lives collected in the work of Ian Stevenson and his colleagues, but correctly points out that this evidence still falls short of verifying the ubiquity of rebirth generally assumed in the EBT, and that it has yet to provide evidence that karmic results may be realized in the next life.

Most significantly, Batchelor observes that, “… all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible. In providing a sense of humility, connectedness and responsibility, this world view encourages people to consider the significance of their existence in the selfless context of the immensity of life itself, not reduce it to the service of their egotistical greed and hatred.” He also recognizes how rebirth is a metaphor for hell, the condition of repetition, where our same old patterns of reactive behavior and our very existence play themselves out over and over again, seemingly endlessly.

Right on! This exemplifies how we can all go about exploring alternative interpretations of an age-old teaching, in spite of the fixed interpretations acquired in most Buddhist traditions, in order to make them meaningful and accessible to us. This goes a long way to provide the larger scheme of things the Buddha set for our practice. Although this account might still feel a bit remote to declare it our own, this shows how we hold a teaching loosely where our initial impulse might be to dismiss it altogether.

Rebirth is more obscure than most of the Buddha’s teachings in that there is little opportunity for verification in our own experience. However, a very fruitful source of rather direct evidence is often overlooked that I invite readers also to investigate. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little charac­ters from the earliest age, and most of us can re­member our own pe­culiar qualities from toddlerhood. One child is terrified of thun­der storms, another of dark places. Paradoxically, infants seem in other re­spects to perfectly exemplify the fabled tabula rasa, hav­ing to discover, for in­stance, simplest laws of physics and the na­ture of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, be­cause right behind that come remarkably firmly es­tablished dispositions, a recognizable little character. One child seems particu­larly stingy, another freely generous at the very youngest age.

In a given circumstance, a child may follow a complex script, unique to that character, so precisely that it gives the impression of having been written then re­vised and rehearsed over countless years, centuries, millennia, and cer­tainly not composed anew by a child still not potty-trained and challenged to put his shoes on the right feet. Such dispositions, communicated to us somehow from the past, determine our responses to sensual stimulation, to irritation or insult, to fear; how we order our lives or array the things of the world, how we like to spend our time, what we value. In this life we continue to revise our dispositions, learning new ones, unlearning old ones or revising old ones to produce new; this is how our practice bears fruit.

Just as we have somehow in­herited dis­positions from past lives, it must be the case that we somehow serve as vehicles through which dispositions are transmitted to fu­ture lives. In this way, our lives are embedded in a rich and immense tapestry of human af­fairs, and “all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible.” We can therefore observe this in our direct experience of our own evolving habit patterns.

The astute reader will notice that I have made a case not for the specifics of linear rebirth as it is generally understood in Buddhism, but what is important is that our interpretation fulfills the practice function of giving gravity and urgency to our practice, of making us accountable to the future, of making practice the overar­ching condition of our lives rather than of simply making it another thing we do in our lives.

The greatest danger for us in contemplating rebirth is to adhere dogmatically to a fixed belief: “There is no such thing as rebirth, period!” This closes the mind to the many possibilities it may be necessary to consider as we wrap out minds around this central teaching. Unfortunately, almost everybody in our culture seems to have fixed beliefs about many things. My fear is that Buddhism will shatter on these many fixed crystallized modern beliefs. However, almost as dangerous in this case might be to adhere to the opposite fixed belief whose source is in Buddhist tradition: “There is such thing as rebirth, period!” A prominent Western monk once said that if science ever demonstrates that there is no rebirth, he will disrobe. For him, the teaching of rebirth seems to be working to instill urgency and commitment to his practice, best realized through monastic practice. However, it seems to me, it makes his faith in the teachings rather fragile, making it contingent on external evidence, rather than simply fulfilling its practice function. If he were to hold this teaching more loosely, but rest in its practice function, it would be much more malleable.

Understanding our presuppositions: materialism. Rebirth is described in the EBT as a linear process, in which a death gives rise to a birth that preserves many mental factors, particularly habit patterns, in the process. Generally, as we consider this, many of us balk. It defies common sense. It is unscientific. Science allows no mechanism whereby this could happen. A little more explicitly: the mind is a product of brain function. If the body dies, the brain dies and >poof< the mind is gone. How can it be preserved for the next life?

Behind common sense are always a lot of presuppositions. Einstein is said to have stated that “common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before age eighteen.” Presuppositions here are tacit assumptions, most commonly instilled at a young age before our faculty of dis­crimination has fully de­veloped, or so widely accepted in our society that we too have ac­cepted them without ever having examined or questioned them. They are, in other words, beliefs; they are, in fact, as instances of unexamined belief, examples of blind faith. This does not necessarily make them false, but certainly makes them subject to examination. In the present case, the presupposition at hand is that of materialism, that all of reality is physical; that what we consider mental, if it exists at all, is a byproduct of physical activity, an epiphenomenon, generally specifically attributed to brain function.

Materialism gives rise to a range of positions about the status of mind. We have seen that B.F. Skinner simply dismissed mind as illusory and not worthy of investigation. Others hold that mind has a kind of reality, albeit one that can ultimately be reduced to brain function, but is nonetheless worthy of investigation. Many of these hold that what appears in consciousness reflects accurately objective reality, aside from emotional responses, dreams, etc., but generally dismiss such things an altered consciousness and mystical states, etc. A large segment of the population seems to regard meditative states and spiritual attainments as just one step away from fairy dust, shape shifting and reading tea leaves.

Where we we stand on these issues is bound to effect how we interpret the Buddha’s teachings, because Buddhism is so much concerned with mind. Buddhist practitioners sit in the middle of their subjective experience in meditation, while right view points out what we will find there. Nonetheless, if we believe in materialism, then we may balk at rebirth; if we do not acknowledge mystical states, we will have trouble making sense of awakening; if we do not acknowledge altered consciousness, we will fail to see the value of meditation. There are such people and they will find little of Buddhism meaningful or accessible, and are not likely to show up a Buddhist temples or meditation group.

Recently I watched a video on-line of an address Sam Harris delivered to a conference of atheists on meditation. Sam Harris is as assertive in his atheism as the next guy, but has taken an interesting turn; he has developed an interest in Buddhist meditation (even writing a book the subject) and he wanted to convey to the audience that meditation can be cleanly distinguished from the horror of “religion” and is even beneficial. His audience would have none of it, responding with moans in many tones and by rolling its many eyes. It is clear that the presuppositions of a large segment of the modern population make meditation, and Buddhism generally, inaccessible. I don’t expect to have more success with this population than Sam Harris, but they provide an opportunity for understanding the kinds of presuppositions that modern people harbor.

What is generally misunderstood is that science makes a poor case for materialism. Materialism has never been presented as a scientific theory subject to rigorous empirical investigation. It is a metaphysical assumption that most scientists find appealing. Materialism has its origin in the mind-matter dualism of Descarte in which a non-material mind is the seat of consciousness, self-awareness and intelligence, clearly distinguished from matter, to which scientific investigation was to be limited. As it has happened, the success of science in investigating the material universe in the succeeding centuries has been astonishing, while relatively little is understood of the mind. Rather naturally, as science has begun to become more interested in subjective experience, the hope seems to have arisen that what has worked in the past will work in the future, that mind will yield to the paradigm of material investigation.

The logic of this has always reminded me of the man who drops his keys in the dark but searches for them under a street lamp where the light is better. So far this approach has failed to account for the mind. Although correlations have been discovered between brain activity and subjective experiences, causality is not established. Moreover, there is not even a viable theory on the table of how conscious experience can possibly arise from material processes. Furthermore, the observer effect witnessed in quantum theory suggests that mind intrudes as a causal factor into the material world at a very fundamental level. Some researchers are now even suggesting that matter is reducible to mind, not the other way around. Giving up or at least questioning the presupposition of materialism can open up many new possibilities for interpreting Buddhist teachings.

The challenge of monasticism. The Buddha was a monk. Virtually all the awakened of the EBT were either monks or nuns. Monastics have been responsible for transmitting Buddhist teachings from generation to generation, fulfilling the mission the Buddha assigned it. Entering monastic practice has been a kind of right upheld by Buddhist communities throughout Buddhist history open to those who want to dedicate themselves fully to Buddhist practice free from the corrupting influences of the world. Aside from promoting individual practice, monastic practice serves the Buddhist community in preserving and propagating the higher teachings, and providing the key determining factor in the dynamics of the Buddhist community. Moreover, the monastic sangha is the most enduring (and endearing) human institution on the planet; Buddhism has never succeeded without a monastic sangha, and where the monastic sangha is lost, as in the “New Buddhist” movements in Japan, Buddhism becomes unrecognizable.

So, why do so many modern people balk at the legitimacy of a monastic institution and some would do away with it altogether? Some even want to deny that the Buddha founded a monastic sangha, an argument that is exceedingly hard to make in the context of the EBT.

For one thing, institutions themselves are suspect, as they should be, for they easily move toward corruption and abuse. But a vehemence is reserved in this case that is not enjoyed by the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the corner Stop and Shop or the Social Security Administration. Like it or not, all aspects of society are facilitated by institutions. If you go out on a dinner date, you enter an institution, a restaurant, in which many people are working collaboratively in various roles to provide delicious food and a comfortable context for your amorous intent. If a like-minded group of stamp collectors wanted to organize their efforts, to facilitate access to or trading of stamps, they will probably organize a club. Why should we object to an institution in one case but not in the other?

In fact, as institutions go, the monastic sangha described in the EBT is strikingly amiable. Its primary function is, in contrast to how many think, to make the monks and nuns powerless with respect to society at large, to make them as helpless as kittens, for in this way their interest withdraws from the world, providing the seclusion conducive to practice. Internally, the monastic sangha has well-articulated means to ensure harmony, such that its members are “blending like milk and water, regarding each other with kind eyes” (SN 9.36). It is an institution with little hierarchy and no coercive power. Moreover, the Buddha designed it as a completely decentralized consensual democracy, following rules of governance and monastic behavior laid out in the monastic code of the Buddha. Membership in the monastic sangha was open as privilege to all adult members of the Buddhist community regardless of caste or gender (with some minor restrictions intended to prevent abuse of this privilege). It was designed to provide the ideal social context for Buddhist practice and cultivate a space in which the practice of Dharma can burn brightest. The monastic sangha’s authority lies purely in its role in maintaining, exemplifying, teaching and perpetuating the practice and understanding of Dharma for the benefit of the entire community. Ultimately the monastic community is under the full control of the lay community, for if the monastics fail inspire, the lay community can withdraw its support.

Naturally the monastic institution has suffered some corruption of its original intent here and there in its history. Historically this has resulted, as far as I can see, primarily from the support of governments and wealthy benefactors who demand concessions, or from government interference in the proper functioning of the sangha. It has also neglected to establish, maintain or restore the nuns’ sangha in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. Nonetheless, throughout Asia – and I can speak of Myanmar from personal experience – it generally functions to this day in the various independent local monasteries, generally in small villages, in the way the Buddha intended. Moreover, these faults in the sangha will be quickly and naturally addressed as the monastic sangha grows in the West, particularly as we leave behind any traditional political arrangements, in the way that many calcified interpretations of Dharma sometimes found in Asian traditions will be reconsidered with fresh eyes in the West.

Understanding our presuppositions: religion. It seems that problem many have with monasticism is that in appearance it has not only “religion” but “religious hierarchy” written all over it. And so many balk, just as we do for rites and rituals, vows, liturgy, spells, mythology and sacred objects. After all, many say, Buddhism is rational (I hope this essay may have demonstrated that it is even more rational than many may have thought), not religious. People can often be quite fervent in their rationality:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

“Religious authority, priests, monks, clerical garb, vows, humbug!”

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

Once again, let’s try to understand our presuppositions. These kinds of reactions, in fact, have a long history in Western culture, particularly in Protestant cultures. Recall that the early “Protestants” represented a “protest” movement against the perceived corruption within the Catholic church, particularly against its hierarchical institutions which had become instruments for the consolidation of enormous temporal power, while reserving for itself a mediating role and complete dominance throughout Europe in people’s spiritual lives as the means to connect to God. Much of the priesthood had become corrupted by power, and even the monastic order was not immune. The Protestant reformation swept away this institutional presence from the lives of many, such that people could enjoy a direct relationship to God. This process was dramatized by years of social turmoil and thirty years of devastating warfare in Europe as landed aristocracy exploited the situation to “secularize” the power vacuum left in many regions by the dis-empowered church.

Secularization for many, beginning with John Locke, meant that religion became a private concern without an institutional presence in society, sometimes now describes as being “spiritual but not religious.” For many, the role of God in the following centuries faded, particularly with the ascent of science. With the marginalization of God, particularly in European romanticism and psychotherapy, and among the hippies, some inner core within each of us became the source of spiritual energy as well as creativity, under constant threat by social convention and institutions. A product of all this has been a general suspicion of religion. All this is the source of very strong presuppositions, rarely examined by those who carry them and very difficult to see as anything other than common sense.

What does this have to do with Buddhism? Absolutely nothing, and that is the point. The Buddha was born much to early and in the wrong part of the world to know anything about this history of Western ideas. Yet we project the narrative of the last paragraph on the situation in early Buddhist Asia, preferring to see the Buddha as the philosopher of the inner self, telling us how to push institutional life and social convention aside in order to free our inner spiritual energy, and leaving us imagining we’ve expunged religion from Buddhism. The simple and fragile decentralized monastic sangha thereby becomes equated with the monolithic Catholic Church.

Our presuppositions concern something called “religion,” which many find objectionable. “Religion” is not even a concept the Buddha would have been familiar with, for historically there had been no equivalent word in any Asian language before Western contact. Although it has defied definition by scholars, not only do we presume to know what religion is or how to recognize it when we see it, but we are willing to make bold claims about religion: That it is the opiate of the people, or that it is by nature violent, and so on.

The only reasonable definition I know of religion that would include Buddhism is that of Paul Tillich, that religion is the “ultimate concern.” Indeed, we might characterize both Buddhism and Christianity as the ultimate concern for their adherents, and we can acknowledge further that there are a common set of factors that typically adhere to the ultimate concern, which include mythology, ritual, institutional structure, clergy, robes, sacred objects, etc. But at what point does the ultimate concern of Buddhism become objectionable as these various factors adhere to it?

It is not that we object so strongly to organization, hierarchy or authority in general: we have plenty of this in government, in our schools, at work.

It is not that we object to attributing symbolic meaning to things: we do this to flags, military uniforms, corporate logos.

It is not that we object to archaic clothing: judges and college graduates wear robes.

It is not that we object to rites and rituals: the military or a children’s birthday party is full of them. Even the abundant bowing that characterizes Buddhism has its counterparts in shaking hands, in waving and in military salutes.

It is not that we object to vows and commitments. These drive most of our large undertakings, from marriage to getting a college degree.

For many in the modern West the ultimate concern is shopping and, sure enough, virtually all of these features that tend to adhere in “religion” can be found in the realm of shopping.

Liturgy. I still have advertising jingles playing in my head that I learned in childhood. Some Christian liturgy is co-opted during the peak Christmas season.

Mythology. Consumerist myths tend to center around celebrities, sublime beings who live problematic, operatic lives, but spend a lot of money and look great and act cool living them.

Sacred objects. These are even conveniently marked for how sacred.

Institutional presence. Shopping is largely driven by for-profit, limited-liability faceless corporations, which have many levels of hierarchy, are corrupt almost by definition and wield great power..

Clergy. Salespeople (or maybe game show hosts).

Ritual. The whole shopping experience is ritualized and customers become upset if the salespeople don’t satisfy their behavioral expectations.

Respect for the understandings of others. In this essay I have been calling for a radically open-minded way of approaching the Buddha’s teachings. Such an approach that seriously what is of value in these teachings, that is, how they support our lives of Buddhist practice. At the same time, such an approach holds loosely any particular way we might have of making these teachings meaningful and accessible to ourselves, that is, by avoiding getting caught up in fixed view or beliefs. We have seen that the Buddha himself lights this way (I am perpetually blown away by the depth and comprehensiveness of the Buddha’s thinking).

The Buddha’s teachings are very much experientially based, which means that most of us who have no qualms with the veracity of the subjective mind will find them meaningful and accessible without balking. Nonetheless, at certain points we will be challenged by certain teachings as we develop in our practice and understanding. Indeed, there is much in Buddhism to challenge us in many ways. If you find that you balk around rebirth, around bowing, around renunciation, or around any number of eyebrow-raisers, this does not mean you are a failure at Buddhism, or don’t get to call yourself a Buddhist. In fact, it will probably have little impact on your practice for the short-term: We are each, at any giving time, working with a subset of the Buddha’s teachings while many others are likely to be unfamiliar or obscure for many years before we succeed in making them our own. So, we have abundant material to work with. If we balk in one area of practice, we can always focus our attention on another.

We each at a given time have our own private Dharma, larger or smaller than another’s, overlapping in some ways and distinct in others. Our Dharma tends to become more comprehensive with time, as more and more teachings come to inform our practice. But there is also a larger Dharma, one that belongs not to any individual, but to the Buddhist community writ large. This larger Dharma is accessible to us as the need arises through books, through teachers, through Web searches and most importantly through admirable friends who simply exhibit the Dharma successfully in their lives. I want to close with an admonition: Don’t try to reduce the larger Dharma down to your private Dharma. Rather, respect and support the practice and understanding of those whose Dharma might differ from your own. If you don’t “get” rebirth or bows or why someone would become a monk, respect those who do, and never try to diminish their (hopefully loose) hold on those teachings. Someday – and this will surprise you – your understanding may comprehend what at one time seemed incomprehensible. This is how we preserve the integrity of the teachings, even while we adapt them to modern sensibilities.

What is Believable? (5/6)

April 2, 2015

After looking at the relative nature of truth as we accept a thesis, we trace the problem of finding a thesis unbelievable back to its source, to the tacit, unexamined beliefs that make a thesis seem unbelievable.

Series Index

How to reconsider your standards for believability

The method here is to open our minds to exotic beliefs through loosening up pernicious fixed preconceptions.

Have you noticed how each of has such a sparklingly clear view of the world that we wonder why no one else does, such effortless insight into right and wrong, into what is really the issue here, into what is viable and what is not, that it seems to us just common sense or a matter of clear, rational thinking, faculties with which we happen to be almost uniquely endowed? We wonder that others can be so dense. The reason we think this way, is sparkingly clear to me and to anyone else with common sense or with a faculty for rational thought: A foundational layer of views has been laid down at such an uncritical, unquestioning and unremembering age that we can no longer even wildly imagine that they might be mistaken. They were, in short, acquired like this:

Figure11Acceptance of a tacit view without evidence

Since their acceptance skipped the evaluation stage altogether, the tacit preconceptions that underly our extreme confidence in the rightness of our later views are themselves high on faith and low on reason. Whenever someone says with utmost confidence, “That’s just common sense,” or “I am just saying what is obviously true,” or “As anyone with eyes can plainly see …,” he is almost certainly presupposing tacit views that he has never thought to question or challenge, or that he might not even be aware he has. We acquire a lot of these views in childhood before our faculties for discernment have developed. They produce the illusion of a cartoon world that we don’t have to think too hard about, such that we wonder that others have such mistaken views about it.

Tacit views, for their part, tend to constrain what theses we then consider believable and later accept.

Figure12Tacit view as believability criterion

For instance, one might have tacitly acquired the view that free-market capitalism is good, efficient, conducive to human thriving. One might also have tacitly acquired the view that socialism is inimical to free-market capitalism. In this case, any proposal that seems socialist (or that someone in authority simply labels as socialist) will be rejected out of hand as unbelievable. The result is a misplaced skepticism, a strident skepticism based not in questioning but in already having the answers.

It is inevitable that we, as wide-eyed innocents, should acquire many such views at an early stage of our development. This gives parents a special responsibility to make sure children are exposed to healthy wholesome views, rather than sickly and pernicious views. Fundamental values are acquired this way, ethical standards, religious and political views, social and cultural norms and so on. It is much better if children grow up thinking, “A kind response is just common sense,” or “The need to respect the dignity of every individual is obviously true,” than that they grow up thinking, “As anyone with eyes can plainly see you need to take care of Numero Uno even if it means knocking a few heads together.” Belief in the authority of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha arises in this way for most Buddhists at an uncritical age, for those who are born Buddhist. Likewise, belief in the authority of science arises in the uncritical years of childhood, for those who are born modern.

Tacit views, though often wholesome, are also the stuff of delusion. Differences in tacit views easily give rise to interpersonal friction in which each party is astounded that the other cannot see what is obviously true. The Buddha advocated a rational examination of views. As B. Alan Wallace puts it:

The challenge that Buddhism presents is to develop a true spirit of skepticism toward our own unquestioned assumptions, for it is these – not the beliefs of others – that lie at the root of our suffering.

Our foundational views may differ from those of others around us, but in fact there are widespread commonalities within any particular culture. For instance, many moderns tend to believe in materialism without question, that is, in the reality of an entirely physical universe, and to harbor a particular distrust of organized religion. Behind any widespread view is generally a long causal history reaching back at least a few hundred years. I would like to focus on these two views in particular, because they give repeated rise to teaching-believability mismatch, and therefore deserve careful scrutiny in Buddhist circles. Reconsidering these views leads to greater openness toward a number of Buddhist teachings that are often dismissed as unbelievable.

Private religion. The Protestant Reformation, starting as a protest movement against the excesses of the Catholic Church, reshaped the scope and appropriate setting of religion. McMahan1 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.

Religion became primarily a private relationship between the individual mind and God, or Jesus, whereas before it had a communal basis, rich in ritualized behaviors and relations, with a special role for robed priests, who not only oversaw ceremonies and education but also interceded personally between God and His children. Religious practice had previously been inseparable from other communal functions, even in the workplace and Protestant Christianity tended now to marginalize these communal aspects. To this day there is a profound suspicion of, and distaste for, the communal, institutional and ritual aspects of religion in Protestant lands. The force of this tacit view in the religious context is striking when one considers that there is little resistance to communal, institutional and ritual aspects of analogous areas of life, for instance, in the military, at sports events or in academic or political life. Consider flags, salutes, awards, uniforms and ranks, graduation ceremonies, homecoming ceremonies, cheerleading and group chanting, national anthems, the national spirit, and so on.

The doctrine of private religion is commonly misapplied to Buddhism; it rubs Buddhism the wrong way. First, Buddhism is at a very basic level a communal tradition itself, even while it extols as the highest ideal the individual renunciate who seeks seclusion in order to focus on the very private endeavor of attaining Awakening. The monastic Sangha, founded by the Buddha, is perhaps the oldest continual institution on the planet, and in that sense might be regarded as the most successful.

Second, Buddhism has a history that is quite distinct from the Catholic church and has never sparked protest on anything like the scale of the Protestant movement. Its communal structure has an entirely different basis, organized around a vulnerable monastic order, not around a hierarchical priesthood, that wields no coercive power and attains its authority only in its adherence to, and its role in imparting and inspiring, the teachings of the Buddha.

Third, the doctrine of private religion shows up in the believability standards which form the topic of this essay. The result is the common dismissal of many practices that characterize Buddhism, such as various rituals, incessant bowing, monastic discipline and the monastic/lay distinction. In A Culture of Awakening I argue that its communal structure has a critical function in Buddhism, that, in fact, it has played an essential historical role in the preservation of its functional integrity even as it has proved tolerant of cultural adaptations.

The point is that by understanding the conditioned history of the doctrine of private religion that is tacitly accepted as “just common sense,” one might just begin to question those presuppositions and thereby to become less constrained by them, and more willing to find those Buddhist teachings that conflict with those views believable. Many other tacit modern views that also rub Buddhism the wrong way have similar origins in European religious, cultural and intellectual history, particularly in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. McMahan’s Buddhism and Modernity provides an excellent catalog of the range of such view and their influence on modern practice and understanding of Buddhism.

This brings us to a critical function of the Triple Gem: To take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to accept the authority of these as primary sources of wisdom. This is not meant to discourage healthy skepticism and questioning around the teachings of Buddhism, but rather to encourage skepticism around tacit views, particularly those that seem contrary to Buddhist teachings. Refuge in the Triple Gem initiates the examination of our tacit assumptions.

The reduction of mind to brain. Scientific materialism, or simply materialism, is the view that universe is entirely physical, consisting of matter and energy. Psycho-physical reductionism, or simply reductionism in what follows, is the associated view that mind has a physical basis; it is generally assumed to emerge specifically in the functioning of the brain. Most biologists and psychologists and most educated lay folks accept these views pretty much without question.

Like private religion, materialism, rather than being simply something that is obviously true, has an historical basis, which in this case we can trace back to Descartes’ establishment of the dichotomy between mind and matter and his declaration that matter is the proper object of scientific investigation, with mind assuming something like a God’s eye view that makes the objective examination of matter possible. In the early nineteenth century, Laplace introduced the view of a deterministic universe, governed entirely by physical forces. In the middle of that century, Helmholtz formulated the law of the conservation of energy, which seemed to exclude non-physical and therefore external forces such as God from intervening in the world. It also thereby seemed to exclude intervention by mind. Once science became interested in human behavior and cognitive capabilities and discovered that brain impairments effected these, the reduction of of mind to brain function seemed viable, such that mind is now widely regarded as an epiphenomenon, an emergent reflection of purely physical cognitive processes.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Buddhism is profoundly subjective in its method, primarily concerned with mental phenomena as they arise in human experience, and the causal relationships among these. Matter shows up as that which impinges on sense faculties, or else as illusory mental imputations on an imputed outer world. Our practice is focused on the development and purification of mind. Materialism and reductionism, on the other hand, marginalize the mind, leaving scant foothold for values, for moral responsibility, for meaning, for choice. They tend towards making some core teachings of the Buddha unbelievable.

As noted in our discussion of contextualization, few can live in a fully material world, even if they believe in it. The undesirable consequences of living in a material world is in itself is enough to expunge psycho-physical reductionism from Buddhist purview, independently of whether it is ultimately objectively true in a scientific sense, as unbeneficial. Materialism also entails annihilationism, the view that all mental factors, including karmic consequences, die with the body, which the Buddha explicitly dismissed for its detrimental ethical consequences in favor of the Middle Way. As Wallace (2012, 114) points out, the Buddha rejected any theory that undermines the sense of moral responsibility.

For materialism means that human well-being tends to be sought materially, in external conditions, or in ingestibles, because these have direct material effects. Contemplative practice seems of rather remote efficacy when a material measure is at hand. For many, meditation has become attractive only after neurological correlates have been discovered. It can then be understood as a matter of toning and building up neurons, much like physical fitness tones and builds up muscles. However, the efficacy of mediation for ethical purification of mind, for removing inclinations toward greed, hate and delusion then requires a long stretch of the imagination. Pill-popping seems, from a materialist perspective, a much more direct way of dealing with suffering than does a spiritual practice.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Nonetheless, it also turns out that psycho-physical reductionism is almost certainly wrong from a purely scientific or scholarly perspective. I hear some audible gasps out there, but bear with me. The many difficulties of reductive materialism as a viable theory have been well articulated by others much more familiar with the evidence and its interpretation than I, so I will briefly summarize the three forms these arguments take, each one of which, it seems to me, would be decisive on its own.

The first argument against reductionism is from quantum physics, which in the twentieth century completely overturned what seemed by the late nineteenth-century a firm basis for materialism, and which has interesting things itself to reveal about the real nature of mind. Quantum physics has become foundational to physics; modern electronics and nuclear power depend on the quantum understanding, and yet popular understanding of physics and the training in physics that biologists and other physical scientists obtain is generally stuck in the pre-quantum nineteenth century, probably because quantum physics, while unerringly accurate in its predictions, is at the same time “woo-woo and way out there,” in the common parlance. Quantum physics is a response to observational data from which it has failed to remove mind and intention (free will) from the universe at the most fundamental level. Let’s see how briefly I can put this:

A physical thing – like an electron or an atom, but in principle also a bigger thing like a cat – does not have a definite location (or any other state), but exists as a superposition, which is a probability function, also called a wave function, over locations … until you look at it, then it assumes a definite location, called collapsing the wave function, at which time not only does the thing assume a definite location, but anything else that is entangled with it, that is, whose definite location is predicted from its definite location, also collapses its wave function. For example, object a exists in more than one place at the same time, until you look at it, then a exists at only a single place. If the position of object b is predictable from the position of object a, then when the wave function of object a collapses, so does the wave function of object b, and so on. What is more, it does not matter how far away a and b have gotten from one another, or even if b is an object that existed in the past! Observation, in other words, makes the universe real, and even makes past history real, before which it hasn’t made up its mind. Observation, for its part, requires conscious mind, which John von Neuman identified as entanglement with the ich (the word Freud used for ego) that decided to look.

An interesting philosophical question for us is, Where does the mind, or the ich come from? Were little ichs around all along, collapsing wave functions willy-nilly? Reductionism seems almost the most absurd option: If mind is reducible to brain, which is also a product of evolution, then evolution could not have happened in any determinate form until it indeterminately created an ich that could observe and start collapsing wave functions so that its own evolutionary development could become determinate and it could itself exist. What is more, the experimental data seems to confirm Descartes original dualism between mind and matter, for the encounter with something distinct from matter is needed to collapse wave functions.

The tangle of paradoxes that arise from this boggles the, uh, mind. It even once boggled Einstein’s, uh, mind, who referred to the causal relationship between a and b above as spukhaft (spooky). It is therefore almost impossible to arrive at definitive conclusions, but let me reflect some speculations anyway. First, mind is much more fundamental constituent of the universe than physical reductionism would ever acknowledge. Second, what we are seeing in this observational data is the finishing touches of the creation of physical reality by mind. Physical reality, in other words, seems to reduce to mind, rather than the other way around. Spooky, but it sure seems to cast serious doubt on the enterprise of reducing mind to brain.

Sir James Jeans stated in the 1930’s that, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Max Planck, the primary originator of quantum theory, stated toward the end of his life in the 1940’s, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” Physicist Andrei Linde states, “I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers. We are together, the universe and us, … I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness” (quoted in Tucker, 2013, 168, 189). Eugene Wigner states, “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” (Rosenblum and Kuttner, 2011, 237).

If the brain does not produce mind, what does it do? The answer may have been recognized by William James over a century ago: the brain enables or transmits thoughts originating in a non-physical source. Interestingly models of brain function along these lines have been proposed by physicists, most notably by Henry Stapp and by Roger Penrose. These are highly speculative and controversial, but illustrate, for our purposes, how abandoning reductionism opens up a world of possible understandings of mind. As I understand it, these models propose that the brain is an organ specialized to maintain particular superposition states that are subject to collapse with specific physical effects under the influence of consciousness.ii They account, for instance, how the thought, “I think I will raise my arm,” can be followed by the physical rise of the arm. Quantum physics has laid the basis for modern electronics. It might likewise explain the purpose and operating principles of the brain in a way radically distinct from conventional understanding.

The second argument against reductionism is the complete absence, after over a century of research, of any viable theory of how mind could possibly arise from brain, along with compelling philosophical arguments that such a theory is in principle impossible. In contrast to the situation with mind, biological life processes, at one time also often regarded as irreducible, have been quite successfully reduced to biochemistry, as has biochemistry to chemistry, and chemistry to quantum physics, which is to say, we see physical and chemical laws working exactly as they should to fully account for life processes. There is no hint of an equivalent analysis of the arising of mental states in accordance with physical or biological principles, only the repeatedly stated tacit but enduring hope that someday one is forthcoming. At one time many researchers doubted life was reducible, convinced that some irreducible life force was required in order to account for it. There were shown to be wrong. At the present time some researchers analogously doubt that mind is reducible, convinced that something irreducible is needed to account for it. Every indication so far is that they are right.

Some progress has been made in computational models that emulate human reasoning and cognition. (I used to work in this field myself professionally.) Although many reductionists think of mind and brain as related as software to hardware, the practical success of computational models can be deceiving. One difficulty is the absence of an intrinsic semantics in computational models. Whereas a computer program might perform expert tasks, like medical diagnosis, quite impressively, the medical doctor understands how the diagnosis relates to real ailments of real patients, living real lives, whereas the artificial expert is merely manipulating symbols, and still relies on a human to relate the results of reasoning to the real world, to understand what the diagnosis means, just as a book relies on a human to interpret the knowledge it contains. This has been argued most persuasively by the philosopher John Searle, who (it should be stated in all fairness) nevertheless holds out hope for a reduction of mind to brain.

The philosopher David Chalmers (1996) focuses specifically on the phenomenology of human subjective experience, that is, consciousness, allowing that maybe there is some possibility of a computational theory that can account for much of human (subconscious) cognition. Each of us has subjective experience; in fact it is the only kind of direct experience we ever have. There is nothing more real. Accordingly, there is something it is like to be you, there is something it is like to taste an orange, or to look at an orange. In a thought experiment he asks us to imagine a world in which there is someone exactly like you with the same cognitive capabilities and behaviors manifesting the same physical processes, but in which there is no conscious experience, like a computer that is doing the correct calculations to emulate human capabilities. Your twin, whom Chalmers calls a zombie, has eyes, visual processing, representations of information, decision making processes, and so on, but simply lacks conscious experience. Carefully arguing from the coherence of the concept of zombies, he concludes that consciousness is not entailed by, and therefore cannot in principle be reduced to, matter, or brain function. Yet there is, as plain as day.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel (2012) is concerned that biological evolution, as normally understood, cannot account for the arising of mind from matter. First, it has enough difficulty accounting for the arising of life from dead matter and its subsequent evolution through mutation and natural selection, in terms of physical laws. Next, it has the even more challenging task of accounting for the arising of mental phenomena, in particular of consciousness, in association with certain life forms, in terms of the same kinds of laws. In this case physical elements must give rise to something non-physical and entirely without precedent in nature: consciousness. Finally, it has the even far more daunting task of explaining forms of human reasoning that can reliably conceptualize objective reality. Whereas an evolutionary account of perceptions and desires might make sense in terms of survivability, the evolution of purer forms of reasoning, such as recognition that there is a difference between appearance and reality, correction of expectations, or moral or prudential reasoning, would have to presuppose their validity. One need only consider, it seems to me, When and how, within the evolutionary process, did mathematics come into existence?

The third argument against reductionism is that mind is not strictly conditioned by brain. A primary argument for reducing mind to brain is that subjective mental experience correlates with observable brain activity. For instance, physical injuries to the brain, the ingesting of intoxicants and degenerative neural diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, clearly effect mental functions. However, the intimate correlation between mind and body is complex and works both ways. To take an obvious example of the way mind conditions matter, the thought arises, “I think I will raise my hand,” and my hand rises.

Problematic for reductionism are cases in which mind intervenes in a way that is quite independent of known physical mechanisms. Until late in the twentieth century such phenomena were widely dismissed as unbelievable in the scientific/medical community. One of the first of these phenomena to receive wide recognition is the placebo effect, as when an inert administered substance takes on the causal properties of another substance because of a mistaken belief about what is administered. The placebo effect is now so thoroughly accepted in medical research that accounting for it is obligatory in the testing of pharmaceuticals.

For the materialist, physical health is the proper function of physical bodily processes, and should proceed independent of mind. Yet stress or depression has an effect on the immune system and on other bodily functions. The state of mind, even the opportunity for affectionate contact with family or pets, can influence mortality rates. Both meditation and religious practice improve rates of recovery from illness or surgery. These effects were rarely acknowledged by doctors and researchers for many years, and the mechanisms by which they happen are still not understood.

A long list of similar effects have been documented but are often dismissed, even though they should not be any more unbelievable than the previous examples. They likewise represent intervention of mind into what are otherwise regarded a purely physical processes in the body and are therefore of similar type to the previous examples. In a vodoo death, the firm expectation of impending death, regardless of reasonably good health, results in death on schedule. In contrast, dying persons have been known to postpone death until Christmas or until they have seen family members one last time. In false pregnancy a woman begins showing symptoms such as enlarged belly and engorged breasts because she mistakenly thinks she is pregnant. In hysteria, a bodily function is lost without discernible neurological cause. In stigmata and related phenomena, physical effects corresponding either to imagined wounds or to previous bodily trauma relived many years later, manifest as blisters or wounds on the body, as if one has been burned or otherwise injured. In multiple personality disorder, sufferers exhibit different physiological conditions associated with different personalities, including differences in allergic reactions, eyesight, color blindness and right- or left-handedness. In extreme cases of bodily control, yogis are able to regulate bodily temperature or other body functions at will, and certain people are able to cause discoloration of the skin according to certain patterns. In maternal impressions, thoughts and experiences of a pregnant woman seem to manifest as birth marks or other abnormalities in the child. Kelly, et. al. (2006) is a huge compendium of the scientific/medical research on these topics and those listed in the following paragraph.

Most problematic for reductionism, but also least well documented in medical literature (but possibly precisely because they seem far too “woo woo and way out there” to record), are cases in which mind seems to function with a high degree of independence from the body. Examples of this include out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, particularly memories from a period in which brain activity has ceased. Also among these are documented memories in children of verifiable past-life experiences. Although commonly dismissed, Kelly (2006, xxv), for one, declares that high quality evidence for basic phenomena of this sort has long been available beyond a reasonable doubt. Wallace (2012, 95) likens the common disregard for such evidence to the difficulty Galileo had in getting anyone to look through his telescope for fear of contradicting established beliefs.

In short, modernity’s encounter with materialism has been ill conceived. It has forced us into an unnaturally narrow view of mind that the practicing Buddhist does well to abandon. Doing so will open open up the full range of benefit from Buddhist practice and understanding in which mind is primary, like nothing else.

Conclusion. Giving up the sparklingly clear view of the world that accrues with one’s tacit unexamined presuppositions will feel like a sacrifice. Yet examining those views and discovering their weakness opens up a world of alternative understandings along with the capacity to engage the world as it is more completely. It also tends to clear away obstacles to accepting the otherwise least believable of the Buddha’s teachings.

In our final post in this series we will take up the last recourse to accepting the Buddha’s teachings. Having looked at the options of acceptance, rejection, contextualization, reconsideration, we take up upgrade, the most creative strategy of all.

What is Believable? (4/6)

March 25, 2015

Series Index

Some Buddhist teachings are unbelievable to some Buddhists. This section discusses the first of three strategies for reconciling this eventuality, short of simply rejecting the teaching.

How to contextualize a teaching

The method here is “lighten up” with the realization that truth is relative, that there is no irrevocable commitment in “belief.”

Every statement has its context, which is why we add qualifiers like “scientifically speaking,” “from an ethical perspective,” “in the Lord o’ the Rings,” “according to Newtonian physics,” or “in baseball,” when its context is not otherwise clear. We humans are also quite adept at jumping from context to context, seeing “Sherlock Holmes was a smoker,” as an irrefutable truth one instant, and acknowledging that Sherlock Holmes never existed in the next, without contradiction. “According to the Buddha” is also another context.

Buddhism is not a creed; it is only indirectly about belief at all; rather it is about how we live our lives. At the same time, it includes teachings, with seemingly propositional content, that inform and shape our practice lives. Typically these are held loosely or somewhat tentatively, at least until higher stages of development where they may become known or awakened to (anubodha) on the basis of personal experience. Cognitively a belief is a complex thing and rarely absolute. Recognition of this tends to make our believability criteria much more permissive. (I focus here so much on belief because that is the level at which traditional teachings are sometimes regarded as unbelievable, the level at which the “Balderdash!” response arises.)

Perspectives. The eminent behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner held firmly that mental states are imaginary, a kind of superstition. For him psychology was strictly the study of behavior insofar as it can be described in purely physical terms. Think about this: when he returned home from the university, with its pigeons and students, did he never delight in joyful moments spent with his wife and two daughters, worry when they felt sad? Did he never notice the arising of anger or notice that his own lust was a strong predictor of imminent mating behavior? A string theorist similarly lives by day in a world unfamiliar to the rest of us, yet by night and weekend doesn’t she live in the same world of potato salad and a car that stops when she presses on the brake that most of us do? Almost half of American scientists believe in God, who nonetheless virtually never appears as a factor in their published work. How do people do this, that is, live in two such conceptually distinct worlds at almost the same time?

Science and religion provide the most prominent example of divergent worlds in the public mind. In spite of its many successes, science fails to provide an account of the values, meanings and norms, of the ethics and aesthetics intrinsic to everyday human reality. (As far as I can see, it even fails to provide an account for how there can be something as hugely normative for science as mathematics.) In spite of its ubiquitous role in human culture, religion does not enjoy the reassurance that the scientific method gives science. When scientific push comes to religious shove, science generally wins in public discourse, religious scientists quickly admitting that much of their own religious belief is not literally true.

If this were not enough, critics of religion often expect religion to uphold the same empirical standards as science, a requirement not imposed on other realms of human culture. For instance, an artist is not expected to provide independent verification of his aesthetic choices, nor to reduce his art to a set of beliefs. Buddhists generally find answering the frequently posed question, “What do Buddhists believe?” quite awkward because it misses the point.

Interestingly, analogous tensions can be observed within science as we move from one competing paradigm or conceptual structure to another. For instance, Newtonian and quantum physics have conceptually distinct belief structures, yet the practicing physicist can be quite adept in jumping from one to another, as one is often more practical for a particular realm of analysis. When quantum push comes to Newtonian shove, quantum physics generally wins in scientific discourse and scientists admit that the Newtonian system is a simply a quick and dirty expedient in certain cases. This works as long as each is contextualized into a different realm in which their conceptual structures don’t need to contradict one another. Quantum physicists have furthermore lived with the dilemma of two irreconcilable conceptualizations of light and matter for over a century, treating these as waves or as particles according to context. Every context is an expedient of some kind.

Two conceptual structures that do not mix well are the Buddhist and that of mechanistic materialist view of the universe that developed in the nineteenth century and that, outside of physics, dominates scientific thinking and popular science to this day. Early in that century Laplace proposed, on the basis of the success of Newtonian physics, that the universe is entirely governed by physical forces and that it is thereby entirely deterministic. Helmholtz’ conservation of energy proposed in the middle of the century seemed to exclude all nonphysical causation. Determinism means that there is no free-will, no volition and therefore no karma, no practice and no results of practice. Materialism means there is no mind-made world; the mind cannot even be taken as real, much less as primary. Therefore Buddhism makes little sense in such a world.

If it is any consolation, almost nothing else humans do makes sense in such a world either –engineering, for instance – since we don’t really do anything there. This does not prove that such a world does not factually exist, but that humans spend little time in the context of such a world, even those who believe that it is the realest world. We simply do not know how to live in a mechanistic materialist world! This world and the world of mind and volition therefore belong in different contexts, just as science and religion generally do. (I’ll point out later, in the context of the reconsideration strategy, that case for mechanistic materialism in fact fell on its face in the twentieth century.) Even die-hard mechanistic materialists must make concessions to free will. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “You have to believe in free will. You have no choice.”i Recall, once again, that the Buddha’s primary criterion for embracing a teaching is benefit, not objective truth. Benefit cannot be practiced without free will.

Fiction. The surprising thing about fiction is how powerfully real it can be for us. We sit in a movie theater (to see Rambo II, say) and become entirely immersed in the lives of the characters, their ups and downs, their frustrations and successes. We cry, we cringe, we share their pain, we leave the theater with our hair roots trying to stand on end. Often we learn moral lessons or develop attitudes that, for better or worse, we take with us into our own lives. And yet we know all the while it is fiction and should touch us only indirectly. Entertainment without our capacity to take it as real (within its proper context) would be very slim indeed.

I imagine that the primal source of fiction is play. Even puppies pretend to do mighty battle with one another, chewing one each others’ ears, swatting each others faces and leaping one upon the other. At the same time, they are mindful of their context, a context in which they are to do no real harm. They later grow into beasts that could easily dismember a human child, yet continue to engage in the same play with them as well, growling, gnashing their teeth, but drawing no blood, or chasing sticks as if in pursuit of prey. This is all expedient, for they take the results of play into their realer lives as they develop skills they can apply more violently in real fighting or real hunting. Human play is much the same: if children did not spend endless hours playing video games, where would the drone operators of the future come from?

Myths in the Buddhist or religious context make use of the ability of fiction to reach out from another reality and touch our realer lives. They can provide powerful teachings by analogy, inspire and their entertainment value makes them easier to assimilate for both young and old. In place of the remnants of doubt in the mind of the Bodhisattva, the demon Māra appears with his fearful hordes and temptress daughters attempting to dissuade the future Buddha from his rightful path as he sits under the bodhi tree, who then for his part touches the earth that it shake and rumble to bear witness to his determination. Each of us is a sucker for a good story. Although this myth was a later embellishment of the Buddha’s own account, the Buddha himself was a skillful myth maker. In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27) the Buddha spins an origin story of the world, and it’s a whopper, yet serves a real function in providing an alternative to the Vedic origin story, particularly with regard to the origin of the caste system, for the benefit of two monks who were born brahmins and are now criticized by more traditional brahmins for abandoning the purity of their caste. Gombrich (2006, p. 85) considers this a satire on brahmanical ideas, even playing on the word ajjhānaka, which generally means “reciter (of the Vedas)” but can also mean “non-meditator.”

Counting as. A fiction can tell us something about, or train us for, a more solid reality. “Counting as” is like a fiction, but it is a running interpretation or narration overlain over a more solid reality. A primary example is a sports game, such as baseball. While there are physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up and agreed on by convention to accompany the physical actions. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because of where it goes it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” ends the half-inning, and the other team, who knows that, will come in from their dispersed position on the playing field to coalesce at one corner. One of them will then count as being “at bat.”

Money is another example of socially agreed counting-as. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running interpretation as counting-for-something defined this as a medium of exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks merely pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account to count as money, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

Although sports and money are a kind of fiction overlain on a more solid reality, they are for many people the most tangibly real things there are, matters of perpetual fascination. As real as sports and money are the many mysterious forces that mankind have habitually seen to underly observable events, the work of gods and demons, spells, forces of good or evil. The belief in such forces has been generally supplanted for moderns by scientific explanation, but persists in modern political and economic in which mysterious forces thrive: national interest, freedom fighters, terrorists, manifest destiny, chosen people (or exceptionalism), wealth creation, free markets, natural economic forces, our values as a nation, national security. Scientific theories actually seem to have much in common with the imputation of mysterious supernatural forces, except that they are much more principled and constrained and seek triangulation through independent verification. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football.

Faith and Working Assumptions. Here the Buddha provides clear and abundant guidelines. In the Caṅki Sutta the Buddha remarks that anything accepted through faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering may or may not turn out to be true. At this Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be preserved:

Kittāvatā pana bho gotama, saccānurakkhanā hoti, kittāvatā saccamanurakkhati? Saccānurakkhanaṃ mayaṃ bhavantaṃ gotamaṃ pucchāmā’ti.

Saddhā cepi bhāradvāja, purisassa hoti, ‘evaṃ me saddhā’ti iti vadaṃ saccamanurakkhati, na tveva tāva ekaṃsena niṭṭhaṃ gacchati: ‘idameva saccaṃ moghamañña’nti. Ettāvatā kho bhāradvāja saccānurakkhanā hoti. Ettāvatā saccamanurakkhati. Ettāvatā ca mayaṃ saccānurakkhanaṃ paññāpema. Na tve tāva saccānubodho hoti.

“But to what extent, Master Gotama, is there the preservation of the truth? To what extent does one preserve the truth? We ask Master Gotama about the preservation of the truth.”

“If a person has faith, his statement, ‘This is my faith,’ preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ To this extent, Bharadvaja, there is the preservation of the truth. To this extent one preserves the truth. I describe this as the preservation of the truth. But it is not yet a discovery of the truth.”

The Buddha then repeats this formula with regard to a person who approves something, who holds an oral tradition, who has reasoned something through analogy or who has views he has pondered out, just as with regard to a person who has faith. In our terms, when a thesis is accepted, it is not true absolutely by itself but is true relative to its context. The thesis along with the context preserves truth. The Buddha then shows how truth is discovered and then finally realized, the implication being that if a correct teaching is accepted as a working assumption, it will eventually be seen directly as one’s practice progresses.

This passage is a remarkable illustration of the care the Buddha accorded faith and other ways of accepting beliefs that fall short of realization in direct experience, that we not take these as conclusive, but rather keep their context, and thereby their provisional nature, in mind. Under these conditions we accept them.

The Appaṇṇaka (Incontrovertable) Sutta (MN 60) describes a purely pragmatic condition for accepting one of two alternative theses on the basis of a kind of cost-benefit analysis, or a means of covering one’s bets that by itself justifies its acceptance as a kind of working assumption.

santi gahapatayo eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: natthi dinnaṃ natthi yiṭṭhaṃ, natthi hutaṃ, natthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, natthi ayaṃ loko, natthi paro loko, natthi mātā, natthi pitā, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi loke samaṇabrāmhaṇā sammaggatā sammāpaṭipannā ye imañca lokaṃ parañca lokaṃ sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedentīti.

“There are some contemplatives and brahmans who hold this doctrine, hold this view: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’

He then points out that this view will condition the behavior of such contemplatives and brahmins:

Tesametaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ: … yamidaṃ kāyaduccaritaṃ vacīduccaritaṃ manoduccaritaṃ, ime tayo akusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti. Taṃ kissa hetu: na hi te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā passanti akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ ādīnavaṃ okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ. Kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ vodānapakkhaṃ

It can be expected that … they will adopt and practice these three unskillful activities: bad bodily conduct, bad verbal conduct, bad mental conduct. Why is that? Because those venerable contemplatives & brahmans do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing.

Here is the kicker: people of this view cannot win, whether or not their view turns out to be true:

Paro loko hotu nesaṃ bhavataṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ saccaṃ vacanaṃ. Atha ca panā’yaṃ bhavaṃ purisapuggalo diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho: dussīlo purisapuggalo micchādiṭṭhi natthikavādoti. Sace kho attheva paro loko, evaṃ imassa bhoto purisapuggalassa ubhayattha kaliggaho: yañca diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho, yañca kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinīpātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjissati. Evamassā’yaṃ apaṇṇako dhammo dussamatto samādinno ekaṃsaṃ pharitvā tiṭṭhati. Riñcati kusalaṃ ṭhānaṃ.

Let there be no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brahmans. This good person is still criticized in the here and now by the observant as a person of bad habits and wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence.’ If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the observant here and now, and in that with the breakup of the body, after death he will reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this incontrovertable teaching, when poorly grasped and poorly adopted by him, covers one side. He gives up the skillful option.

The Buddha then contrasts these contemplatives and with those of exactly the opposite views, who thereby engage in good bodily, verbal and mental conduct as a result. He demonstrates that these cannot lose, whether or not their view turns out to be true. He repeats the equivalent argument for each of a variety of views: that good or bad actions do not produce merit or demerit, that beings become defiled or purified without cause, immaterial realms do not exist and there is no cessation of being. Although the Buddha at the same time maintains that the more skillful view is also true, in spite of what other contemplative and brahmins might think, his final recourse is to what view is most likely to bring benefit. In either case truth is preserved, according to the Caṅki Sutta, by keeping in mind the context in which the view arises.
The Kalama Sutta employs the same logic to justify the benefit of karma and rebirth even as a working assumption:

‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.

In this way, belief in karma and rebirth can be accepted, at least in a sense, that is relative to a context.

Let’s back up for a moment to the Caṅki Sutta and ask what the role of scientific evidence might be in the acceptance of karma and rebirth, as a particular example. The Buddha recommends that karma and rebirth are accepted as a working assumption by the skeptical, but is confident that their truth, which he endorses, will eventually be discovered and finally realized in the diligent practitioner’s own experience. The evidence here is quite different from scientific evidence, which is dependent on reasoning and pondering, on careful argumentation that itself can turn out either way; nothing is proved conclusively in science. A consequence is that even if the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports karma and rebirth, one has still not yet discovered (anubodha) and realized karma and rebirth, not until one has confirmed it in one’s own experience. It is still contextualized, as something like faith but with perhaps a lot of reassurance. The Buddha’s criteria are quite stringent.

Conclusions. By recognizing the relative nature of belief, more things become believable. We can believe in things that are fictional or mythological, conventionally or habitually imputed, accepted on faith or otherwise guessed at or accepted as working assumptions as the best bet for beneficial outcomes. We recognize that these things are not absolute truths and do not commit to them as such until we awaken to them. In the meantime, they make sense in their specific contexts. Nonetheless, these contextualized beliefs have a powerful influence in shaping our attitudes and behaviors, including the quality of our Buddhist practice.

Contextualization is likely to be useful for the agnostic temperament, for which the working assumption is likely to have appeal, since it is so noncommittal. It is less likely useful for the atheistic temperament that has already made up its mind. For this we will turn to the strategy of reconsideration as we navigate the space between acceptance and rejection of Buddhist teachings.

In this section we’ve explored a middle way between absolute belief and total rejection. Contextualization is one way to realize that middle way. Next we will look at the alternative of reconsideration, and following that, of update.

What is Believable? (3/6)

March 17, 2015

Series Index

We have seen that certain Buddhist teachings are unbelievable for many moderns. Today we consider the practical consequences of simply rejecting them while accepting the less problematic teachings.

How to reject a teaching

The method here is “balderdash!” It is recommended only in limited circumstances. It looks like one of the following:

Figure10Faltering on unbelievability, or on unbelief

Thomas Bowdler published a version of Shakespeare in 1807 which expurgated whatever original material was considered offensive or otherwise unsuitable for women and children in his sensitive age, once even removing an entire morally unsatisfactory character from one of the bard’s plays. With what degree of skill are we bowdlerizing Buddhism? Some argue that Buddhism has repeatedly been adapted (and proved itself adaptable!) in every new culture it has entered in its long history; we therefore have the right to adapt it to modern standards of believability with as loud a “Balderdash!” as we like. Others, including this writer, express dismay over the watering down of Buddhism or over its potential loss with the bathwater through overzealous bowdlerization.

It is one thing to expunge a minor character, but how could the story line possibility hold together without Hamlet? The point is that before we expunge anything we do well to ask, “At what cost?” That is, we should have a clear idea to what extent  the integrity of the Dharma as something we live, practice and develop around, would be sacrificed. For minor characters the cost might not be so great. Major characters we are ill-advised indeed to dismiss out of hand without careful consideration of the alternative strategies that I will describe in this essay for coming to terms with the teaching, namely, contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade. Otherwise we may end up like the new landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and who, with limited understanding of both corn and weed, dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth. Or like Hollywood producers who undertake to film Hamlet with a rollicking happy ending. The Dharma is much too sophisticated a product of the human mind to treat in such a crude way.

Why did the Buddha teach this? This is the key test. This is what we must repeatedly ask. This question will help us to understand what the cost of dismissing a teaching would be, and at the same time what aspects of that teaching are most critical to its function. We know that the Buddha was parsimonious in his teachings, generally scrupulously avoiding any kind of metaphysical speculation. He points this out himself on the occasion of his famous handful-of-leaves simile:

“Appamattakaṃ akkhātaṃ. Kasmā cetaṃ bhikkhave, mayā anakkhātaṃ? Na hetaṃ bhikkhave, atthasaṃhitaṃ nādibrahmacariyakaṃ na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya nābhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati, tasmā taṃ mayā anakkhātaṃ.”

“What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed more? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbana. That is why I have not revealed it.”

If his teachings are as a result seldom without point, their dismissal will seldom be without cost. A recurrent and well-expounded thesis is therefore very likely to play a significant role in the Buddha’s stage production. If one seems to fall short of modern standards of believability, we should not be hasty in its dismissal.

Expunging minor characters. Among the teachings found in Buddhist scripture are undoubtedly casual references to concepts or ways of thinking that would have made popular sense in the Buddha’s day, but which are incidental to the intent of the passages or which are meaningful only in the cultural context of his time. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Wordly dieties. In many of the discourses the Buddha is visited by various deities, both famous and obscure. This passage from the oft-recited Mangala Sutta is representative:

Atha kho aññatarā devatā abhikkantāya rattiyā abhik-kanta-vaṇṇā kevalakappaṃ Jetavanaṃ obhāsetvā yena Bhagavā ten-upasaṅkami upasaṅkamitvā Bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhāsi.

Now when the night was far spent, a certain deity, whose surpassing splendor illuminated the entire Jeta Grove, came to the presence of the Exalted One, and, drawing near, respectfully venerated Him and stood to one side.

In this case the deity has come to ask a question, “What is the highest blesssing?” that evokes the Buddha’s thirty-eight checkpoint list of many greatest blessings. So, why did the Buddha teach about visiting deities?

I personally find these passages delightful, but have never, even in my weaker moments, ever even considered taking a passage like this as literally describing an actual event, though I realize many Buddhists do. At what cost comes such disbelief?

In this case, it seems, at very little: Worship of deities, or calling upon their aid, is not the point in Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, deities are routinely portrayed as venerating the Buddha, through bows, circumambulation, sitting to one side, and then asking for teachings, just as in this passage. The faith they illustrate is worth noting, but their substantive existence is beside the point. It might additionally be noted, from a text-analytical point of view, that most references to such visits are also not spoken by the Buddha, that is, not Buddha-vacana, but occur in the opening description before the Buddha speaks. Deities also appear as the inmates of realms of potential rebirth, with somewhat more significance which I will not discuss at this point.

Supernormal powers. The Buddha speaks in many places of supernormal powers (iddhi), such as replicating oneself at will,  disappearing and reappearing, walking through walls and even mountains, diving into the earth as if it were water and walking on water as if it were earth, flying through the air while sitting cross-legged, jumping up and touching the sun or moon, seeing and hearing from afar, reading minds, recollecting past lives, comprehending the karmically driven process of rebirth in others, and ending the effluents.ii  These powers seem to be a natural consequences of the development of concentration, manifest in some much more markedly than in others (for instance, among the Buddha’s chief disciples, more prominently in Moggallāna than Sariputta), and are not generally necessary for realizing attainments of stream entry and beyond, except to the extend that these are themselves supernormal powers of a sort. The Buddha did not allow monastics to display these powers to laypeople, and pointed out the dangers of the pride that often adheres to these powers. So, why did the Buddha teach about these powers in detail, and what is the cost of dismissing them?

Many monks seemed to be obsessed with such powers; they do seem pretty cool. Given this, it seems to me that the function of the Buddha’s teachings about such powers is to keep their development skillfully on track, that is, to avoid turning them into distractions or sources of pride. This has an interesting corollary: these teachings are not of particular relevance to those who disbelieve in such powers, which excludes those who have actually experienced such powers. So, the cost of expungement is small wherever expungement is possible, while the teachings are important, and possibly often critical, for believers.

While dismissal comes at no cost for those inclined to dismiss such powers as balderdash, there are dangers in overly strident rejection: First, if one later, though progress in concentration practice, begins to manifest such powers, the previously strident nay-sayer may for a time deny one’s own experiences. Second, the strident expunger may try to impose one’s disbelief on others, that is, he may try to convince others that their experiences are not real. The foolishness of the second danger becomes clear when we consider that many non-meditators deny the consciousness-shifting or even mystical experiences reported quite routinely by meditators. My brother once tried to argue that whatever I experienced in meditation could be achieved more pleasantly by watching soap operas. Nothing I said from the position of greater experience could dispel his utter foolishness. It was like trying to convince a deaf person that music really exists. It also becomes clear when you consider that the descriptions of these powers might not fully capture their experience. For instance, these powers might not manifest physically as we at first imagine, but perhaps are entirely mental experiences, or something akin to out-of-body experiences, invisible to outside observers. The descriptions can be interpreted figuratively in a range of ways.

A perspective of non-strident skepticism can benefit Buddhism in distilling the teachings down to their functional core and skimming off as a byproduct the full range of possible interpretations consistent with the Buddha’s intent. This helps others avoid literalism or calcified understandings that may have persisted unquestioned for many centuries in certain traditions. In many cases it helps us understand when the Buddha was speaking figuratively, where he was spinning a myth and where he was having fun with others’ firmly held viewpoints.

The cost of expunging major characters. For many teachings, on investigation, the cost of their complete rejection would be huge; because they serve critical functions in the body of the Buddha’s teachings their loss would significantly compromise the integrity of the Dharma. Unfortunately, the critical importance of these teachings is often apparent only to those of advanced understanding and practice. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The monastic institution. Common victims of modern expungment are monastics (like me, for instance), robed shavelings who dare to renounce worldly soap-operatic life, and the institution to which we belong. That we serve some useful service in the scheme of things seems to some unbelievable, to those who see us as irrelevant in the modern context, as undemocratic as well as hopelessly out of fashion. Yet, there is little doubt that the Buddha constituted the monastic Sangha shortly after his Awakening, then gave it a mission and carefully tinkered with its operating procedures over many years. The Buddha consistently referred to the body of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya, the latter with reference to the guidelines for monastic discipline. So, why did the Buddha teach the value of monasticism?

Briefly, the Monastic Sangha, aside from providing a context optimized for progress on the Buddhist path, is responsible, by the Buddha’s authority, for preserving the integrity of the Dharma, for maintaining the authentic adept understanding. Buddhaghosa’s fifth century commentary on the Vinaya, asserts that,

If the Vinaya endures, the Sasana [the teaching of the Buddha] will endure; if the Vinaya disappears, the Sasana will disappear.

The Buddha himself stated that,

“If … the monks would live the life to perfection, the world would not lack for  Arahants.”

The cost of dismissing this institution – unless it is replaced with something functionally equivalent of as yet unknown constitution – is dear.

My purpose here is not to argue this point, or the next, in any detail, but to illustrate the existence of teachings that often seem to moderns, at least at first sight, indefensible, but on closer examination are critical to the functional integrity of the Buddha’s teachings, and as such were clearly articulated by the Buddha.

Rebirth. Also commonly regarded as particularly expunge-worthy is the very idea of rebirth, that is, the perpetuation of karmic conditioning right past the death of the body and into a new life. Moderns actually seem to have widely varying views about rebirth, but there is a strong contingent that finds the notion entirely unbelievable, period. Again, the question for us at this point is not to establish its objective truth or untruth, but rather to assess to the cost of its expungement from Buddhist understanding and practice, by asking, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth?

Rebirth is a critical part of the Buddha’s Middle Way between the alternatives of annihilationism and eternalism, both of which the Buddha rejected as unbeneficial to human well-being, that is, on ethical grounds. It is noteworthy that, although the Buddha attested to his own recollection of previous lives, he never seems to have argued against the opposing view on objective or factual grounds, but rather recommended that disbelievers, apparently common in the Buddha’s day as in our own, accept rebirth as a kind of working assumption, a strategy which falls under what I later call contextualization. Moderns who reject rebirth are generally left with annihilationism, since moderns will generally reject eternalism even more readily than rebirth, which is to say that at death the fruits of these modern’s lifetime of practice are zeroed out, as if one had never practiced at all. Buddhist practice becomes about achieving a well-being limited to these few decades of life. The upshot is described by Bhikkhu Bodhi as follows:

…, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.

Rebirth in Buddhism serves to open up a transcendent dimension of Buddhist practice to make it bigger-than-life consequential, an epic struggle over destiny with endless consequences, whose import dwarfs any this-worldly concern. A Buddhism limited to this-worldly well-being makes it a mere alternative to many other ways we can envision to bring more comfort into these few decades of life, from ballroom dancing to an adequate stock portfolio.

Notice that in the case of rebirth we are dealing with a broad conceptual context in which to frame our everyday practice. If this belief is to have any efficacy, it requires much more than reluctant endorsement, but rather the deep integration of rebirth into one’s world view, as a reality in which one’s life is firmly embedded. This can be quite challenging to the alternative strategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade, which we will take up later.

Summary. The purpose of this section has been to give one pause before one declares something as unbelievable. It is not so much to convince one that one thereby suffers from false views, as that what is at stake should be fully recognized before one’s views are fully formed. This may bring one to an impasse in which disbelief is suspended even for a number of years. It may take one, particularly the inexperienced Buddhist, almost that long to fully appreciate the initially obscure functional role of a particular teaching. Once one sees that a teaching has a critical function, one should try every practical means to accept that teaching into one’s understanding. We now turn to those means.

In the following three posts we cover the stategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade as the promised recourse for rescuing teachings from being written out of the story line.