Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

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.

What is Believable? (2/6)

March 7, 2015

Series Index

Last week I promised to consider five strategies for  coming to terms with Buddhist teachings (rebirth, for instance) that are found problematic for many moderns. Today we take up the default case, in which a Buddhist teaching is relatively easily assimilated. This will reveal the main cognitive mechanisms involved in coming to believe something.

How to accept a teaching

The method here is suitable evaluation prior to acceptance.

Most of the Buddha’s teachings can be accepted into one’s understanding of Buddhism quite readily, because they do not violate believability and can be verified in one’s own experience. For the reasonably skeptical person (whose perspective I will generally assume unless stated otherwise; we will see later who the unreasonable skeptic is), processing such a teaching involves two steps, evaluation and then acceptance. Evaluation involves assessing the evidence for the teaching, for instance, that suffering arises from craving. If the evidence is sufficient, then it might be accepted. Acceptance is the integration of the teaching into the body of one’s understanding, such that it becomes, in the Buddhist case, a conditioning factor in practice. We will see later that acceptance is more than just choosing to believe something, but rather includes various ways in which a proposition may be contextualized, for instance, treated as a rule of thumb, or as a myth, or as a foundational guiding principle. The present section will deal primarily with evaluation. The two steps, evaluation and acceptance, provide a simple model that can be applied to virtually any area of education or training, from child rearing through playing tennis to religious practice.  Let’s picture this graphically.

The skeptic’s approach to belief

We can see that the reasonable skeptic has at least two decision points in this process, at either of which the process might halt with no acceptance.  The first, what I will call the gross decision point, is immediate; here one might dismiss or ignore the proposition out of hand prior to any case-specific evaluation. Gross criteria apply here, most significantly criteria for believability or unbelievability, the focus of this essay. Simple indifference also manifests here; for instance, one might not care that the Buddha sometimes has conversations with deities and consequently ignore, rather than accepting or rejecting, these references. The second, the fine decision point, follows case-specific evaluation, and either approves or disapproves the evaluation. Fine criteria apply here, which evaluation tries to satisfy. For instance, from the cumulative evidence of one’s own meditation experience, one might decide that a teaching that jhāna always entails a complete cessation of conceptual thought is not acceptable. The gross and fine criteria will differ, sometimes widely, from individual to individual. We will see later how some of them arise. The decision points and their criteria define the wiggle room of the reasonable skeptic.

Figure02The skeptic’s wiggle room

The Buddha gives us a clear fine criterion to apply at the second decision point, in the famous Kālāma Sutta:

Etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piṭakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samaṇo no garū’ti. Yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā’va jāneyyātha: ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññūppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya saṃvattantī’ti. Atha tumhe kālāmā upasampajja vihareyyāthā’ti.

“Come, Kālāmas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon repetition; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor as a result of thought; nor upon an axiom; nor upon careful reasoning; nor out of delight in speculation; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the thought, ‘The monk is our venerable teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken as a whole, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” AN 3.65

It is important to reflect on the potential criteria that the Buddha dismissed. The Buddha’s criteria are at root ethical, and not scientific in the sense of objective truth, nor even particularly religious in the way we are accustomed to expect this in the West. The advice of the Kālāma Sutta can be summarized thus:

Figure03The Kālāma Sutta in a nutshell

That is, after due investigation, if you find that these things are good, these things are not blamable, these things are praised by the wise, undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness – let’s group these things as benefit, for short –, then enter on and abide in them, that is, accept them into your understanding as conditions for practice.

A given skeptical person might feel, nonetheless, irresistibly compelled to impose one of these disallowed criteria, or some other criterion. For instance, he might understand clearly enough how a certain  teaching is of benefit in the way the Buddha asked us to apply, yet nonetheless doubt its objective factual scientific truth, and therefore balk. For instance, if he has been taught karmic retribution as, “Every time you do something bad, something bad will happen to you in return,” he might well recognize that benefit would accrue indeed from entering on and abiding in this, for it would frequently prevent both harm to others and personal regret in many circumstances. But on the other hand, when he tries to imagine this playing out in practice – “If I steal someone’s sandwich one day, my hubcaps will get stolen, or some equivalent thereof, the next day.” – he cannot help but disbelieve this, a response that will hardly serve as a firm conditioning factor in practice.

We will consider later the options available to this given skeptic. These are to reject the notion of karmic retribution, to contextualize it, to reconsider the tacit assumptions that make it so unbelievable, or to upgrade the interpretation of karmic retribution to something that makes more sense. For now it suffices to point out that criteria actually applied at decision points are generally individual and often idiosyncratic.

Many, perhaps most, personal fine criteria are in reality off the wall or quite irrational. This was discovered at the beginnings of public relations and mass marketing some hundred years ago and has been exploited ever since. Emotions play a big role in shaping perceptions such that through their skillful manipulation one can get people to believe and do the darnedest things. With the right kind of music, a travesty becomes a noble effort or a mild inconvenience becomes a case of demonic possession. We are a gullible species.

Reason and Faith. So far I assumed the part assumed the position of a reasonable skeptic, and will for the most part continue to do so.  Not all of us are skeptics. In fact, many moderns who come to Buddhism have training in acceptance without question in faith traditions they may have been brought up with that demand this.  In any case, there are always some who readily accept teachings with little question, with something like the innocence of young children who believe what their parents say. A non-skeptical person might more easily suspend any inkling of disbelief to skip over the evaluative part altogether.

Figure04The non-skeptic’s approach to belief

The difference between the skeptic’s and the non-skeptic’s methods can be viewed in terms of the familiar categories of faith and reason. However, it is important to recognize that faith and reason are not opposites but complements that rarely occur by themselves, except maybe in mathematical proofs. Rather, skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on reason and light on faith, and non-skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on faith and light on reason. But both faith and reason are required in practical terms by any sensible person to make a sensible decision about virtually anything at all. We humans are engaged as active agents in an exceedingly complex, contingent and intractable world. We would like, if we could, to make decisions that are entirely based on reason and complete information, but in fact we virtually never know enough to realize this level of certitude in the decisions we need to make. And not making any decision is generally not a way out – It is quite often simply the dumbest decision! –, while gathering sufficient evidence is normally prohibitively costly in time and energy. In brief, reason takes us as far as what we know, and faith takes us the rest of the way, for:

Faith (Pali, saddhā) is that which bridges the gap between what we do know and what we need to know in order to make a decision.

Faith is a necessary part of human cognition. The following more accurately represents the typical case of evaluation. The difference between the skeptic and the non-skeptic and anyone in between is the relative length of the evaluation process, and the corresponding shortness of the remaining gap.

Figure09Faith Bridging the Reason Deficit

A proposal of marriage, for instance, carries not only weight but urgency. Suppose Mabel is evaluating Cornelius’ proposal. Her criteria are undoubtedly complex (Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.”), but among them are hopefully that this marriage will be harmonious, of mutual benefit and happy ever after. Yet how much evidence is required to accurately predict how these expectations would play out in married life boggles the mind; this perplexed young woman really cannot possibly know what she would be getting herself into. The gap from evaluation to acceptance will seem enormous. Ultimately after some period of evaluation a leap of faith, a bold and decisive act of foolhardiness, may be the only option. Otherwise, for Mabel’s having hesitated, Cornelius may have lost interest.

Authority. As often as not, rather than evaluating a proposition from scratch, we rely the the wisdom or knowledge of others to help us. These are … the authorities. As Buddhists we rely on the wisdom of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We may also independently rely on the knowledge of scientists or other scholars, as when we look up something up in an encyclopedia that they have compiled. Some of us rely on commercial news networks and TV pundits to help us interpret world, national and local events. Those who like to cook rely on the Joy of Cooking or on Julia Childs to fill the gap in what we personally know and what we would like to put on the table.  A culture can carry wisdom that its adherents rely on (although sometimes I fear ours comes up a bit short). To rely on an authority requires belief in that authority. An authority is someone, or a body of teachings, that can endorse or dismiss propositions for us, or to simplify or shortcut their evaluation.

Where does belief in an authority come from? Potentially it arises in the same way that belief a simple proposition. In order to gain belief in science, for instance, one might consider evidence and match these against deciding criteria – particularly track record, upholdance of truth, rationality of methods of developing and evaluating theories, and the coolness of lab coats (I provide the last example, lest we forget the presence of emotional factors) – before one might accept science into one’s world view. As for accepting a marriage proposal, a large element of faith will be involved, since one is hardly likely encompass all of science, its results and the evidence for its  results in one’s evaluation.

Figure05Acquiring belief in the authority of science

It is much the same with Buddhism, in which we gain belief in the authority of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the three sources of Buddhist wisdom. If our primary criterion might be benefit, as the Buddha taught in the Kālāma Sutta, we should be interested in knowing such things as how Buddhists we might know act and behave, and the track record of Buddhism with respect to peace.  We might also be influenced by the emotional response to  the cool statuary and the fashionable attire of the nuns and monks. Accepting the authority of the Triple Gem looks like this:

Figure07Taking Refuge

Notice that what this science or this Buddhism is that we have accepted into our thinking is, in either case, ill-defined. Buddhism has many sects, many forms of Dharma. Science has many fragmented and competing endeavors, adherence to different paradigms, and array of scientific disciplines that tend to have different takes on phenomena. So, each of these may be an abstraction and its referent may evolve with time. Buddhist belief tends to be defined for the individual by a particular sect or teacher, or by a particular folk understanding. Scientific belief tends in the folk culture not to stray much from a mechanistic, materialist, realist, nineteenth century understanding of science, supplemented with some knowledge of twentieth century genetics. I think this is what is sometimes called scientism. It might be recalled that the wisdom of the Kālāma Sutta is applied most specifically to belief in authority, for the Sutta begins with the Kālāmas requesting of the Buddha criteria for evaluating the often conflicting viewpoints of the various sages who visit their town, each a potential authority with vast knowledge and wisdom.

If one has developed a sound confidence in a particular authority, it becomes an arbiter as propositions of certain kinds are encountered, that is, it provides a blanket pre-approval of propositions that one might otherwise painstakingly  evaluate for acceptance. A scientific proposition, such as bats are birds, might be evaluated in this way, and readily accepted, without the effort of finding out what qualities, exactly, a bird has and then determining if a bat has each of those qualities.

Figure06Science pre-approves certain teachings

A religious proposition, such as the hindrances inhibit jhāna, might be evaluated in this way, even prior to discovering  its validity ones own experience:

Figure08Refuge pre-approves certain teachings

Many abstract values, things like democracy, human rights, fair trade, equality, liberty and peace, are like Buddhism or Science, in that once they are integrated they provide criteria for evaluating other propositions. Notice that these values are themselves accepted not as objective truths – science cannot verify them – but commonly according to the criterion of benefit endorsed in the Kalama Sutta. In considering whether to support some proposed public policy, for instance, one considers the evidence that it will encourage or at least not undermine democracy, human rights, etc.

Re-evaluation. Notice that accepting a proposition on the merits of available evidence almost inevitably requires supplementing what is known with faith. When that evaluation additionally relies on the endorsement of an authority, and where belief in that authority additionally rests on faith, we have a double reliance on faith. That our reliance on faith proliferates in this way is not surprising in a complex, contingent world, but the resulting scaffold of evaluations and endorsements, with its many somewhat loose (i.e., faith-based) connections, might as a whole appear quite wobbly and inspire little faith that it might uphold reasonable choices in life’s negotiations. However, by progressively re-evaluating each proposition  and particularly each previously accepted supporting authority of the scaffold, we can progressively tighten up the loose connections to make the scaffold firm.

For instance, consider the proposition mindfulness of breathing is efficacious. Buddhism is primarily an introspective practice tradition, and, as such, the evidence initially available for evaluating such a claim is likely either anecdotal or based on endorsement by the Buddhist authorities (confidence in which may be still shaky at this point). Accepting the proposition on this basis will require a good deal of faith, but acceptance, at at least a provisional level, is necessary if one is actually to begin to practice of mindfulness of breathing. Nonetheless, with the beginning of practice abundant introspective evidence becomes available to re-evaluate the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. It is this re-evaluation that generally evokes comments like, “Hey, this mindfulness of breathing seems to really work.” The re-evaluation carries much further than the initial evaluation, and therefore relies much less on faith. As confidence in the practice grows, increased engagement in the practice follows, along with even more evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. In this way direct experience progressively replaces faith.

By the same token, the initial acceptance of the practice of mindfulness of breathing probably depended on the acceptance of the authority of the Triple Gem, at least an a provisional level. As confidence grows in the various things that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha endorse, confidence also grows by the same token in the Triple Gem itself, eventually evoking comments like, “Hey, this Buddhism stuff seems to really work.” Direct experience begins to replace the initial big leap of faith required in taking Refuge. Many of the Buddha’s teachings are psychological, that is, they concern mental factors and the way mental factors condition one another. These teachings are initially accepted on the authority of the Triple Gem, serve as pointers to what one can discover in one’s own experience. They feed the practice of examination that leads to wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, support the re-evaluation of the teachings whose initial acceptance led to its own arising. Faith is replaced by wisdom as teachings are in this way verified in experience.

More elegantly, the Buddha taught the following five faculties (indriya) required for Awakening:

  • faith (saddhā),
  • energy (viriya),
  • mindfulness (sati),
  • concentration (samādhi),
  • wisdom (paññā).

Faith is the input and wisdom the output. Energy, mindfulness and concentration are the faculties that sustain examination, also mental cultivation in the Noble Eightfold Path.

As practicing Buddhists we are more like practicing scientists than like laypeople who believe in science. As we encounter new teachings, we are concerned with their thorough integration into our understanding and practice. However, simple noting and accepting is of no use unless we can come to terms with the teaching, generally by experiencing it directly and introspectively through practice. We are also driven by faith, faith in a system of understanding and practice that we at first only dimly comprehend, but that we gradually verify in our own experience over a period of years. Within Buddhism those “Hey, this really works” moments that practicing scientists experience are common.

In this post we have seen cases in which evaluation and acceptance progress smoothly. What happens, however, when the Buddhist authorities seem to endorse a proposition that is just not believable? The following posts consider four options available to us.

Karmic Dividends (2/2)

September 5, 2014

How Buddhist Communities Accrue Them

Almost everybody would agree, Buddhist or not, that the practice of generosity is a good idea, and also that the world could use all the generosity it can get. The impulse toward generosity comes naturally, is found even in children and even feels good, but as we live our complex and befogged lives of mixed intention, we often fail to focus our energy in the required direction, except significantly within families, small circles of friends or sometimes within small local communities. Buddhist practice generally involves focusing energy repeatedly in a particular way as a means to establish increasingly wholesome patterns of behavior and thought. The Buddhist practice in the economy of gifts is stimulated by the very structure of the traditional Buddhist community. It is not generally appreciated that it is in accord with the Buddha’s design that the dynamics of the Buddhist community adheres closely to an economy of gifts, and as such generates a pool of karmic dividends in a reservoir of spiritual well-being for the members of that community.

The roots of the Buddha’s design are found in the generous lay support of ascetics in India since before the time of the Buddha to the present day, enabled by the paucity of the ascetics’ needs, especially in contrast to those of the Brahmin priests. The Buddha’s own awakening was made possible by alms generously provided by laypeople (highlighted in the story of the milkmaid Sujatā prior to his awakening) and lay alms remained his support for the rest of his life (highlighted in the story of his insistence on taking his alms bowl onto the streets of his home town of Kapilavattu to the dismay of his aristocratic father). At the same time he himself gave generously and tirelessly to others through his teachings. The Buddha, in organizing the monastic order, tweaked this lightly spinning vortex of mutual support between lay and monastic by constraining monastic behavior in certain ways. Although the monastic Sangha stands as perhaps the most durable human institution on the planet, the Buddha never organized the lay community, so the desired conduct of the laity could only be determined in response to that of the monastics. Here is how the Buddha composed the monastic code in order to cultivate a general economy of gifts within the Buddhist community.

First, the Buddha required that monastics live entirely within the economy of gifts. A monk can give, he can receive, but he cannot participate in a transaction of exchange (nor of theft, for that matter). A nun can give a Dhamma talk or teach a class for a group of laypeople, but cannot receive compensation for that offering. A monastic conducts no business, handles no money, but is permitted small equivalent exchanges of requisites with other monastics, such as an alms bowl for an alms bowl. This requires that any association that the laity have with monastics occurs within an economy of gifts.

Second, the Buddha removed almost every opportunity for monastics to do anything for themselves, even while there are few restrictions on what they can do for others. For instance, monastics cannot grow their own food or cook for themselves. They have no trade or livelihood. Furthermore, 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. The escalation the vulnerability of the monastics in this way requires much additional involvement of the laity in the economy of gifts to meet and even anticipate of the needs of monastics.

Third, the Buddha put an expiration stamp on alms. Monastics cannot store food for tomorrow that is given today, except in the case of a small list of tonics, which can be retained for seven days. This ensures that dependence is a daily matter, except for those particularly accomplished in fasting. This also, in spite of the Buddha’s praise of solitude, increases the opportunities for offering teachings to laity. The expiration stamp ratchets up the vulnerability of monastics even more and brings laypeople into the economy of gifts on a more regular basis.

Finally, the Buddha insisted that even monks whose practice potentially allows them to fast for days enter the village daily for alms anyway. This all but closed the aforementioned loophole to ensure every opportunity for meeting of lay and monastic within the economy of gifts..

It seems clear that at least one purpose of these tweaks is to add spin to the pivotal vortex of mutual support between monastic and lay, to make it routine and necessary and to keep it without coersion. Generosity is the lifeblood of the Buddhist community and this lay-monastic vortex is its beating heart. The consequences for lay practice are quite striking, for a monk appears much like a house pet: of simple life and needs, yet helpless, vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, and of therapeutic value to that kind hand, but a also source of Dhamma. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift; 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. In either case, delight, a feeling of peace in the heart mark the transaction, and mutual affection and a glowing sense of gratitude emerge. Such is the economy of gifts at its brightest.

Most importantly this vortex gives the practice of generosity a focus. The monastics sustain a perpetual economy of gifts, and as long as the laity interacts with them, they enter into that economy of gifts. The laity may make this interaction a daily practice, for instance, for the Burmese housewife who routinely prepares rice and curry each morning without fail to offer to monks as they come by on alms round. Moreover, like most practices, the practice of generosity also generalizes quickly. Just as a practice of kindness to insects that one might otherwise dislike will inspire kindness to humans, and just as the practice mindfulness of the breath will inspire mindfulness of step, roadway, doorknob and intention, the practice of generosity generalizes to the community at large, from feeding each other at community events, to support of the sasana in every way, to feeding and housing participants in meditation retreats, to care for the underprivileged or those in temporary need, ever enlarging the scope of the economy of gifts. Monasteries become community and training centers where the priceless Dharma is offered without a price, all needs are freely provided for all. In this way generosity, the nourishing lifeblood of the Buddhist community, flows outward from the lay-monastic vortex, as each participant gives to whatever or whomever gladdens the heart and karmic dividends accrue.

This economic dynamics has other practical benefits. It extends to the monastics a unique opportunity for progress on the Path, not only through the accrual of karmic dividends but also through the enjoyment of a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world that the economy of exchange would demand, including from the need for livelihood as a teacher or as anything else. This ensures in turn 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. This is much like the insularity afforded academics from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability through academic freedom and tenure.

Quite significantly, the pulsating economy of gifts invites the participation of all members of the community in the care of the sasana, the monastery and the community, and does this without the hierarchy or coercion that mark many social structures. Monastics are at the heart of the Buddhist community (along with the most devout laypeople), but not at the head. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. Gifts, on the other hand, are like votes in determining the direction of the community or the sasana. For instance, dissatisfaction with the behavior of monastics can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the purity of the monastic Sangha.

The foregoing description of the dynamics of the Buddhist community may appear a bit glorified. To many in the western context, where Buddhist centers typically have an economy that is a cross between a Protestant church and a yoga studio, it may be entirely unfamiliar. In fact it is the living reality of the best of the Buddhist communities in Asian traditions, and should seem at least familiar for almost all. I have no illusions that its dynamics can sweep aside the exchange economy in which most of the laity spend most of the time, nor that that is particularly desirable, since the exchange economy does have a kind of efficiency. But the special qualities of the economy of gifts teach us that the exchange economy should not dominate our culture as thoroughly as it does.

Traditional Buddhist communities provide very uplifting contexts in which to learn and practice fundamental Buddhist values. Life in a dominant economy of gifts naturally leads to karmic dividends, beginning with delight and a feeling of peace in the heart, affection and gratitude Every act of generosity nurtures one’s inclination toward generosity, makes one kinder, more saintly, less self-centered and therefore of more peaceful and happier disposition. As a monk myself, I am privileged to be consistently in the heart of this context. Buddhist communities encourage participation and provide a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They also open into an opportunity to rub shoulders with people of spiritual attainment, to benefit from their wisdom and advice and to begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening.

Karmic Dividends (1/2)

August 31, 2014

I’ve been finishing up the series “All My Ancient Karma” more slowly than expected. In the meantime I offer:

Karmic Dividends

Generosity is the very first step in the Buddha’s gradual path. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, and brings great karmic benefit, that is, every act of generosity, when carried out with pure intentions, brings benefit that stays with the actor. The benefit starts immediately in the form of delight and a feeling of peace in the heart. Then affection and gratitude grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes brighter as every act of generosity nurtures one’s tendency to generosity, makes one kinder, more saintly, less self-centered and therefore of more peaceful and happier disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of generosity brings with it the liberal sense of abundance, in spite of one’s immediate material sacrifices. Moreover generosity benefits the recipient karmically as well as the donor since the recipient will experience gratitude which itself generally leads to an urge toward generosity.

In western culture, we tend to prefer the reciprocal exchange to the one-sided act of generosity. Although many people give generously to charities, or volunteer in civic projects and, indeed, generosity is upheld as a core value in our society (except maybe among readers of Ayn Rand). I think that in general we are poor receivers of generosity: We tend not to be gracious recipients of gifts, except of those from family members. We feel uncomfortable as recipients of charity, or if someone offers to pay for the meal we insist on paying and feel internally disgruntled when the other insists more convincingly. Self-sufficiency is also upheld as a core value in our society. This tends to close opportunities for others to practice generosity.

Aside from gift and exchange, there is one other way in which goods and services change hands: plunder. Stealing is not a step in the Buddha’s gradual path. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, but brings great karmic detriment, that is, every act of plunder, when carried out with tainted intentions, brings detriment that stays with the actor. The detriment starts immediately in the form of constriction and turmoil in the heart, then ill-will and animosity grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes darker as every act of plunder nurtures one’s tendency to plunder, makes one meaner, more exploitive, more self-centered and therefore of more violent and unhappy disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of plunder brings with it the stingy sense of lack, in spite of one’s immediate material gains. Moreover plunder tends to harm the victim karmically as well as the perpetrator since the victim will experience resentment which itself generally will lead to an urge for recompense.

In western culture we tend to be gracious recipients of plunder, with some reservations in the case of blatant illegality. Businesses love to “externalize costs,” merchants love to give their customers less than they paid for, advertisers love to sell customers a sexier new “you” when all customers actually get is a bar of soap, empires love their colonies, bankers love to fix the system to ensure a continuous inflow of plunder. Almost everyone loves to be able to put one over on the other fellow. Moreover, we tend to be forgiving of this behavior in others because we would do the same thing if we could.

We might discern, at least for exposition, three kinds of economy: an economy of exchange, an economy of gifts and an economy of plunder, although in practice these are inextricably intertwined. Often the three kinds of transactions involved even produce identical material results: If I give someone an A spontaneously out of generosity and that person later gives me a B out of generosity, this might have the same result as a fair exchange of A for B. Or if I steal a B from someone out of greed, while they are stealing an A from me also out of greed, this might also have the same result as the fair exchange of A for B. In any of these cases we might say that the economy is humming along. BUT there is a huge non-economic but spiritual difference in these three economies, the kind of karma that is generated in each case is quite dissimilar:

  • A transaction of fair exchange is in principle karmically neutral.
  • A transaction of generosity brings a karmic dividend.
  • A transaction of plunder carries a karmic forfeiture.

I should note that the ostensible exchange may hide plunder, or it may hide generosity. The first is the case, for instance, in fraud or deceit, the second, for instance, when someone values customers and takes pride in exceeding expectations. Intentions are what matter.

Note that the proportion of these three components vary in regional and global economies. For instance, anthropologists tell us that primitive societies, as well as those of our primitive ancestors, rely much more heavily on gifts than on exchange. The prevailing economy in a giving society have karmic consequences for their participants. We predict, on Buddhist principles, that the people who live in predominantly economies of gifts to have a high level of relative well-being, and that the people who live in predominantly economies of plunder will have a low level of relative well-being, as the populations busy themselves daily accumulating karmic dividends or forfeitures respectively.

With these differences in mind, we note that devout Buddhists are admonished not to participate in the plunder economy (at least as plunderers), for they are counseled to follow the precepts of not taking what is not freely given nor to say what is not true, and to choose a right livelihood, in which they are not allowed to profit from the suffering of others, nor use deceitful means in exchange. We also note that monastics are furthermore strictly disallowed from participation in the economy either of plunder or of exchange. They can have no business dealings, no trade (except in limited circumstances with other monks, like swapping otherwise ill-fitting robes), no handling of money. They practice generosity toward others, most notably by offering the Dharma, but can accept no tit-for-tat compensation for this. Monastics live as a matter of vow entirely in the economy of gifts. Monastics thereby gain a unique opportunity for spiritual progress.

A crucial point in these economic considerations is that the social context in which we live typically restricts the choices available to us, and therefore is a limiting factor on our practice, which, after all, consists of choices (karma). For instance, most of us would love to be able to walk to work each morning, but the social conditions may dictate that we commute for half an hour in heavy traffic. Likewise, we would love to have neighbors that are all generous farmers with whom we might share our own produce rather than having to sell it to distributors. We may need a job but cannot find a livelihood that does not involve deceiving customers or disadvantaging someone in some way. If we are in debt or under other social obligations our options become even more limited. Social context can force us from the economy of gifts increasingly into the economy of exchange, or from exchange into plunder, with inevitable dire consequences for our spiritual progress.

Therefore a crucial part of success in Buddhist practice is to optimize our social context, favoring the economy of gifts over the economy of exchange and the economy of exchange over the economy of plunder. I don’t expect readers to be inspired by these words to become activists in the cause of tearing down the system of global neo-liberal capitalism, which is certainly a system based as much in plunder as in exchange, but there are less daunting ways to negotiate the social landscape to optimize our individual or community social context. One is choice of livelihood, another is voluntary simplicity, another is choice of living place, rural rather than urban, for instance, or even Costa Rica rather than America. Migrate in the direction of happier people, because they are likely to live under a more favorable gift-to-plunder ratio.

A useful way to implement the Buddhist practice of generosity, beyond the occasional charitable contribution or favor to improve an otherwise mixed economic existence, is to be ever mindful, with every economic transaction, of what economy one is acting in right now. The economy of plunder is an insult to Buddhist practice. The economy of exchange is a world of wasted opportunities in which fair transactions are performed but with no karmic benefit. The economy of gifts is worlds apart. If one, like sincere monastics, can in one way or another spend all or most of one’s time in the economy of gifts, one’s spiritual progress will flourish. If one combines this practice either with a meditation practice or with unplugging oneself from media for the masses, it will soar. If one combines it with both, it will astonish.

Next week I would like to consider the opportunities Buddhist communities enjoy for nourishing an economy of gifts. It is significant that the Buddha was already on top of this issue.

Unplugging yourself from media for the masses

August 20, 2014

This adjustment to your life style may produce more benefit than any other aspect of a Buddhist life, for instance, more than an intensive daily meditation practice. Though little mentioned in the early discourses, in the modern context this is huge.

Modern culture was devastated by two parallel developments in the twentieth century that working together have magnified the power of government and corporations to shape the popular culture in harmful directions: mass media and the public relations/marketing industry. Supplementing print media at the turn of the century came radio, moving pictures and the gramophone, television, video games and home video, and all of the various forms of access and intrusion explosively afforded by the Internet. On the foundation of modern psychology around the turn of the century, which discovered the irrational underbelly of human motivation, came the public relations industry, successfully wielded in the interests of mass government propaganda in the United States to sell US involvement in World War One and in Germany to elicit support for the Nazi Party and its plans, all the while selling everywhere increasing numbers of the products of ever expanding industrial production. Today, children spend more time each day wired to the devises of mass media than they spend in school, certainly far more than they spend in interaction with their parents, and for parents, often of less leisure, it is not much better.

I call these developments devastating because they have overwhelmed the highest values and ideals of civilization and of the religious life, things like frugality and restraint, intellectual curiosity and kindness, to create efficient producers, consumers and supporters of the current corporate/state agenda. The means by which this has been done is particularly alarming from a Buddhist perspective, because of its unconscionable appeal to the basest human impulses of greed, hatred and delusion. Consumers of entertainment witness thousands of violent deaths each year and are vulnerable to tens of thousands of ads promoting junk food, unnecessary gadgets, useless cures and means of self-gratification and self-enhancement, all the while being sucked into a ruthlessly competitive and intolerant world in which they learn that violence is solution to every difficulty and stuff and wealth are the means of salvation. What is more, this system of mass manipulation is motivated itself primarily by greed for profits – Bitter seeds produce bitter fruits. – and overwhelms the quiet voices of wisdom and compassion – parents, village elders, the wise, teachers, clergy and monastics – that under other circumstances would be expected to uphold the purest values and ideals of the culture.

It is incumbent on all who wish to live a Buddhist life to live apart from these toxic influences of mass marketing/public relations. Here are some suggestions to adopt in whole or in part:

  • Never watch or read an ad. If you are watching TV and an ad comes on, mute the volume until the danger has passed. If an ad pops up on your computer hit the “back” button, quick. Be ready to take cover under a large cushion if all else fails.
  • Don’t own a TV, or if you do, use it very sparingly to watch commercial-free programs.
  • If you are a sports fan, go to games personally in your community, support the local high-school team, rather than catching professional sports between ads on TV.
  • Find reliable non-commercial news sources on the Internet (commercial sources are rarely reliable in any case). Find real journalism rather than hate- or greed inspired punditry.
  • View movies and other shows of social, spiritual or intellectual merit. Avoid mindless shows, such as those that convey celebrity gossip. Ask, does this entertainment option endorse anger or violence or class-consciousness, or does it promote kindness, open-mindedness, non-violence? What are its values? You will find at least 90% of the options lacking, but there are uplifting options out there. Documentaries are often good options.


The challenges of this regime are that most of us have media addictions and routines. Certain TV personalities become like personal friends or family, certain sports stars the same. We also expend a lot of time in front of the screen, often accustomed and deserved downtime, and the alternative ways of killing that time are less familiar or less enticing, alternatives like reading, conversation, star-gazing, macramé or board games. Also, adopting this regime generally requires the cooperation of family members or roommates. But, hey, we make sacrifices to maintain a consistent meditation practice as well.

All My Ancient Karma (2/5)

August 14, 2014

Discovering My Ancient Twisted Karma

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow. – Zen verse of repentance

Is my karma older than me? Will its results outlive me? Or is karmic history limited to a fathom-long body and a few decades of life? Since in this essay I take an experiential stance I will begin with a personal account.

In the early stages of my Buddhist practice, I came to understand that I was on a path of purification, purification of character for the benefit both of me and of those around me, purification from the unskillful habit patterns, conceits and views, the habituated ruts and grooves etched into the landscape of my life that defined who I, often to my dismay, had become. Practice was karma. It was a matter of making skillful choices of body, speech and mind, moment by moment, with the awareness that such choices in the past had shaped what I had become, and that present choices would shape what I would become. With skill, I could shape a character that I and the rest of humanity could live with more comfortably.

Skillful choices were those that avoided the behavioral and mental ruts and well-worn routes that led into the ooze of greed, through the brambles of hatred and down the crevices of delusion that constellated my karmic landscape. As I developed a greater awareness of my own accustomed habit patterns, aided by the practice of mindfulness, I almost never liked what I found there, and so I understood increasingly with time the urgency of purification. Nonetheless, I seemed to be gaining some skill in stepping aside when coming upon certain well worn routes that I had identified as leading to ooze, bramble or crevice. For instance, I seemed to have become slower to anger and less needy of the approval of others. Once scrupulously avoided, a particular route in my karmic landscape seemed gradually to erode, fade and then eventually disappear. I was reshaping my karmic landscape. Cool.

There were many non-Buddhist ways in which I might have improved my prospects in life, such as ballroom dancing, or working out to improve my manly physique even more, or earning big money in derivatives investment, but I had already experienced enough of the broken promises of life to see that these would probably be among them. Moreover, the Buddhist practice I had committed to carried the promise of Awakening, in which all of my problems would end irreversibly for the rest of my days. This would be a seismic event that would obliterate in one big shake all the routes and ruts that defined my karmic landscape. How long could it take, five or ten years?

As a particular example of the satisfaction that I had already realized in Buddhist practice, I had discovered early on how remorselessly judgmental I had been all my life. I had had only to look at someone, a complete stranger, and a judgment was set off, “n’er-do-well nerd,” “misguided moron,” “confused cad,” almost always derogatory, unless that someone happened to be a “bonny babe.” As I stepped repeatedly into this same accustomed rut, often a hundred times in a single day, it occasionally occurred to me to ask, “How can I possibly know so much about this person?” And the answer would come back, “It’s the shoes,” or, “He talks too much.” My judgmental mind embarrassed me, and that embarrassment brought with it a little sidestep at the critical moment of judgment. As promised, this particular mental rut began to change, then to fade.

In short, I looked forward to an increasingly favorable life, a few decades of greater happiness, kindness and wisdom, the life promised to the assiduous Buddhist practitioner by the law of karma. I looked forward to a more benign reshaping of my once unskillfully trodden karmic landscape. Although it was difficult for me to assess the full scope of my tainted and deeply rutted habit patterns, conceits and views, I was quite settled in my life of Buddhist practice, with a quiet determination that entailed daily meditation, reading Dharma, acts of generosity and virtue, and an occasional Zen meditation retreat (sesshin), blended into an otherwise busy workaday life. I was convinced my life would one day be a shining example of ease in a mixed-up world.

Buddhist practice often entails, as many readers can attest, an occasional distinct moment of insight, a small epiphany, often sparked by happenstance, in which some truth, previous unnoticed, is suddenly laid bare. I experienced one of these moments during a sesshin at Green Gulch Farm in California in the spring of 1998. Each early morning during this sesshin, we sat a couple of periods of meditation, then we stood up for a bowing and chanting service which began with the quote at the beginning of this section, which I had not heard before:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

My first suspicious thought on hearing this was,

“Oh, someone is trying to push the rebirth thing,”

which I had decided by this point that I’d believe if I could ever remember a previous life, but until then I’d be unconvinced about, not that it mattered much, because practice is in the present and rebirth in the past and future. However, the next morning while once again intoning this verse, I discovered that my eyes had unaccountably teared up and that I had such a lump in my throat that it was difficult for me to croak along with the words, and every morning thereafter I had the same response. It had nothing to do with accepting a speculative theory about rebirth, and everything to do with standing nose-to-nose with a previously unnoticed aspect of my experiential world.

In fact, it felt as if my whole bungled karmic past, the mistakes I had made, the people I had hurt, the opportunities and energy I had squandered, were suddenly revealed extending back in time, past the bounds of this one life into periods beyond memory, to produce the cumulative karmic results that now loomed menacingly and inescapably behind me, around me, and in me. The task I had undertaken with Buddhist practice suddenly become huge and daunting. I saw my karmic landscape, shaped by accustomed habit patterns, conceits and views as an enormous and intricate etching of deep and twisted ruts and channels, many leading straight to marshes of muck, thickets of thorns and complexes of chasms. I realized that feet of unskillful volition had been treading and shaping this landscape for millennia, actions of body speech and mind from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion. Most astonishingly I discovered that well-worn tracks of ancient feet criss-crossed even distant fields and obscure corners of my mental landscape that I could in this life scarce remember having ever visited, yet even there, as soon as mindfulness slipped, I fell effortlessly into seemingly well accustomed though completely unfamiliar habit patterns.

Just to take one example, from earliest childhood anger had for me followed this accustomed pattern: I would initially tolerate a great amount of vexation passively without outward expression, until a certain threshhold was reached, after which rage would erupt quite unexpectedly. The source of the vexation, generally an otherwise dear family member, would morph into something demonic. Since he or she looked deserving of any mishap that might befall him or her, retribution was in order. Violent thoughts would often lead to acts of property damage if not personal attack. This would always turn immediately around into a sense of remorse and shame for my lack of control. In the end the short-lived anger would dissipate and to my relief the former source of my wrath would shrink back to his or her former less threatening self.

I must have staged this little soap opera hundreds of times on different stages. But who had written this script and how had I learned it so thoroughly? Certainly this script had been acted out since long before I was born, many many times over and over; I was, as far as I could see, just following the well-worn ruts.

In contrast, my older brother Arthur followed, I recall, a totally different script from me. When vexed he would express his anger from the beginning grumpily in direct proportion to his vexation. But once his vexation had attained a certain threshhold he would simply sit in a corner to mope. For Arthur vexation collapsed, for me it exploded. Although he was widely recognized as a relatively grumpy child, and I as rather placid and agreeable, he rarely had to deal with the shame of rage turning to external expression that I experienced. Other children I knew also reached the rage stage, but many were much more adept at fabricating justifications and convincing themselves that they were in the right all along, which seemed to enable them to avoid shame, but which rang hollow for me.

Response to vexation is one part of any karmic landscape. It would serve as well to explore the fields and valleys of intellectual or artistic talents or skills, forms of social interaction (reticence, loyalty), personal neediness or acquisitiveness, particular patterns of sexual arousal (which I recall as absurdly evident before I knew what they could possibly mean), and on and on. Any of the more problematic features of the karmic landscape could, through practice, be unlearned, but how were they learned in the first place? I would not have been clever enough to have invented these behaviors and then habituated them.

Indeed, the quality of my Buddhist practice changed quickly and markedly after avowing my ancient twisted karma. Before, it was like a new office job in which my task is to take documents, let’s say, insurance claims, mindfully one by one from the “in” box, process them and place the results in the “out” box. Not so difficult and able to pay the bills. The sense that emerged with a developing sense of karmic continuity was like learning from a colleague that the person who had had my job before me had gotten so woefully behind in his work that he had been known to take documents from the “in” box and to store them in the adjacent room for eventual processing. Looking in the adjacent room I discover boxes of unprocessed documents, along with bundles of still more documents tied together with twine, stacked up high, bundle on bundle, box on box and bundle on box.

I recognize that there is suffering, an unpaid debt, in each of those pending documents. Dismay toward a bungled past brings with it an urgent sense of responsibility toward a still untainted future. I could, in the interests of my own convenience, ignore my responsibility thereby to free up time for tango or working out at the gym, but that would not resolve the underlying urgency, only leave it for whoever would have my job after me.

I relate this account of my exploration because I would like to offer this contemplation as an exercise to the reader of this essay as an experiential alternative to theoretical speculation about rebirth as a means to encourage a proper sense of karmic continuity.

In this exercise I consider it fair to draw on early childhood memories, as I have done, as well as to include observation of others you may be intimate with, as I have also done. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little characters from the earliest age. One 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, basic laws of physics and the nature of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, because right behind that comes a remarkably firmly established karmic landscape, a recognizable little character. One child seems particularly stingy, another freely generous at a very young age.

A close family member of mine could not, by about the age of two or three, sit through any kind of even marginally smoochy romantic scene during family video nights; she would become visibly agitated and have to leave the room to return a few minutes later. Where did that come from? She also refused to wear a dress almost from the time of owning her first. When she went on to announce, as a young teen, that she was a lesbian, nobody was at all surprised.

It is also not misplaced to extend this investigation to anecdotes about others’ experiences, as long as they are reliably documented. Worth considering is the occasional prodigy, like Mozart, who possesses some remarkable talent, almost as soon as he or she can speak, that an adult would generally have to spend decades trying to master. Particularly intriguing are reported cases of early childhood memories of past lives, some of which are astonishingly well documented, most notably by the late Prof. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues particularly at the University of Virginia. Although among these are virtually irrefutable isolated cases of remarkably detailed past-life memories that defy conventional explanation, such cases are rare and they fall short of establishing the conclusion that one might wish for, that your or my karmic landscape has been trampled by a long string of previous inhabitants living out non-overlapping previous lives.

At some point you are likely to ask, whose footprints are these that have been trampling your personal karmic landscape from ancient times? You alone are the heir of your deeds, but if you came into existence mere decades ago, then you seem also to be heir to somebody else’s deeds. By the same token, somebody some day will be the heir of your deeds after you have breathed your last. Who are all these people?

With these questions we begin to slip into theory, the kind of speculation I suggested we avoid from the outset. Perhaps all the ruts and channels of one’s early karmic landscape were intricately encoded in a pattern of ancestral genes that descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps an intact karmic landscape took flight with the last breath of some unknown life to descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps a newly vacant karmic landscape was somehow assigned to a newly born infant at birth to occupy and to reshape until it is ready to vacate it in turn. Perhaps the infant or toddler taps into and absorbs the karmically sustained memes rampant in its cultural context to select and construct the intricacies of the karmic landscape it will occupy. More than likely it is a combination of such factors. None of these mechanisms seems to be excluded by Buddhist metaphysics as long as it is expressed in terms of cause and effect, certainly not for not being soul-like enough.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the answer to these questions is critical to suffering and the ending of suffering; the bare experiential sense of karmic continuity suffices. For the more skeptical, understanding its mechanisms might dispel doubts about the reality of karmic continuity, but I am not sure this is the case: I am still trying to comprehend how there can be a moon. The scientific explanations, seem to underdetermine the experience; golly, look at it! For the more credulous, one runs the risk of attaching to a particular theoretical view only to find it later to be demonstrably false. For instance, a prominent Western monk once asserted that if rebirth were ever disproven, then he would disrobe. To make one’s commitment to Buddhist practice contingent in this way on theory seems a bit ill considered: Buddhism emerged from personal experience and it is verified there.

The main point is to avow our ancient twisted karma, to recognize that our present lives are woven at the most intimate level into a rich and immense tapestry of ancient history and future potential, inextricably into something far grander in scope than this fathom-long body and few decades of life. A karmic landscape is something far more enduring, a panoramic context for practice that reveals the profound significance of the goal toward which practice points and that instills the proper sense of dismay toward the past and responsibility toward the future to propel our pursuit of the path.

In the third post in this series, we will turn from our personal experience, yours and mine, to learn what the Buddha himself had to say about all this.

All My Ancient Twisted Karma (1/5)

August 7, 2014

Perceiving what can be expressed through concepts,
Beings take their stand on what is expressed.
Not fully understanding the expressed,
They come under the bondage of death.Itivuttaka 3.14

Discussions of rebirth generally focus on theory, that is, rebirth is conceptualized into a belief or proposition, a topic of speculation or conjecture, that is then open to objective scientific or philosophical verification or debate. In the Western context opinions about this topic abound:

“It just feels right in my bones that I have lived before this life.”
“I dunno about this rebirth thing. It sounds like unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters to me.”
“I’d believe it if I could remember a previous life, but until then I’m not convinced.”
“Buddhism is not about belief. It is about practice. You can practice the same way whether or not you believe in rebirth.”
“Practice is about being in the moment, rebirth is about the past and future. Who cares?”
“The Buddha never taught rebirth.”
“The Buddha taught rebirth … and that’s good enough for me.”
“Scientists at the University of Virginia have proven rebirth!”

Speculation about rebirth seems to have been much alive in the Buddha’s India, to have largely abated for many centuries in the Buddhist world, only to have emerged anew in the modern world. Noteworthy is how spectacularly unproductive speculative debate about it has been. Rarely does a participant in the debate seem to change his view, but rather generally ends up instead holding it all the more firmly once he had taken a firm stance in debate. Occasionally it is even a deal breaker for someone who is not yet resolute in Buddhist practice.

This may explain why the Buddha avoided this debate at a speculative level altogether, instead to treat it as a purely experiential, subjective, empirical matter, or, as a last resort, to justify it for its practical contribution to the results of spiritual practice. The reason the speculative debate has been unproductive is perhaps most closely addressed by the “not about belief” guy quoted above. There is a disconnect between the terms of the debate and the needs of the actual practitioner, whose needs, one would suspect, would also reveal the motives of the Buddha – generally quite parsimonious of conjecture and grounded in experience – in making critical reference rebirth at some of the most critical points in his teachings.

In this series of short essays I would like to approach what is at issue not by way of speculation, but rather from experience and efficacy. I will generally avoid the word rebirth, because it readily brings to mind the speculative perspective we wish to avoid, in favor of karmic continuity, as something we may progressively and fruitfully explore and refine in our own subjective experience. Karmic continuity is the sense that our karmic conditioning derives from before birth, then plays out in our few decades of life and practice, to produce results that extend past death. I hope this shift in perspective will be useful to the reader who may either have already dismissed the notion of rebirth as hogwash, or hold too tightly onto any of the other speculative views of rebirth, to reach a full personal understanding of what has been expressed as rebirth. My conclusion will be that embedding our moment-to-moment practice in such a context of karmic continuity makes a huge difference in the quality of our practice that cannot be dismissed.

In the next weeks I intend to submit four more posts on this subject. In Discovering My Ancient Twisted Karma, I will consider these questions from an experiential perspective, “Is my karma older than me?” and “Will its results outlive me?” In The Long and the Short of It, I will look at the Buddha’s teachings relevant to karmic continuity, particularly what he had in mind when he taught samsara, the continuous round of rebirths. In Putting Practice into Context, I will take up the question, “Why, if practice is in the present moment, is it so crucial to frame our practice in a wider temporal context?” Finally, in Our Present Task, I will summarize the conclusions of the foregoing about the nature of Buddhist practice in the context of karmic continuity.

Universal Beatniks

July 22, 2014

A counterculture – think of the romantics, the bohemians, the beatniks or the hippies – defines itself in opposition to the dominant or mainstream culture in terms of its values and social norms. As if to underscore its role, it often distinguishes itself even in coiffure and apparel. A counterculture holds a mirror up in which the mainstream can see itself for what it is. No one wants to look unsightly, and so the natural response of the dominant culture can be quite harsh; the -nik in beatnik, for instance, was an attempt to associate this peaceful movement absurdly with the much feared Communist menace of its time. But over time many of the counterculture’s values and social norms become mainstream. Since a counterculture is likely to arise in response to something askew in the mainstream, its influence is likely to be corrective.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe monastic Saṅgha represents the universal counterculture that defines itself in opposition to any mainstream culture of any time and place in terms of the ancient radical values and social norms espoused by the Buddha. It even distinguishes itself in coiffure and apparel. The Saṅgha holds the looking-glass up in which the mainstream, the looking-glass world, can see itself for what it is. However, in Buddhist lands, the challenge of this reflection is actually welcomed as a reality check and a wholesome counterweight to the rampant unwholesome influences found in any dominant culture. Rather than eschew, Buddhist cultures appreciate and even support these orthodox radicals in their midst. This is the contract implicit in taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. As a result, the values and social norms of the Saṅgha have a continual civilizing influence on the dominant culture.

The Saṅgha is both orthodox and radical. It is orthodox in that the Buddhist monastic order is plausibly the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence, still recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice, function, values and social norms after 100 generations. It was there as great empires arose and grew mighty, it was there as those empires collapsed. Its charter, the Vinaya, is the most widely recognized scripture in Buddhism. 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. Even as Buddhism has adapted quite freely to new cultures and ideas, its most constant and conservative factor has been the Saṅgha, the fixed point around which the freewheeling folk elements of Buddhism are allowed to revolve. The well-being of the Saṅgha has historically correlated with the well-being of Buddhism. It will be no different in the West.

The Saṅgha is radical in that it lives according to Dharma, which has always been, as the Buddha described it, against the stream. It points to another way of being, recognizing that left is really right and right is left, forward is backward, outside is inside and what is alluring is generally too hot to handle. Monastics are walking science experiments that illustrate something to all that otherwise defies common sense, giant test tubes that allow everyone to see how this renunciation thing outside the looking-glass world is working out. And it does. We are a reality check on the allure of the triple fire of desire, ire and mire. We are Saṃsāra Anonymous, living in the rarefied environment ideal for letting go of our addiction to the soap opera of life. As long as we are practicing and living according to the Vinaya, the Buddha tells us, the world will not lack Awakened ones.

Newly Old: a Fantasy

July 13, 2014

I have been working with a student to proof my pending autobiography. A number of passages are fanciful, each of which is intended to make a Dharmic point, at least obliquely. I thought I would begin to post these as a series. Most, maybe all, have been posted independently in a previous incarnation as separate pieces before, but generally a number of years ago.

The first was originally written in Myanmar, in the Sagaing Hills. No other background is required, except Wigglet, the dog I refer too, was a feral dog who befriended me. She was actually much better cared for than most dogs around the monastery because she was smart enough to claim the Guest House as her territory, where many foreign visitors stayed, who tended to take more interest in dogs than the natives.

Newly Old

While living in Sagaing I became officially old: I turned 60!

In Buddhism we have this Self thing, or rather don’t have it. To be a Self requires the view that there is something in or around this body that is unchanging, besides a Social Security Number. That unchanging Self is what is known in Buddhism as “a mental formation,” and also as a “Wrong View.” In my case this delusion of a mental formation must have arisen many years ago complete with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not surprising that that Self is someone actually much younger than me. The landmark event of turning 60 put me once again face to face with that unchanging youthful Self, and gave me three choices:

The first choice is denial. Under this choice I try all the harder to convince myself that I am this youthful unchanging Self. After all, I have the still unchanged energy to be an international globetrotter, like I was in my 20’s, and now without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except when I’m not feeling so chipper. I can always grow some of my lush head of hair back. I’ve had many more years of experience being young than any of the young of today — the whippersnappers — so I should be really good at it. Why, I just might get me a skateboard, and what I think they call a “Walk Man” so I can listen to the latest “Disco” music, just like the youth of today. Monks don’t have hats to speak of that they could wear backwards, but maybe I’ll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my robe over my right shoulder.

After I began with such thoughts to settle into a happy state of denial my daughter Kymrie emailed from America, “I don’t think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you are 60.” That suddenly took the wind out of my sails. I then began to realize how denial must always slide the slippery slope gradually into despair. So I placed my mind there to see how it felt.

So, the second choice is despair. Under this option I lament the unfairness of the universe for not being the way it is supposed to be, for failing to respect who I really am, for not according me what was promised to me, for being like a fancy restaurant that has inexcusably lost my dinner reservation or a hotel that has put me in a room next to the elevator or over a, uh, disco. I might even try to organize something to do about it, like a gray folks’ protest.

Or I might just relish the despair. You know, I would probably make a really great Bitter Old Man, famous for my Bodhidharma frown. I would learn the art of striking fear in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more and more bitter. The Despair I would experience with Flair, with a Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Wigglet would no longer want to come to my door, relieved instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, my kinda dog. I would learn to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by. Ha ha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I’m going to do it right. By next rainy season my mere presence will pop meditators right out of samādhi into a thicket of unwholesome impulses. My former fans will say, “Don’t do It, Bhante, don’t become a Bitter Old Man,” and “No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita.”

… But wait, what am I thinking? Am I not just replacing one Self with another, the Young with the Old, then clinging equally to the new (Old)? Do I really think I can find satisfaction with the Old (new) Self, any more than I could with the old (Young)? Is not the new (Old) equally subject to dissolution? Oh, Impermanence, What Vexation Have You Wrought? And what would the Buddha say? One of his monks turning into a modern (new but Old) Mara. Besides, I can see that this Bitter Old Man bit will wear thin pretty quickly. “Oh, Wigglet! Wigglet!”

The third choice is acceptance. Under this choice I regard this situation as a good Practice Opportunity and Topic for Contemplation. This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is that guy, and who am I? I seem to have his memories of who he is supposed to be, so we must have intersected at some point, maybe that time in 1965. If he is not me, he must be around here somewhere, since he is unchanging. And I must be another Self, so two Selves. And if there can be two Selves that I identify as me, aren’t there likely to be more? But I know that guy used to be me, so what happened? The mind not able to wrap itself around any of this, exhausted, all the Selves shatter and what is left is nothing but the recognition of change, a continual relentless flux of the whole universe morphing into new forms. Even as the idea arises that this is me, all the parts and their relations are already morphing into something else. Any Self that tries to hold onto itself does not fit into the way things really are, is no more than the product of a very active imagination trying to find something solid in an ocean of change. It is silly to try to hang onto something I never was and could not possibly be.

Thinking this way gives me the ability to lighten up, … and to sound very philosophical while I’m at it.

Just when I had not only resigned myself to no longer being a youth, or a Self, but also thought I was joyfully present with this reality, one of the monks at Sagaing told me he thought I was already 70! That suddenly propelled me back to Square One. I began to picture myself in the upcoming spring once again zipping around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes.