Archive for the ‘Dharma’ Category

Buddhist-Rohingya Relief

December 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Those Self-Absorbed Buddhists

December 6, 2017

pdficonA few months ago I gave a talk to some seminary students who wanted to learn about Buddhism. After the talk, after the Q&A that followed, and as we were adjourning, one of the students approached and confided in me that he had in his younger days as a spiritual explorer visited a number of the Buddhist sitting and discussion groups that are common in the West, but that he was disappointed with what he found there. He said,

“People seemed so self-absorbed.”

Well, this was awkward. Although I had never belonged to another faith before taking refuge some twenty years ago, I have come to recognize that most people of faith, across many religious traditions, have a characteristic sense of humility that differs markedly from that found in secular contexts. Moreover, Buddhism is the only tradition that carries the virtue of humility as far as teaching anatta (non-self) and then systematically de-constructing the sense of being a self. In Buddhism, humility is the most reliable indicator of spiritual progress and renouncing personal neediness the most effective means of making it. So, how could it be that this result was not apparent in this seminarian’s experience?

Within a brief moment, I had to admit that he was right! I recognized his observation from my own early frequent and more recent occasional experience in such sitting and discussion groups, and I told him so. Although I pointed out that this does not generalize to all Buddhist communities, and certainly not to ethnically Asian communities, as a Buddhist teacher I could see that this young man was providing a valuable perspective on what was a serious deficit in the Western Sasana. I think my off-the-cuff explanation – for I had to say something positive after having conceded his point – involved the novelty of Western sitting and discussion groups in contrast with established churches attended by generations of family members.

I am myself a monk in a primarily Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas. The evening before I wrote the first draft of this post, as we had finished our routine evening recitation, two unexpected guests arrived: a Sri Lankan monk – the abbot of a local temple and known to us – and a Sri Lankan lay companion. All of our local monks stood up out of respect as the visiting senior monk entered and our own abbot gave up his own seat at the front and center, for our abbot was the junior of the two. All of our monks prostrated three times to our monastic guest, while his lay companion prostrated once to each of our monks in turn. This has been the way of Buddhist communities for 2500 years, each person aware of his seniority based entirely on ordination date, and no one wishes it otherwise, for this is the way established by the Buddha himself. In this simple rite, personal pride finds no place and humility finds its natural expression. Our Sri Lankan visitor at the front of the seniority is himself a gentle and kind individual who accepted the honor shown him without the slightest hint of pride, for he had lived as a monk for many decades. This would have been day and night from the seminarian’s experience.

So, how could I account for the future minister’s experience with Western sitting groups? I daresay I once brought my quota of self-centeredness into such sitting and discussion groups, so I had a degree of experience to draw on as I began to ponder this important question. I have been pondering since then on how I could best have answered my interlocutor on this fateful day:

I could have mentioned the across-the-board hyper-individualism[i] and hyper-consumerism[ii] that plague American culture that has contributed to a kind of spiritual marketplace which people enter quite easily with self-centered attitudes. Individualism is a part of the human pathology that Buddhism attempts to cure. Although this condition represents an serious assault on religious engagement and on spiritual development in modern culture (and increasingly in Asia), these influences apply across American culture and across other religious traditions alongside Buddhism. So individualism and consummerism cannot be the whole story.

I could have pointed out that the demographics of Buddhist sitting and discussion groups is quite distinct. These are for the most part highly educated and financially well-off people,[iii] and maybe this in itself brings a degree of hubris. They are also, for the most part, people who have become disenchanted with the religion of their upbringing and therefore experience a kind of wariness about religious engagement in general. From personal experience I know that many of these people also take the unconventional step of coming to Buddhism as an act of desperation, in great personal pain, often in the midst of a personal crisis, sometimes as a last resort, as a cry for help. Under these circumstances enhanced personal concern, at least during a period of healing, is quite understandable.

I should also have explained that Western Buddhist sitting and discussion groups are a new, untried kind of institution, as far as I know with little precedent in any ancient Buddhist tradition, but largely based on the model of secular meet-ups, in which like-minded people get together, with little ceremony, either to discuss stamp collecting, to practice salsa dancing, to meet other middle-aged singles or to talk shop with regard to some vocation or another, like knocking out Java code. Absent from this kind of structure is the Sangha, virtually always the core around which Buddhist communities have traditionally coalesced. On the other hand, there are larger Western Buddhist “centers” that provide more elements of the traditional Buddhist community context, such as many Zen centers and Shambhala centers, and these do seem to attract or produce more modest members.

I could have made the point that much of what is understood as Buddhist teachings among those with little adept knowledge has, in fact, more to do with the paradigm of European Romanticism and pop psychology[iv] than with Buddhism, and that these often seem to encourage a degree of self-absorption rather than to dispel it. European romanticism asks of me to be true to my inner self, to break through social convention in order to express my creative and spiritual core. Not only is this paradigm far too metaphysical to accord with the Buddha’s way of thinking, but it seems to highlight rather than to de-construct the self.

Finally, it would have been important to mention the role of meditation generally as the centerpiece of a sitting and discussion group, sometimes to the complete exclusion of traditional practices such as generosity, ethics, living harmoniously in community, refuge and developing purity of intention.[v] Buddhist meditation is an advanced practice, necessary for awakening or for complete de-construction of the self (which is the same thing), but it only succeeds with the development of a large range of prerequisite practices, including most of these more mundane practice just mentioned.[vi] As a consequence, there is a danger in practicing Buddhist meditation in the absence of these prerequisites: Since meditation is a practice that aims at individual attainment, it easily leads to conceit, in particular to the urge to compare self to others, which is particularly encouraged in open discussion contexts. As a result, a meet-up for Buddhist meditators might not be much more effective as a vehicle for developing humility than a meet-up for body-builders or for video game enthusiasts.

So, what do we do to correct the errors of the modern Sasana? We suffer some serious handicaps in western society that we need to put aside, including the above-mentioned individualism and also the Protestant attitude of the “spiritual but not religious.” This has led to a disregard for the importance of community in Buddhism, for the critical role of the Sangha in community and for the opportunities community affords in developing a range of practices that contribute to our spiritual development and provide the prerequisites for successful meditation.[vii] We have abundant precedents for overcoming the deficits in the western Sasana, in the teachings of the Buddha and in traditional Buddhist communities that have been living more-or-less according to those teachings for one hundred generations.


i. See Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life for more on individualism and spirituality in American life.
ii. See Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion for more on this.
iii. See James William Coleman, The New Buddhism : The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition for interesting demographic data of this type.
iv. See Thanissaro, “Romancing the Buddha,” available on-line, and David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism for more on modern influences on, and presentations of, Buddhism.
v. Berkeley scholar Robert Sharf writes particularly clearly about the danger of reducing Buddhism to a single practice and his concern for what gets lost. See, for instance, “Losing Our Religion,” in Tricycle Summer 2007.
vi. Right Concentration depends critically on the proper practice of each of the preceding factors of the noble eightfold path (S 45.28), that is, on right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. Buddha’s gradual instruction (for instance, Udana 5.3) tells us that undertaking the noble eightfold path presupposes significant development of generosity, virtue, purity of mind and refuge.
vii. I did not start writing this essay with the intention of plugging my introductory book Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path: foundations of Buddhism based on earliest sources, but it was conceived around the idea of providing a more organic overview of the Buddha’s teaching, in which ideally all prerequisites to the various aspects of practice are clearly articulated, than is generally presented in introductory texts.

The Case of the Missing Sangha

September 19, 2017

a selective review of Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, 2017, Yale University Press.

pdf_24x18Other reviews of this work have missed what I think is the main arc of this book, its thoughts on the nature of the Buddhist community, on the fourfold assembly, on monasticism, on Buddhist institutions and on what a modern “secular” Buddhist community will look like. The scope of the book is, however, much broader: “truth” and “belief” and their relation to practice, the Buddha’s understanding of emptiness, ethics as the basis of Buddhist practice, the ins and outs of Buddhist psychology, and much more. Much of this discussion is worthwhile, particularly his discussion of the practical basis of Buddhist doctrine as opposed to view of it as a belief-system,[1] and his strong emphasis on ethics as foundational for Buddhist practice and understanding.

I will, in this review, focus on what he writes about the Buddhist community, which I find is also the weakest part of his exposition. For Batchelor, “after Buddhism” is achieved by going back to the early teachings of the Buddha, that is, “before Buddhism,” whose ancient teachings, astonishingly, resonate with modern ways of thinking. As Batchelor puts it,

“Paradoxically, to imagine what might emerge after Buddhism, we need to go back to the time before Buddhism began” (p.28).

In Batchelor’s account of early Buddhism he attempts to show that there was no organized monastic community within the Sāsana during the life of the Buddha. If this were true, it would remove the tag “organized religion” from “before Buddhism,” and place it on the doorstep of “Buddhism.” It would also removing the imperative from “after Buddhism” of establishing a modern organized monastic community.

The reliability of early Buddhist texts (EBT). His position on this issue forms the framework of Batchelor’s entire discussion of early Buddhism, so let’s begin here. Batchelor writes,

“The early canonical texts are a complex tapestry of linguistic and rhetorical styles, shot through with conflicting ideas, doctrines and images, all assembled and elaborated orally over about three or four centuries before being committed to writing. Given the chorus of voices, how are we to distinguish between what is likely to have been the Buddha’s word as opposed to a well-intentioned ‘clarification’ by a later editor or commentator? We are not yet–and may never be–at a point where such questions can be answered with certainty.”[2]

This is quite accurate as far as it goes, but I believe the Buddha’s voice can be heard much more clearly than one is likely to infer from this statement. This is an important issue, because throwing up our hands as saying, “We really don’t know what is authentic!” is an invitation to cherry-pick evidence for any particular interpretation of the EBT that we like, declare this evidence as authentic and dismiss any counter-evidence as the product of a later editor or commentator.

The level of authenticity of the EBT can be fairly reliably assessed because the same early corpus of texts was preserved separately from earliest times in many parallel early sects in diverse regions of the Buddhist world and in diverse languages. The Pali corpus of the early Theravada sect is the best known today, but only one of many of what constitute the EBT. Comparative studies of the existent redactions of the early Buddhist Texts give us a good tool for determining what has be altered and what is likely authentic. We find, for instance, that background stories found in the discourses can vary in details among redactions, but the words of the Buddha seem generally to be surprising close in content and remarkably uncontaminated by later doctrinal developments within the various sects. In general we can be confident – and this has been recognized since the nineteenth century – that these texts were preserved remarkably well given their complex history.[3]

Furthermore, once the adept Buddhist practitioner becomes thoroughly familiar with, and puts substantially into practice, the EBT in any one redaction (e.g., the Pali canon), he will appreciate how systematic these texts are and realize that they must be primarily the work of a single genius. His task is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some authentic pieces are missing, and in which other inauthentic pieces have been mixed in from other jigsaw puzzles. At some point he nevertheless recognizes in the unfinished puzzle, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge!” A systematic interpretation of the whole has shone forth that he cannot easily back out of.

Although any specific claim about the EBT cannot be proven decisively, and might still admit debate among scholars, the convergence of evidence from many sources can give the practitioner considerable confidence about what is authentic. In the long history of scholarship around these texts, I am not aware that anything fundamental that is repeated frequently in a range of texts has ever been overturned, certainly nothing as fundamental as the existence of an organized monastic community at the time of the Buddha.

Equality in the Buddhist community. One of Batchelor’s more puzzling statements is critical for the conclusions he wants eventually to make about modern secular Buddhism. It is the following:

“Gotama clearly envisaged a community in which all members – irrespective of their status as men or women, monastics (mendicants) or laity (adherents) – are entirely equal in the training they receive in the dharma, the practices they undertake to master and understand it, and the responsibility they have in communicating its message. Such an egalitarian community is a far cry from what is normative in many Buddhist traditions in Asia today.”[4]

A famous EBT passage he quotes from the Parinibbāna Sutta in defense of this states that the Buddha would not be ready to attain parinirvāna until there are trained and accomplished disciples who can take on teaching responsibilities in each of four categories: male and female monastic disciples and male and female lay disciples. However, his radically egalitarian conclusion does not follow even closely from the passage he cites, which does not state all members of these four groups have all of these qualities, only that some members of each group have all of these qualities. Moreover, Batchelor’s interpretation would make no sense, because not all members can possibly possess these qualities equally, for:

  1. Not everyone has equal access to training.
  2. Not everyone chooses equally to receive such training,
  3. Not everyone chooses to undertake the same practices,
  4. Monastic disciples and lay disciples already differ, by definition, in the nature of their practices; to say they are entirely equal in practices they undertake is analogous to saying meditators and non-meditators are entirely equal in their practice.
  5. Disciples, even if they have the same training and practices, will differ in opportunity, motivation and disposition, and will exhibit a markedly wide range of practice attainments, and therefore:
  6. Disciples will differ widely in their capacity for understanding or communicating the message of the Buddha.

Batchelor himself refers to the noble disciples as those distinguished from common members of the Buddhist community in their practice attainments. Noble disciples have reached at least the first level of awakening, called stream-entry, before which a disciple is considered, in the Buddha’s terminology, an ordinary person or a worldling (puthujjana). In short, the Buddhist community varies enormously in all the criteria Batchelor mentions.

Although the point that many noble disciples, whether monastics or lay, whether men or women, are strong in training, practice, attainment and teaching is well taken, the egalitarian community Batchelor describes makes as much sense as lumping all baseball players together, whether major league, minor league, little league or amateur and then claiming that they are equal in entirely equal in training and practice, and equally qualified to coach a major league team. We will see how Batchelor’s uses his weak egalitarian conclusions for early Buddhism to justify elements of his vision of “after Buddhism.”

The status of monastics. Batchelor makes another remarkable claim,[5] that no formal distinction between the monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis) and the lay adherents (upāsakas and upāsikas) existed in early Buddhism. He offers no support whatever for this claim, a claim that would surprise any student or scholar even casually familiar with the early texts. Let me itemize some obvious problems with his claim:

First, the words bhikkhu and the feminine bhikkhuni seem to have been introduced by the Buddha and was not used for ascetics of other traditions, nor applied to Buddhist householders.[6]

Next, the Buddha’s earliest disciples, including himself, of other traditions; it was initially a movement among bhikkhus. One of the Buddha’s earliest disciples was a nobleman, Yassa, a young man who left home and showed up where the Buddha was staying, but with his father in hot pursuit. When the father arrived at the encampment, the Buddha sorted things out such that Yassa received permission from his father to become a bhikkhu and was ordained by the Buddha and remained with the Buddha as a trainee, while the father became a lay follower of the Buddha and returned home. It is clear that there is at this very early time a formal difference in the status of father and son in terms of the manner of commitment each has made, the younger leaving the household life to follow the Buddha and live, like the Buddha, as a renunciate.

Some of Yassa’s friends subsequently decided to follow his example, and are reported to have shaved their heads and beards, put on yellow robes and left home for homelessness. It is clear that the early monastic community had a “dress code” in the EBT that distinguished them from the mendicants of other schools as well as from Buddhist laity.

Requesting and granting monastic ordination occurs frequently in the EBT. This was a first accomplished by the Buddha with the words, “Come, bhikkhu!” but involved an increasingly elaborate procedure with time. Eventually the Buddha also authorized other monks to perform ordinations so that candidates would not have to make the ofttimes long journey to see the Buddha in person. It is also said that people were prohibited from monastic ordination as a means of avoiding social responsibilities such as debt, military service or punishment for a crime.

Throughout the discourses, new disciples most typically declare their conversion to the Buddha’s way by taking refuge in the Buddha, the dhamma and the bhikkhusangha, not simply the sangha. Clearly the bhikkhu community has a formal status even in the rite of becoming an adherent as a householder. Probably at about forty years of age, the Buddha founded the bhikkhuni-sangha, the nuns’ community, with new concerns reported around ordination.

The Buddha produced at least the core of the Vinaya, the disciplinary code, during his lifetime expressly for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. The life of the bhikkhus was initially taught implicitly by example, but as the bhikkhu community began to grow and vary the Buddha laid down specific standards of discipline. The result was the quite extensive Vinaya, as far as we know, an entirely novel accomplishment for that time. As Richard Gombrich put it, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life.”[7] The Vinaya is the body of teachings that define the monastic what it is to be a monastic, as distinct from a householder.

That the Vinaya was conceived and developed – although not fully brought to its complete canonical form– during the life of the Buddha is clear in the Buddha’s frequent use of the term Vinaya in the discourses. In fact, the Buddha repeated refers to the body of his teachings as the Dhamma and Vinaya (Doctrine and Discipline), or simply as the dhamma-vinaya, highlighting the importance of the monastic code relative to the Dhamma. For instance, a Digital Pali Reader search over the four main discourse collections shows the following number of occurrences for only one of the expressions used to refer to the Doctrine and Discipline;

dhammavinay- 274

Moreover, all Buddhist traditions agree that the Vinaya was recited along with the discourses at the first council shortly after the Buddha’s death. Although Batchelor gives an account of the first council and of the recitation of the discourses by Ānanda, he makes no mention the recitation of the Vinaya, which was accomplished by Ven. Upāli.

All of this evidence overlooked by Batchelor when he makes his unsubstantiated claim that the monastics had no formal status in the EBT. Together it provides overwhelmingly evidence that there was a formally distinguished bhikkhu community during the life of the Buddha.

Following up on this claim, Batchelor maintains that designating someone as a monk or a nun would not be appropriate, in any case, until a later time in history, “when mendicants came to live apart in monasteries, functioned as priests, and depended on the laity to provide not only daily alms food but the upkeep and protection of their institutions.”[8] In fact , it is clear that most of these conditions were already in existence at the time of the Buddha. Although the Buddha continued to extol the mendicant life, there are many reports in the EBT of land being granted to the monastic community: The first was a park donated by King Bimbiasara of Magadha on the outskirts of Rājagaha shortly after the Buddha’s awakening. The best known was the Jeta grove donated by the wealth banker Anāthapindika near Sāvatthi the capital of Kosala. Often donors had residences and other structure build on the land, which the Buddha explicitly permitted monastics to accept, but not to request. Lamotte calculated twenty-nine monasteries explicitly mentioned at the time of the Buddha.[9] Monastics are reported to have built modest shelters on their own for temporary residence and the Buddha placed restrictions on how substantial these shelters could be. The Buddha also stipulated that monks and nuns should stay in residence in one place during three months of the rainy season each year. He also authorized the residents of monasteries to elect officers to handle the allocation of housing, the acceptance of robe donations to the community, etc.

Batchelor is, however, correct in his statement that the monastics only later took up priestly functions. That the Buddha could prohibit this also speaks of the existence of a distinct disciplined monastic community for whom this stipulation would apply.

The meaning of “sangha.” Batchelor defines the word the word sangha in a way that is poorly supported in the EBT.[10] Specifically, he defines it as the fourfold assembly of male and female, mendicants and adherents (monastics and householders). Now, in Western circles the word sangha indeed most generally refers to the entire Buddhist community, so Batchelor’s claim will make sense to the casual reader, but misleadingly so. In the EBT the fourfold assembly is almost always designated as catu-parisā in Pali, and in the Pali canon the word sangha is never used for the fourfold assembly.[11] In fact, I am unaware of any precedent for the common Western usage anywhere in pre-modern Buddhism (although I’ve noticed Thich Nhat Hanh often uses the word in this way, apparently in conformity with Western usage). Knowing that this usage is never found in current Asian Theravada Buddhism, I once asked the late scholar John McRae if sangha ever refers to the general Buddhist community anywhere in East Asian Buddhism, his area of expertise, and was told that this would be an “unusual and idiosyncratic” use of the term.

The base meaning of sangha is “group.” However, the word was used in a specific sense prior to the Buddha to refer (as Batchelor correctly points out[12]) to the clan-based governing bodies of the Indian republics at the time of the Buddha, generally in the compound gaṇa-sangha, “assembly of equals.”[13] In the EBT two compounds are commonly formed from –sangha: sāvaka-sangha and bhikkhu-sangha. We have already seen that bhikkhu-sangha (monastic sangha) is common in the formula for going for refuge. Sāvaka-sangha (community of disciples, or “hearers”) is generally used to refer specifically to the community of ariyas or noble disciples, that is, those who have attained at least the first level of awakening, steam entry. One might expect to see the term ariya-sangha as well in the place of sāvaka-sangha; although it would seem to mean the same thing, ariya-sangha is in fact very rare in the EBT.

So, it seems that sangha has two technical meanings in the EBT, one referring to the community of noble disciples and the other referring to the community of monks and nuns. Running the Digital Pali Reader on the four main collections of discourses yields the following numbers of occurrences:

bhikkhusangh- 270,
sāvakasangh- 61,
ariyasangh- 1.

There are no occurrences of upāsaka-sangha in the corpus, which would be the lay sangha if one existed. Batchelor’s further claim[14] that the monastic community only later monopolized the use of the term sangha is therefore belied by the EBT, in which the term refers almost always either to the monastics or to the noble disciples, with the monastic reference seeming to be more common.

Moreover, we are justified in inferring that the meaning of sangha in reference to the monastics is primary meaning of sangha in the Buddhist context, because of the origin of the term as the assembly of equals in the republics. First, as we will see, the early monastic sangha as described in the Vinaya was a non-hierarchical, non-autocratic democratic institution like the republican councils. Second, neither the lay community, nor the community of noble disciples was organized at all by the Buddha institutionally.[15] Finally, in a famous series of similes, the Buddha drew an explicit seven point-by-point comparison between the basis of welfare in the Vijjian Republic and the monastic Sangha,[16] suggestive of the close kinship of the monastic organization to the republican.

Moreover, taking the monastic community as the primary meaning of sangha explains the use of sāvaka-sangha as a derivative meaning. Whereas almost all of the early monastics quickly became noble disciples (ariyas) – in fact the first sixty are reported to have become arahants – as the number of householders began to grow, many lay disciples soon achieved high levels of attainment resembling expected monastic levels of attainment. Therefore, we can see how meaning of sangha in reference to noble disciples might easily arise as a way of grouping such householders with the monastics as adept upholders of the Dhamma. The term sāvaka-sangha (disciple, or “not necessarily a monk or nun,” sangha) thus makes sense, suggesting an extension of the bhikkhu-sangha. Ariya-sangha would be more precise, suggesting a group that only intersects with the bhikkhu-sangha, but appears not to be preferred in the EBT.

In summary, Batchelor seems to be falsely and without evidence projecting an apparently uniquely modern usage of the word sangha onto early Buddhism. The base technical meaning of sangha in the EBT is an organized monastic community, the secondary meaning is the community of noble disciples, and a meaning that includes the entire lay community is unknown. As far as I can determine, this has consistently been the usage in Asia until modern times.[17]

Batchelor’s origin story. Batchelor, in fact, attributes the creation of the monastic order to the senior monk Mahākassapa. Now, Kassapa is remembered in every Buddhist tradition for taking the lead in arranging the first Buddhist council shortly after the Buddha’s death, at which a group of arahants heard a recitation of the complete corpus of the Dharma-Vinaya to make sure that they were all on the same page. The Zen tradition would later compose the story about him in which the Buddha holds up a flower and Kassapa smiles, and then assign him second place after the Buddha in the fabricated early Zen lineage. Batchelor creates his own speculative tale about Kassapa that casts him in a less favorable light. This is apparently by way of attributing the monastic institution to the later “Buddhism” period under his guidance.

Batchelor’s is a tale of good monk/bad monk, in which Ānanda represents the former and Kassapa the latter. Batchelor describes Kassapa at the time at which he arrived at Kusināra to witness the Buddha’s funeral as,

“… a stern, intimidating ascetic who immediately imposes his authority on the proceedings. He seems to embody everything that Gotama warned against as he lay dying. He is ‘chief among those who expound the ascetic practices’ and does not hesitate to declare how enlightened he is and that he is the Buddha’s appointed successor. He is the very antithesis of Ānanda, but Ānanda seems powerless to resist him.”[18]

He states that Kassapa’s arrival at Kusināra marks the beginning of a struggle to determine the nature of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority.[19] He even calls Kassapa an “insufferable prig” at one point, suggests that the Buddha was trying to get away from Kassapa in traveling to Kusināra and smears him through a vague association with the evil monk Devadatta through a connection to King Ajātusattu of Magadha, who agreed to sponsor the first council.[20]

Let’s compare this with what we find in the EBT. First, there is nothing about Kassapa imposing his authority of the funeral proceedings. Anaruddha, the Buddha’s cousin and Ānanda’s half-brother, seems to have taken on a leadership role in this regard before Kassapa’s arrival. What is reported is that deities who were present, visible only to Anaruddha, would not allow the Buddha’s pyre to be lit until after Kassapa and his party of monks had arrived and paid respects, after which the pyre spontaneously burst into flames. This is clearly a later embellishment that attributes no active role to Kassapa at all, other than paying proper respect to the deceased Buddha.

Second, the Buddha is consistently reported to have had the highest regard for Kassapa, and in fact for his observance of very strict discipline, for his very simple contemplative life-style and for being content with whatever was offered to him. This is why the Buddha named him “chief among those who expound the ascetic practices.” There is no indication that the Buddha warned anybody about monks like Kassapa; quite the contrary.

Next, there is indeed a bit of evidence in the EBT that a tiff arose between Ānanda and Kassapa during this period. Apparently after the Buddha’s death and before the First Council, Kassapa admonished Ānanda for allowing a group of young bhikkhus, students of Ānanda, to run around in an undisciplined manner and called Ānanda a “youngster.”[21] There are parallels to this discourse in the Chinese canon, but I understand that none of them mention this tiff, which makes its authenticity suspect. Even if Kassapa did in fact call Ānanda a youngster, this actually makes sense as a means of admonishing Ānanda for behaving like a youngster in running around with undisciplined youngsters; monks are expected, according to the Vinaya, to admonish and accept admonition for infractions of discipline. The passage, if authentic at all, admits to even more alternative interpretations. For all we know, Kassapa and Ānanda were the best of friends and were in the habit of exchanging friendly barbs. Or, Kassapa, the arahant, was trying to shock Ānanda, the steam enterer, into taking his practice more seriously. In fact, the Zen tradition maintains that Kassapa became the teacher of Ānanda and succeeded in bringing him to full awakening where the Buddha had failed. In the Pali, Ānanda is said to have attained awakening just prior to the first council. In short, it is easy to read too much into a tiff.

Next, “does not hesitate to declare how enlightened he is” refers, apparently, to a (single) incident in which a bhikkhunii, Thullatissā, well known as a trouble-maker in the Vinaya, accuses Kassapa of being unqualified to teach bhikkhunīs. Kassapa, though of greater attainment, was apparently a less talented teacher than Ānanda, and had initially resisted Ānanda’s invitation to teach on this occasion. Kassapa defends himself from Thullatissā’s attack by recounting a circumstance in which the Buddha praised him rather effusively.[22] Although the phrasing of this discourse indeed makes Kassapa sound like something of a braggart to the modern reader, this kind of language is common in the discourses; in many passages the Buddha sounds like a braggart as well when he extols his own qualities. I suspect this impression is the product of a natural tendency toward embellishment during the generations of recitations of these texts, and toward normalizing the wording of similar passages taken from different contexts.

Finally, there is no mention in EBT of a “struggle to determine the nature of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority.” Batchelor does not tell us what the specific issue or result of this struggle might be, though he seems to suggest it was the creation of the monastic order, which, as we have already seen, occurred at an earlier time. He mentions[23] Kassapa’s vision of a top-down hierarchy, which is nowhere mentioned in the texts and which would be hard to reconcile with Kassapa’s personal dedication to a pure and simple ascetic lifestyle, or with the decidedly non-hierarchical structure of the early sangha as it is described in the early Vinaya and carried forth in the centuries after Kassapa.

What is reported in the EBT about Kassapa’s role during this period is very limited. The Buddha had just died. He as well as everyone else involved would clearly have been concerned about the survival of the Sāsana, including the integrity of the Dharma and the discipline of the monks. Since monks had undoubtedly been meeting for recitations of earlier discourses for many years to keep them in memory, it would have been quite natural to convene a group of very highly regarded, senior and therefore influential monks for however many months it would take to recite the Dhamma and the Vinaya in their entirety, in order to make sure that they remembered these accurately at this critical juncture and could each teach them to others accordingly. Ānanda was invited to recite the discourses, for he was renowned for his great memory and had been the Buddha’s constant companion for the last twenty-five years. Then Upāli was invited to recite the Vinaya. After a couple of disciplinary issues, the monks went on their way, and that was that.

Batchelor’s account is otherwise a fantasy. At no point is Kassapa known to have declared himself the successor of the Buddha. What might actually have happened at the council to trigger “Buddhism” is left entirely unclear in Batchelor’s account.

The need to organize Buddhism. Like-minded people tend to organize things at a social level. A group of stamp collectors are likely to organize a stamp club, with a regular venue and regular meeting times where people can get together to talk about stamps, or even organize stamp expositions or a local stamp convention. In the case of religion, at what point does such a thing become a problem? When I lived at the Austin Zen Center I would often point out to my grown daughter events that she might like to attend, to which she would generally say, “I don’t like organized religion.” However, if we held a potluck or anything involving food she would eagerly attend, even though, as I would point out, someone had to organize that. Why must the spiritual but not religious eschew organizing, if wine tasters, star gazers and tango dancers don’t?

This makes one curious about why Batchelor is so intent in arguing that the Buddha did not create the monastic institution. One of the great weaknesses of secular Buddhism as it has developed so far in the West is that it is seldom self-reflective with respect to its own orthodoxy. What it generally takes as common sense often has, in fact, a relatively recently history in Western thought, a history not shared in the early roots of Buddhism. Secularization for many, beginning with John Locke, who wrote in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, meant that religion became a private concern without an institutional presence in society, sometimes now described as being “spiritual but not religious.” For many, the role of God in the following centuries faded, particularly with the ascent of science. With the marginalization of God, particularly in European romanticism and psychotherapy, and among the hippies, some inner core within each of us became the source of spiritual energy as well as creativity, under constant threat by social convention and institutions. A product of all this has been a general suspicion of organized religion.[24] What does this have to do with Buddhism? Absolutely nothing, and that is the point. The Buddha would have hesitated to engage in organizing no more than star gazers or boomer singles.

Batchelor takes up what religion means early in the book,[25] distinguishing two primary definitions. First, religion is the “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich defined it. This is, in fact, the only reasonable definition I know of religion that would include Buddhism. Indeed, we might characterize both Buddhism and Christianity as the ultimate concern for their adherents. Second, religion is the “formal means” that enact these ultimate concerns. He lists as examples sacred texts, submission to the authority of monastics or priests, rites, rituals and spiritual retreats. “Formal means” is a bit vague –when I sit by myself to meditate, is that a formal means? – but the examples he provides suggests that by “formal means” he means “public means.” He points out that one can be religious in either sense without being religious in the other. He then states that a secular person can be religious in the first sense, which I would take to mean that a secular person cannot be religious in the second sense. Although this is all very orthodox from a secular point of view, a couple of pages later he promises not to fully expunge all of “religiosity” from his vision of modern secular Buddhism.

One would think he has a clear problem with institutionalization, but it is unclear to what extent. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist he writes,

“To reject organized religion in favor of a nebulous and eclectic ‘spirituality’ is not a satisfactory solution either. … As social animals we invariably organize ourselves into groups and communities.”[26]

In any case, as organizations go, the monastic sangha of the Vinaya is completely benign. Batchelor writes about hierarchy, power structures and uses terms like “ecclesiastical” evocative of the Catholic church in reference to whatever came after the Buddha, beginning with Kassapa. In fact, the early monastic sangha was not a church. It had no hierarchy nor individual power whatever. and provided no opportunities for consolidation of power. It was democratic and highly decentralized, upholding the standards the “assembly of equals” of the early Indian republics on which it was based.

Sociologists of religion generally distinguish two kinds of institutions, at least within Christianity, but this is also helpful here: churches and sects. Whereas churches tend to large and hierarchical, sects tend to be democratic meetings of like-minded people. Whereas a church generally aims at growth and political influence in the wider society, a sect generally tends to focus on the purity, spiritual growth and common values of its members as its primary concern. A sect represents a kind of counter-culture, a refuge away from the perceived depravity of the wider society or ofttimes of the church from which it once spun off. The Quaker Friends and the Amish are examples of long-enduring Christian sects, robust sects that have maintained their internal integrity and somewhat radical messages over a long time in spite of the perceived corrupting tendencies of the wider society. The monastic sangha is like this. It is interesting that Batchelor mentions the Quakers favorably in the context of envisioning a modern Buddhism.[27] It astonishes me that Batchelor, given his background, has so little understanding of what the traditional monastic sangha is, a sangha that persists in something remarkably close to its early form in most Buddhist countries to the present day.[28]

Conclusion. In Batchelor’s account of early Buddhism he attempts with considerable effort to show that there was no organized monastic community during the life of the Buddha. However, much of Batchelor’s account is hugely disappointing in that it relies on faulty or simply false interpretations of many of the passages he quotes, on many rather bold and dubious claims that he presents with no evidence, on neglect of abundant, well-known and uncontested evidence against the account he proposes, and on a highly speculative narrative about the the actors involved in shaping that community. This is a misdirected attempt to rewrite the history of the early Buddhist community.


Batchelor, Stephen, 2010, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel and Grau.
Gombrich, Richard, 2006, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge.
Ling, Trevor, 2013 [1973], The Buddha: the Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism, Pariyatti.
McMahan, David L., 2008, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press.
Sujato, Bhikkhu & Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, supplement to Volume 5 of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
Thapar, Romila, 2002, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin.
Wijayaratna, Mohan, 1990, Buddhist Monastic Life, according to the texts of the Theravada tradition, Cambridge University Press.


1. See my recent essay “Take Seriously But Hold Loosely,” posted at, for more on this topic and its relation to secular Buddhism.
2. p. 21.
3. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) provide detailed criteria for assessing the authenticity within the EBT, which justifies a high degree of confidence in the general quality of these texts.
4. p. 12.
5. p. 47.
6. If anyone should know of an instance of these terms applied to ascetic of other traditions, please let me know.
7. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.
8. p. 47.
9. Wijayaratna (1990), p. 23.
10. p. 314.
11. E.g., Wijayratna (1990, 1) gleens that in the Pali texts lay people are never included in “sangha” in this way.
12. p. 314; see also Ling (2013), p. 68.
13. Thapar (2002), pp. 146-50.
14. p. 314.
15. Ling (2013) p.152 makes the same point.
16. DN 15.
17. In understand that the modern Japanese school Soka Gakai uses sangha to refer to the whole community, but they do not have a monastic component.
18. pp. 282-3.
19. p. 284.
20. pp. 184-6.
21. SN 16.11.
22. SN 16.1.
23. p. 315.
24. McMahan (2008) p. 220.
25. p. 15.
26. Batchelor (2010), pp.236-7.
27. p. 315.
28. This is not to say that the sangha has not also devolved in many places into church-like forms, or been embedded into (often significantly lay-based) church-like institutions.









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

August 18, 2017

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

The Value of an Open Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

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

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clergy. Salespeople (or maybe game show hosts).

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

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

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

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

What is Believable? (5/6)

April 2, 2015

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

Series Index

How to reconsider your standards for believability

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

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

Figure11Acceptance of a tacit view without evidence

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

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

Figure12Tacit view as believability criterion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Believable? (4/6)

March 25, 2015

Series Index

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

How to contextualize a teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Believable? (3/6)

March 17, 2015

Series Index

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

How to reject a teaching

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

Figure10Faltering on unbelievability, or on unbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha himself stated that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.