Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

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 (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.

The Calgary Talk on Dana

January 11, 2013

Uposatha Day 1/11/2013





Faith V

May 31, 2011

Uposatha Day, New Moon, June 1, 2011

The Buddha on Faith

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible. — Albert Einstein.

The Buddha had a lot to say about faith, but the broadest overview is afforded by two discourses delivered in response to people not already on the Buddhist path. These are the Kalama Sutta and the Canki Sutta. The first concerns a people called the Kalamas who live in a town called Kesaputta. They are confused by the bewildering variety of religious views and the certainty of their advocates. The sutta suggests that the immediate source of confusion are the questions of karma and rebirth, which confuses people to this day, but the Buddha’s answer answers a far more general question, How does one know where to place one’s faith? The Buddha was, apparently, the latest in a series of religious teachers to pass through Kesaputta, so they challenged him:

“Lord, there are some priests & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other priests & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable priests & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

This is a question that makes perfect sense in modern America, in fact not only in the religious realm but, with a little tweaking of the wording, in others as well; consider politics. Here is the Buddha’s oft-quoted response.

“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.

The last part of this is later stated in its positive form:

When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha then introduces by way of example greed, Aversion and Delusion (the Three Poisons in Buddhism) and non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion as qualities to test, and the Kalamas agree that each of the first group leads to harm and suffering, while the each of the second to welfare and happiness. Along similar lines the Buddha then extols the qualities of kindness, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (the Brahmaviharas in Buddhism) as sources of welfare and happiness.

The “don’t go by” list and the “when you know for yourselves” lists should be studied carefully. They use reason and discernment, in the midst of uncertainty, to sort out faith.

The don’t go by” list can be broken into two primary parts: The Buddha disparages unquestioned faith in religious tradition on the one hand, and in inference and logic on the other.

Against religious tradition. The Buddha’s position is states as, “don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, …, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’” In the Canki Sutta (MN 95) a whippersnapper of a brahmin, a sixteen-year-old master of the Vedic literature, asks the Buddha directly:

“Master Gotama, with regard to the ancient hymns of the brahmans — passed down through oral transmission & included in their canon — the brahmans have come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ What does Master Gotama have to say to this?”

The Buddha begins his answer with a counter question:

“Tell me, Bharadvaja, is there among the brahmans even one brahman who says, ‘This I know; this I see; only this is true; anything else is worthless?'”

“No, Master Gotama.”

The Buddha is concerned here with discernment, direct seeing, knowing for oneself, in contrast to accepting something purely on faith. He then explains the problem of religious tradition with the analogy of the blind leading the blind, each great teacher taking the word of the preceding teacher rather than seeing the truth directly for himself, such that no one no matter how far back you look actually knows, sees with his own eyes. He concludes that brahmins can reliably discern, “I have faith in this,” and preserve truth, but not “Only this is true; anything else is worthless.”

This applies to Buddhism as well. One can preserve a belief, for instance, for many generations, without anyone directly knowing it is true. And in practice this happens. The difference is the emphasis the Buddhism as a matter of principle puts on turning faith eventually into directly seeing for oneself. The Buddha is not disparaging faith, only emphasizing that it should be recognized for what it is. For instance, a student of the Buddha might have in faith the belief that suffering arises from craving, but not yet be able to see it directly for herself. Nevertheless, the faith functions as a working assumption which is to be investigated and even challenged, until it is seen directly. Buddhism is preserved as long as there are in every generation people who know the core teachings directly. Others follow along in faith. Modern science also operates under a remarkably similar application of faith.

Against inference and logic. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “don’t go by … logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, …” In the Canki Sutta the Buddha declares,

Some things are well-reasoned and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-reasoned, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. Some things are well-pondered and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-pondered, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. In these cases it isn’t proper for a knowledgeable person who safeguards the truth to come to a definite conclusion, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’

Keep in mind, the Buddha was a very clear and rational thinker and wielded this skill himself to promote understanding; he could not have meant to disparage all rational thought. I think, rather, the principle here is, Keep it Simple. A common expression of the Buddha was, “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views.” First, inference and logic produces conclusions that are no better than the premises one starts with, which themselves are mostly based in faith. Moreover there is a strong tendency to move systems of thought toward abstraction to get them to work and thereby away from what is directly discernible, and then to become so infatuated with systems of thought that they become your reality. Finally, we seem to be very adept at rationalization, that is, reverse-engineering our reasoning to derive the conclusions we were already determined to derive for unreasonable purposes. At some point reasoning overwhelms and obscures discernment.

For instance, it is advisable when considering a political issue — maybe a congressman has introduced a bill and you are pondering whether to endorse it personally — to keep in mind: Who are the stakeholders? Who suffers if it is enacted? Who suffers if it is not enacted? Is there a mechanism that will be there counter the suffering? In view of compassion, ideology — whether Marxist, capitalist, libertarian, or whatever — often becomes remarkably specious.

The when you know for yourselves” list also can be broken into two parts. The Buddha recommends entering and remaining in any quality that is both skillful, beneficial or blameless on the one hand, and approved by wise people on the other.

In favor of benefit. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are unskillfulblameworthy … when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering‘… then you should abandon them,” and, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are skillfulblameless … when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness‘… then you should enter & remain in them.”

When you know for yourselves …,” shows that the Buddha trusts the determination of this substantially to individual discernment. This, along with the mistrust of religious tradition, gives the Kalama Sutta its reputation as a license to free thought, or even to design your own religion. Notice, however, that the criteria are rather rigorous. First, “knowing for yourselves” is a strong obligation that few are capable of. Furthermore, this recommends that faith should be based on purely ethical criteria; in fact, no mention is made that you must discern that something is true, only that we discern it to be virtuous. The various terms used here are described in many places in the Suttas, but the Buddha’s advice to his own novice son, Rahula, is probably the best known source (MN 61). Skillfulness has to do with not being rooted in Greed, Hate and Delusion. The harm and suffering means for self and other, which in the Buddha’s ethics coincide remarkably.

In favor of approval by the wise. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “[If]… these qualities are criticized by the wise … then you should abandon them,” and, “[If]… these qualities are praised by the wise … then you should enter & remain in them.”

If we have let loose traditional doctrine, who are these wise guys? Since benefit has such a strong criterion for discernment, sometimes in matters that are deep and hard to see, and the untrained mind has such poor discernment, few of us can determine what to abandon or to remain and abide in on our own, unless we have great attainment in the practice. We need help. The problem the Buddha pointed to in traditional religious faith is that it loses its grounding in knowing. The wise are exactly those grounded in knowing, those who see things as they really are, who discern directly and accurately, not people who merely memorize scripture. Recall the Buddha’s recommendation in the Mangala (Blessing) Sutta:

Not to associate with fools,
to associate with the wise,
to honor those who are worthy of honor.
this is the highest blessing.

The question then becomes, How do we recognize the wise? This includes the perennial question, How do we find a teacher? The Buddha gives this answer in the Canki Sutta:

“There is the case, Bharadvaja, where a monk lives in dependence on a certain village or town. Then a householder or householder’s son goes to him and observes him with regard to three mental qualities — qualities based on greed, qualities based on aversion, qualities based on delusion: ‘Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] that, with his mind overcome by these qualities, he might say, “I know,” while not knowing, or say, “I see,” while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a way that was for his/her long-term harm & pain?’ As he observes him, he comes to know, ‘There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] … His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not [ greedy / aversive / deluded ]. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can’t easily be taught by a person who’s [ greedy / aversive / deluded ].

Once again the Buddha underscores the importance of Greed, Aversion and Delusion and their opposites in discerning human intentionality. These are powerful criteria. For instance, consider that a teacher might be acting under the motivation to secure wealth or reputation, or sex, all instances of Greed and all conflicts of interest in his teaching role. If a teacher harbors prejudice or ill-will toward someone or some group of people, or fear of competing doctrines (all Aversion), or has fixed understandings and strong dogmatic views (Delusion) this should raise red flags. Probably less visible is the depth of the teachers understanding, but time and experience in working with a teacher will either establish confidence or, if the student feels she has repeatedly been unable to verify what is being taught in her own experience then confidence might diminish. Faith in the teacher is a kind of faith and therefore one that should be evaluated ultimately in terms of whether the student is developing in a skillful, harmless way for the benefit and happiness of all.

Notice that in the Buddha’s exposition he has not proved anything wholly in terms of reason and discernment. To accept the Buddha’s account of faith itself requires faith, for instance faith in virtue as a worthy human value, faith in the unskillfulness of greed, aversion and delusion and the skillfulness of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion. In modern terms, these faith in these few elements bootstrap the rest of faith. This is a reasoned and discerning understanding of faith.

Next week I would like to provide examples of this systematic accounting of faith, as a kind of workbook to go along with this main text. In the following week I intend to discuss Wielding Faith, that is, how it is used as a faculty, with a strong emotive element, in support of our practice and development.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Four

April 10, 2011

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 11, 2011

To recap the discussion of previous weeks, the recalcitrant sense of self is a fabrication that gives rise to a vast structure of additional fabrications, emotions and intentions and behaviors that together cause us and others huge problems. We are considering the Noble Eightfold Path from the perspective of undermining or eating away this whole tangled structure, like a wooden bridge, each of the steps eating away, termite-like, at some crossbeam manifestation of the sense of self. We have considered so far the two Wisdom termites, named Right View and Right Resolve, and the three Virtue termites, who call themselves Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Remaining are the termites of the cutivation of mind: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The Termite of Right Effort.

Our task is like that of a gardener, one pulls out the unskillful weeds and waters the skillful flowers, shrubs, vegetables and herbs and thereby give the desired shape to the garden. Right Resolve and Right Effort are the bookends to the Ethical Conduct Group. Right Resolve is the outline of how we conduct ourselves in the world, selflessly, with kindness and with compassion. Right Speech, Action and Livelihood are our proper verbal and physical activities. Right Effort drops down to the level of intention, the mental qualities we bring into our activities. These mental factors, like the actions they may give rise to, are sorted in terms of skillful and unskillful.

Unskillful thoughts emanate from the self. You can tell because they are implicated in all the problems we have seen are caused by the fabrication of self. They result in unvirtuous behavior when we listen to them. They distort our perception of reality, ultimately entangling us in samsara. They are stressful or even painful, and even destroy our health. Most important for our concerns, they reaffirm and strengthen the hold of the self. Unskillful thoughts are those rooted in the infamous Three Poisons in Buddhist doctrine, Greed, Hatred or Delusion, and are bad news.

The Termite of Right Effort eats unskillful thoughts. He eats the ones that are already there, sometimes reemerging from force of habit. He even gets ahead of the game by eating the conditions that would otherwise allow new unskillful thoughts to arise. He even shores up skillful thoughts that do not come from nor reaffirm the self, the skillful thoughts that unskillful thoughts seek to displace, and even cultivates conditions that encourage skillful thoughts. This is a very busy termite, we hope at work continuously throughout the day.

Suppose Skipper has some cookies on his desk, receives a phone call and is gazing out the window while focused on the call. Lust arises in you for one of his cookies. That sense of lust is unskillful. It is a form of greed that arises from the self’s search for personal advantage, that arises when the self is presented with a new resource. If you listen to this unskillful thought you might steal Skipper’s cookie, thus depriving him of what is his and failing to live up to standards of virtue. The intention to steal is another unskillful thought. You begin to scheme and justify, “He won’t notice that one is missing. Besides I gave him a drink of water once and he owes me. And I’ll go on a diet next week, for sure.” You are now entangled in a thicket of unskillful thoughts. Then if you actually steal a cookie you will reinforce a habit pattern that will lead to more greed in the future that will entrench the self even further.

How do you know when a thought is unskillful? There is an easy way, once you learn to recognize suffering (dukkha) as it arises. You will be surprised how ubiquitous suffering is when you start looking, even when you think you are having fun. Unskillful thoughts are almost always tinged with suffering. Before spotting the cookie you might be quite happy, having not a care in the world. Then you spot the cookie, the unskillful thought arises and you have a problem: You don’t have the cookie. As you review your alternatives you can hardly stand not having that cookie, you become anxious and restless. That is suffering, the mark of an unskillful thought, and you discover how deep that suffering goes. That is out-of-sync-edness, the gap between our stake in formations and the way the world really is. You will experience this with thoughts characterized by restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, envy, grumpiness, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, lust, and so on. Contrast these with thoughts of generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, pliancy, stillness of mind, mindfulness, and so on.

Right Effort belongs to the cultivation of mind, or meditation group because it deals with the purification of thoughts. In a sense it covers the some ground as the virtue group but at a more refined level, at the level of thought rather than the visible manifestations of the self in speech and bodily action. Because it seeks purity of thought it belongs to the cultivation of mind or meditation group rather than to the virtue group. However, unskillful thoughts tend to give rise to unvirtuous, that is harmful, visible behaviors. So, when your thoughts feel unskillful, have the tinge of stress, that is a red flag that you are about to do something you will later regret. And when you are doing something you discover to be harmful, that is a good indication that your thoughts have slipped into the realm of the unskillful. With virtue and with Right Effort joy and peace grow in the mind.

The Termite of Right Mindfulness.

Right Mindfulness is still more refined than Right Effort. Whereas the latter sorts out the various thoughts that arise or might arise throughout the day, Right Mindfulness keeps the mind in a rare place, generally defined in terms of a specific harmless mental or physical task, where only skillful thoughts are allowed entry, and in particular where the self is a stranger. Mindfulness is briefly to remember what it is you are doing, it is staying on task or taking up a new task at the proper time. It is not a simple quality that emerges in the mind, like serenity, awareness or concentration, but rather something the mind engages in actively, a learned skill. In fact it underlies almost any other skill, inside and outside of Buddhism. For instance cooking requires mindfulness so that food does not burn and all ingredients are added at the right time. Following the Precepts requires mindfulness lest you steal, squash or molest without thinking. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction, the mind becoming detached from the task at hand, going off on its own. It requires keeping the mind to some degree fixed.

Right Mindfulness (notice that most of the last paragraph was about mindfulness without the “Right”) is the basis of meditation practice. Classically it is to maintain some object in focus in the mind, to keep on top of this task, an object that will not thereby involve itself causally with unskillful thoughts or unvirtuous actions. The Buddha’s instructions are to keep the mind there, “ardent, clear comprehending,” and “independent not clinging to anything in the world,” “having subdued longing and grief for the world.”

The most familiar example of Right Mindfulness is following the breath. For instance, you discover the movement accompanying your breathing in the belly. This will take ardency, because your mind will wander in an instant otherwise. You feel the whole process of the breath, clear about whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, noting the beginning of the in breath, the middle and the falling away, then the same for the out breath. All those things of te world that want to occupy your attention you just put aside. Of course it rarely goes smoothly, even for experienced meditators, so you need to give attention to the causal factors according to which such a mindfulness exercise can succeed, for instance, through stabilizing the body with an erect non-moving posture, through stilling the unskillful thoughts most likely to lead to distraction through Right Effort, either before beginning the exercise or whenever mindfulness wanes and the object of meditation is lost. Aside from the breath, among the other objects of mindfulness are decaying corpses, the variety of body parts, feelings as they arise and fall, the mind or awareness itself, principles of doctrine, or even the arising of unskillful thoughts.

In Zen meditation, called zazen in Japanese, there is a tendency to take the task at hand, to which mindfulness adheres, as a physical task rather than as a mental one. This has led some Zen teachers to state that zazen is not meditation, that it is something you do with the body than with the mind, that it has no object upon which to focus. All agree, however, as far as I can see, that zazen has to do with mindfulness. For instance, shikantaza, the common Soto Zen form of “meditation,” and possibly at the historical root of Zen practice in China, means literally “just sitting.” An advantage of wrapping mindfulness around physical tasks is that all physical tasks become opportunities for zazen: just as you have just sitting, you have just walking, just eating, just pealing potatoes. Ritual activities, for instance, offering incense or bowing, present particularly fruitful opportunities for mindfulness practice.

The key zazen is in the “just …,” in the shikan-, part which we prefix to our tasks. This expresses independence or seclusion, detachment from the distractions of the world. For instance, just pealing potatoes means not thinking about payday or listening to music at the same time. For this reason the mind is very much involved, and in fact Right Effort is a useful preparation. What seems to happen, in fact, is that the focus of the mind settles on the (movement of) the physical objects involved in performing the task at hand, that is, the knife, the feet, the posture, the stick of incense, and more importantly on mindfulness itself, on the mind’s task of staying on task. The result is something akin to what the Buddha called Watching the mind (cittanupassana), the third of the four foundations of mindfulness, with the encouragement to do this throughout the day. I find it fascinating how closely Zen stays to the intent of the Buddha but in a radically different conceptual framework, generally one that wastes no words. I speculate that the difference in this case is that China at the time Buddhism arrived, was a very formal ritual Confucian culture and shikan-[task] harnessed the energy of existing practices in the service of Buddhist attainment.

How does the Termite of Right Mindfulness chew away at the supports that help sustain the sense of self. Right Mindfulness takes us into an active domain of thought and action in which the self has no currency. We take a task that itself is independent of self-centered concerns, an arbitrary mental task, a ritual activity or a duty in which the self has no obvious stake. Then we put our attention fully on that task and do not allow the pursuit of personal advantage. This is a domain which frustrates the self’s interests, schemes and views and in which the self’s stress, anxiety, unvirtuous impulses and samsaric trouble-making find no home. With Right Mindfulness, joy and peace grow even stronger in the mind.

Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 1

February 26, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, February 26, 2011

The anatta [non-self] doctrine teaches that neither within the bodily and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self- existing real ego-entity, soul or any other abiding substance. This is the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only really specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire Structure of the Buddhist teaching stands or falls. – Ven. Nyatiloka

In summary of last week‘s discussion, the Self, and all other formations (compounded things) owe their existence at least in part to mind. This has a practical role in the task of tracking what is essentially intractable: a fluid contingently co-arisen reality, in which all things are simply reflections of other things, astonishing in its complexity and dizzying in the dynamic flux spreading forever this way and that. Mind tracks this by reifying or freezing the most stable and functional parts. In short, it replaces a bewilderingly complex reality with a simpler conceptual model and uses the simpler model to predict the behavior of the more complex system. Independently of mind there is nothing that could be identified as existing in, of and for itself, independently of the fluctuating contingencies, nothing with the solidity and confidence of the formations the mind gives rise to. This last thesis is what is called Emptiness.

The problem with all this from the Buddhist perspective is that the conceptual model is a delusion. One of the immediate costs of this conceptual form of human cognition is that it tends to be chunky, it is full of large solid things with properties and with relations to other large solid things. There is inevitably a gap between this model and the fluid reality it is trying to track, and we, as humans, once we take a stake in the reliability of compounded things, have to live with this relentless disappointing gap. In good times and bad, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, through birth, sickness, old age and death, through bearish and bull, something is always askew. This is suffering.

The Separate Self. We occupy this world of formations, and the formations we have the greatest state in are our own selves, polished up as fabrications of our own minds to become separate things existing on their own, independently of the rest of the world, yet at the same time subject for their well-being to various forces at work in the rest of the world.

While I think of myself as a functional whole, I end up chunky, like an elephant trying to walk through a glassware shop of a world, maintaining a consistency of identity and purpose, lacking the fluidly of, say, a gaggle of bunnies entrusted with the same task. But then, which of the bunnies would be me? Even while maintaining this chunky separate self I recognize that no one part of it is constant; I have a tooth extracted, I have a bridge installed to replace it. I learn a foreign language, I take up a meditation practice and my mind has shifted. I age and begin walking with a cane or wearing a hearing aid. The most constant thing in this body and mind is me, my own identity as me. Although my own existence as an independent thing is the fundamental working assumption in my life, I still have an uneasy feeling that I am not there at all, only parts, processes and functions. So I assume the existence of something I cannot see, maybe a soul, a constant essence, or a homunculus, a tiny man in a larger machine, you know, the guy who makes the decisions, sees what the eyes have seen, hears what the ears have heard and in general has all the experiences.

We learned last week how the world, even before we fabricate the formations to understand or describe it, tends to organize itself into functional patterns, and that when we later conceptualize as living beings have among their functions survival and reproduction, to which the function of cognition has adapted. My separate self exists in a world that presents dangers that threaten my survival or reproductive capacity, and at the same time presents resources that I can make use of to secure my survival or enhance my reproductive capacity. Therefore it is natural to think in terms of a fortress, what needs protecting and nourishing on the inside and the dangers and opportunities on the outside. This is probably where I was born as a fabrication: I am the one who is on the inside, where I can defend myself from dangers, and from where I can conduct raids to bring back booty. The world is neatly divided in terms of self and other, subjective and objective, never mind that my own body and mind are also other, and that what is other is a fabrication of my mind.

Luckily and this is in particular lucky for the prospect of Buddhist practice the human mind is quite resourceful, and though it has a strong tendency to become imprisoned in its own conceptualizations, producing an ironic correlation between degree of certainty and degree of delusion, we do not need to be; we are capable of clinging to the fabrication of self only loosely. For instance, teamwork involves the ability to submit certain physical and mental abilities, which we would normally think of belonging to or at least serving the self, unreservedly to a team function, most commonly of winning a game. A really hot basketball team, for instance, will consists of selfless players — who are, at least, able to remain selfless until the game is over players who, tall and gangling, do not each await each play asking his rigid self, “What’s in it for me?” or “How is this going to make me look good?” Effectively a new self, the team, can constitute itself from the bits and pieces of what will return to separate selves after the game.

The Scheming Self. The fortress self is the self of greed and hatred or aversion, seeking personal advantage in a (partially) fabricated world of dangers and resources. Fundamental evolutionary functions are to protect and exploit. Something the Buddha recognized is the role greed and hatred play in how we fabricate the world.

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbana. AN 3.71

Love will find a way,” we say. Likewise, “cookies will find a way,” “beer will find a way,” and so on. They usually don’t. We interpret lust (in Buddhism a kind of greed) as a need and often abandon all wisdom to attain the object of our lust. Wisdom likewise gives way to anger (in Buddhism a kind of hatred). Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close and beloved friend having become perhaps an obstacle to that for which we are greedy, easily turns into something demonic, at least until the anger subsides, losing all good qualities.

Here is a speculative account how delusions may arise on the heals of greed or hatred: If we desire some thing (or dislike some thing), then that thing in our fabricating mind becomes big, it loses its undesirable features and its desirable features grow (or it loses its desirable features and its undesirable features grow). The paths of causal relations that connect the object of desire to the self come alive as plans are considered for the acquisition of the object of desire (or aversion of the object of dislike). Whatever objects lie along those paths grow in prominence, as do their particular features relevant to our plans, while all else shrivels and disappears. Even people become instruments and nothing more, or else obstructions, which then become immediate objects of irritation then hatred, or appreciation then love. The result is that we now reside in a sparse and anxious world fabricated from our own self-centered and highly judgmental manipulations. It is particularly telling what drops out of the world as irrelevant to the self’s concerns. Careers, marriages and health are often neglected and discarded through lust. Even self-destructive behaviors are tolerated as people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another. The victimization of others through our plans, for instance in stealing what is desired, is often ignored. When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, revenge, violence and even murder can ensue.

Now, in the absence of such delusion people tend by nature to be kind, compassionate and generous toward one another, even the most ignoble ruffians. However, delusion quickly displaces virtue, permitting the most horrendous and unimaginable crimes, and it all comes from a misplaced thought, the belief in an separate self. What is worse, when confronted with their crimes, people often respond with another round of delusion to explain away or justify their behaviors. Most people are quite adept at this: “They had no business being there.” “Well, he had it coming.” “That’s not my problem.” “That is one more step toward relieving the world of surplus population.” “Cows don’t feel pain.” “It is a dirty job, but someone has got to do it.” “It is a matter of honor.” “That takes care of it once and for all.” “Oops.”

And this is only the beginning. Next week we continue the discussion of the Problem with Having a Self as we look at suffering and samsara.

From Thought to Destiny: the eBook

January 10, 2011

From Thought to Destiny

Traditional and Modern Understandings of Kamma

click to download PDF

New Post: The Dharma of Linux

December 7, 2010

A Buddhist Monk’s Reflections upon Installing Ubuntu on his Laptop

Linux is a computer operating system, a competitor, with a small market share, of Microsoft Windows. Dharma is the Buddha’s teachings on the perfection of human character, in its three aspects of Serenity, Virtue and Wisdom. I’m a monk, and I pack a laptop, Dell Latitude D420.

Read the whole post here.


From Thought to Destiny: The Law of Karma

October 8, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, October 8, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacter – Destiny”

“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.” Upajjhatthana Sutta AN 5.57

Whatever a hater may do to a hater, or an enemy to an enemy, a
wrongly-directed mind will do us greater mischief.
Not a mother, not a father will do so much, nor any other
relative; a well-directed mind will do us greater service.
Dhammapada 42, 43

There is a relationship between a karmic action and a later subjective result often called a ripening or fruition of karma that is also observed in the West as “One reaps what one sows” or “What goes around comes around,” “Virtue is its own reward,” or even, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” That is, a skillful (wholesome) action has a favorable result, an unskillful (unwholesome) action has an unfavorable result, for the person who commits the karmic act, independently of the benefit or harm experienced by others. This is often called the Law of Karma or sometimes just the Law of Cause and Effect.

The Law of Karma has often been misunderstood, generally in the direction of something much more deterministic than originally formulated in Buddhism, or as something much more mysterious than it needs to be. In the critically thinking West it has additionally been somewhat contentious because it is not clear from the perspective of modern science by what mechanisms it could possibly work. A typical instance of the Law of Karma as commonly conceived, for instance, would be for me to commit some horrendous misdeed one day, like murdering my mother-in-law, then being struck by lightening a year later as a kind of cosmic payback. Or I risk my life to rescue a damsel in the Middle Ages and many lives hence win the Texas Lottery. How would the meteorological elements or randomizing software possibly know to zap me in particular? It turns out that this last kind of case, though attention-provoking, rarely arises in the literature,

The Classical Account of the Law of Karma. Traditionally a karmic act is said to be a seed that according to its variety will produce a fruit (phala), that is either bitter or sweet, that will reach ripening (vipaka) in a personally harmful or beneficial experience at some future time. All of our intentional actions (kamma) leave an imprint and this is something we should be acutely aware of in our practice. It is something we can observe directly and something that gives us immediate feedback on the development of our characters. For instance, if a woman has abortion, how does she feel about it afterwards, immediately, in a year and so on. Often, there seems to be some unanticipated heaviness there, a feeling that something is out of skew that won’t go away. That can be likened to bitter fruit. I personally prefer think of karmic effects metaphorically as heavy or light rather than bitter or sweet. The point is that you are shaping your own character with every action, like the picture of Dorian Gray, which you can leave in the closet or hang on the wall..

At one point the Buddha describes this process very simply as follows:

… these are the drawbacks one can expect when doing what should not be done:

  1. One can fault oneself;
  2. observant people, on close examination, criticize one;
  3. one’s bad reputation gets spread about;
  4. one dies confused; and
  5. on the break-up of the body, after death, one reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell.

Ekamsena Sutta AN 2.18 (numbering mine)

He then presents “the rewards one can expect when doing what should be done” in opposite terms. The last drawback, being born in the plane of deprivation … will be taken up along with Rebirth when we discuss Destiny in future weeks. Apparently in Brahmanism the effects of Karma (which means ritual action rather than any intentional action) is realized only as 5., i.e., after rebirth. Today we will look at the Law of Karma primarily within the current life.

We often confuse Karma with fate, probably because of different understandings of Karma in Hindu sects in India. Karma is the opposite of fate! By defining Karma as intentional action, the Buddha unmistakenly put the emphasis on the power of free will in shaping our futures over the inertia of our past in writing our biographies before they happen. This is what makes liberation or any progress on the Path possible. This is demonstrated by the answers to these questions: Is everything we do a result of past Karma? Is everything that happens to us a result of past Karma? Does our past Karma invariably ripen? The answer to each of these questions is No.

Is everything we do a result of past Karma? Quite simply, no. The Buddha points out that this would make the religious life impossible, or useless. This would be strict determinism. If you are student of philosophy, your answer might actually be a strict determinist. Someone famous (I can’t remember who), when asked if he believed in determinism or free will replied, “I believe in free will. I don’t have any choice.” That is how we are in our practice. What we think is free will, practice and results might be predetermined, but that is beyond my understanding.

Is everything that happens to us a result of past Karma? In Buddhism everything is interrelated by cause and effect, but Karma is only one or five kinds:

  • Environmental causation (utuniyama). For instance, cold causes ice, lightening causes fire.
  • Genetic causation (bhijaniyama). For instance, an apple seed produces and apple tree, dogs produce puppies.
  • Psychological causation (cittaniyama). For instance the smell or a certain flower evokes a memory of a childhood picnic.
  • Karmic causation (kammaniyama). This is what we are exploring here.
  • Natural causation (dhammaniyama). This is all of causation, including all the other kinds and any not included in the other four kinds.

The reason that we talk about kammaniyama so much in Buddhism, to the extent that when we say “cause and effect” without qualification we are assumed to be talking about kammaniyama, just as in English when we say “drink” we are assumed to be talking about something with alcohol in it, is that only Karma falls within the scope of free will. Now if I get hit by a meteor, this is entirely within the realm of physical causation.

Not all Buddhists share this understanding. I think this is particularly the case in Tibetan Buddhism, where it is commonly assumed that the Chinese invasion of Tibet is a Karmic payback for something that all Tibetans must have done in the past, or the Holocaust a result of some evil done by Jews. I have even heard some Burmese Theravadins make similar claims about auto accidents, etc. This viewpoint would entail some kind of Karmic control over the other forms of cause and effect. In any case, the

Buddha clearly refuted this viewpoint:

Now when these ascetics and brahmans have such a doctrine and view that ‘whatever a person experiences, be it pleasure, pain or neither-pain-nor-pleasure, all that is caused by previous action,’ then they go beyond what they know by themselves and what is accepted as true by the world. Therefore, I say that this is wrong on the part of these ascetics and brahmans. Sivaka Sutta, SN 36.21

In the Questions of King Milinda, an early Theravada text, states, “The pain which is due to kamma is much less than that which is due to other causes.” It is pointed out that when the Buddha got a splinter of rock in his foot this was not because of some previous unskillful deed that he had committed in the past, but simply because his cousin Devadatta was trying to kill him.

Does our past Karma invariably ripen? It is also not always the case that a particular action, skillful or unskillful, will have a karmic consequence, and if it does the severity of the consequence is variable. The overall karmic character of the agent can mitigate the effects of individual karmic acts to insignificance, where similar acts would have severe results for others. One also has the free will to completely overcome past evil deeds by refraining now and in the future and be developing an expansive mind of goodwill, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (Sankha Sutta, SN 42.8). The overall state of the mind can dilute the consequences of a new transgression as salt is diluted in a river. (Lonaphala Sutta, Salt Crystal, AN 3.99)

The gist of this is that our practice can free us from the effects of our previous Karma. But this or the unassisted petering out of Karmic consequences might be difficult to verify; trying to trace karmic consequences, according to the Buddha, is so difficult it leads to “vexation and madness.” (Acinitita Sutta, AN 4.77)

Pragmatics of the Law of Karma. The Buddha never taught out of philosophical, or scientific, speculation, only with a practical purpose in mind, only as an inducement or as an aid to practice and thereby purity of thought and action.

The great benefit from belief in the Law of Kamma, according to Ven. P.A. Payutto, is that it encourages “moral rectitude.” A constant awareness that our choice of even the smallest unskillful and skillful actions not only brings immediate harm or benefit into the world but is continually shaping our character and destiny in a negative or positive direction is a strong motivator to stay on task. The result in found in personal well-being, and in the harm or benefit of future actions, since moral rectitude develops personal virtue.

There are some common criticisms of the value of the Law of Karma. Foremost among them is that it encourages selfish motives: Rather than moral rectitude or compassion as a primary motivator, one does Good because the payback will be personally beneficial, for instance, happiness in this life, rebirth in a heavenly realm in the next. These are unskillful, in fact greedy, intentions. There is some truth in this objection, it set up provisional goal on this side of the Perfection of Character. However this is cogent only in the early stages of practice. At those stages one probably deals with a lot of greedy intentions, but working toward a provisional goal is likely to be mixed also with a degree of satisfaction in doing something beneficial and therefore is likely to encourage skillful intentions as well. It is like giving personal recognition to people for charitable giving; when people get into to spirit of giving they care less and less about the recognition. At more advanced stages of practice the distinction between what one does for oneself and what one does for others diminishes. For the Perfected Character there is no difference whatever. In Buddhism it is completely true that Virtue is its Own Reward. But we start out thinking otherwise.

A second criticism is that the Law of Karma is a means of Social control, a way to manipulate people to benefit someone else. The Buddha, perhaps less emphatically than Jesus, a social rebel. He opposed the caste system, for instance. His intentions were never to protect the rich, nor to comfort the poor so that they would not give the rich a hard time. Buddhism does tend to create more personal satisfaction and social harmony even in the absence of significant social change, but has also produced some compassionate rulers. This criticism is most often expressed, albeit naively, with regard to the the Lay support of the Monastic Sangha, which often said to bring much Karmic merit. Undoubtedly such abuse does sometimes arise, this is very bad Karma for the monastics involved. However this institutional relation is bounded by the modest allowances of the monastics, more than offset by the benefits monastics generally bring to communities. It also sets up a powerful practice situation as a well-defined economy of gifts in which both lay and monastics never exchange favors, but only give willingly, and discover such immediate joy, as a Karmic effect, that it actually becomes unclear who is giving and who is receiving.

I have already dispensed above with the misunderstanding that whatever happens to you is an effect of personal Karma. This misunderstanding leads to a compelling criticism of the pragmatic value of the Law of Karma. It would entail, for instance, that if you are rich, it is a necessary consequence of your past good Karma, if you are poor or handicapped, it is a necessary consequence of your bad Karma. The criticism is that this leads to social passivity, to not caring, and likewise becomes an instrument of social control. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, as a Buddhist I can do anything I want to you knowing that you must deserve it. However this would be a misunderstanding of the Law of Karma. It would also not be consistent with the Buddha’s view of Karma as an instrument to shape the future, not as a reason for passivity. It would also be inconsistent with the admonition of the Kalama Sutta, “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful, … blameworthy, … criticized by the wise, … lead to harm and suffering’, then you should abandon them.” (AN 3.65)

How the Law of Karma Might Work.

The Law of Karma makes sense for pragmatic reasons, that is, benefit accrues from believing and acting in accord with the Law of Karma. But is it really true in a verifiable way? More to the point, how could it be true, what is the mechanism behind this principle of cosmic payback?

If you do a quick check, the Law of Karma sure seems to work. If you do someone a favor, you often later find him doing a favor for you. If you use harsh speech, you often get punched in the nose, or something of that nature. If anger is a prominent part of your karmic activities, you often find you develop a less than attractive grumpy appearance, people eschew you, you never seem to be successful. If you act habitually with some kind of sensual greed, for instance, as in chronic overeating or alcoholism, your physical or mental health will commonly deteriorate. It seems to work for institutions as well as individuals. I have heard that the CIA has coined a phrase for this commonly observed phenomenon: blowback. For instance the CIA originally recruited and armed Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and America found itself targeted by the same radicals.

As long as we confine ourselves to what we observe in this life, I don’t think the mechanisms that enable the Law of Karma are particularly mysterious. The cases that follow rebirth will be considered in subsequent weeks as we consider rebirth as a part of human Destiny. The effects of Karma are of three kinds: (1) mental, (2) personal appearance and deportment, and (3) effects that come physically from outside.

(1) Mental Karmic Effects. These are easy to account for in general. As Spinoza says, Happiness is not the reward for virture, it is virtue. First, unskillful actions are accompanied by stress, skillful actions are not. Unskillful habits, as described a couple of weeks ago, repeated over and over eventually determine the emotional tenor of your life, sometimes to the point where you describe your life as “hell.” Skillful habits can make your life “heaven.” Single heavy Karmic acts can have similar effects.

(2) Personal Appearance and Deportment. We have also seen that habitual Karmic acts begin to affect your appearance. If you are angry or greedy by nature you will generally develop an unpleasant appearance, if kindly an angelic appearance. Habits can radically change your appearance. If you habitually overeat you are probably plump. If you drink you probably have a perpetual blush. If you smoke your voice is probably unnaturally low. If you jog regularly you are probably slender. They also change your health and extend or reduce life-expectancy. Generosity or kindliness produces a personality that others find attractive. Anger is generally unattractive. Absence of unskillful habits generally results in industriousness, organizational abilities, equanimity, which are attractive to others and make your efforts more productive.

(3) External Effects. Most of our lives are spent in an interpersonal context and interpersonal interactions follow some predictable patterns as people discover friends and alliances, obstacles and enemies. It is also a context in which natural retributive principles apply. People are naturally attracted to you if they think you can benefit them or you have qualities that they admire. People are repelled by you for the opposite reasons. If you harm someone, you will probably make an enemy and they will most likely seek some kind of retribution. Your attractive qualities, which we saw in (2) are correlated with skillful Karma, will probably make life easier for you, in personal relationships, in business deals, in reputation and popularity. Your unattractive qualities, correlated with unskillful Karma will be the opposite. Likewise your productivity generally correlates with skillful factors, and so on. The harm that arises from unskillful factors will revisit you as people withdraw their support, undermine your reputation or even commit violent acts. Some of the harmful things you might do come back at you directly as a kind of beehive effect; the damage is so widespread that you also become a victim.

This leaves out cases like committing a murder and later getting hit by lightning, but these are so rare, so unverifiable and, although fun, probably so pragmatically thin that they can be discounted. Putting aside for now the application of the Law to span more than one lifetime, I suggest that we can say with a high degree of certainty fortified by the mechanisms laid out here that We Reap what We Sow.

New Essay Added

October 6, 2010

I’ve added a new essay to this site.

Sex, Sin and Buddhism (see all)

A supplement to Sex, Sin and Zen by Brad Warner

Brad Warner writes near the beginning of his recent book, Sex Sin and Zen: “I only really know Zen, myself, so that’s all I’m going to be addressing here,” which appears to be accurate, but then, “… we Zen Buddhists tend to be so arrogant that we just call what we believe ‘Buddhism’ without specifying the sect. I’ll be doing a little of that, too. Deal with it.” What follows is my attempt to deal with it. …