11 April 2014

Pulling Wings Off Fairies

On 7 January 1610 Galileo began a series of observations of Jupiter through his new telescope. He lived in a world in which people in Europe believed the earth was at the centre of a perfectly spherical universe, created by God ca 4004 BC. In this idealised view all the moving bodies of the heavens were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles around the earth. This view was synthesis of Christian theology, Platonic philosophy and Ptolemaic astronomy. What we might call the "Hellenic legacy" since all three sets of ideas were originally written in Greek.

On that night in 1610 Galileo saw four points of light in a line close to Jupiter. They were not visible to the naked eye, but relatively bright in the telescope. He continued to observe these new heavenly bodies and noted that they appeared to move against the back drop of stars similar to the way planets move. Then on 10 January one of them disappeared! And he correctly deduced that it must have disappeared behind Jupiter and that the four points of light were in orbit around Jupiter. He had discovered what we now call the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

A short time later he turned his telescope on the moon. Now the moon was thought to be a perfect sphere with a perfectly smooth surface. How they accounted for the visible patterns I'm not sure. But Galileo was able to deduce from shadows cast by prominences associated with what we now know to be craters, that the surface was from far from smooth.

The importance of these observations some 400 years ago cannot be overstated. They were cracks of imperfection appearing in the perfect world. If bodies were in orbit around Jupiter then the model of everything in orbit around the earth was refuted. If the moon was not a perfect sphere the whole universe might be imperfect. At the very least God's representatives on earth were wrong about the universe. The whole of Europe, and through it the world, was shaken by this simple act of observing. It's almost impossible for those of us who live now to understand the seismic shift that occurred. And of course Galileo was far from diplomatic in confronting Church leaders with these observations. He provoked an angry response and was not forgiven for almost four centuries in 1992 (long after the Church accepted the facts of his observation). Galileo was a man who pulled the wings off fairies to the horror of the Peter Pan's in the Vatican.


There is something about this conflict and not only because it has played out time and again. Supernatural, superstitious, and fantastic ideas were undermined time and again by repeated observation and deduction. Galileo and a few of his contemporaries were the thin end of a wedge that cracked open the perfect world and then shattered it. Momentum grew into the Enlightenment during which time everything that could be observed was observed. (Our translation of bodhi as "Enlightenment" is a conscious attempt at alignment of Buddhism with the European Enlightenment by 19th century scholars). 

Hooke's Micrographia.
Bodleian Library
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, usually known simply as "The Royal Society" was founded in 1660. In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia: or, Some physiological descrip-tions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. Hooke showed how how various creatures and things looked when viewed through one of the first microscopes. Worlds beyond the human scale began to open up in both directions.

Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. We still make use of his mathematics today. But Newton's observations had a major implication that is often overlooked. Heavenly bodies had to obey the same physical laws as earth-bound bodies. Newton was the first to propose a universal physical law that had its basis in observation. In effect he unified heaven and earth.

Although we think of Darwin as epoch making, he came some 200 years after Bacon, Hooke, Newton, Leibniz, and other great natural philosophers. By the time Darwin came along the djinn was well and truly out of the bottle. But Darwin's (and the almost always forgotten but equally creditable Alfred Russell Wallace's) work was in it's own way a seismological event. What they all did, in fact all they did, was to observe the world and pay attention to the way it actually worked rather than working from pure speculation. The balance of responsibility for understanding the world shifted decisively from abstract philosophy and theology towards natural philosophy (what we now call "science").

European abstract philosophy had imagined a perfectly ordered world. Of course this appealed to Christian theologians who worked this into their accounts of God's Creation. The dream of an ordered world is important everywhere - it's evident in Indian religions as well, including Buddhism. It is the one of the central themes of all the world's mythologies. A huge effort over tens of thousands of years has gone into creating stories about the order of the world. Things happen for reasons. Unfairness will be balanced out at some point. Death, the greatest unfairness, will be compensated for by an afterlife. Out of this impetus come the idealised stories of perfect worlds created by perfect gods. Of course to some extent these stories highlight regularities in the natural world: the path of the sun, moon, and stars; the seasons; generations and so on. 

Natural philosophy changed all this. The imperfections of the religious account of the universe was shown to be "not even false", but pure fantasy. The main strength of natural philosophy was that anyone could look for themselves and see it. No intermediaries, no priests are required. I've seen the Galilean moons of Jupiter through a small telescope, though not had the patience to watch them over a period of time. While on retreat in Spain in 2005, however I did watch the Planet Venus over about four months during which time it moved in relation to the background stars and even went retrograde (changing it's direction of motion). It's all there for anyone to see. In my science classes in secondary school and university I've reproduced most of the observations of those pioneering natural philosophers. I've seen what they saw. 

Facts and facts

There were of course some who resisted that change. In fact according to a recent survey about 10% of Britons prefer Young Earth Creationism to evolution, while only 25% are confident Darwinian evolution is "definitely true" and another 25% think it's "probably true." Half of Briton's don't believe in evolution at all (Guardian). We live in a highly pluralistic society. 

Some people I know sincerely believe that when they die their "consciousness" will hang around their dead body for up to 49 days (as per the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and will be able to sense what is going on - i.e. to be aware of how people are reacting, what they are saying, and how their remains are being treated. Likewise they believe that living people are be able to "sense" the presence of the deceased and empathise with their emotional state. Then the deceased will be reborn as another being (mostly we presume human).

On the other hand my Mother believes that God created the world; that Jesus died for our sins; that God loves everyone and that there is a plan for everything that happens (and she's witnessed some pretty horrendous stuff). When she dies her soul will ascend up to heaven, and now that she's a Catholic she presumably believes in a bodily resurrection at some point as well.  

Neither belief is something that anyone can base on observation. We might have experiences around corpses that we interpret as a presence, or we might have a sense of love amidst horror, but someone with a different belief system is free to interpret these subjective experiences in different ways. And not everyone has these kinds of experiences. 

When Galileo observed points of light moving he interpreted them as "moons". Why is this different? Because even those with different belief systems could make the same observation, and unless they insisted on some irrational interpretation they would be forced to conclude that Jupiter has satellites. The moons of Jupiter are independent of the observer. They are objective facts. The spirit of a dead person as a phenomenon is apparently dependent on the belief system of the observer, and thus not an objective fact. Over the years experience has shown that if the potential observer of a super-natural phenomenon is a scientist then the effect is much less likely to be observed. This alone is telling. When the belief system of the observer determines whether or not they are able to observe the phenomenon then that is an entirely different order to the Galilean moons.

Now some will argue for what might be called a subjective fact. This would be a fact based on something that only the individual subject has observed. But we have another word for subjective experiences that cannot be confirmed by other people: hallucination. Wikipedia has a nice definition:
"A hallucination is a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus that has qualities of real perception. Hallucinations are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space."
Most of supernatural belief appears to be based on interpretation of experiences in which the stimulus is not apparent. As Thomas Metzinger said of his out of body experiences:
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (The Ego Tunnel p.78) 
But we note that Metzinger himself was eventually persuaded against this compelling dualistic explanation. Careful observation of the phenomena he experienced and comparing notes with other neuro-scientists showed that the experience was not in fact consistent with a truly disembodied consciousness. And the insights into the nature of our sense of self that follow from his exploration are more fascinating, to my mind, than any supernatural phenomenon.

It's important to distinguish looking for a naturalistic, objective explanation of an experience and the dismissal of it as a fantasy. Such experiences can be utterly compelling and deeply meaningful for those who have them. It's not stupid to believe in God or karma or whatever. There are many factors in our make up that make it such beliefs plausible. Justin Barrett argues, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, that we believe because it is entirely natural to believe. Note that he does not argue that it is correct or sensible, only natural. But it is rational given the kinds of judgements our minds make. So just attacking belief or mocking it are unhelpful.

If we publicly attack someone's belief system, if we start pulling wings of fairies, then we're being rude at best. Belief is not a simple matter. It's often the result of deep conviction. My understanding is that belief is very much tied into our system of values. When we attack someone's beliefs, we attack their values, or at least that is how they experience the attack. Aggression, I know from personal experience, diminishes the likelihood of communication. We may even choose to be rude to people on purpose to make them averse to us. Or may think that shock tactics will jolt someone out of their complacency. But on the whole I find this does not work. Shock most people and they respond with sharp aversion. Aggression is good for defending boundaries, but not for bridging them. On the other hand walking around any city in the world shows how people respond to being surrounded by strangers. We cannot be open to every possible encounter and it is often necessary to erect barriers to preserve one's sanity.

Shifts in World View 

Now this situation is complicated, especially in the USA, though keeping in mind that even in the home of Charles Darwin only about half the population accept Evolution on the evidence they're aware of. Fundamentalist Christians are vocally and vehemently protesting that their version of the what the world is like, based on a literal reading of an English translation of the Bible, ought to be at least on the same level as a description of the world that is independent of belief. They want everyone to learn about Creationism on the same level as Evolution.

If someone has started an argument, especially one that would so drastically affect how we educate children, then it's only fair that everyone gets to have a say and that everyone argues to the best of their ability. Once it becomes a high stakes debate, pointing out the weaknesses and flaws in the argument of the opposition is part of the process. If religious people are quietly and harmlessly getting on with their lives, then we ought to leave them to it. If they want to control public life, then a debate is necessary.

On the whole the moments that have changed my worldview, changed my life, have been encountering new information that contradicted my beliefs in a relatively neutral setting, often reading a book in or from a library, experiencing the resultant cognitive dissonance, and deciding to learn more about the subject on my own. It takes time and leisure to weight things up and consider the implications.

A shift in worldview is non-trivial. I can't make someone reconsider their views just by bombarding them with facts. Why are their so many climate change deniers? Partly because the facts have been presented in a confused and confusing way. The media, thriving on conflict, has given far too much air time to a small group of contrarians. The climate change message also partly fails because climate change activists have just bombarded people with a mass of facts disconnected from any attempt to connect with people on an emotional level. They try to drill facts into us, try to scare us. Climate change are expressing their own values and all too often appear to express contempt for any other values. And that is never effective.

If I stand on a street corner shouting out what I believe to be facts that have terrible implications (my views on politicians for example), then I will never convince anyone of anything, particularly not here in the UK! One does see street preachers doing this. It converts no one. But the going through the ordeal, being willing to experience the humiliation of being ignored at best or being abused by the public, is a signal to others that one's faith has high value. Research has shown that such sacrifices strengthen the faith of the faithful (see Martyrs Maketh the Religion). One could say exactly the same for Richard Dawkins' approach to arguing with religious people. It's an exercise is appealing to militant atheists, not a genuine attempt at dialogue or conversion. And of course militant atheists lap it up. Buddhist texts are often like this also - full of appeals to the faith of the faithful. I've discussed this in an essay called Martyrs Maketh the Religion (2010).


There is a clear and important distinction between knowledge and belief. More and more of us are placing our reliance on knowledge as opposed to belief largely because one is a demonstrably better guide to life than the other. But the issue is complicated. What counts as valid knowledge is and always has been disputed. Knowledge is a negotiated communal domain.

What Galileo and his successors did was establish ways of validating knowledge that went beyond the usual means of discussion about what seemed likely with the best arguer becoming the authority. They collectively established the possibility of independent, objective facts and the value of them. Philosophers still tend to see everything from an individualist point of view - knowledge in this view is inevitably subjective. But in fact we, humans, are communities. And for this reason we can establish objective truths: Jupiter has four large moons (and many smaller ones) and they are in elliptical orbits around Jupiter. There is no rational or reasonable objection to this. It's not my opinion or Galileo's, it is the observation of everyone who has taken the time to look. And it does not depend on a belief in Newtonian mechanics (the discovery predates Newton!).

It is 400 years since Galileo discovered that philosophers and priests had simply made up their accounts of the world and were wrong about it. In that 400 years more and more of the unseen world has become seeable. And in every case so far where a proposition can be tested, the abstract philosophers and priests have been shown to be wrong.

However, being in possession of knowledge is not sufficient. How we communicate knowledge is at least, if not more, important. Truth presented badly fails to be accepted (evolution and climate change being two important examples). Pulling wings off fairies is counter productive. Falsehood presented well may well become the accepted "wisdom". I've repeatedly argued that we judge the salience of facts by how we feel about them. Thus people may be understandably reluctant to believe the awful truth. We must try to find a way to connect with people before trying to change their minds. Sometimes, as a last resort, confrontation may be necessary. But people aren't persuaded by ridicule. On the contrary being willing to accept loss rather than inflicting it (i.e. martyrdom), is more likely to persuade people.

On the other hand we can also understand some of the frustration of natural philosophers. Having spent the last 400 years showing that priests are wrong about every testable proposition, we might wonder why anyone still listens to priests at all. Despite the fact that the unseen domain has consistently shrunk, it remains and while it remains priests (and those who pretend to the knowledge traditionally associated with priests) can claim to be experts on it.

And of course there are enduring imaginative stories about what might exist in an unseen domain so that it seems to be a larger domain than it actually is. If we believe in an afterlife for example, the then the unseen domain seems infinitely larger than the seen. Some people remain far from convinced that an accurate view of the universe is even desirable. Magical thinking, faith in God and all kinds of supernatural views still seem more attractive to many people. It has been four centuries since Galileo's observations, but this is a legacy stretching back at least 65,000 years so it might take a while yet before we sort it out. 


04 April 2014

Experience and Free Will in Early Buddhism

The Four Humours
image via Musings on the 18th C
In a recent exchange in comments on Dhīvan's blog, Two Meanings of Karma, he drew my attention to the Sīvaka Sutta. This sutta says that kamma is only one of eight causes of experience and introduces the term pubbe-kata-hetu "caused by former actions", which is discussed below. Related suttas help to flesh out what is meant by the term and place important limits on the doctrine of karma.

The early Buddhists were critical of the view that everything we experience is a result of past actions because it is a form of determinism that eliminates meaningful moral choices. As such this teaching touches on the subject so dear to Western moral philosophers, i.e. free will. I begin with my translation of the Sīvaka Sutta and a discussion of the main terms and ideas and then contrast it with the Titthāyatanādi Sutta (AN 3.61) with passing reference to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101).

Sīvaka Sutta SN 36.21 (iv.230)
One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir in the Squirrel Sanctuary Bamboo Grove. Then the ascetic Moḷiya-Sīvako approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. When they have exchanged pleasentaries he sat to one side. And sitting on one side he asked:
Mr Gotama, what would you say to the toilers and priests whose ideology is "whatever a person experiences (paṭisamvedeti), whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, is all caused by past actions (pubbekatahetu)"?
[The Bhagavan replied], Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of bile (pitta); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of phlegm (semha)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of winds (vāta)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from interactions of the humours (sannipātika)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by changes in the season (utu-pariṇāma)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by adverse circumstances (visama-parihāra)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from physical injury (opakkamikānipi)...  
Sīvaka, some experiences are also produced by the ripening of actions (kammavipāka); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
That said, Moḷiya Sāika said this to the Bhagavan: "Awesome, Mr Gotama, that's awesome. Please remember me as an upāsaka who has gone for refuge for life. 
Bile, phlegm, and wind.
The humours, and the seasons,
Adversity, injury,
And ripening of actions as eighth.

Comments on Sīvaka Sutta

Firstly for enthusiasts of the punctuation problem related to the standard Buddhist sutta opening "evaṃ mayā sutaṃ..." note the opening of this sutta "One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir" (Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā rājagahe viharati). If we care about such things this shows that "evaṃ mayā sutam" is one syntactic unit and "ekaṃ samayam... viharati" is another. In fact to my mind this is the obvious way to read the Pāḷi. A qualifier like ekaṃ samayaṃ is far more likely to appear before a verb or participle than after it. Reading ekaṃ samayaṃ as going with sutaṃ looks like special pleading. If we were going to punctuate evaṃ mayā sutaṃ ekaṃ samayaṃ... we'd mark a new clause with a punctuation mark after sutaṃ. Which is to say that it is not:
"Thus I heard at one time, the Buddha was staying in Rajgir";
"Thus I heard, at one the Buddha was staying in Rajgir".
Secondly the name Moḷiya-Sīvaka is quite interesting. In How Buddhism Began (p.135-164; esp. 151-4) Richard Gombrich proposed that we take Aṅgulimala to be a Śaiva doing extreme antinomian practices. Now the name Sīvaka is probably from siva 'auspicious, fortunate' with the suffix -ka (causing the lengthening of the initial vowel) and thus on face value means 'one who is auspicious'. In which case the name would be synonymous with svāstika. The Pāli is equivalent to Sanskrit śivawhich is also the name of a god: Śiva. Pāli sīvaka might well be Sanskrit śaivaka, "one who belongs to Śiva". Thus we might read Moḷiya-Sīvaka as 'a top-knotted Śiva devotee'. The Dictionary of Pāli Names has nothing to settle it either way, though the name is not common: in addition to our Sīvaka we find just one yakkha (DN iii.205; SN i.211); one physician who was Ānanda in a previous life (J iv.412); and two theras (Thag vs.14 & vss.183-4), one of whom lives in Rajgir

"Experiences" (present participle, not nominal plural) translates paṭisaṃvedeti. Here what one experiences is obviously vedanā and is characterised (as vedanā always is) as sukha, dukkha, or adukkhamasukha. Both paṭisaṃvedeti and vedanā come from the root √vid 'to know'. From this root we also get veda 'the knowledge'; vedanā 'the known', i.e. what becomes known to us, what we actually experience. Also in this passage: vedayita 'felt, experienced'; in the plural 'experiences'; such events are veditabba is 'to be known; knowable'. This cluster of terms is part of what makes "feelings" an unsatisfactory translation of vedanā. What we are talking about is that which we become aware of due to the activity of all our senses, including the mind. "Feelings" is far too narrow. 

Pubbekatahetu is a three-part compound: hetu = cause, kata = past participle of √kṛ 'to do, to make' and pubbe 'before, formerly'. The compound is a bahuvrīhi meaning 'whose cause is what was done before'. There is a related term pubbekatakāraṇa which we find in a commentarial passage on AN 3.61 where it is also glossed as "Experiencing with actions formerly performed as the only condition" (pubbekatakammapaccayeneva paṭisaṃvedeti). 

Visama-parihāra is an odd word. Bodhi translates 'careless behaviour', Thanissaro "adverse behavior", though PED suggests 'being attacked by adversities'. Parihāra is from pari√hṛ 'to attend, shelter, protect; carry about; move around; conceal; set out, take up, propose'. PED takes it to mean 'surrounding' in the figurative sense. Visama is literally 'uneven, unequal, unharmonious'. Figuratively in a moral sense, 'lawless, wrong'; and 'odd, peculiar.' Buddhaghosa glosses: "Produced by adverse circumstances" means carrying a heavy load, pounding cement etc, or snakes, mosquitoes or falling in a pit, etc for one wandering at the wrong time. "Visamaparihārajānīti mahābhāravahanasudhākoṭṭanādito vā avelāya carantassa sappaḍaṃsakūpapātādito vā visamaparihārato jātāni." (SA iii.81) Thanks to Dhīvan for helping me with this passage. I think his translation of visama-parihāra as 'adverse circumstances' is better than either Bodhi or Thanissaro and I have adopted it.

The main point is that the view that everything we experience is a result of past karma is in fact wrong (micchā). I've pointed this out before and drawn attention to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101) as another text which refutes this view. There it is attributed to Nigaṇṭhas who we usually take to be the Jains.

Titthāyatanādi Sutta

The idea of pubbekatahetu is also criticised in the Titthāyatanādi Sutta AN 3.61 (i.173) where it is one of three sectarian heresies (tīṇimāni titthāyatanāni). Faced with such a claim as "everything that one experiences is due to past actions" the Buddha questions his opponent about the reasons for unethical behaviour (the dasa kusala-kammapatha; known in the Triratna Order as that "the ten precepts").

In some sense this is a question of free will. The idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a form of determinism. The Buddha's critique points out that if we accept a form of determinism then we have no motivation in regard to moral moral choices in the present, and thus the possibility of liberation is lost.
Pubbekataṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sārato paccāgacchataṃ na hoti chando vā vāyāmo vā idaṃ vā karaṇīyaṃ idaṃ vā akaraṇīyanti. Iti karaṇīyākaraṇīye kho pana saccato thetato anupalabbhiyamāne muṭṭhassatīnaṃ anārakkhānaṃ viharataṃ na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo
However, bhikkus, for those falling back on former action (pubbekata) as the essence it is not a motivation for, not an effort towards, distinguishing between right and wrong. As a result of right and wrong not being truly and reliably ascertained, there is  dwelling forgetfully and vulnerably. [Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist.
Of the three other translations I consulted (Bodhi, Thanissaro, and Piya Tan) I disagree with all of them as to how to render the last sentence. All translate samaṇavādo in the sense of 'call oneself a samaṇa'.

Samaṇa-vāda is a nominal compound in the nominative. PED sv. vāda has "2. what is said, reputation, attribute, characteristic." PED cites Sn 859 for this reading, and one Jātaka reference. The final pāda of Sn 859 reads tasmā vādesu nejati. The Niddesa glosses vādesu here as ‘criticisms, blame, reproaches, not getting any renown, not being praised’. Though the SnA has "On that account he is not cowed because of criticisms" (taṃ kāraṇā nindāvacanesu na kampati) and K R Norman seems to follow this interpretation in his translation : "therefore he is not agitated in [the midst of] their accusations". (p 107 & 338-9). But the this also fits with the context. It seems to me that PED is probably correct to include this second sense of vāda in SnA, since that is how the commentator understood it, but wrong to attribute it to Sn. It's a commentarial usage not a sutta usage. As far as I can see there is no parallel usage in Sanskrit.

I had some discussion with Dhīvan on this and he pointed out: "Looking at the comm., it’s clear that the translators are following what it says but putting it into clearer English.
na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo: for you beings or other beings thinking, ‘I am an ascetic’, individually the reasonable characteristic of an ascetic isn’t, doesn’t succeed. For though there are ascetics whose reason is only past action, also there are non-ascetics whose reason is only past action. ‘Reasonable’ (sakāraṇa) means having a reason. (AA ii.272)
So Buddhaghosa’s argument is that the ascetics who claim that what is experienced is caused by past action are not really ascetics because non-ascetics also believe this, it’s not a right view that will get you anywhere, so it’s hardly a good view for a so-called ascetic.
Thus we can see where the other translations are coming from. My feeling, however, is that we should always make a strenuous effort to translate the text and at the very least include it as a footnote, before adopting the commentarial gloss. Buddhaghosa's view is not that of early Buddhism, but that of 5th century Theravāda scholasticism. Sometimes it's helpful and sometimes not. Here I disagree with him. His reading is one that requires us to treat rather too many words as meaning something other than their obvious meaning.

Na hoti samaṇavādo would be an entirely straight forward sentence meaning, 'It is not the doctrine of a samaṇa' [with an emphasis by putting the verb first]. Sahadhammiko is in the same case as, and thus goes with, samaṇavādo. Piya Tan says it is an adverb 'with justice' and Bodhi also translates as an adverb, 'legitimately'. This appears to be based on the commentarial gloss: sakāraṇa (above). However as an adverb it ought to be in the accusative, not the nominative. By contrast paccattaṃ is a neuter accusative used adverbially (individually). So, sahadhammiko simply cannot be an adverb, it can only be in apposition with samaṇavādo. The commentarial gloss is mistaken and misleads those who follow it. Here I take sahadhammiko in the obvious (and dictionary) meaning of 'one who shares a dhamma' or a 'co-religionist', i.e. from our point of view, another Buddhist. And the idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a not the doctrine of a samaṇa who is Buddhist. Indeed, as above, it is the doctrine of a samaṇa who is a follower of Nigaṇṭha Nāgaputta, which is to say, a Jain. So sahadhammiko samaṇavādo must mean 'the samaṇa doctrine which is co-religionist' (as I understand it sahadhammiko specifically qualifies vādo). In more elegant English, "the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

One of the problems here is the switch from plural to singular. Bodhi, for example, translates as though the whole as plural. But I think in "na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo" we have a completely separate sentence in the singular with an implied 'it' as agent. And the obvious candidate for 'it' is pubbekata 'former action'. Thus the sentence means "[Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

The problem here then, is saying, as the Jains do, that experience is based on former actions alone. Notwithstanding this, as I pointed out in my 2009 essay, many Tibetans insist on a pubbekatahetu doctrine. For example Tai Situpa has said :
"Now, this way, everything is karma. Only one thing that is not karma that is the Buddha nature and the enlightenment."
Or Ringu Tulku Rinpoche cited on the Rigpa Wiki:
Strictly speaking, therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, you cannot say that there is anything in our ordinary experience that is not somehow a result of our karma.
These same teachers argue that their view is not deterministic and that a particular calamity cannot be viewed as a punishment for some particular act. However, the Dalai Lama, for example (and I have heard Robina Courtin of the FPMT say the same), believes that the Chinese invasion of Tibet was because the present occupants of Tibet had accumulated bad karma in past lives (See this personal account of a discussion the DL for example).

I happen to think that the early Buddhist view is more coherent and less a result of blind faith in a supernatural force, but the really interesting thing is that once again we see that the metaphysics of a basic Buddhist doctrine changed. I say once again because I have already written about another way that karma changes from being inevitable, if mitigable, to being entirely avoidable through the use of mantras. Over the centuries the doctrine of karma has been modified to suit the needs of Buddhists. Perhaps the two changes are related. After all a hardening of views towards everything being a result of karma would probably make the ability to avoid the consequences of karma seem more attractive. Perhaps the change to everything being the result of karma required a let out so that it was not absolutely deterministic?

Niyama & Naturalism.

The commentarial teaching of the "fivefold restriction" (pañcavidha niyama) is sometimes cited as another example of how karma is not the only type of causation in our lives. This is mainly due to a modernist interpretation promulgated by Ledi Sayadaw and Mrs Rhys Davids in the 1930s, and Sangharakshita's development of their ideas in the 1960s and 2010s. (For the history of the idea see Dhīvan's essays and published article).

In Pāli, we don't have "five niyamas" but one fivefold niyama which is five applications of one principle of conditionality. The doctrine seems to aim at naturalising Buddhists ideas about three subjective or supernatural processes: cognition (citta); the functioning of karma; and the miracles associated with a buddha (dhamma-niyama). This done by likening them to observable processes in nature. So we have bījaniyama which describes rice seeds becoming rice plants and producing rice grains; and utuniyama, the fact that trees flower and fruit together in the appropriate season. These are limitations or restrictions (niyama) on how natural events unfold that can be observed by everyone in nature and they form the model of understanding unseen processes.

To some extent the Buddhist model of cognition is a result of introspection by yogis, but we can only ever observe our own cognitive process and never someone else's (at least this limitation clearly applies in Iron Age India). However Buddhists felt confident in providing a generalised description of cognition all the same. Similarly the process of karma is unseen and supernatural - it operates behind the scenes and cannot be understood in it's specifics. Karma, the idea that good and evil deeds have appropriate consequences for the appropriate person, is an article of faith. The various miracles accompanying the life history of a Buddha are also supernatural and by the time the niyama doctrine is composed they occurred centuries in the past.

The argument is that the limitations on the natural, seen processes of seeds and seasons, apply also to the unseen and supernatural. Clearly the analogy of karma with the process of planting seeds and reaping grain was one that appealed to the Indian mind, because a more literal version of this same analogy became the main Mahāyāna view of karma. The seeds were even provided with a storage pit in the from of the alayavijñāna.

The point about karma here is not that it is only one of many types of conditionality, but another example of the one type. It is a "natural" process characterised by inevitability, by results which are appropriate to the cause, and by ripening in due season.The idea that not everything is a result of karma is fine. As above it is definitely part of the early Buddhist view on karma. It's just that this is not the point of the niyama.


So the basic Buddhist teaching is that experiences are not all dictated by karma. A variety of causes and conditions including health, seasonal changes, and just plain luck can be invoked. The view that everything we experience being the result of karma is specifically criticised as deterministic. Such a view leaves us unable to make moral choices which is why early Buddhism rejects it. Buddhist soteriology requires that we have a measure of freedom to choose between right and wrong. However, according to this basic teaching, karma does determine which realm we will be born in. And one of the characteristics of the manussaloka or human realm, is that humans have sense objects, sense organs, and the potential for sense consciousness. Thus as human beings we experience vedanā every moment of our waking lives. And how we respond to vedanā is karma.


See also previous essays:
See also 'Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will.' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. [This article, along with its predecessors, explores various attempts to define Buddhist morality as in/compatible with Western ideas of free will. On the whole I think the attempt tells us much more about Western Philosophy and its preoccupations that it does about Buddhism.]

Dhīvan's Essays on Karma

Norman, K R. (2006) The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta). PTS.

28 March 2014

Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution

The case for abandoning the tree metaphor for evolution is one that has support from the field of evolution itself. In previous essays I've proposed the braided river model as providing a richer picture and vocabulary for evolution, both in species and in ideas and cultural functions like religion. In this essay I want to look at the actual features of the River Ganges along its path and see how these might enrich metaphors for evolution. 

The imagery of rivers features strongly in the history of Indo-European languages. And Indian literature is full of references to and metaphors drawn from rivers. I've argued for example that the important contrast between samyañc and mithyā make most sense in relation to a river bed very like the ones seen in the images below. One follows the stream, bending with it (sam-y-añc) or one tries to cut across and fight one's way forward (mith-yā).

If we look at the image above, it shows only the major rivers associated with the Ganges Basin. The hydrological cycle has a number of main features in this view. Firstly the catchment area extends both north (into the Himalayas) and south (the Vindhya Range). The Ganges accepts tributaries along almost it's entire length. Catchment basins give rise to numerous small streams. These streams combine into larger streams, and these into rivers and larger rivers (and this fact is used metaphorically the Pāli Canon: e.g. AN i.243. ii.140, v.114; SN v.396; and also in the Chinese Madhyāgama 43-54)

If we stand on the Maṇikarṇikā Ghāṭ in Varanasi and look out on the Ganges River we see a classic large river contained by two banks, though of course during the monsoons it often breaks it's banks. Most of us have probably seen it in tourist season after the temperatures have dropped a bit, the rains have stopped and the river is well behaved. And seeing this clearly defined waterway we think "Ganges River". Even an entity defined by change and process can still have a valid identity if that change takes placed within well defined boundaries.

What we don't see at that point are the numerous tributaries which combine (braid) together to form this river. And in particular we don't see that where the Ganges meets the Yamuna River near Allahabad that the Yamuna is the larger of the two. It's quite visibly larger on satellite photos (below):

In fact the Yamuna contributes nearly 60% of the flow at the confluence (that's a ratio of 3:2). Thus the resulting river ought to be called the Yamuna. However for historical reasons it is called the Ganges. This point of confluence used to define the eastern edge of the āryavarta or the homeland of the Brahmins. Up until just before the time of the Buddha, anywhere east of this point was considered barbaric and foreign by the mainstream Brahmins. The early Upaniṣads document the tensions between āryavarta and eastern Brahmins (Signe Cohen) and there are scattered references to distinctive "western Brahmins" in the Pāli Canon (e.g. S iv.312). Indeed the distinction appears to be current during the period the Pāli Canon was composed since there are scattered references to Western Brahmins who have distinctive habits.

Another feature we see is that the Ganges has wandered around the plain leaving behind distinctive oxbow lakes and sinusoidal shaped dry river beds which are clearly seen in satellite photos (below).

We know that some developments in Buddhism simply dried up, and some continued to exist cut off from the mainstream. Similarly with human evolution - Homo habilis, for example, did not survive into the present.  At times small pockets of human species survived for a time in isolation, e.g. H. floresiensis which predates modern humans, but whose remains have been found with stone tools dated to only 13,000 years ago, which is well into the era of H. sapiensH. neanderthalensis had significant periods of cross-over with H. sapiens in Europe and Asia where they appear to have shared genes (hybridised), though this did not happen in Africa. And so on.

The feature I have already highlighted is the braided stream typical of the mature plains river. We can see this on the Ganges as it passes Patna (below). The river is still accepting tributaries, but it is also diverging into separate (major) streams and re-converging. In the image below the large Son River enters from below left, with the city of Patna mainly to the left of the confluence. The Gandak River converges from above left.

The final stretch of the Ganges sees it combine with the Brahmaputra River (marked with a circle) but then fan out into a massive delta as it reaches the Bay of Bengal.

The combined rivers continue to flow past the ocean-land boundary depositing banks of sediment that are coloured light blue in this image because they represent shallow water. In the map one can also see the ancient course of the combined river carved into what is now the continental shelf, from when sea levels were very much lower (when for example our ancestors were on their way from Africa to Australia ca. 65 kya to 45 kya).

The present mainstream view sees evolution as being much like the delta region - a single source fans out into multiple streams producing present day variety. The present tree model has no roots, but it also over-simplifies the trunk. The trouble is that this is how history looks when viewed from any point and one is focussed on a single issue. The complexity of the Iron Age for example might be traced back to the discovery of Iron. But then iron working extended previous metal working techniques, and had to be accompanied by advances in kiln technology (since iron requires much higher temperatures), which most likely affect the production of pottery and created an industry for coke making. At best historians of various kinds (and I include evolutionary theorists in this rubric for this purpose) might see several contributing factors to any particular event or phenomena, when in fact everything is deeply and multiply interconnected.  

What symbiogenesis and hybridisation tell us about evolution is that it is not a simple system of linear development with binary divergence, but a complex dynamic system including convergence, with symbiosis and hybridisation as the norm rather than the exception. Almost every tree has an associated mycorrhizal fungus symbiont that keeps it alive; without their symbiotic gut bacteria larger animals could not survive. The individual is simply a community seen from sufficient distance to blur the details. 

It's long been a given in academia that Buddhism as far as we know it is the product of a community of people, or indeed the products of interacting communities more or less members of the Buddhist umbrella. I've tried to extend this by arguing that the community in question has roots in Iran, and has interacted with local communities of a wide variety of types - speaking languages from at least four major groups: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and TibetoBurman. Despite differences these communities probably shared regional cultural traits such as a belief in a rebirth eschatology, and regional linguistic traits such as retroflex consonants. 

In the history of Buddhism one convergence event stands out almost more than any other. This was the 6th century synthesis we call Tantra. In this renewal of Indian religion the various streams of Indian thought and practice were combined, probably at least partly in response to the socio-political chaos of the collapse of the Gupta Empire (Ronald Davidson). In Tantra we find much of Buddhism at the time synthesised with Vedic theory and ritual, shamanistic practices, and yoga etc to create an entirely new approach to life and liberation. 

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