20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 

13 November 2015

Reflections on living things.

Caenorhabditis elegans
What would be involved in a complete understanding of a single animal? It would require a full study of its behaviour at all stages of its life cycle. We'd need a complete map of its genome and an understanding of all the proteins that the genes code for, as well as an understanding of the interrelationships of these genes (epigenetics) and which genes were active across the lifespan of the organism. Also a complete wiring diagram of its nervous system and a way of correlating all behaviour to brain activity. Amongst the most closely studied of all animals the tiny nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans is probably closest to this ideal.

C. elegans is an unsegmented, round-worm, transparent, about 1mm in length, which normally lives in soil. It is a relatively simple organism that has digestive and reproductive systems, but no circulatory or respiration system. Most individuals are described as "female hermaphrodites" (a female that also has male gonads and can self-inseminate) while a minority are males. We know the precise number of cells that make up the body: 959 cells in the adult hermaphrodite; 1031 in the adult male. There are also about 2000 germ cells in the former and 1000 in the latter (Alberts 2002). Reproduction is clearly important!
Body plan of C elegans. 

We have a complete genome for the worm (The C. elegans Sequencing Consortium 1998) and this information is open access. The worm has a total of 100,291,840 base pairs in its genome including some 19,735 protein-coding genes. That's about 100 million bits of information, a mere 12 megabytes, but these code for roughly 20,000 different proteins. The 2000-3000 cells are of a relatively limited number of types: nerve, muscle, gonad, skin, gut lining.

The development of all the cells in the animal's body over its lifespan has been traced in detail:
"C. elegans begins life as a single cell, the fertilized egg, which gives rise, through repeated cell divisions, to 558 cells that form a small worm inside the egg shell. After hatching, further divisions result in the growth and sexual maturation of the worm as it passes through four successive larval stages separated by molts. After the final molt to the adult stage, the hermaphrodite worm begins to produce its own eggs. The entire developmental sequence, from egg to egg, takes only about three days." (Alberts 2002)
A complete wiring diagram, or connectome, for the brain of C elegans, has been mapped out (White et al. 1986). The nervous system contains 302 neurons and 7000 synapses (including sensory and motor nerves).
C elegans connectome diagram (head to the right).
Scientific America
In 2008, Stephens et al. published an article that began to characterize the behaviour of the worm in response to a temperate gradient. And this showed that more complex behaviours are the result of combinations of simpler behaviours that can be described mathematically. The results of this paper were partial, partly because they only concerned two dimensions, and the authors flagged the need for more study and especially fully three-dimensional descriptions of movement. But this seems to be an important step in understanding how the simple mechanism can produce relative complex behaviour. In turn, this will eventually make it easier to link behaviour (i.e. movement) to brain activity.

Another interesting experiment was an attempt to use the neural wiring diagram to control a lego robot (right) roughly modelled on the worm's body.
"It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward." Black (2014)
There are some fairly obvious gaps. We need to know how to get from the genome to the adult animal. A genome is certainly interesting, but we need to know which genes are active, when in the life-cycle, and where in the body. This involves identifying all the proteins that protein-coding genes code for, and the interactions of controlling genes that switch other genes on and off (the epigenetics). We particular need to know how the expression of genes over time as proteins leads to the construction of the cells, organs, and body of the worm.

We know a good deal about the internal workings of animal cells but are nowhere near a full understanding or having the ability to make a living cell from scratch. Most of the research I've cited about is five or more years old. Progress is occurring all the time. Small gains, lead to bigger breakthroughs, that perhaps in time will accumulate and amount to a paradigm shift. If we do gain a full understanding of a complex living organism then C. elegans is a very likely candidate to be it. 


What's clear about this project is that we gain a huge amount of information through analysis, i.e. from breaking the worm down into its component parts. This many cells, of these types, arranged in this way. This many neurons connected by this many synapses. This many genes, encoding this many proteins. These kinds of internal cells structures and mechanisms. It's quite essential that we have all this information in our quest to understand the organism C. elegans. But once we have it, we need to understand how it is organised into and operates as systems. All of the parts have to fit together and operate together over time. There's no question that the genome and connectome were huge advances in our understanding of organisms. But we already see that this kind of static information represents first steps on the way to a much greater goal of understanding the dynamics of the parts functioning together as a system, and as systems within systems; or systems of systems; or networks of systems.

Understanding how the parts at the organism, cellular, and genetic levels, change over time emerges as a key goal. Life happens in time. It is particular patterns of change amongst the constituents and the whole over time that are key to our understanding that something is alive. We can use an analogy for this.

Imagine we stand at the top of the Tower of Pisa with a cannonball and a bird. We drop them at the same time. For perhaps half a second they both simply fall towards the ground (in reality, as they convert potential energy into kinetic energy, they follow a curved path through space that appears to us as acceleration towards the centre of the earth). The cannon ball continues to fall, it's path describing a parabolic curve until it hits the ground. We can describe the path it follows to ten decimal places. In Newtonian terms, it appears to accelerate at about 10 meters per second per second. Air resistance is minimal, but in a longer fall or a less aerodynamic object it becomes significant after a few seconds and the acceleration of gravity is equalled by the drag of the air so that a falling object reaches a maximum or terminal velocity. Since all non-agentive objects behave this way we usually gain an intuitive understanding of them quite early on. And at least by physical maturity, but often much earlier, we can accurately predict the path of a falling object by seeing a fragment of its path and use this to perform feats like catching balls that are thrown to us or dodging objects that might otherwise hit us. Next time you see a juggler, note that they do not look at their hands, i.e. where the ball lands, they look at the top of the arc of the ball which gives them all the information they need to catch it. This is possible because all simple objects behave similarly. All humans have always known this. We now have incredibly accurate models for the patterns and an understanding of why these patterns exist, which we call "physics". 

On the other hand, the bird behaves very differently from the canon ball. It may well fall for a very short time, but it soon stabilises its orientation to the ground, extends its wings to generate a counteracting force of lift, and begins to fly in a non-parabolic course, perhaps in a level, straight line away from the tower. It is this failure to fall that alerts us that a bird is not an object, it alerts us that the bird is not an object. The ability to move in ways that are not simply determined by the laws of motion is a defining characteristic of living things. We humans usually assume that anything which can do this has some kind of (human-like) agency for making decisions. For a creature with only 302 neurons, this projection is stretched to breaking point. For a single-celled organism, it is broken completely. Still deliberate movement in response to stimulus is characteristic of all living things.

Of course, as I previously described, there are non-living systems that defy prediction, such as a double pendulum (as I mentioned in my essay on freewill). Still, the movements of a double pendulum seem random, like raindrops falling or leaves shivering in the wind. There is nothing purposeful about them and they do not make us think that an agent might be present. 

The words organic and organism come from an Indo-European root *werg-  'to do'. Cognate words include work, erg, and orgy. In Latin, an organum is a tool or implement. In ancient Greece, orgia were religious perform-ances; just as in India karma ("work" from √kṛ 'to do') originally meant a ritual action.
The distinction between an object and an organism in terms of how they operate under the influence of gravity, one bound inexorably to it and the other free to work against it, is very similar to our intuitive understanding of the distinction between non-living and living things in general. Movement that is obviously bound by rules external to the object, or which appears random, is indicative of non-living systems. Of course, the physicist will say that all movement is bound by the laws of physics and that even the apparently random double-pendulum follows a lawful path. But by "rules" here we refer to the rules that can be intuited by an uneducated human being unconsciously observing their environment. In terms of Justin Barrett's psychology of belief, these are non-reflective beliefs in that they typically emerge unconsciously as a result of interacting with our environment (see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth [Still] Plausible [for Many People]?).

In George Lakoff's terms, the cannonball (a lump of iron) is probably close to most people's prototype of the category of non-living objects. The bird is certainly not in this category and is more like a prototypical living being. The bird is not bound by gravity, but can (by creating a counteracting lift force) defy gravity. Culture plays a part here. Pāḷi texts talk about the gods of rain (deve vassantecausing rain to fall, suggesting that the authors might have believed weather to be the result of agentive behaviour. English people also commonly treat the weather as the result of a mildly malevolent agent. Folk beliefs almost always allow for disembodied agents. Justin Barrett places such imagined agents in the category of "minimally counter-intuitive concepts": those that conflict with our intuitive beliefs, but only minimally, and in such a way as to be interesting and memorable.

These observations give us some insight into what we think of as a living organism versus a non-living object. The individual parts of the organism appear to conform to our non-reflective beliefs about non-living things. We take the parts not to be alive because we don't observe any violation of the non-reflective beliefs about how non-living things behave. Take any one of the 20,000 proteins from C. elegans and, for all intents and purposes, it is non-living. Organic but not of itself an organism. The parts together are capable of complex interactions that routinely violate our non-reflective beliefs about how objects behave; the parts alone are not capable of this. The basic difference between the cannon ball and the bird is in the complexity of their behaviour and the extent to which they conform to category prototypes of non-living objects and living beings.

Categories are imposed on nature by human beings (Lakoff 1990). This imposition is not arbitrary since our experience of interacting with the world is fundamental to the construction of categories. But the basic categories with which we think are based on non-reflective beliefs generated by experience and conditioning. All human beings have more or less the same sensory and motor equipment to interact with the world, but some cultures emphasise difference aspects and interpretations. In other words, the distinction living beings and non-living objects is a perceptual one that exists in our minds on the basis of non-reflective beliefs about previous experience. Indeed, many cultures have a distinction between living and non-living categories that is permeable: some non-living objects (e.g. mountains for example) are attributed with living qualities, and thus can be placed in the living category. Or take an animated cartoon, for example, which can elicit emotional responses appropriate to interacting with another person! Other cultures take living things, people, for example, and allow them to be in the non-living category (e.g. zombies, or strangers). People who live in cities very often treat the strangers around them as people-shaped objects. They are just obstructions to be navigated around, not beings to be interacted with. Unintentional interactions are often met with hostility ("watch where you're going, idiot!"). The distinctions still apply and what allows these exceptions to arise is that the features attributed to them are counter-intuitive in just the right way to make them interesting and memorable (cf. Barrett 2004).

Systems are capable of such complex behaviour that they confound our ability to distinguish living from non-living. They easily overwhelm our criteria for categorising in the same way that an animation does, by presenting us with motion that is too complex for our non-reflective, experientially derived rules for describing the behaviour of objects. Computers, for example, are not intelligent, but they are complex enough that sometimes they don't seem to fit the non-living category or to partially fit the living category. We begin to suspect an agent at work, especially as our desires are thwarted.

Life is complex. A problem with understanding life is that we don't see the underlying complexity because it is microscopic. That vast complexity could exist, at several scales deeper than what we see (cells, molecules, atoms, particles, quarks...) is counter-intuitive. That a gram of carbon might contain a number like 1023 atoms is inconceivable. For example, it is vastly more than the number of hairs on our heads (ca 100,000); or people in the world (ca 7 billion); or the seconds in the average lifespan of a human being (only about 2.5 x 106); or the stars in our galaxy (ca 100 billion, though we can only see about 10,000 with the naked eye under ideal conditions) or even all these numbers added together. 1023  is more than all the stars in all the galaxies in the universe. For most of us cells, molecules, atoms etc are just something we have to take on faith. It is true, that their existence can be demonstrated, but we'll never know it from experience.

This animation (by David Bolinsky and team) gives a brilliant, but simplified, glimpse into cells from a particular point of view (response to inflammation). It is simplified mainly by making water molecules transparent - all that space you see is filled with water, salts, sugars, etc.

So life is complex but complex in ways that are non-experiential and more or less beyond imagination (the video shows a reality unlike anything ever imagined by a pre-modern society). The ordinary person bases their understanding of living things on their own non-reflective beliefs, derived from interactive experience and (cultural) imagination. Generalising from interactive experience is extremely unlikely to succeed in producing an accurate description of life except by unlikely accident. Nor does so-called "insight into reality" help us here. No account of insight, Buddhist or otherwise, ever gave us a hint that the body might be made of cells or anything like a Newtonian, let alone post-Newtonian, explanation of the world.

For example no one who insists that there is not a self or that the subject-object duality is an illusion is telling us anything at all about reality, the world, or living things. They are telling us (more) things about how generalising from our perceptions of these things results in erroneous conclusions. They explicitly want us to believe that they perceive the world not just differently, but more accurately, in a more satisfying matter. I would generously estimate that about 1% of 1% of religious practitioners gain access to this perspective (about 1 in 10,000). Not all of them are people I'd want to emulate. Some of them have some very peculiar ideas that can be traced to culturally specific theologies. A Vedantin and a Buddhist might well experience the same phenomena, say the cessation of specific aspects of selfhood, and yet each might tell us that it means different things. For one it is ātman, for the other it is anātman. So it is entirely apparent that even insight doesn't grant access to an absolute truth. If it did everyone that had that experience would express the same ideas about it, and we's have stopped arguing about it more than 2000 years ago. As yet scientists do not fully understand life either. We understand perhaps about 1%, but we currently understand life (as a process) better than any pre-modern culture ever did. No supernatural forces are required in this description. 

The arguments about features of living things, such as so-called "consciousness", suffer from exactly the same problems. Buddhists are working almost entirely from pre-modern models and generalising from individual experiential. They haven't a hope of understanding life, or consciousness, or any complex feature of life. Half the time Buddhists are just regurgitating some ancient ideology (something I trust less and less the more I find the ancients to have been confused or plain wrong in their thinking). But they may well come to some understanding of something, so what is that they do understand? It's this question that fascinates me, more than arguments over models and semantics. I only wish more Buddhists would deprecate the legacy jargon and ideology and just describe what they have experienced or at least the effect is has had on them in plain English. It would help us all to understand what is going on. 



Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. (2002) Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26861/

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Black, Lucy (2014) A Worm's Mind In A Lego Body. I Programmer. Sunday, 16 November 2014. http://www.i-programmer.info/news/105-artificial-intelligence/7985-a-worms-mind-in-a-lego-body.html

The C. elegans Sequencing Consortium (1998) Genome sequence of the nematode C. elegans: a platform for investigating biology. Science 282: 2012–2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.282.5396.2012

Hillier LW, Coulson A, Murray JI, Bao Z, Sulston JE, and Waterston RH. (2005) Genomics in C. elegans: So many genes, such a little worm. Genomes Research. 2005. 15: 1651-1660 doi: 10.1101/gr.3729105

Lakoff, George. (1990). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:  What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Stephens GJ,  Johnson-Kerner B, Bialek W, Ryu WS. (2008) Dimensionality and Dynamics in the Behavior of C. elegans. Computational Biology. April 25, 2008DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000028

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