16 January 2009

Life, the Universe, and Everything!

the worldIn the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams writes about a race of pan-dimensional beings who decide that they are going to solve the ultimate question, the question of life, the universe, and everything, once and for all! To do this they design a gigantic computer which they call Deep Thought. Having agreed that an answer is possible, Deep Thought says he'll have to think about it, and seven million years later announces that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is... "forty-two". In the ensuing mayhem he suggests that perhaps if they knew more precisely what the question was, then the answer would make sense. Buddhists are in a similar position. We think we know that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is - dependent arising - paticcasumuppada! - but have we have really understood the question.

We Buddhists typically see dependent arising as a kind of general theory of causation, i.e. we see it as a way to understand 'the world', aka Reality. The most general form of this would be something like: "some variety of shit happens (to you) because of (your) karma". Certainly we are reborn because of "our karma". Karma - that is actions carried out in the past, possibly a past life - is our explanation for "the problem of evil", or why bad things happen to good people. All this can be quite confusing because it sounds like we are saying that if something bad happens to you, then you deserve it. Most of us hasten to add that this is not what we mean - because most of us are white middle-class liberals and God forbid that anything that happens to anyone should be their own fault. No, we blame society! I mock, but in fact it is difficult to state the theory of karma to a non-believer without immediately having to engage in some spectacular back-peddling. At worst we might fall back on saying that there aren't really any beings to suffer anyway (let me know if you think this as I'd like to try poking you in the eye to see what happens - it's my version of Johnson refuting Berkeley). In fact the doctrine of karma is not a very good solution to the problem of evil because with it we invoke a supernatural agency (even if we don't think of it those terms, that is in fact what it is). Why the Buddha appears to have accepted a theory of karma is another story.

Most people if asked the old chestnut - if a tree falls in a forest, and no one observes it, does it still make a sound? - would unhesitatingly answer "of course it does!" This is what we call "common sense". Western philosophy is all about humans' relationship with 'the world' (more or less). We believe in an world external to us that we participate in, and that doesn't disappear when we stop looking. And on the whole this view is justified because the world patently doesn't disappear when we stop looking, or at least it must instantaneously wink in and out of existence when we blink, but stay present to others who are not blinking, which seems a bit ridiculous - it would be the most astounding feat of engineering and I can think of no possible explanation for such a thing. We also share many perceptions about that world, which seems to deny that it is entirely personal and private.

At this point some innocents are wont to invoke Quantum Mechanics - but having studied this subject at university I'm convinced that no lay person really understands the implications of it, because very few of us are capable of imagining the sub-atomic world, and quantum effects are not visible on a macro scale (ie anything bigger than a single atom). For instance you don't change this essay by reading it. Although on that basis you could say that Wikipedia is subject to quantum fluctuations as readers often do change the text. In any case the Buddha didn't have any notion of science let alone quantum mechanics. So let's leave science to one side - it is on the whole part of the problem for us (which deserves a post on it's own).

Now if you comb through the Pali Canon I'm willing to bet you a small sum of money that you will not find the Buddha saying: "OK monks, listen up, I'm going to teach you about the world out there, and how it all comes into being", except in a couple of ironic texts where he makes fun of people that think like this. The Brahmin Jāṇussoṇi asks the Buddha (SN 12:47) does everything exist (sabbamatthi) or does everything not exist (sabbaṃ n'atthi)? Neither explanation fits the case, and the Buddha draws Jāṇussoṇi's attention to the process of experience. Similarly the bhikkhus were often asked what the Buddha taught:
‘‘Idha no, bhante, aññatitthiyā paribbājakā amhe evaṃ pucchanti – ‘kimatthiyaṃ, āvuso, samaṇe gotame brahmacariyaṃ vussatī’ti? Evaṃ puṭṭhā mayaṃ, bhante, tesaṃ aññatitthiyānaṃ paribbājakānaṃ evaṃ byākaroma – ‘dukkhassa kho, āvuso, pariññatthaṃ bhagavati brahmacariyaṃ vussatī’ti. SN 45.5
We get asked by wanderers from other traditions, bhante, "what is the point of practising the spiritual life under the ascetic Gotama". We reply "the point of practising under the fortunate one is the complete understanding of suffering [dukkha]".
The Buddha reassures the monks in this story that this is exactly what he would say. What the Buddha teaches is not philosophy, not religion, not a system of any kind. What he teaches is more pragmatic. The point of practising Buddhism is the understanding of suffering - how it arises and how to make it cease. Anything that helps us to understand suffering is included. Views about 'the world' are not. I have discussed the term dukkha in my post on Dhammapada verses 1 - 2. It has a broad reference including anything unpleasant, and perhaps all of conditioned experience.

We westerners on the other hand, despite 100 years of psychology, are still focussed on our relationship with 'the external world' and try to apply dependent arising to that world - the common sense world that we instinctively know is there. In the process we make the kind of causality the Buddha is interested in (the cause of suffering) a special case. I don't deny causality, just as I don't deny the likelihood that some kind of world exists independently of my perceiving it. There is quite apparently cause and effect in the world. To paraphrase Sue Hamilton reality and causality are not in question, but neither are they the question either. The question is one of experience, and especially why do we experience suffering? And the answer lies in understanding the process of having an experience, especially the apparatus of experience (aka the khandhas).

A general theory of causality is superfluous to Buddhism, although not superfluous per se. All we need to know according to the Buddha, is what causes us to experience suffering, and that knowledge will come when we understand the mechanics of experience. This is why, incidentally that we don't have to worry about the difficulties of confirming or denying reality and causality - for the Buddha these were givens and all the interesting stuff happens in our (subjective) experience. We only have our senses and our minds as sources of knowledge and no direct access to an external world. Some people have seen in this a relationship to the Empiricist trend in philosophy, but the empiricists were interested in gaining knowledge of the world, and did not think that the mind could be a source of such knowledge. So the two projects are quite different.

Any other kind of explanation is avisayasmin - one of my favourite words at present. It is made up of a- + visaya + -asmin and is a bit tricky to render into English. Visaya is an area or place. The negative prefix is usually a negation, but a "non-place" seems like a contradiction in terms, so avisaya is 'not a place'. The suffix -asmin is the locative case ending so it means "in a non-place", or perhaps "in the wrong place" which is my current preferred translation. It relates to one's sphere of interest and occurs in the Sabba Sutta which I am researching at present. The Buddha says that looking for answers to dukkha outside of one's experience, outside of the six senses and their objects, is looking in the wrong place.

We're now in a position to consider the question to which the answer might be 'dependent arising'. The question is about suffering, about dukkha. What is the end of suffering like? It is like extinguishing a flame - if you deprive a fire of fuel, it is extinguished. How does suffering arise? It arises in dependence on conditions - sense organ and sense object come together with sense consciousness and create a cascade of knowledge (vid/jñā) in us, but unfortunately we misunderstand this knowledge hence we suffer. Sense experiences, then, are the fuel (upadana) for suffering. It will no doubt be argued that this is not the only question with this answer - we like to see "things" arising in dependence on conditions as well. But in the context of Buddhism this is the question that counts.

A certain amount of savvy about the world is, however, quite useful. I couldn't for instance communicate these thoughts without it. Buddhists tend to make this subject very confusing - they say things like "it doesn't really exist" which is confusing (and wrong I think). If you want to understand our relationship with the world then we might be better off turning to thinkers like John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The first three have the distinct advantage for my readers in that they wrote in English and not Sanskrit. They, unlike the Buddha, were interested in our relationship with the world. Of course there have been many great thinkers since then. George Lakoff stands out for me.

The history of western philosophy is a history of trying to understand the world and our relationship to it. Early Buddhism did not share this enthusiasm. However Indian philosophy more generally was concerned with similar issues and over time this concern with 'the world' crept into Buddhism too. So in a way it's no wonder that we see dependent arising as a general theory of causation - for most strains of Buddhism it's part of the curriculum these days. Sadly I think this has fed our interest in the world as an external reality - we even talk about bodhi as "insight into Reality" - and this draws our attention to the wrong thing (ayoniso manasikāra). The wrong thing, that is, if our intention is to end suffering.

SN = Saṃyutta Nikāya

For good introductions to Western Philosophy including the British Empiricists and their successors you could try:
For George Lakoff start with: 1981. Metaphors We Live by. Chicago University Press.

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