22 June 2012

Why Do Fools Fall in Love?

WHEN I BECAME A BUDDHIST I was initially attracted by the fellowship of the people and the promise of becoming a better person. I also found attractive the idea that Buddhism did not require blind faith, though it's obvious to me now that Buddhism does in fact strongly suggest, if not actually require, blind faith.

Apropos faith I recently participated in quite an interesting discussion on Glenn Wallis's blog Speculative Non-Buddhism. Responding particularly to something written by Stephen Bachelor, but also from general observations of the Secular Buddhist online groups, Glenn outlined five articles of faith he could see in so-called Secular Buddhist discourse. These articles of faith, he suggested, showed that Secular Buddhism is not secular at all, it is another variety of what he styles 'x-Buddhism'.

Secular Buddhists (including Ted Meissner who might well have invented the term; and is now Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association) chimed in that they did not recognise Glenn's portrayal of them, but on the whole they missed the point of his meta-analysis of their discourse. Sadly it did not attract a response from Bachelor himself. Whatever we make of secular Buddhism, Glenn's articles of faith are interesting and I would like to discuss them in light of my own ideas.

Buddhist Articles of Faith
  1. Transcendental Dharma: The dharma—that unity of unique and timeless truths uttered by the enlightened Buddha—addresses and resolves our 'ultimate concern' as human being.
  2. The Buddha: the human source of this timeless dharmic clarification of the great matter of life and death.
  3. Special Teachings: both exigent and unique. "For, all four [Noble Truths] have been articulated throughout history, and continue to be formulated and developed, in ways far more sophisticated, hence appropriate to a modern audience, than Buddhism’s ancient, ascetically-driven versions."
  4. The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism: The Dharma as Theory of Everything, with no need for input from any other domain of knowledge.
  5. Ideological Rectitude: Buddhism is "natural, empirical, pragmatic, and in accord with science". The teachings, as the ancient trope has it, are simply how things are. They are phenomenologically obvious. Thus, they posit not matters to be believed but tasks to be done.
This list is intended as a polemic of Secular Buddhism, but I think it has a broader application as a polemic of Buddhist faith generally. I've critiqued the idea of the Dharma as Theory of Everything at some length (See: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? Short answer: no it isn't). But some new ideas occurred to me as a result of thinking about the problem in the light of my essay on the interactions between reason and emotion, and the idea of embodied cognition (Facts and Feelings) and I began to articulate them in comments on Glenn's blog. I've gathered the threads together in this essay and tried to flesh them out.

I think we translate the word saddhā (Skt. śraddhā) as 'faith' because this is the standard English translation of the Latin 'credo', which probably comes from the same PIE root and is conventionally understood to mean 'I believe'. However, in practice saddhā has little in common with credo. I've explored the notion of saddhā before, but now I want to put forward a new interpretation. Recall that saddhā is typically tathāgate saddhaṃ, which is conventionally translated as 'faith in the tathāgata'. It arises after hearing the Buddha talking about the Dharma. It's widely known that saddhā comes from sad 'heart' (Skt. śrad = hṛd < PIE *kred > Latin cred; the śrad form is more closely related to Iranian forms, and only used in this context), and the verb dhā 'to place'. Saddhā then is 'what we give our heart to'; or as I am now suggesting what we fall in love with. This is very far from being an intellectual position or a mere statement of belief. Saddhā has an erotic charge to it (using eros in the Jungian rather than the Freudian sense). The Pāli texts, I suggest, do actually talk about saddhā as if people fall in love with the Buddha. And why not? He is always portrayed as supernaturally beautiful and extraordinarily charismatic. In Indian religious terms this feeling is also called bhakti 'devotion, love, worship', and one who feels it is a bhaktin. Once a disciple gets some fruit from their practice they experience avecca-pasāda 'definite clarity', i.e. they know from personal experience what the practice does. The first fruit traditionally being described as stream-entry (sotāpanna), after which one can say "I know, I see" (janāmi passāmi) And this knowledge replaces the superficial feelings of saddhā with something more grounded. One can now continue under one's own steam. Although the word is typically used in another way, we could call this śakti 'capability, power, strength', and one possessing it a śaktin.

Probably most Western Buddhists initially fell in love with some aspect of Buddhism. When we fall in love we experience fascination with the beloved, a desire to be in their presence, to exclude others, and anxiety when apart. Another word for this is passion, the flooding of our system with strong emotions that alter the way we think and act (in my terms: that change the salience of information). The metaphor flooding is appropriate because the alteration in our faculties is paralleled by our endocrine system flooding our bloodstream with hormones. Love has been likened to a drug and to madness; and is often described as a sickness. Like drugs, love feels great, but often has unintended consequences. Under some circumstances, e.g. in a religion, we make common cause with people who share our passion and feel a sense of solidarity. Of course falling in love with Buddhism is complex because it involves relationships with teachers (whom we also fall in love with) and with communities of people. Often people seem to come to Buddhism on the back of some trauma or tragedy, and are looking for a solution to some problem. I don't want to reduce the phenomena of becoming a Buddhist, only to focus on an aspect of it for rhetorical purposes.

Most of us remain bhaktins; we fall in love, and we never become independent śaktins. We never stand on our own two feet. We could blame Western culture for this, but I think it is a more general problem for humanity. For example as humans we have become self-domesticated. Domestication induces certain characteristic changes on animals. One of which is a tendency to retain juvenile behaviours, and physical characteristics; the technical term for this is pedomorphosis (see e.g. Gilbert 2010). Compare for instance the domestic dog with the wolf. These two can in fact interbreed producing fertile offspring, which has forced a change in the taxonomy of domestic dogs. They are now considered a subspecies of the wolf, though their physiology and behaviour are very different. Dogs are behaviourally adapted to human society, and will tend to bond with a family, be very much less aggressive (than a wolf), and be more inclined to submissiveness. And we live in a society in which, for example we have to keep a lid on aggression; where some of us find it difficult to grow up and some of us are wilfully immature. I'm beginning to see that, yes, we are social animals, social apes; but also that we are domesticated social apes.

However it comes about, the majority of us, including many of the more prominent Buddhist Teachers, never quite become śaktins; we never experience the fruits that would make us truly independent. We fall in love and do not mature. In talking about Buddhism we often go beyond our personal experience and resort to quoting books and teachers. And I suspect this might also be related to falling in love with an abstraction (or some might say a projection). A real person inevitably disappoints us and even betrays us, so that we lose our naivety. This cannot happen with an abstraction since the relationship is entirely one sided. An abstract ideal always remains aloof. In Buddhism we might say that this abstraction is a true refuge, for example, because it lacks all human weaknesses and so it cannot let us down. While the down side of this obvious it might not be all bad. By projecting the best parts of ourselves onto an idealised anthropomorphic figure we can come into relationship with ourselves at our best, the angels of our better nature. Transference is not always a bad thing as long as there is some way to own the projections at some point. The problem comes when we over identify with the angels and forget about our demons, though Buddhism has a place for them too!

Falling in love also changes the salience of facts; changes the way we view, validate and value information. For religieux the articles of our faith take on so much mass that they almost always tip the balance back towards our belief system. And recall that this process of weighing facts is not intellectual, but primarily emotional: i.e. we experience the value of information as felt emotional responses to it (hence 'gut feeling').

Once Buddhism starts to 'feel right' to us, it changes the salience of other information. In particular we begin to think in terms of the articles of faith outlined by Glenn, and (re)interpret our experience according to the articles of faith in order to find confirmation of the articles. Anything which does not conform or confirm is either reinterpreted (e.g. as symbolic) or rejected. These responses are just abstract versions of the way primate groups deal with strange individuals: adopting or ousting. When someone reblogged my essay Rebirth is Neither Plausible Nor Salient on Reddit a number of the responses were hypercritical of me. They overstated my claims, and characterised me as reprehensible for trying to undermine "those who followed the original teaching of the philosophy" (Reddit). There was no attempt to engage with my ideas, only a clamour of irrational denunciation. In other words they acted just like jealous lovers.

In the Rebirth essay I summed up my understanding of the general dynamic of the belief in an afterlife like this:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body...
  • So the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible.
  • The emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • And since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable!
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other values.
Falling in love with Buddhism, which stipulates an afterlife as another article of faith, also changes the salience of statements about the afterlife; though it is circular because the eschatology of Buddhism is part of what makes it attractive. This makes the third step of the dynamic very much stronger; and powerfully influences us to make the leap described in the fifth step. Add to that the power of peer pressure, and it becomes very difficult for any Buddhist not to believe in rebirth. The feeling of rightness drives the intellectual effort to justify the belief, though such attempts are always flawed in some way. (See my review of Thanissaro's Apologetic for Rebirth).

As I have suggested, falling in love can make us jealous and possessive. This may help to explain why Buddhists are so very jealous of their texts, their lineages and titles, their special words, and their myths and legends, and especially the historical uniqueness of the Buddha and his Dharma. From the very beginning the peaceful and tolerant religion of Buddhism has been openly contemptuous in its treatment of competing religions. A great deal of effort goes into refutation of heterodox views, which suggests a sense of insecurity in the face of competition. It sometimes appears that Buddhists are afraid that the Buddha's sāsana can't stand on it's own merits. At the same time Buddhists have absorbed whatever seems to work from some of those same traditions! For people who repudiated Brahmanical soteriology and made fun of Brahmins, the early Buddhists surely incorporate a disproportionate amount of Brahmanical cosmology. The very word brahman comes to signify anything particularly important to early Buddhists! There's a very powerful contradiction here that I don't think anyone has yet fully understood or explained.

The idea that Buddhists are often playing the jealous lover may help to explain why, in a religion whose central idea seems to be that everything changes, that so many Buddhists are hostile to changes in their belief system. Glenn Wallis quotes Noam Chomsky:
"The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms."
Buddhists often lack any sense of chronology in their teachings, any kind of historical analysis. I've tried to provide some in my posts about how karma and rebirth have changed over time. The teachings are far from timeless. Indeed the very timelessness of them is an article of faith; and it is obvious to anyone who studies even a little of the history of Buddhist ideas that fundamental doctrines do change. This, however, is not enough to outweigh the transcendental Dharma's status as an article of faith. The gravity of the faith gives the article of that faith much greater salience than it would otherwise have. Which means that it feels right to continue believing it even in the fact of counter-factual evidence. You can't prove something wrong to a believer, because if what you say is contradictory then it is not salient! Historical changes or (mere) human expressions are not salient in relation to a transcendent absolute. This is a metaphysical proposition which is not open to debate, or to evidence one way or another--we either believe it or we don't.

And here is what I see as the crux of the matter. Falling in love changes our evaluation of salience in favour of the beloved. Always. Love is blind. Love is a passion that overcomes reason. Unfortunately this means that most Buddhists are living a fundamental contradiction. On one hand they've adopted a powerful salience-altering ideology which creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop (with internal and environmental vectors) that is incredibly difficult to be free of; and one the other hand it is precisely this kind of world altering view we wish to free ourselves from. Buddhism, as many of us receive it, has the strong potential to be inherently self-defeating. In the oft quoted metaphor from the Aladgadūpama Sutta the Dhamma is a raft which we have to abandon when we reach the other side. Unfortunately for many people the Dhamma becomes a millstone instead, and prevents them from setting off, let alone reaching the other side.

One of primary postulates of Buddhism is that the Buddhism itself is a perfect panacea that endows us with infinite compassion and perfect wisdom. But in real life even the great and good amongst the living are not perfect or immune from vice or, notably, from suffering. The ideology fails to deliver. In a few rare cases where people seem temperamentally (or perhaps genetically) suited to a more ethereal worldview; or it happens by accident e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Ramana Maharshi, Jill Bolte Taylor. 2500 year after the first "fully and perfectly enlightened" human being, the human race, including all the Buddhists of various denominations I've ever met, still suffer. The general failure to deliver has historically caused some Buddhists to adopt an apocalyptic worldview: they see this is a 'dark age' (kāliyuga), and there's nothing we can do except tread water until Maitreya comes in five gazillion years. The long time frame has not prevented a number of sincere and plausible lunatics have come forward to claim the title of living Buddha. Self proclaimed arahants seem to possess something rather less than perfect wisdom and infinite compassion. Despite this notable failure, that we attribute to human weakness and not to wrong information, most of us decide that despite everything Buddhism still "feels right" and persist with it. Surprise, surprise. Failure is simply not salient to a believer. Just as the current global economic depression is not salient to economists. This is not to say that Buddhist practice is not beneficial, because most of the time we do benefit from it. Just not in the way we might hope for, not in that forever life changing blinding flash we read (and talk) about. However, we weave any benefits into our story, and bracket out any difficulties, and thus interpret our experience as confirming Buddhist ideas.

When we're in love with an abstract idea we enter into dialogue with other domains of knowledge only to the extent that it reflects well on our beloved: such as the rather facile and pathetic attempts by Buddhists to invoke quantum mechanics (c.f. Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat); or the appeals to Romantic Poetry (when most Romantics were and are quite morally reprehensible from the point of view of Buddhist morality). Glenn calls this the Principle of Sufficiency. Buddhism can become a box that we cannot think outside of, and don't even want to. This places some severe limitations on us that aren't really helpful. Glenn argues that they are positively harmful, which I will concede can be the case, but I don't think it is universally so.

To summarise, Buddhists are often in love with an abstraction called Buddhism, or with the imagined figure of a Buddha. Falling in love changes our values, and changes the way we assess the salience of information. Love is blind. Passion overwhelms reason. Because we are in love with an abstraction we cannot lose our naïveté in the usual way, through betrayal. As domesticated social primates we have a strong tendency towards paedomorphia, and juvenile behaviour anyway. Love is jealous and protective. Falling in love makes the beloved more beautiful. As such when presented with articles of faith, we are happy to go along with them, and unlikely to be critical if they confirm our opinion of the beloved. Ironically Buddhism can easily become a view (diṭṭhi/dṛṣṭi) that, according to our own rhetoric, traps us in saṃsāra. It's therefore vitally important to identify articles of faith and subject them to the most rigorous intellectual and experiential examination, and be receptive to criticism of them. Most articles of faith are unlikely to survive this process, so we need to be prepared to relinquish them.

The situation is similar to Relativity. Values bend the space in which information is situated; and therefore reason travels in curves near values, and can become captured in orbits. People with strong convictions are caught in an emotional gravity well, and reason in circles about their beliefs. Opinions that matter to us seem to have gravitas. Of course we're all operating in this relativistic cosmos, and no one is free of values or convictions. However falling in love magnifies the value of the beloved enormously, and can leave us happy in our little orbit looking inward, oblivious to the stars. Belief needn't be a black-hole, but leaving orbit requires us to look up and wonder; and it requires concerted effort.


Cited in this essay

Bachelor, Stephen. A Secular Buddhist. www.londoninsight.org.

Gilbert, Scott F. (2010) DevBio: a companion to Developmental Biology. (9th ed.). Especially 23.7 'Evolution and Domestication: Selection on Developmental Genes?'. http://9e.devbio.com/article.php?id=223

Thanissaro. 'The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice.' Access to Insight. 2012.

Wallis, Glen. 'On the Faith of Secular Buddhists.' Speculative Non-Buddhism. May 2012. 

Update: 24 June. 
Anyone who is unconvinced by the idea that Buddhists have articles of faith, and that it is blind faith should read the Wikipedia entry on Faith in Buddhism while trying to imagine how it might sound to a non-Buddhism. Jargon abounds, but worse the page is full of magical thinking, supernatural entities and forces, and bizarre metaphysical statements. Underlying it all is the notion that Buddhism represents the ultimate truth about the universe (though several different and mutually exclusive versions of the ultimate truth can be found on the page). The authors of the Wikipedia page are plainly deluded, if not delusional. They are incapable of seeing their views except from within a framework in which Buddhist Dogmas represents the ultimate truth. I cannot imagine a better example of the idea of reason in orbit around a belief.
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