21 March 2014

Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas.

image via theconsciousprocess
Back in January 2014 I wrote an essay exploring the idea that there were irreconcilable pluralities in Buddhist metaphysics. In that essay I focussed on the poor fit between Buddhist ethics and the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda. And I said that "On the face of it this problem ought to have produced a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, though to the best of my knowledge it never has." I no longer believe that it did not create a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, in fact on further reflection we can see a number of high profile responses to just this problem.

One example is found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakā Kārikā where he has noticed the problem of what I call "action at a temporal distance".
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK 17.6 //
If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?
Nagarjuna's answer insists on the metaphysics of emptiness which has the same disconnect from moral imperatives that I've already described.

Having finished my essay on the disconnect between ethics and dependent arising I serendipitously found a passage in the Majjhima Nikāya which asks almost the same question as I had been asking. In the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (The Great Discourse on a Fullmoon) a certain monk asks a serious of question about the pañc'upānānakhandha or five masses of fuel (aka the five aggregates of clinging).

The answers add up to an exposition on how to meditate on the khandhas. We learn that the khandhas are rooted in desire. And that the desires take many forms related to how the khandhas might be arranged in the future. The khandhas are defined in a circularity: any kind of form is rūpakhandha, etc. Then we discover that the four elements (mahābhūta) are the condition for rūpakhandha; that contact is the condition for vedanākhandha, saññākhandha and saṅkhārākhandha; and that nāmarūpa is the condition for viññānakhandha.

Crucially sakkāyadiṭṭhi, literally the view that there is a true (sat) substance (kāya), though more often translated as 'personality view', comes about when we relate to the khandhas in terms of attā or 'myself'. With respect to each of the khandhas we may experience pleasure and joy; but we must remember that each khandhas is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial; and "escaping" from each comes about when we do not feel desire in relation to it, which in this context seems to relate to anxieties about future existence. In order to remove all tendencies towards thinking in terms of a substantial self, including "I making" (ahaṃkāra), "mine making" (mamaṃkāra) and "the tendency to opinions" (mānānusayā), one must not relate to the khandha in terms of etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā 'this is mine, I am this, this is my self'.

Although the order does not match up we can deduce that the two sets of three are related:
  • ahaṁkāra leads to the thought eso ahaṃ asmi 'I am this'.
  • mamaṁkāra leads to the thought etaṁ mama 'this is mine'.
  • mānānusayā leads to the thought eso me attā 'this is my self'.
Now having heard this it occurs to a certain monk (presumably the same certain monk though the pronouns are unclear) who says:
iti kira, bho, rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā; anattakatāni kammāni katham attānaṃ phusissantī'ti? (MN iii.19 = SN iii.82)
It has been said, Sir, that form is without self, sensation is without self, apperception is without self, volition is without self, discernment is without self: which self will be affected by actions performed by a non-self?
We don't know the background of this monk, but we do know that he can't be a Brahmin, because it is explicit in Brahmanical beliefs about the ātman that it is not affected in any way by worldly actions and such a question would not occur to a Brahmin. More likely he is a Jain. In any case this question is similar to the one I raised about morality. If there is no self, then who is affected by actions? Although it breaks protocol to ask this, it's important to see that it rests on an understanding of moral imperatives. The question suggests that the whole system is too abstract to be a motivation to good behaviour.

Unfortunately the answer supplied in the text does not address the question directly, though it does give us an indirect hint about the author of the text. The Buddha is (apparently) concerned that some idiot (or perhaps the monk himself; again the pronouns here are quite confusing) might see the question as a conceited attempt by a contemptible man to usurp his place as teacher (the terms are quite gross). It seems to me that such a paranoid response is far from characteristic of Gotama in the Pāli literature. He is usually supremely confident of his place in the world. Next he has the monks rehearse the same teaching in a slightly different way. It is simply emphasised that what is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial cannot be one's self, and that the khandhas are all characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality.

There is a tautology involved in the last of these because although I'm translating it as "insubstantial" the word is anattā. Of course what is anattā is not attā, this is simply what the word anattā means. The Buddha simply says that what is not the self cannot be the self. Which is clumsy of the author.

While the bhikkhus were delighted and satisfied by these words, we have reason for dissatisfaction. It's clear enough what is intended here. We have the the outline of a meditation practice involving reflection on the khandhas. If one is thinking in terms of khandhas, then this is how one ought to think about them. But how does this translate into other areas of Buddhist thought? Particularly ethics? And why is ethics so often taught in terms of a sense of self that is substantial and stable over lifetimes (as in Jātaka stories)? Even if it is a metaphor, why is it a helpful metaphor? Why is there no answer?

What our interlocutor was doing was trying to shift the discussion. He was saying that if this is what the sense of self is about, then how does karma work? If there is no self then who experiences the consequences of actions? We've already see that the question of "who suffers" (ko vediyati) is an "unsuitable" or even "unhealthy" question (no kallo pañho SN ii.13). The Buddha simply emphasises phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā 'sensations arise from the condition of contact; contact from the condition of greed.' This is how we teach metaphysics, but it's not how we teach ethics. 

The Buddha's answer suggests that whoever composed this discourse felt quite uncomfortable about the shift and was unable to answer it. He could only repeat himself. In the Pali texts people who ask the kinds of question I'm asking here are given a hard time. They are rebuked and chided. So far I've found no patient explanation of how everything fits together, just the answer that it's an unsuitable question. This appears to be the approach of modern writers on Buddhism as well. But if we are at all interested in the notion of Buddhism as a single system of thought stemming from a single mind then a major disconnect like this ought to be important and interesting.

One solution I proposed was that the attempts to see or outline unity in these teachings might be a cultural artefact for us. We have a predisposition to see everything in big bang terms, i.e. in terms of a singularity from which all the diversity we currently see must have developed from zero diversity in the past. It's a kind of parallax error, like the illusion of train-tracks converging in the distance. We have embodied this conceptual error in the tree metaphor which depicts evolution as a linear process with binary branches that always diverge and never converge. Except that everywhere we look at evolution we do see convergences. Our very cells are the result of the convergence of at least three kinds of bacteria that all contributed to the structure of eukaryote cells in varying ways and some of which, like mitochondria, retain their identity billions of years later. This process is now known as Symbiogenesis and was established by Lynn Margulis.

Similarly there is clear evidence that Buddhism is not the result of a single man having thoughts over the course of his lifetime, but is instead the result of a culture or even a complex of interrelated cultures imperfectly assimilating and syncretising a variety of elements. This does not rule out an historical Buddha, but it does mean that we must attempt to see him in context. 

In discussing this disconnection between theory and practice with my friend Śākyakumāra he came up with an interesting analogy. We might think about the distinction between describing what someone does when they drive a car, and the idealised instruction we give to new drivers. There is a single goal, a single activity, but two view points. What we are describing above is the practice one does after cultivating samādhi or at least samatha, while the basic teaching on ethics focusses on mechanics. When we are driving and turn a corner, we do not think, now I'm turning the steering wheel which transmits a rotary action through a rack & pinion and causes the wheels to turn in a different plane (rolling the steering wheel causes the vehicle to yaw), or about braking and shifting gears and the other mechanical tasks involved. One simply does the action, and very often one's attention is elsewhere watching the road, ensuring we are on the correct route, scanning for dangers, etc. But when learning to drive one's attention is divided between coordinating limbs, consciously working the machinery, and scanning the environment (which is why most of us first drive a car in an empty car-park). It is essential to be clear which is the brake and which the accelerator and when to use each, and at first this must be done consciously.

In this view the teaching on ethics is purely pragmatic. It need not be perfectly philosophically integrated with other aspects of the Buddhist worldview because the intention is merely to get a practitioner up to speed on how to approach practice. Once they are practising effectively the question of how to behave is less of an issue since mindfulness and empathy become the best guides to how we treat other people. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mystify these qualities and put them on a pedestal where they seem out of reach. But every human being has mindfulness and empathy in abundance. Being social animals we are evolved to treat our peers and colleagues well under most circumstances. One of the main reasons we might not is that we are brutalised by living unnatural lifestyles in large, over-crowded, industrialised, urban societies. Evolution works over 10,000s of generations, whereas we have utterly changed our living environments in a matter of 10,000 years resulting in a certain amount of confusion.

We are usually taught that Buddhism is a smoothly integrated whole, but that is an illusion created by pedagogues. Once one moves out of the spotlight of ideas that teachers wish to highlight (for whatever reason) one almost immediately encounters matter which does not fit whatever paradigm one is working with. I suggest that ethics remained a separate department that was never fully integrated into Buddhism. This statement may elicit surprise from many who see ethics as central to Buddhism, but in Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics I tried to show why this might be so. In that essay I concluded:
"In the face of the plurality of doctrine, usually the best we can do is select a subset of the teachings that hang together and gloss over the discontinuities. A dense and complex jargon combined with an anti-intellectual discourse helps us to obfuscate such problems. Even those who study the texts more directly are doing so through cultural and historical lens that predispose them to see unity and continuity and to gloss over evidence of the opposite."
I find it difficult to take in the vast sweep of Buddhist ideas across time and space. It's a vast and complex field of study. Most of us can only take in a small part of it. Most Buddhists are probably happy with their little subset of comfort and/or inspiration. Exploration is within strict limits defined by confirmation bias (which recall is a feature of reason and not a bug). Texts are authoritative to the extent they confirm our views and are myth/legend/metaphor/interpolations to the extent that they disconfirm our views. We're easily disconcerted, much like the author of the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta and all too willing to plaster over any cracks that appear. But to me the cracks are the interesting part.

One of the advantages of study is that it helps to identify where we are comfortable and where we are uncomfortable. It can help identify assumptions and presumptions. The kinds of disconnects I'm identifying are hard to see because they are cracks that previous generations have plastered over. They're mostly unwelcome because they force us to consider that our religion is less than perfect and that is an uncomfortable feeling. But the truth is important if sometimes unpalatable and discomfort is the starting point of the Buddhist religion.


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