27 November 2015


It was ten years ago yesterday that I started this blog. This is essay no.447. I was going to write a review and reminiscence of the years, but frankly this turned out to be a boring task that did not interest me. So here instead is another essay exploring Buddhist doctrines. It seems more relevant to celebrate ten years of writing by more writing in the inquisitive and skeptical mode that I hope characterises my project/object. 

We all have "Ah ha" moments. I enjoy it when some new piece of information lights up my mind and makes me reassess what I know. I'm lucky enough to have experienced this many times. There is a process of reorganising that goes on. In some cases, it can go on for years. One of these occurred for me in 2006. I was newly ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and went to attend some lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich at SOAS, in London. These later became a book, but hearing the professor talk us through the various arguments that he was making and having the opportunity to ask him questions at the end of each lecture was invaluable. I wish every non-fiction book I read came with 10 hours of the author talking about it and available to answer questions.

Now I realise that I was ignorant at the time and it is slightly embarrassing to admit this, but during one of the lectures Professor Gombrich said something about dharmas being the object of the manas or mind sense. As we know the early Buddhists saw cognition (vijñāna) as a function of this mind sense, as just as the eye sense (cakṣu-indriya) has form (rūpa) as its object (alambana), so the manas has dharmas as its object. I must have heard this at some stage, but for some reason it hadn't registered. When I heard Prof. Gombrich say it a light-bulb came on. To repeat: dharmas are the object of the manas. This is perhaps the single most important axiom of Buddhist doctrine that I know. It is vital to keep this in mind. 

Dharmas are the object of the manasIt is dharmas that arise in dependence on conditions. Conditionality, first and foremost, refers to this.
One of the first insights that came to me on the basis of gaining this understanding was that when we say "things arise in dependence on conditions", by "things" we actually mean dharmas. It is dharmas that arise and cease. Later, I realised that dharmas don't arise in the mind because Buddhist texts lack the metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER. Dharmas are cognized by the manas, but not in the manas. Dharmas arise in the experiential world, loka. This is a subtle point, but quite important when we are trying to understand the Buddhadharma from the point of view of early Buddhists.

The fact that it is dharmas qua mental objects that arise in dependence on conditions, rather than anything more substantial, is central to making sense of many other Buddhist teachings. For example, the trilakṣana or "three marks" apply to dharmas. In other words, when we say "All conditioned things are impermanent", again by "things" we mean dharmas. And dharmas are conditioned because they only arise when a sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) meet giving rise to sense cognition (vijñāna). And this brings us to the so-called unconditioned dharmas.

There is an experience one can have, relatively easily I gather, in which all sense experience and all mental experience stops. By cultivating the meditations known as arūpāyatana (sometimes called the higher- or arūpa- dhyānas) one comes to experience emptiness (suññatā) as it is defined in the Pāḷi Canon (see especially MN 121, 122). Compare also the Buddha's experience described in my 2008 essay Communicating the Dharma. As I understand it, if there is no sense or mental experience then technically no dharmas are arising or ceasing in this state. Mental activity (and therefore karma) has ceased while one is in this state. It is also sometimes called a "temporary liberation of the mind" (sāmāyika cetovimutti) to distinguish it from states of liberation that are thought to be permanent (I'll return to the issue of permance shortly). It may also be called nirodha-samāpatti "attainment of cessation", or  saññā-vedayita-nirodha "cessation of sensations and perceptions".

This experience of cessation threw up a major problem with Theravāda solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance. Linking actions to temporally distance consequences required an unbroken stream of mental events. But the most obvious interpretation of the experience of cessation is that dharmas stop arising. This would interrupt the connection and destroy the mechanism of karma. When they thought about it, sleep also posed the same problem. In order to preserve karma the Theravādins had to invent a whole new type of dharma called the bhavaṅgacitta that arose to fill the gap in mental events during cessation or sleep, but remained unconscious so as not to spoil cessation (by arising into awareness). Compare my description of this problem in Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda. Yogācārins, who also accepted the Doctrine of Momentariness as a solution to Action at a Temporal Distance also had to bridge this discontinuity. They did this with an invented entity called ālayavijñāna. Unlike the bhavaṅgcitta this new entity is constantly present in all mental events as a kind of background to awareness, a solution that brings its own problems because the ālayavijñāna starts to look eternal. Both bhavaṅgacitta and ālayavijñāna are ad hoc solutions solely designed to maintain continuity and neither really achieves their aim.

It seems to be this experience of cessation that unlocks the insights sought by Buddhists. Vedantins also cultivate these kinds of states and what seems to distinguish them from Buddhists is that Vedantins take the experience of emptiness to be an absolute. Or, they might say, that in a state of emptiness one is in contact with the absolute, with Brahman. By contrast, Buddhists, on the whole, reject absolutes except in one interesting case: asaṃskṛta-dharma.

Asaṃskṛta Dharma

In an almost hackneyed passage from the Udāna, the Buddha says:
atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. no cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha.
There is [something that is] unborn, unreal, unmade, unconditioned. If there were not, it would not be possible to understand escape from [something that is] born, real, made, conditioned. 
In Pāḷi the words jāta, bhūta, kata, and saṅkhata (born, real, made, conditioned) are all past participles acting as adjectives of something unspecified. The ambiguous nature of the sentence makes it perfect for Romantic projections, but very difficult to actually understand. Another related adjective is amata 'deathless' which is equivalent to ajāta, only focussing on the other aspect of repeated death and rebirth. Buddhists appear to have decided that the unspecified something being described here was a dharma, and that this dharma was nirvāna. But nirvāna cannot simply arise and pass away like other dharmas. So Buddhists said that nirvāṇa is not conditioned, i.e. asaṃskṛta (Pali asaṅkhata), which means that it does not, it cannot, arise and pass away. Clearly if nirvāna could cease, that would be a major problem for the mythology of Buddhism as it would make nirvāṇa a temporary experience like any other experience. Having attained, or obtained, nirvāṇa, a Buddha must always have it. In fact as my last essay points out this permanence itself became a problem for the Mahāyānist religion. 

But an asaṃskṛta dharma is really very deeply problematic. If there are no conditions for the arising of the dharma and we argue that it has been cognized by the Buddha, then it must always be present which in the Buddhist worldview means that it exists as a permanent entity. So already we have something eternal. However, eternality is forbidden by axiom. It is also logically inconsistent for any dharma to be eternal. That is simply not how our minds work. The importance of the insights into dharmas qua mental events, is that they are constantly arising and passing away. The Kaccānagotta Sutta points out that "real" or "unreal" (astitā or nāstitā) in this context are meaningless terms, precisely because a dharma that arises cannot be permanently non-existent and a dharma that ceases cannot be permanently existent. Neither permanent existence (i.e. realness) nor permanent non-existence can possibly apply to dharmas. And yet, here we are, with a permanently existing dharma at the heart of Buddhist doctrine in a glaring apparent contradiction. Worse, if we do not have a permanently existing dharma then the entire mythology of Buddhism collapses.

Another way of looking at the problem is that dharmas are the objects of the manas. Another axiom of Buddhist psychology is that mental events occur one at a time: one citta follows another citta. So if a dharma is asaṃskṛta it must always be present or always be absent from our experiential world. But if we allow the existence of a mental event which is always present, then it constantly takes up that single slot in the manas. An asaṃskṛta dharma can neither arise nor cease. Thus if it exists, then it must always exist. If it exists we must be aware of it to the exclusion of all else. If it doesn't exist it is irrelevant. If there were an asaṃskṛta dharma only two possibilities exist: we would only ever be aware of that one dharma to the exclusion of everything else; or we would never be aware of it. This same logic pervades the writing of Nāgārjuna with respect to svabhāva.

If we argue that we might not be aware of the existence of an asaṃskṛta dharma, then this is a simple contradiction. To be unaware of a dharma (mental event) is the same as it not being cognized and this is tantamount to saying that it has ceased and been replaced by another mental event arising; or that it has not arisen. A dharma is a dharma because it is cognized. According to the universally accepted model of the mind, without cognition nothing arises. This is also an argument against the possibility of the bhavaṅgacitta - a mental even that is not cognized is a contradiction in terms. 

This means also that any kind of argument along the lines of nirvāṇa being obscured by adventitious defilements is also a logical contradiction. Obscured here, with reference to dharmas means did not arise. And if tathāgatagarbha is not a dharma then what is it? So the ideology of Tathāgatagarbha is caught in a logical inconsistency, which leads to this kind of circular logic: If there is a tathāgatagarbha and we are not aware of it right now and always, then there is not a tathāgatagarbha

We might argue that it can work if the dharma has a permanent existence that is independent of any mind. But this contradicts the very definition of dharmas as the objects of the manas. Additionally an unchanging permanently existing real object independent of the mind would create problems for the universe. How would an unchanging entity interact with a constantly changing world? Interaction is change, so interaction would be impossible. This may be why some modern Vedantins, perhaps under the influence of Sāṃkhyadarśana, deny freewill. If you believe in absolute being in any sense, then the logical conclusion is that all change is mere illusion. Under these conditions there can be no freewill because it would contradict the fundamental assumptions the worldview is based on. we begin to see why the early Buddhists were right to reject any kind of absolute being. It's a philosophical disaster. Absolute being wrecks everything and results in a kind of nonsense world, where everything interesting is just a trick of perception. 

But if an asaṃskṛta dharma is a wrecking ball in Buddhist metaphysics, why on earth would they have adopted one (or three in the Vaibhāṣikavāda)? I'm not sure I understand this, but I have some preliminary thoughts. Firstly, of course, they were trying to use their simple philosophy to explain the experience of cessation. But as well as temporary cessation some early Buddhists experienced a seemingly permanent transformation of their minds. In mythic terms they wanted to see the Buddha , the anthropomorphic face of this transformation, as having crossed a threshold from which there was no coming back. And since their goal, in common with most, if not all, North Indians at the time was to end rebirth. If the Buddha had succeeded in his goal that would involve, at the very least, the end of rebirth. This quality the Buddha attained was at first hailed as his greatest success, though for Mahāyānists it was his greatest failure, because it left them without a saviour. 

In an experiential world in which everything changes, there is no possibility of a irreversible change. If everything changes, then reversibility is always a possibility. Thus if nirvāṇa were to involve an irreversible change, then necessarily something non-changing had to be introduced into the mix. That doing so broke Buddhist metaphysics was probably a consideration, but I imagine it seemed like the lesser of two weevils. By introducing an asaṃkṛta dharma, the early Buddhists opened up the possibility of a permanent change. This enabled them to have an afterlife which mimicked some features of the Brahmanical afterlife, i.e. ending rebirth, without explicitly committing them to absolute being. 

To get around absolute being, the early Buddhists argued that questions about the afterlife of someone who had experienced nirvāṇa, i.e. "someone in that state" (tathā-gata), had to remain unanswered or undifferentiated (avyākṛta). The early Buddhist position was that there was no way to know something that was absolute - for the reasons outlined above. Later Buddhists also rejected this axiom. When Kūkai returned from China with Tantric teachings one of the roadblocks he struck was his claim that the teachings came from the dharmakāya, personified as Mahāvairocana. At that time, in line with Mahāyāna orthodoxy, the Japanese mainstream considered the dharmakāya to be "formless, imageless, voiceless, and totally beyond conceptualisation" (Hakeda 1972: 82). They saw the dharmakāya as an absolutely transcendent state of being (rather like the Brahmanical brahman in fact). Because of this, they understood that no direct communication was possible. Kūkai set about undermining this by pointing to existing scriptural passages in which the dharmakāya Buddha does communicate and eventually won over the majority and went on to hold the highest post in the imperial government's ecclesiastical hierarchy. Absolutes are poison to Buddhist philosophy and practice.


So this idea of asaṃskṛta dharmas, although in some ways essential to Buddhism, is actually illogical and unworkable. It creates more problems than it solves. In our times the idea of unconditioned dharmas almost inevitably comes to be treated as an absolute: The Unconditioned (with definite article and capital letters). We have the same problem in the Triratna Community now with Sangharakshita's new take on dhammaniyāma, it has quickly replaced The Unconditioned to become The Dhammaniyāma. Lord, help us. 

As convert Buddhists we are expected to take up certain articles of faith. We have to accept, first and foremost, that  Buddhism does not require us to take up articles of faith (!); that karma creates a just world; that the afterlife in which this justice is enacted involves rebirth; that the sequence of lives is supposedly like one thought arising after another (or at least that the same model applies in both domains); that the Buddha achieved a kind of permanent transformation not reproduced by anyone we'll ever meet; and that certain nonsense propositions such as asaṃskṛta-dharmas are in fact sense. The first article makes it almost impossible to talk about the others because they are not really acknowledged for what they are. To give up or reject these articles of faith is to risk being expelled from the friendly and compassionate embrace of the religious community. Many converts are assiduous in learning the rhetoric with which these articles of faith are defended (I know I was). Some quite sophisticated arguments have been developed over the years and these can be deftly wielded by adepts to win arguments. But winning arguments about Buddhist doctrine is a pyrrhic victory.

It's a bit like the emperors new clothes. No one wants to be thought an idiot, so they go along with saying that they can see the fine new garments the emperor is wearing. To even admit that we don't understand something like asaṃskṛta-dharmas is to risk being looked down on by those who pretend to understand. To actively say that a central doctrine of Buddhism does not make sense sets off a whole new layer of defences in those who believe Buddhism makes sense of everything. Sceptics learn the meaning of peer-pressure. It has taken me many years of research and writing to get to a position where I feel confident about expressing my doubts and the consequences of doing so. I'm fortunate to have a small group of like-minded friends I can talk openly with about these issues.

I would like to say that I believe these articles of faith are being unravelled, but I don't think this is the case yet. Those who are questioning the traditional articles of faith are often merely replacing them with more acceptable articles of faith. Most are silenced by direct or indirect peer pressure. Apologists for traditional Buddhism are stepping up their efforts to preserve the faith and these śraddhāpālas are often able to exploit positions of power and influence within organisations to ensure that their followers fall into line. And underneath it all we want Buddhism to be right. Just like religieux everywhere, like human beings everywhere, we want certainty, absolute certainty.

What I'm saying is that we won't find it in the doctrines of Buddhism, which were broken from the start. I'm truly sorry about this, it was a wonderful dream while it lasted. And it's clear that the Buddhists of ca 200 BCE - 400 CE knew this and were scrambling to salvage Buddhism from its own incoherence. They patched something together, but it's not the raft that will take across the ocean.



Hakeda, Y.S. (1972) Kūkai, Major works: Translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York: Columbia University Press.
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