25 February 2016

Body Metaphors

Portrait of Vesalius from
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
In a recent essay, Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation (22 Jan 2016), I mentioned the work of pioneering medical researcher Hans Selye (1907 – 1982). He was the first person to describe a generalised response to injury or disease which he termed stress. His name cropped up in the book I've been reading, Mark Johnson's The Body in the Mind. That book had already sparked one other essay on the fundamentals of thought and metaphor: Image Schemas, Metaphor, and Thought (8 Jan 2016). So Johnson's ideas have provided me with rich pickings so far. This essay draws on the same few pages in The Body in the Mind as the rumination essay. Johnson argues that Selye's discovery was not merely an advance in medical science and treatment of disease, but introduced a change in the paradigm (my word) of how we think about the body. According to Johnson, Selye moved,
"... from one dominant metaphorical grasp of the situation, namely BODY AS MACHINE (and thus not organic or homoeostatic), to a novel understanding, that of the BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM. (Johnson 1987: 127)
In this essay I want to take this idea of a change in the underlying metaphor of how we think of the body, place it in a different, broader context, and try to say what it means for how we understand the body, i.e. our own bodies. This essay assumes that the reader is familiar with the concepts of images schemas and with Lakoff and Johnson's theory of metaphor. 

In this view metaphors are not the flowery ornamentation that a poet or orator uses to spice up their spiel. Metaphors are a fundamental aspect of thought that allow us to understand one domain in terms of another. As such metaphors are essential to abstract thought. The source domain is usually grounded in bodily experience. The metaphors that we use for a domain of knowledge place constraints on the inferences we can make in that domain. Metaphors structure our understanding. They are shaped by, but also actively shape, the way that we think about any given subject. Johnson's argument here is that Selye made a leap that opened up a whole new vista for thinking about the body and medicine precisely because the leap involved a new metaphor. His observations forced him to consider a different view of the body that could not be expressed in the existing BODY AS MACHINE metaphor.

I will begin by sketching out in broad brush-strokes how views of the body have changed, looking at some cultural phenomena that could only have emerged in their own era as an illustration of how metaphors structure our understanding. Finally I'll note that, despite paradigm shifts, old metaphors linger and shape our understanding long after the philosophers change their minds about something.

The Pre-Enlightenment Body.

Some initial thoughts about how we conceived of our bodies in pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment Europe can be found in two previous essays: Metaphors and Materialism. (26 Apr 2013), which also references the work of Lakoff and Johnson on metaphors; and Spiritual I: The Life's Breath.  (06 June 2014) which looks at how Vitalism has influenced our ideas of what life is.

Mind/body dualism is often ascribed to Descartes, but in my opinion it goes back to the dawn of human intelligence. Ancient theories of the body involved a pronounced dualistic outlook in which matter is cold, lifeless, dull, solid, heavy, and inflexible; and spirit is warm, vital, bright, translucent, light, and changeable. Value was very much identified with spirit, which survived the death of the body and granted the person immortality (either immediately or after some time) - this is one of the essential bases of religion (see The Complex Phenomenon of Religion 25 Sep 2015). While the body was a special kind of matter, i.e. meat (from an Old English word meaning "food") or flesh, it was still not valued. Indeed under Christianity, all value is based in the afterlife, in everlasting life in heaven, with God. The body in this view is merely a container for the soul. Interest in the body in the ancient world tended to focus on the location of the soul or spirit and with the circulation of breath or vital energy that enlivened the matter of the body. In Greek myth, Prometheus, infuses clay with fire to make living humans. In Christian myth breathes life into inert matter. In the story of Pinocchio the vivifying force is magic. Even vivified, the matter that makes up the body is base and unattractive, and this led to a harsh attitude to the body.

In the Christian and Muslim worlds, punishments routinely involved torture, mutilation, or drawn out deaths and sometimes still do. Extreme punishments like being hung, drawn, and quartered (i.e. hung till mostly dead, followed by being disembowelled, and then pulled apart by horses) were not only inflicted, but were a kind of public entertainment. There's a gruesome depiction of such an event at the beginning of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish for anyone with a strong stomach.

The ancient Greeks, like the ancient Indians, seem to have had no clear idea what any of the internal organs did. Indeed they came up with fanciful guesses at the functions of the internal organs. Their guesses were outrageously and often hilariously wrong, though of course it's wrong to laugh at them because they were doing their best (and because some people still believe in those guesses). For example, the heart was considered to be the seat of emotions or intelligence, though these functions have also been attributed to the liver. Until quite recently no society associated the brain with thought. And so on.

In addition the Greeks invented a theory that the disposition of the person was due to the circulation of four humours (Greek χυμός, chymos (literally, "juice" or "sap"): blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The humours could be characterised as wet or dry and as cool or warm. Blood for example was warm and wet. Black bile cool and wet. The revival of interest in Greece during the renaissance led to Arabs and Europeans taking up this humour theory again. Medical procedures like blood-letting were common when this was the paradigm. As in ancient China and India, Greek medical knowledge was not based on observation, but worked from a theory and tried to fit observations to it. It suffered hugely from confirmation bias. In fact a lot of the time medical practices based on this theory must have slowed healing and even hastened death.

Now textbooks will tell you that these theories have been replaced by more modern theories. But a good deal of the language, imagery and particularly metaphors associated with humours survive in English. Many people still talk as though their emotions are located their heart. Our heart's still fill with joy" or are "heavy with sorrow" for example. We still use images of the heart to symbolise love and affection. Words for dispositions like phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, and melancholic are still in current use to some extent (mostly in literature these days). We still describe a peevish person as "bilious"; something that is exasperating as "galling".

From this archaic worldview we also a number of surviving superstitions. One of the most common is that being cold and wet gives rise to illness, causing one to "catch a chill". This is based on the idea that cool and wet in the environment affect the humours causing an abundance of black bile (cool, wet). The idea is given credence by numerous popular culture references - actors in films and television often get soaked and before a few minutes have passed they are already sneezing with sinusitis. Despite the completely wrong-headed rationale and the complete lack of evidence of efficacy, medieval medical practices from India (āyur-veda, "life-knowledge") and China (acupuncture) remain extremely popular New Age treatments for disease. They are especially popular for diseases in which the medical profession is not proficient in diagnosing and treating, which includes many of the stress related illnesses.

So the fact that metaphors in the medical profession did change, with a consequent change in how disease was viewed and treated, does not mean that the metaphors necessarily died out. Sometimes they are like zombies and keep crashing about the intellectual landscape eating brains. Another of my essays on Vitalism, for example, referred to it as the philosophy that would not die.

The Enlightenment Body is a Machine.

With the Enlightenment, some people in Europe started paying attention to the world around them and discarding theories which were based on the ancient guesses of the Greeks (and others). Some of the early successes came in the field of astronomy. Observation gave rise to a new worldview: heliocentric rather than earth-centric. And the motions of the heavenly bodies were discovered to be described by relatively simple mathematical formulas. At the same time engineering was achieving new heights: stronger, lighter materials, allowed the instantiation of designs that would previously have been impossible. The invention of the steam engine in particular not only changed the industrial landscape, but captured the public imagination. The "engine" became a new source domain to make metaphors with. Out of this emerged the new metaphor: BODY AS MACHINE. It was accompanied by the metaphor: UNIVERSE AS MACHINE, but that's another story.

A machine is a contrivance made up of mechanisms that uses an external power source to do work. The BODY AS MACHINE metaphor gave rise to new theories of medicine in which internal organs did particular jobs. For example the heart is a pump; it pumps blood through pipes. This view of the body gave rise to the lesion theory of disease. In this view disease is localised and specific. A disease indicates that one of the mechanisms has gone wrong (but it still has little or no basis in biochemistry). Specific injuries lead to specific symptoms, so diagnosis is about identifying the most significant symptom and ignoring other symptoms. Medicine is the art of identifying and excising damaged parts. Surgery takes off under this view, especially with the discovery of anaesthetics.

In this case it is quite clear that the metaphor is not just a product of the worldview. We don't take up a worldview and then spin metaphors to suit it. The metaphor is the worldview. The metaphor structures our understanding, limits the kind of inferences we can draw, and defines the kind of actions we take in response to knowledge. The BODY AS MACHINE metaphor is an essence aspect of a mechanistic worldview.

One of the phenomena that emerged from this metaphor was Frankenstein's monster: a being made from bits and pieces of dead bodies and (re)vitalised, at least in the movies, by electricity. In fact Mary Shelly based her story on the Prometheus myth, but seen through the lens of the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor. Frankenstein's monster, assembled not from clay, but from body parts scavenged from various corpses, is only possible if the body is a machine, the parts and mechanisms and the external energy source is electricity. The identification of electricity with the vital spirit was a parallel development. Vitalism was undermined by the mechanistic worldview, but those to whom the idea of Vitalism appeals are extremely adept at adapting to circumstances and finding new gaps into which the spirit can fit. 

However, once again, just because philosophers and medical professionals have moved on, does not mean that the public has followed them. Both stories, Pinocchio and Frankenstein, are popular favourites constantly reprinted and rehashed (For example the story I, Robot, a 1951 book by Isaac Asimov and 2004 film starring Will Smith). The popular imagination still seems to see the body in dualistic terms. The idea of turning dead matter into a living being is one that continues to fascinate people, so that even quite crude stories that deal with the issue are fairly popular. Artificial intelligence continues to fascinate the public and researchers alike, because it seems to be the next iteration of the myth.

Hans Selye started out with the BODY AS MACHINE paradigm. He was researching the effects of sex-hormones. He would grind up ovaries and placenta and inject extracts into rats and observe what effect this had on the organs of the rat. What he found was a pattern of physiological changes that was the same whatever he injected the rats with. This ran deeply counter to the lesion theory of disease in which specific diseases caused specific symptoms. His aim was to identify the specific effects of specific sex hormones, but if every sex hormone caused the same symptoms this was incomprehensible in the existing paradigm. At first he thought that he must be failing to isolate the responsible compound. He tried using extracts of other endocrine glands and was dismayed to find exactly the same cluster of symptoms. Eventually he twigged that there was a general, non-specific reaction to the injury caused by the injection of foreign matter into the body: inflammation in particular. He changed his research topic to investigate this generalised response.

In permitting himself to think of a non-specific, non-localised response to injury as such, Selye broke out of the strictures entailed in the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor. For the body to have a non-localised response to a specific injury it could not be a machine, it must be something else. Today we would call this something else a "system" or an "organism".

The Body as Organism.

Although Selye's discovery of the generalised stress response was made in early 20th Century, it was not until his older contemporary, Walter B Cannon (1871 – 1945), published his book The Wisdom of the Body (1932) that the change was cemented. It was Cannon who introduced the idea of homoeostasis, i.e. systems which is feedback to maintain an equilibrium. In this new view it was realised that the body was made up of a number of interacting systems that had evolved to keep the internal milieu of the body within certain limits. For example the body can operate optimally only in a fairly narrow range of temperatures, i.e. ca. 37 ± 0.5 °C. We have processes to warm the body up and processes to cool the body down. Both operate at the same time and work together to keep the body at an optimum temperature whatever the ambient temperature around us is. This idea of homoeostasis is what made sense of Selye's discoveries. He was interacting with homoeostatic processes in his rat victims. The injuries he caused initiated general responses such as inflammation. The image schema underlying homoeostasis is one of balancing opposing forces, as discussed in Johnson (1987: 80ff). And this image schema allowed us to use the metaphor BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM.

In this view, life is a system of feedback mechanisms that respond to an energy gradient. Most life now uses the energy gradient caused by sunlight falling on the surface of the earth. However, a recent theory plausibly suggests that life got started around deep sea thermal vents where hydrogen gas and methane bubble up through fractured rocks into cold sea water creating an energy gradient that enables hydrogen to react with carbon-dioxide dissolved in the water to produce organic compounds. (For more on this theory see this article or this video)

Identifying the body as an organism, involving a number of interacting homoeostatic processes, enabled the medical profession to recognise diseases through a clusters of symptoms instead of focussing on one defining symptom. The far reaches of this are the syndromes – regular clusters of symptoms that are recognised, but for which there is no known cause or treatment (other than relief of symptoms).

One phenomenon that emerged out of this new metaphor was James Lovelock's idea of Gaia, i.e. the biosphere of the earth as a coherent collection of homoeostatic processes that changed the conditions on the surface of the earth so that it was more conducive to life, and hold it in that state through feedback processes. Chemical and biological processes, for example, keep the temperatures stable and in the sweet zone for the chemistry that is the substrate for life (i.e. carbon compounds suspended in liquid water). Biological processes also keep the level of oxygen steady at a much higher level than inorganic chemical processes alone could achieve. When this oxygen first started appearing as a waste product of certain types of metabolism, it was toxic to most life. Fortunately certain types of bacteria evolved that could metabolise corrosive oxygen; and even more fortunately some of these organisms when on to form a permanent symbiotic relationship with other organisms giving rise to complex cells with mitochondria.

Another area of modern life dominated by the metaphor of the homoeostatic organism is economics. Mainstream economists model the economy in which processes like supply and demand tend produce equilibriums in, for example, prices. Disruptions to that equilibrium are termed "shocks" another term adopted by Cannon. Heterodox economists argue that the economy ought not to be modelled on an organism, but instead be treated as a complex inorganic system, such as climate, using the mathematics developed for predicting the weather and other complex phenomena. However, as Lovelock has showed, on earth climate is not simply a complex inorganic process, it is a homoeostatic process in which living things play an important role in keeping the atmosphere in a state that is conducive to life. So perhaps equilibrium theory is not so bad after all.


I've tried to show how metaphors for understanding our own bodies have changed over time. No doubt this broad brush-stroke picture is over simplified and a lot more could be said about the body. The idea was to show that the metaphor theory is applicable to the body and provides us with some insight into how we understand ourselves. An important point to try to emphasise is that this theory is not one of metaphor as ornamentation, but of metaphor as fundamental to how we structure our worlds based on experience. 
"Understanding is not simply a matter of belief. It emerges out of embodiment – of perceptual mechanisms, patterns of discrimination, motor programs and various bodily skills. And it is equally a matter of our embeddedness within culture, language, institutions, and historical traditions." (Johnson 1987: 137)
The metaphor  BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM doesn't simply open up new ways of thinking about the body, it requires new ways of thinking and at the same time places new limits on how we understand the body. It changes the way we interpret experience and the inferences we draw from what we know from experience. The metaphor structures our understanding. 
The key point in all of this is that the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor was not merely an isolated belief; rather it was a massive experiential structuring that involved values, interests, goals, practices, and theorising. (Johnson 1987: 130)
So this change is non-trivial. It constitutes a revolution, the consequences of which are still being played out in the daily lives of people around the world. The embodied cognition theory of metaphor helps us understand firstly, that this is a revolution, and secondly the importance and dynamics of intellectual revolutions.

Some metaphors don't work, because any given image schema does not map onto all possible target domains. This places constraints on how metaphors apply and the kinds of inferences that we can draw. We don't think of the body as a path for example. We do think of the body as a container. The path image schema doesn't map onto the body easily. Within the body we do have nerve pathways, and blood vessels can sometimes function as a pathway also. Abstractly we have metabolic pathways. But the body itself does fit the schema. Therefore abstractions such as "arriving at a conclusion" don't work with the body. Journey metaphors don't really work for the body. They can work for a person. A person may be on a journey of discovery for example. But the body isn't. However, within these limits there is a great deal of freedom. Once the mapping is established, for example IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, then any operation applicable to objects may be applied to ideas. So discovering a new metaphor opens up a whole new dimension for thinking about any subject. 

One of the entailments of the metaphor BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM is the idea that processes have a purpose. The state of equilibrium becomes the purpose of the organism. The notion of purpose has a huge influence on how we understand our world. Things have purposes. Living things also have a purpose. Many people believe that animals purpose is to be food for people. From an evolutionary perspective organisms occupy niches in ecosystems, which are homoeostatic systems encompassing an area and all the living things in it. Each species, by following its purpose, contributes in some way to the ecosystem. Most humans are happier if they think they are contributing to some higher purpose. One of the successes of religion is that it provides a purpose which unifies and guides the activities of large groups of people. This idea is explored by Ara Norenzayan in his book Big Gods (2013).

States of equilibrium are common images in Buddhism. Nirvāṇa is sometimes characterised as a state of equanimity in which the forces of attraction and repulsion that we experience in relation to sense objects are nullified, leaving the individual in a balanced state (upekṣā) that is impervious to external shocks. If one is not susceptible to the forces of attraction and repulsion then one has attained stability.

This kind of analysis of how we use metaphors opens up important new ways of understanding ourselves and how we understand ourselves. Metaphors are not arbitrary, but they are changeable. If we think of argument as war, to take an example from Lakoff & Johnson (2003), then our approach to discussion may well be very different than if we think of it as a dance.

Recently the metaphor THE BRAIN IS A COMPUTER has become quite popular. It is not the only metaphor, but we tend to understand ourselves in terms of the most sophisticated technology to hand. No doubt in the stone age, people characterised themselves as flint cores that are shaped by the napping of experience until they are fully formed and sharp edged in their prime. But this also means that with age they become less sharp and eventually have to be discarded. In the 1970s Elton John declared himself to be a "rocket man". Nowadays the computer seems like a promising schema. Although to my mind nature makes a better model for computing than the other way around! Quantum mechanics has provided some notable metaphors, but casual users almost always misunderstand what the metaphors represent - for example the "observer" in the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment is not a person, but any physical interaction with another particle (See Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics).

This meta-knowledge about the influence of metaphors on how we think may enable us to choose what metaphors we use to describe our lives and our actions. There are as yet very few explorations of the metaphors used in Buddhist texts, and none that I know of that look at how Buddhism is presented in modern terms. As much as I could wish for a really thoroughgoing, excoriating critique of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, I think it might be even more interesting to set out the principle metaphors what we use and what that entails for us. Once we understand that the metaphors we use to structure our understanding, then we might be able to adapt how we talk about Buddhism to make our discussions more apposite.



Cannon, W. B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body. New York, Norton.

Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981].

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press.

19 February 2016

Against Merciful Lies

I recently responded to a blog post by Amod Lele (On the Very Idea of Buddhist Ethics) and the point I made was taken up by Elisa Freschi on her blog (Buddhist morality and merciful lies). My original point was that there is a disconnect between karma and anātman, which is not a new theme for me (If there is no self, who is responsible for what actions?). 

I was struck by this phrase "merciful lies", which is Elisa's rendition of the Sanskrit term kauśalyopāya, usually translated as "skilful means", as it applies to telling the truth. The idea of a lie told for your own good is not found in Pāḷi Nikāya (or to my knowledge in the Āgamas either). The Buddha of the Nikāyas does not deceive anyone, for any reason. In Mahāyānsim, this idea of a well-meaning deception "for your own good" is strongly associated with the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or Lotus Sutra (lit. The Lotus of the Good Dharma). In this sūtra we find the parable of the burning house. The world is described as a house that is on fire. We, the unenlightened, are portrayed as children playing with our toys inside the burning house and we are reluctant to leave the house because we are too busy with our toys. The Buddha is portrayed as a father who calls to his children, and when they refuse to respond, he lies to them about having marvellous new toys for them outside. The children run outside expecting toys, but the father gathers them up and puts them in his cart and drives off rescuing them from death. 

I find this repugnant for all kinds of reasons. But on Elisa's blog my argument was lost in the noise, so I'd like to restate it and expand on it here. To my mind there are three main arguments against merciful lies. Firstly the scenario itself is stupid and offensive; secondly there's no need to construct a religion which lies to us, either on historical or moral grounds; and thirdly we all need to take responsibility for our actions and merciful lies by authority figures undermines this imperative.

The Scenario is Stupid. 

The parable of the burning house is just that, a parable. It's a hyperbolic rhetorical device meant to make a broader point through a simple analogy: we are like stupid children; the Buddha is like our wise Daddy. And on this basis many people might urge me to tolerance and understanding. They tend to do this when I complain about myths and legends. After all, the parable is widely admired and repeated, and even praised by the founder of my Order. My response is this: Has anyone actually thought about the intent of this so-called parable? Why, for example, would anyone embrace a parable that casts them as a idiot child, with not even enough sense to get out of a burning building? Who hears this parable and nods in ascent, "Yes, I'm so very stupid, that I need a father figure to look after me"? Well, who, apart from Christians, Muslims, and conservatives. One wonders at the appeal of this scenario in a post-Christian, anti-patriarchal Feminist and Freudian influenced, convert Buddhism milieu. And yet this is one of the most popular stories in a wildly popular text. Whole international sects are dedicated to this one text. This means that thousands of people tacitly accept that we're all really, really stupid and wise Daddy-in-the-Sky (aka Lord Buddha) needs to deceive us to save us from our stupid selves. If we even are selves, but don't get me started on that.

Or is it that we hear the parable, look around us at other people and ascent to their incredible death-defying stupidity? How stupid do we think other people are? I can imagine a priest taking this kind of view, especially the Buddhist sort because laypeople treat them with such exaggerated, sycophantic respect. If you're a bhikkhu, I suppose, laypeople probably do look pretty stupid as they bow at your feet. It's certainly an advantage to a priest for their flock to think him wise and themselves as stupid. But experience suggests this is unlikely to be the case. The priest is as likely to be an alcoholic or child abuser as he is to be wise. Most of them are just ordinary. How many disastrous scandals involving naive people giving up their power and individuality to sociopathic priests do we need before we start questioning this "Father knows best" attitude that they promote? The supposedly stupid lay person is often much wiser than we might otherwise give them credit for. Most of us converts got interested in Buddhism because of a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the mainstream, which is the beginning of wisdom. For many, meeting Buddhism is also the end of wisdom, because they drop one set of superstitions only to take up another set. 

I am among the first to rail against society and write apocalyptic social commentary. I see many problems in society. I see many stupid things going on. Many people making stupid decisions. I sometimes despair at how badly run our world is. But I am fundamentally optimistic about humanity. I don't particularly like most people, but I don't generally think of them as stupid. Most people are ignorant, even the educated, but this is not the same thing as being stupid. An ignorant person can learn, a stupid person has no hope. Most of us are doing our best, but we don't have all the information or the skill set we need (and we're too busy working hard to acquire either). Politicians generally speaking are a special kind of stupid, but they are a minority and we're talking about humanity in general. Even the people making stupid decisions are often doing so from the best of intentions, believing that they are doing the best thing. Truly stupid people are pretty rare. 

Many of us are figuring out how to be happy. Quite a few are studying happiness with a view to being more systematic about achieving it, which is precisely what we need to do. See for example this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, who tells us that happiness is all about having positive relationships and not at all about working hard. In an increasingly atomised society, this call to pay attention to your relationships looks almost radical. Spend face-time, not Facebook-time, with your loved ones, you'll live longer and be happier. There are plenty of other sensible things said these days on the subject of happiness. Of course some (but not all) of the Buddhists selling happiness are also happy, but, not everyone involved in this project is a Buddhist or responds positively to the religious myths of Buddhism. Secular mindfulness looks more useful and relevant to most people than most of the stuff I learned as a novice Buddhist. I kind of hope it takes over our initial offering of somewhat random meditation instruction and a weirdly eclectic potted history of Buddhism. Better that people do something helpful than learn a bunch of stuff they can't make sense of.

Of course mere temporal happiness is not the end of the story. There are even a handful of people I know who are exploring the higher reaches of liberation. It seems unlikely to me that I, or 99% of the Buddhists I know, will ever join that group. And this is where David Chapman's critique of renunciation-centred Buddhism gets interesting. The argument goes that if few of us are ever going to be able to practice renunciation to the kind of intensity required to make a difference, why continue to use it as the basis of our religious lives? Is there any point in renunciation becoming an end in itself (which it does throughout the Theravāda world)? My concern is that the pendulum might swing the other way. We live a society with deep problems related to obsessive consumption of resources. Problems of addiction, obesity, and heart disease. Problems of making the environment much less able to support life. A society where my local paper thinks it's both amazing and great (rather than obscene and disgusting) that a restaurant serves a 10,000 kcal meal (albeit for two people) - 10,000 calories would go a long way in a refugee camp about now, and goodness knows we have too many of those at the moment. A lot of people are hedonists already, either by temperament or as a kind of neurosis, and I think that renunciation might help put the breaks on this trend, whereas a turn towards experience might accelerate it. Admittedly this might sound as though I also think people are stupid. On the contrary I think our decisions are driven by many factors outside our control and that few people are equipped with the understanding of their situation or right tools to change. And this is my key point, tell people the merciful truth about their situation and it better equips them to save themselves. Tell them a lie and let them think that someone else will rescue them. Except that there is no Daddy-in-the-Sky coming to rescue us. Relying on a fantasy is worse than useless. 

In any case I see no need to demonise humanity and portray them as very stupid children that won't leave a burning building because they are playing with their toys. That's a very unpleasant viewpoint to take and it makes me wonder who benefits from it. And the answer seems to be "priests". Those with a vested interest in keeping us passive, stupid, and dependent. Those to whom some of us prostrate ourselves. In which case, the first step towards liberation is to liberate oneself from this position of bondage. I would not ape that awful Mahāyānist saying "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him". I would not say "Kill the priests", but we should at least start ignoring them or making fun of them. 

Buddhism Without Lies

In my explorations of Mahāyānism last year (esp. The Ambivalent Religion 20 Nov 2015) I proposed an alternative history of Mahāyānism. Indeed I argued that Mahāyānism, in its mature form, was effectively a different religion from what went before. The resemblances to Nikāya based Buddhism are merely superficial. The Mahāyānists employed different rhetoric, dogma, and religious exercises towards a different goal. One of the dynamics of the development of Buddhism after the advent of Mahāyānism was an increasingly magical worldview. 

In early Buddhism, (at least) some people are capable of liberating themselves and the Buddha is just a guide. The first Arahants achieve just what the Buddha did, he is pre-eminent because he did it first and alone. Later a gulf opens up between the Arahants and the Buddha. The example of this I have published about (Attwood 2014) involves a story about King Ajātasatthu. In the Pāḷi Samaññaphala Sutta, the Buddha is portrayed as being unable to help the parricidal king, Ajātasatthu. He just says to the monks, "The king is done for". However, in later Mahāyānist versions of the story the king is saved from the consequences of his actions by merely meeting the Buddha and talking with him. The Buddha becomes more and more godlike as time goes on, but equally, ordinary people seem to become more and more hapless. The standard Mahāyānist rhetoric is that it takes three incalculable aeons of practice to perfect the perfections and become a Buddha. So where ever you happen to be now, Buddhahood is an infinite number of lifetimes in the future. In other words utterly unattainable.

Many people still believe that the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya or "Heart Sutra" was created as a kind of epiphany of wisdom, a summary of the doctrine that could serve the guide the percipient reader to saṃbodhi. In fact the truth is a lot more prosaic than that. In all likelihood lines from existing texts were taken out of context, written on paper and worn as an amulet to ward of ill fortune and malevolent spirits, which is what the Prajñāpāramitā tradition promised after all: "write this down and you'll be protected from misfortune". Because people of that time and place probably did not believe that anyone could actually achieve saṃbodhi and thus protection from evil or demons was a much more pressing issue for them. 

Early Buddhists already had a weak Vitalism (āyu/jīvata) and a somewhat negative attitude to the body that comes with it (cf Metaphors and Materialism 26 Apr 2013). But this hatred for mere flesh reaches its apotheosis in the awful book by Śāntideva, Bodhicāryāvatāra, in which he writes about the body as something supremely distasteful:
59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? 
60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount. 
61. Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!
(pages 92-93 of Crosby and Skilton)
And so on. Śāntideva is a hate-filled maniac, with delusions of grandeur. But he's very popular in Mahāyānist circles because he seems to epitomise something of the twisted logic and fanaticism of Mahāyānism. There's a broad pattern of denigrating human beings and their bodies, and of deifying the Buddha or his replacement and elevating his body, which becomes a dharmakāya

Another manifestation of this hatred of human beings in Mahāyānist thought is the idea that we can do nothing whatever to save ourselves. All we can do is throw themselves on the mercy of the Buddha Amitābha and rely on vows of his that are recorded in the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. Recall that Gautama was sidelined because his parinirvāṇa meant that he could no longer participate in life on earth. Amitābha lives in another universe, but is able to interfere in ours, for our own good. It became necessary to invent other universes because Gautama cut himself off from our universe and the rules say we can't have another Buddha until the Dharma has completely died out there. The lack of a messiah-buddha proved so inconvenient that they had to invent one and situate him in another universe. Amitābha, unlike Gautama, is a model Buddha, who has not abandoned his universe and continues to care for souls in his world, and will even care for those souls in our world who ask his help. From my point of view a really compassionate omnipotent, omnipresent being would not need us to ask, or wait till death, they would tell us what we need to know right now and we could get on with liberating ourselves. But the point here is that we, poor stupid human beings, cannot help ourselves any more. The individual human being is incapable of liberating themselves without the presence of a god-messiah-buddha. And yet Buddhists and even Mahāyānists, insist that there is no god in Buddhism. Clearly there is a god, he's just in disguise, though it's not much of a disguise. 

So this idea of merciful lies emerges in a milieu of increasingly magical thinking, with godlike Buddhas floating around in paradises in other universes (but still able to save earthbound misfit humans); and with stupid people who have no hope of liberation from their own efforts or at all, but who are still plagued by misfortunes (disease, demons, criminals, tyrants, old age, death, or just plain bad luck).

The unfair characterisation of humanity as stupid, weak, and more or less beyond help short of a divine intervention is overly pessimistic. But this view was not always current in Buddhism. One can construct a Buddhism without merciful lies. We know this because we have records of it. While the Buddha is portrayed as expressing doubts about whether anyone would understand his breakthrough (Ariyapariyesana Sutta), he is never portrayed holding back from offering to help them, although he does call recalcitrant people stupid (moghapurisa). These stories are expressions of the values of the suttakāras. The idea of the merciful lie is absent from Nikāya and Āgama texts. Indeed the opposite is the case: the Buddha tells merciful truths. There are a few people who cannot take in these truths, the bereft man in the Piyajātikā Sutta for example, but on the whole the merciful truths that the Buddha tells set people free or at least on the path to freedom.

So why would a Buddha lie when the truth is what sets people free? How could a Buddha lie? Part of the answer seems to be that the distance between the Buddha and ordinary people has become an almost unbridgeable gulf. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is a godlike, omniscient, omnipotent doer of miracles who occupies a transcendent realm beyond our comprehension. Human beings on the other hand are just sacks of shit, infinitely far from Buddhahood, and incredibly stupid. It is this distortion of the respective statuses of the participants in Buddhist myths and legends that opens the gap for merciful lies where no lie should exist. Thus, lies come into the religion in which pretty much everyone, from the meanest peasant to the highest priest, across the divisions rent by time and the changing needs of society, vows not to lie (musāvādā veramaṇī-sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi). 

Another divisive innovation was the Two Truths Doctrine, in which one of the truths is in fact a lie (or at least untrue). I've written about this at some length so need not repeat the argument here (Not Two Truths: 5 Aug 2011). But the idea of relative truths (saṃvṛti-satya), which are not in fact true helps to ground the merciful lie in Buddhist doctrine. If one can rationalise the lie as a saṃvṛti-satya in the service of a paramartha-satya or ultimate truth, then anything is justified. So Buddhists are able to weasel out of the ancient precept which requires us always to tell the truth. It allows some Buddhists to mislead people and claim that it is a skilful means. The result has been quite disastrous for Buddhism, as gurus who are alcoholics, sexual abusers, or who have other moral failings have sometimes passed this off as kauśalyopāya. Once lying is part of the system, then no end of abuse is justifiable.

No one is served by a merciful lie. We are not children. We don't need Daddy to rescue us. Buddhism was originally constructed without such lies. The changes that allowed for these lies were for the worst in any case. Grown-ups need to be told the truth and given the appropriate tools to save themselves. There is no Big Daddy-in-the-sky waiting up there to rescue us. Most convert Buddhists rejected this fantasy well before becoming Buddhists, though an alarming number don't seem to notice that the Buddha has become their Big Step-Daddy-in-the-Sky. 

Taking Responsibility

Many Buddhists seem to lap up this characterisation of humanity as fundamental stupid and unable to manage itself. I hate it. I think we demonise humanity, including ourselves, at considerable risk to our well-being. I've recently written about the problems of Buddhists with self-esteem issues and mental health problems (Rumination and the Stress Response 22 Jan 2016). I did not mention the pernicious consequences of convincing converts that they are idiot children whose lives have to be managed for them, and who can expect authority figures to routinely lie to them for their own good. And they are too stupid to know what is good for them or to make appropriate decisions. Which all seems catastrophically disastrous to me. 

The thought of this teaching being common and commonly accepted makes me angry. The Buddhism that I first learned was all about taking responsibility for one's actions. The idea that one would abdicate responsibility to a guru was anathema. And seeing this put into practice was part of what attracted me to the Triratna Movement. Some have argued that our founder, Sangharakshita, has been weak in this department and to be sure it is by no means universal in the Triratna Order, but over many years I have seen enough of my colleagues in the Order exemplify this quality of taking responsibility that I'm content to find my home amongst them. Taking responsibility for one's actions, indeed for one's mental states, is not mere rhetoric. It is a necessary step for growing up. 

If someone is taught from the outset that they are too stupid and helpless to take responsibility, then what hope does that person have of making positive changes in their life? We can agree that they ought to consult friends and mentors, seek and listen to their advice on matter of importance, but in the long run we have to live our lives as we see fit. We and no one else has to weight up the pros and cons and make decisions. We have to make our own decisions and face the consequences. Of course, where those decisions affect other people, or where we have existing obligations, we need to take these into account (that is part of taking responsibility). We are never totally free to act, but whenever we do act, we ought to do so after due consideration. 

The abdication of responsibility to authority figures is almost always disastrous. We have seen this time and again in many spheres of religious and political life for example. Those we invest with power are almost inevitably corrupted by it.  This is why democracy which limits the amount of time the powerful can spend in positions of power is essential. Our leaders wear out after a few years and must be replaced. Their need for expediency often sees them telling us what they see as merciful lies.

For example, Western Governments assured us that they did not spy on citizens or abuse the surveillance powers they granted themselves. And yet whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that this was a bald lie. They were and are spying on us, reading our emails and texts, gathering information on who we talk to. We did not agree to this, we did not vote for it. Most of us don't want these powerful government agencies spying on us. We know that once they have power they cannot be trusted to use it wisely and we cannot vote the commanders of Homeland Security or GCHQ out after a few years. 

Or we can look at the global banking and finance industry. Successive governments abdicated responsibility for the economy to banks, removing regulations and oversight and as a result banks became corrupt and even criminal. They engineered an economic collapse of catastrophic proportions. While banks qua corporations went broke or were nationalised to stop this happening (i.e. were bailed out by tax payers), the individual bankers in charge of this disaster walked away incredibly wealthy, or in fact did not walk away and are still in charge of banks. In the USA only one banker went to jail. In the UK none did. And yet they destroyed trillions of pounds of wealth, including pensions and retirement investments. Thousands of families lost everything, including their homes. 

Or we could cite the numerous religious cults led by charismatic individuals who lead their followers to a sticky end. And we've seen what happens when Buddhist gurus are followed by naive individuals looking for the next Messiah. A mess, all right. 


There have been many deleterious developments in Buddhist thought over the centuries. The Realism of the Abhidharma, the Two Truths Doctrine, the ontological speculation, the abandonment of making a personal effort, and so on. But none is so egregious as this idea of the merciful lie. It is not merciful to lie to adults. It is deceptive and malignant.

A real problem we have in Buddhism is a deep religious conservatism which enables us to argue about how to interpret our doctrines, but never to fundamentally question them. So it looks like we have a healthy debate, but in reality everyone still assents to the tradition. Or we did until recently. At this moment in time a significant number of Buddhists are asking some hard questions. Or they are intuitively rejecting the usual sources of authority (texts, priests, tradition). We are discovering that we can still think for ourselves and that, for example, science is also authoritative. Or we are turning to people who seem to have genuinely made breakthroughs and can talk about awakening from experience rather than relying on second-hand authorities. We live in a time when awakening once again seems to be possible.

There's little or no scholarship behind this movement. It's quite hard to get such critical ideas as denying the validity of karma as a theory published. And it would be bad for an academic's career to do such a thing. A few renegades like Greg Schopen have attempted to stir the pot a little, but the bastions of Buddhism are heavily defended. The business of Buddhist academia is predicated on embracing Buddhism on its own terms. Indeed a lot of research into Buddhism is funded by Buddhist foundations like Numata and Khyentse, which in any other field would amount to conflict of interest. No one whose livelihood comes from a Buddhist organisation is going to conclude that Buddhism has got it all wrong.

Additionally we have more and more bhikkhus and lamas joining universities and doing research. They cannot be expected to provide our fledging move away from traditional Buddhism with any intellectual support either. "Monastics" are committed to supporting the status quo, in which they themselves are major beneficiaries. Their lifestyle demands so much from them, that they are even less likely than the Buddhism embracing academic to support the deconstruction of tradition. What they produce is almost inevitably in the form of apologetics for religious propositions. Defences of the very ideas that people like me want them to question. In all likelihood no help will come from that direction either. Nor can we expect much help from Western philosophers who continue to "discover" Buddhism and all too often act like they are the first people to understand it. In the end they are really only interested in reinterpreting Buddhism using categories that derive from ancient Greek thought and this is of little or no help to us. The Greeks and their successors were and are asking the wrong questions about experience.

Where we are getting some help is from neuroscience and from the psychology of mindfulness. Some argue that the work in these fields lacks rigour, but the scientific process will get there eventually. Refutation is at the heart of the enterprise, unlike in religion where it is all about making reality fit the theory. 

Presuming that we are in the presence of someone who knows the truth, I argue that the truth is always preferable to the convenient lie. The truth is what liberates us. Lies only sow doubt as to what is true. The idea of the merciful lie was a terrible mistake. That it survived and is traditional doesn't matter. It is still a mistake. Give us the truth and the skills to act on that truth.


A couple of people have suggested that the story of Nanda (Ud 3.2, Nanda Sutta) represents an early Buddhist merciful truth. In this story Nanda is thinking of giving up the religious life (brahmacarya) because of a pretty girl. The Buddha takes Nanda to the deva realm known "The Thirty Three" (tāvatiṃsa) - one of the lower devalokas. There they see a number of female divinities called accharā (better known by their Sanskrit name, apsarā) who are described as dove-footed (kakuṭa-pāda). Nanda agrees that compared to the apsarās his girlfriend is ugly. The Buddha then says:
abhirama, nanda, abhirama, nanda! ahaṃ te pāṭibhogo pañcannaṃ accharāsatānaṃ paṭilābhāya kakuṭapādānan ti.

Enjoy, Nanda, enjoy! I am your sponsor (pāṭibhoga) for obtaining 500 dove-footed apsarās.
With this motivation, Nanda returns to the religious life. After some grumbling from the bhikkhus who think this motivation is beneath them, Nanda becomes enlightened and then releases the Buddha from his promise.

At no point does the Buddha appear to lie to Nanda in this story. The story stipulates that apsaras exist and there is no suggestion that the Buddha was unable or unwilling to fulfil his promise to sponsor or guarantee Nanda his heavenly reward.

Another possible exception is the story of Kisagotamī. This is not found in the suttas, but is found instead in the Apadāna and in the Pāḷi commentaries. I don't know the dates of the Apadāna, though it is canonical. According to Oskar von Hinüber's, Handbook of Pali Literature, it was one of the last additions to the canon. The commentaries of course date from about the 5th century, though are generally believed to be based on earlier, non-extant, texts because they say they are. 

Also... This week Nature reported on an update to the Milgram Experiment. Abbott, Alison. (2016) Modern Milgram experiment sheds light on power of authority. Nature. 18 February 2016.
"People obeying commands feel less responsibility for their actions."

12 February 2016

The Myths of Religion and Being Bauddha.

No doubt there are innumerable definitions of religion from many different points of view. In 2015 I wrote an essay, The Complex Phenomenon of Religion (25 Sept 2015), mapping out some of the key ideas that I see as underlying religion and how they interrelate to create religion. The foundational ideas being: supernatural agency, morality, and ontological dualism. These ideas are intuitive to most people, or at least (to use Justin Barret's term), minimally counter-intuitive. I tried to show how each of these ideas entails others and thus starting from our intuitive conclusions about the world, we are drawn into a complex and self-confirming worldview. Morality or a just world entails an afterlife because the world of the living is patently unfair. An afterlife is itself intuitive for various reasons, but particularly made possible by ontological dualism, the idea that our soul or mind is distinct from our body. And this dualistic conclusion is intuitive to many people because of, for example, out-of-body experiences, and so on. All of the main features of religions, including Buddhism, emerge from various interactions amongst these basic intuitive conclusions and generalising from experience.

Another way to look at religion, is to see it as based on a series of interrelated myths. Myths are stories that express the values of a society in symbolic terms. A characteristic of many of these stories is that, as well as embodying our intuited conclusions about the world, they include minimally counter-intuitive elements that make them interesting and memorable. Figures like founders of religion are often essentially human, but capable of miracles or other superhuman feats for example. The main myths that I have identified are:
  • The myth of a just world
  • The myth of an afterlife
  • The myth of paradise
  • The myth of the golden age
  • The myth of the immortal founder
  • The myth of eternal truths
My project for the last few years has been focussed on demythologising and demystifying Buddhism. In short I have attempted to show that these myths no longer make sense of Buddhism in the light of what we currently know and understand about the world we live in. As of yesterday (Thur, 11 Feb 2016) we live in a universe permeated by gravity waves and direct detection of blackholes. Part of my project has been showing that the intuitive concepts that underlie religion are not true; that many of the ideas that seem intuitively right to us, are in fact wrong. Unfortunate many religieux struggle to understand science, especially those who write books and blogs about Buddhism and science. One of the problems for science communicators is that the new knowledge is frequently counter-intuitive or at least quite difficult to understand (look at the comments section of any newspaper coverage of the LIGO announcement of gravity wave/blackhole detection. Very few lay people really understand Quantum Mechanics for example, though it frequently (and almost inevitably erroneously) comes up as providing confirmation of Buddhist philosophies. This, combined with the weight of our established beliefs, means that many of us are reluctant to accept the new knowledge on face value, except in rare cases when it seems to confirm our beliefs (though in many cases the apparent confirmation amounts to wishful thinking). 

As time has gone on I have found more and more holes in the Buddhist account of the world, while at the same time finding the Buddhist account of experience more compelling. Buddhists get the world almost entirely wrong, but they get experience almost entirely right, and combine this with a number of techniques for exploring experience (though let's be clear there is nothing scientific about this exploration). The opinion about the world makes some people say that I am not really a Buddhist, since for them Buddhism is primarily about assenting to a set of dogmas; the latter opinion is for me the crux of the matter and why I am still a Buddhist. 

"Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience."

- Satyapriya
I was having a discussion with a friend and mentor recently and he mentioned one of his conclusions about what Buddhism is. He said, "Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience." I concur. The problem Buddhism sets out to solve is that we seek happiness without any clear idea of what happiness is or what might make us happy. And thus we go about it all wrong. The basic assumption of civilisation is that happiness is achieved through maximising pleasurable experience and minimising painful experience. And yet it has been clear for at least 2 millennia that this does not work. Part of the problem is civilisation itself. We evolved desires to motivate us to perform certain behaviours: desire motivates us to seek out food, after consuming it we experience satiation and sense of reward (so the behaviour is reinforced). Under modern conditions, finding food entails almost no effort, we always have access to food, and it is laden with sugar, salt, and fat. Since we don't eat to satiate hunger, but for pleasure instead, we seldom experience satiation and reward is connected to consumption itself. As a consequence more and more of us are fat and getting fatter. The desire for food, the reward of eating it, and the sense of satiation all seemed to be fundamentally warped by civilisation. The same can be said of sex, work, and almost every other facet of life. So Buddhism (at least originally) set out to disrupt these habitual responses leading to hyperstimulation through prolonged periods of withdrawing attention from sensory experience, and to discovering that there is life beyond the world of the senses.

We might contrast this with a Tantric approach to Buddhism. In the words of David Chapman: "It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality." I'm intrigued by Chapman's writing about Tantric Buddhism (in this and a number of recent related blog posts) and his argument that perhaps Tantra would form a better basis for "lay Buddhism" than renunciation. On face value this is an intriguing proposition, since in fact even many dedicated people are not practising renunciation and the practised associated with it. I'm going to look into this, however, at present I'm not convinced that a turn toward experience is viable because most people are habitual hedonists (motivated by pleasure seeking). To my mind there is too much evidence from outside of Buddhism that supports the idea that our basic problem is seeing happiness in terms of pleasure. Arguing that an habitual hedonist will escape this trap by turning toward experience is a bit like arguing that an alcoholic can be cured of their addiction by turning to the bottle. Like many Tantrikas, I still think that renunciation and reordering of our relationship to experience is a prerequisite to turning towards experience.

A third possibility which interests me at the moment involves re-examining the context of addiction. In his book Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari describes a new approach to addiction which focusses nor on the chemical properties of the drug, or the character of the addict, but looks at the environment of the addict. People who are well embedded in a social context, who experience the love and support of friends and family, and who live in a conducive physical environment, do not, in most cases, get addicted. Most people (Hari suggests 90%) use recreational drugs without getting addicted, just as most people drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. So why do only 10% become addicted. Hari argues that it is because of their social context, that people become addicted because they are isolated or alienated from a supportive social context. Alienation is, of course, a feature of modern urban life. With respect to intoxication with experience this would mean focussing not on experience itself, but taking an indirect to the addiction to sense pleasure by working on environmental factors that support addiction. As far as I know, no one has applied this kind of logic to the problem that Buddhists are trying to solve, though many of us are concerned with creating supportive contexts for practice (saṅgha). One of the issues that Hari seems not to deal with is the problem of people who may not be addicted, but who none-the-less make poor choices and decisions while influenced by drugs.

As interesting as these other approaches may be this essay is going to continue to explore my main theme: turning away from experience qua source of happiness. 

When we sit down to meditate we may well still be seeking experience, or we may well still see mediation as focussed on experience. But the acme of meditation—emptiness—is an end to experience. From the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas (MN 121, 122, see also SN 41.6) through into the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras there has been this powerful theme of practices in which we bring all experience to an end. We stop experiencing our body and the physical senses, and then we stop having mental experiences; and simply dwell in what remains. We do not experience ourselves as a self or the world as a world, or any distinction between the two. However, in this state of emptiness we continue to be and to be aware of being aware. This approach to emptiness, in which emptiness is more than simply a critique of experience or an ideal, but which is instantiated as the absence of experience seems very promising. My view is that the (earlier) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are attempts to put this experience of no experience (or perhaps an experience with no content) into words, to use metaphors and abstractions to explain what the absence of experience is like and what the consequences of it are like. But one cannot experience this absence of experience while seeking an experience. One must allow experience to die away, or as my friend put it, die to experience. And there is no doubt that this is far more difficult than it sounds. Many people find it terrifying because from one's first person perspective, one ceases to exist, or at least discovers that one's existence was always contingent and that when one stops paying attention to the conditions that underlie it, self stops arising.

I've written about this before in an essay from 2008 on communicating the Dharma. In two suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 45.11 and 45.12) the Buddha is describing spending time reflecting on his awakening. He says:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
"I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening."
In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā).
So evaṃ pajānāmi... chandapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chandavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāpaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāvūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca avūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca avūpasanto hoti, saññā ca avūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca vūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca vūpasanto hoti, saññā ca vūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; appattassa pattiyā atthi āyāmaṃ, tasmimpi ṭhāne anuppatte tappaccayāpi vedayitan ti.
"I know this... the condition of desire is experienced, the condition of the suppression of desire is also experienced; the condition of thinking is experienced, the condition of suppression of thinking is also experienced; the condition of perception is experienced, the condition of the suppression of perception is also experienced. There is suppression of desire, and thinking, and perception and on that account there is experience. There is stretching out to attain the unattained, and in this also experience on account of the unattained."
I surmise that this experience with no content was probably also known to Brahmin meditators. They described it in Sanskrit as saccidānanda, i.e. being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). But they associated this state with Brahman, the absolute consciousness of the universe. Absolutes are problematic. Modern day Advaita Vedantins will still argue on the basis of belief in an absolute, that there is no free will. If there were free will it would undermine the absolute. Partly influenced by Sāṃkhya philosophy they see the world as māyā—a creation of mind—and as such it has only relative existence. In the absolute sense it does not exist, only Brahman exists. It's important to remember that existence in ancient India (including in Buddhism) was always associated with permanent, unchanging existence. Temporary, contingent, or mutable existence are all contradictions in terms. If something is temporary, contingent, or mutable then "existence" does not apply. And this in turn also seems to have influenced Buddhists who were trying to mitigate the turn to Realism in the Abhidharma project, giving rise to the idea of Two Truths (the word satya has strong ontological implications and can just as well be read as reality as truth). In Sāṃkhya thought there are two basic conditions: puruṣa which is passive, permanent, and real; and prakṛti which is active, impermanent, and unreal. The world of experience is prakṛti (literally "nature") and it is māyā, a creation of mind. It is not real. Buddhists called this pole of experience samvṛti-satya, usually translated as "relative-truth" though more literally saṃvṛti means closure or concealing (so it could mean "concealed reality"). Progress is made by rolling up manifestations of prakṛti and leaving only puruṣa as a passive observer. Buddhists called this paramārtha-satya or "ultimate-truth" (or "revealed reality"). Again the Sāṃkhya may well be informed by the experience of emptiness, but interpreted as a kind of absolute. Very few accounts of Indian philosophy tie it to experience and this is a catastrophic mistake which leads to confusion.

Where Buddhism is different from Sāṃkhyā, Vedanta, and Advaita Vedanta, at least some forms of Buddhism, is that it rejects the very idea of absolute existence (this is made explicit, for example in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, SN 12.15, extant in Chinese and Sanskrit versions, as well as quoted by Nāgārjuna and his commentators). Everything we experience arises and passes away and therefore cannot be absolute or related to an absolute. This is one reason why I have a problem with the Two Truths Doctrine. It appears to contravene this more fundamental Buddhist axiom. What Buddhists seem to believe, at least originally, was this state of no experience achieved temporarily in meditation could be made permanent in the afterlife. Nirvāṇa meant not being reborn, not being reborn meant possessing no sense faculties, therefore having no experience. Nothing comprehensible arises. Thus questions about what a Tathāgata experiences after death are avyākṛta "undetermined". As I've pointed out the Mahāyāna eventually rejected this as an ideal because by necessity a Buddha was uninvolved in our lives post-parinirvāṇa. They redefined the goals of Buddhism (See my alternate history of Mahāyāna).

This is an important role that the myths of religion play, i.e. as interpretive frameworks for experience. On the basis of apparently similar experiences, someone raised in a Vedantic tradition comes to very different conclusions to someone raised in a Buddhist tradition. The versions of religious myths we internalise form the basis of how we interpret the experiences we have as a result of doing religious exercises. And this seems to be the case even for people who have insights into the nature of experience - they see their experience as a confirmation of their belief system. In this sense, the intellectual context within which we practice is very important. We know that it is entirely possible to draw the wrong conclusions from individual experience. In fact it is probable that we will do this, all the time. We all do this with respect to pleasure for example. We enjoy it and so we unconsciously think more of it will lead us towards happiness. But it doesn't. 

Some of the received myths now seem counter-productive. The strong ontological dualism involved in the myths of an afterlife, for example, might lead one to think of one's mind as a more real and permanent phenomenon than is either true or helpful. Absolutes always seem to be a bar to further progress. Once one believes oneself to be in contact with an absolute then the motivation to change or make progress almost by necessity ceases. One can go no further than the absolute. The fact that an absolute ought to be, by it's very definition, out of the reach of the human organism is avoided by the narratives surrounding mysticism. To touch the absolute one has to have a mystical experience. In this we invoke a capacity for experience which is not related to our relative senses or mind - another twist in the story of ontological dualism. Something absolute must reside in us (an ātman in other words) which is able to appreciate and perceive the Absolute in the universe. This kind of talk ought to have no place in Buddhism, which rejects all absolutes, though it does appear and not simply in the Vedanta inspired Tathāgatagarbha, but in the most embarrassing places (Triratna Dharmacārins will know what I mean). We have to place all such dualisms in a basket labelled, "false conclusions and generalisations from experience" and move on.

Over the centuries different approaches to insight into the nature of experience have developed. Some schools emphasise the dangers in seeking emptiness through concentration techniques. These techniques produce bliss and rapture as early side-effects and these can be intoxicating in themselves. The argument is that spending a lot of time in dhyāna is analogous to weaning people off alcohol by giving them heroin, it's counter-productive. So some schools eschew the development of concentration and instead try to look directly at the arising and passing away of experience. There's no doubt that this can be an effective method, but it usually works best when the meditator has a good deal of concentration practice behind them, enabling them to have a relative stable and happy mind and not to simply get lost in habitual distraction without noticing it.

On the whole most Buddhists have found some balance between samatha and vipassanā approaches to meditation work best. Samatha stabilises the mind and gives us a sense of well-being that is not dependent on circumstances. And insight undermines our sense of self in relation to experience and our sense of a subject/object duality (though again I think the word "reality" is out of place in this discussion). Samatha enables us to pursue insight more effectively than a one-sided approach.

On the other hand how many Buddhists are seriously pursuing insight in this way? One in a thousand? What proportion of Buddhists are genuinely awakened people? A small handful at best? To die to experience goes against every instinct and to even get the point where we commit to doing so is rare. Most of us are still "doing research", as they say in AA. We're researching the possibility of achieving happiness through pleasurable experience, the way an alcoholic researches the possibility of happiness through drinking booze.

Someone who is not only willing to, but actively trying to die to experience and die to themselves may not really need all the myths and mumbo-jumbo. Emptiness, the experience of no experience, is it's own reward. Though observation suggests that insight doesn't liberate anyone from confirmation bias. On the other hand the rest of us are still wallowing in intoxication with the senses. We eat too much, drink too much, and stimulate our senses too much to ever attain the depths of concentration required except perhaps on long retreats (and even then our retreats are often quite indulgent). So we need to tell motivational stories based on the myths. The Pali Canon is full of stories of people seeing the light while the Buddha is telling an edifying story. They refer to it as gaining faith (saddhā) in the Tathāgata. Sometimes the stories are logical discourses on the progress one makes through rigorous practice culminating in liberation; sometimes the stories are motivational accounts of other practitioners who have done what needed to be done. And so on. But all of these stories reference the religious myths of Buddhism.

Any thoughtful person is dissatisfied with modern life. Civilisation is a two-edged sword. We benefit in so many ways from civilisation, but it also makes us sick by skewing our perceptions and our relationship to experience. Look around at the obesity epidemic, the drug and alcohol problems, the rising levels of mental health problems. The downsides of civilisation began to be apparent in India right around the time that the second urbanisation was getting going (ca 7th Century BCE). Civilisations in many places in the world gave rise to similar conditions it seems. Prophets began to pop up who basically criticised the pursuit of happiness through pleasurable experience. Some turned puritanical, urging us to spurn pleasure and torture ourselves as an alternative (early forms of Jainism fit this mould). Some responded with hedonism. Some regarded the whole world as an illusion which ought not to be taken seriously. Many variations of dissatisfaction were expressed as new sets of values; new variations on the religious myths.

It so happens that in India religious seekers had discovered meditative techniques which culminated in this state of emptiness and this powerfully informed their approach to religion. But emptiness is not easy and it never was a practical path for 99.9% of the population. Sub-optimal options had to emerge for those who bought into the rhetoric but who had already committed themselves to family, career, and ownership - i.e. to success in ordinary human terms of having a spouse, offspring, and material comfort that could be passed on to the next generation. And versions for the peasants who might aspire to having a family, but who would never be successful materially and whose families were locked into poverty by social conventions that ensured that the wealthy retained control of their wealth. Different versions of the Buddhist myths emerged to cater for people in different walks of life.


In this essay I've tried to show the role that our foundation myths play in Buddhism. However I've also tried to show how these myths are also a liability for Buddhism because they are based on false conclusions based on intuition. We certainly still need to employ our critical faculties, even with respect to the awakened, or especially with them as they most likely feel they have "direct confirmation" of their beliefs and are more firmly trapped in confirmation bias than most people. Most essentially, we need to be on guard against any form of absolute. We ought to insist that we are investigating experience and we are not investigating "reality", keeping in mind what these terms meant in the context of Buddhism in India. Statements about reality that are generalisation from meditative experience are untrustworthy, and probably wrong (no meditator ever predicted gravity waves for example). Where myths score highly is that they do sometimes communicate values more effectively than non-symbolic modes of story telling. Generally speaking, values need to be embodied and enacted to have meaning. We need to see what it is like for our values to inform how we live. Ideally our mentors will be doing that. 

I've argued that Buddhism seeks a change in our values system so that we move away from seeking happiness through experience and move towards what my friend has called "dying to experience". There's nothing in experience that will make us happy. We can usually be persuaded of the logic of this statement with a little nudging, but most of us are still committed to researching the possibility that it is wrong. Although some of the myths of Buddhism help to communicate this new system of values, many of them are unrelated to it. Legacy beliefs in an afterlife and a just world seem to be a hindrance to communicating these values.


05 February 2016

Setting Ourselves Apart

Nihang Sikh
In this essay I will explore some issues surrounding our identity as members of a religious group (which might also be of interest to readers who aren't religious). Some of the opinions I'll express in this essay will be controversial. I'm not entirely convinced by liberal rhetoric on difference and tolerance. I do believe that we should be tolerant of difference, but when I look at the society I live in I have to admit that I might be in a minority. And given that a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority, of this society is not in tune with liberal rhetoric, what does that mean for religieux in practice? My purpose here is to try to understand issues of identification with a religious group and how that might play out in practice in the actual society I live in, rather than with reference to an ideal society that does not exist. Clearly there is a certain amount of intolerance towards minorities here. I think an evolutionary perspective on humanity helps us to understand why that might be, and at least to me, it suggests that our approach to diversity might be flawed. It's fair to say that this essay is a bit of a ramble and an opinion piece.


I've written about evolution and human societies quite often now. The facts seem to be that human beings are evolved for living in small communities of up to 150 people. These communities may be part of larger units—multiples of 150—but larger units tend to fission for purposes of daily life, coming together on special occasions. This limit is imposed, according to research by Professor Robin Dunbar, by the ratio of neocortex to brain volume. Larger groups require more neo-cortex because we have to keep track of more relationships in real time (family, friends, lovers, feuds, alliances, etc). Other primates mainly use one-to-one grooming to ensure individuals are well integrated in the group and that it has overall cohesion. Our groups are now so big that we could spend all our time grooming and still not interact with everyone in our group. And we have to eat and sleep! So we evolved group activities to help balance our time budget. Cooking food also helped by making our food more calorie-rich, reducing our foraging time.

Some of our most important faculties, such as reasoning are designed to work in small groups. Our orientation to the world as a social primate, like all social animals, is safety in numbers and cooperation to achieve common goals. An aspect of this is that we are distrustful of strangers and intolerant of individual differences where they threaten group cohesion. Our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Individuals who were loath to work with us or who worked against us were bound to be neutralised either by assimilation back into the group, or by expulsion from it (or in extremis by being killed). One of the most powerful means of social control we have is isolation: shunning, exclusion, banishment. Ironically, loneliness is often a feature of urban life, especially as we get older.

In his book on the people living in the New Guinea highlands, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explains that a hunter-gather tribe there has a well demarcated territory in which they can forage for food. They usually have uneasy relations with immediate neighbours and encroach on their land at their own risk. To be caught outside your own territory is to risk being killed on sight. A person living in this environment would seldom, if ever, stray much beyond the traditional borders of their tribe. They would never meet their neighbour's neighbours. Of course New Guinea is densely populated compared to some other places. However, rather than clump and blend, the tribes there stayed small and distinctive, with hundreds of languages between them. They are vastly more culturally diversified than similarly sized countries in the rest of the world. Australia was similarly diverse before the arrival of Europeans. We are evolved to suit this kind of situation of small groups and strong in-group/out-group boundaries. Since then our culture has changed at a very much faster rate than evolution can keep up with.

About 10-12,000 years ago our communities began to clump together. This is usually associated with the invention of agriculture, though at first this was a relatively unsuccessful venture that led to reduced food availability. It took centuries of trial and error for settled agriculture to begin to produce enough food to be a more effective way of life than hunting and gathering. It's likely that domestication of herd animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, was a key move towards larger groups, since it makes more protein available in a more reliable way. As long as there is pasture, herd sizes can increase exponentially (according to Dunbar the limiting factor is rainfall). Once we worked out how to produce a food surplus that would support non-farming society members, the stage was set for a revolution in how we lived. Numbers in our groups began to swell beyond the limits of neocortex. Once a few members of our society were freed from the necessity of finding food they could specialise in other activities (though they still had to sleep and participate in community bonding activities). Civilisation began to emerge. By which we mean groups with large populations and institutions to enable them to live together: division of labour, kingship, land ownership, organised warfare, religion, etc.

In these early stages of our social evolution, religion emerged partly as a way of helping groups members experience themselves as connected to the others. As already mentioned, Robin Dunbar has argued that as group sizes increased in our early ancestors, our usual primate methods of group bonding became ineffective. The time taken for one-to-one grooming with every group member, for example, became more than the time available. A variety of many-to-many grooming substitutes had to evolve alongside our burgeoning groups. Amongst these were group laughter, singing, and dancing. Presumably story telling also played a part. The first anatomically modern humans to migrate from Africa almost certainly carried myths with them that then took root and survived in far flung places like New Guinea and Australia. These group activities result in the production of the endogenous opioids (or endorphins) that produce a feeling of well-being. Religion took the form of collective rituals, often involving group dancing, singing and story telling, and explicit shared beliefs. This helped the group to experience a sense of connection and common purpose. Rites of passage for children becoming adults often involved a shared ordeal that helped to bond group members. A distant echo of this is "hazing" and groups often haze new members to help bond them (ironically this may involved inflicting suffering or humiliation on them). One has to be willing to undergo hardship for the group. And lastly groups of people like to ensure that they look different to neighbouring groups. One of the ways that tribes of people, multiples of 150, identify each other is through distinctive clothing, symbols, or body modification. In small societies every one is marked the same way. Armies still use this concept in their adoption of uniforms, flags, and insignia.

However, many of us now  live in massive, multi-ethnic societies in which any number of sub-groups exist based on ethnic identity and/or religion amongst other things. And members of some of these communities are still going out of their way to identify themselves with their sub-culture through wearing special hats, special grooming practices (involving hair in particular), and/or adopting special clothing. The subculture might be based on ethnicity or religion or it might be based on something more abstract. And we might identify with more than one subculture.

A lot of the discussion in the UK at the moment is over how Muslims fit into Britain. Many Muslims feel bound to make strong statements of their identification with their religion often through grooming and sartorial statements, or through beginning their contribution to public debates with the words "As a Muslim...". They are Muslims first and they want everyone to know and acknowledge this. A few vocal people, who adopt the same identifiers, are openly critical of the British way of life and wish to impose a traditional Middle-Eastern form of governance (ironically if they got their wish they'd almost certain lose the right to freedom of speech). Some extremists argue for violent overthrow of the state and the culture, and some are currently plotting to kill British people to make their point. Muslim terrorists have succeeded in one major terrorist attack, ten years ago, and several other plots have been foiled. I'm using Muslims as an example because they are in the news. We Buddhists also get involved in flouting our religious identity, and not a few would love to overthrow the current government and impose some kind of Buddhist rule (though they are generally speaking more circumspect about this). I sometimes see monastics wandering around in their robes and shaved hair. Or one sees people with ostentatious jewellery: badges, mālās, vajra-necklaces,  monk's bag etc. I do it too some extent because I prefer to use my Buddhist name in most circumstances. To religious people, religious identity is important. And usually we want other people to know we are religious. If it's not obvious from our hair or clothes, we'll habitually bring it up in conversation. We're tedious like that.

Society & Tolerance

It's not that long since British people felt their society to be relatively homogeneous. Yes, it was riven by strong class divisions, but these divisions were familiar, and the classes were unified to some extent by their rejection of outsiders. Even today Brits are almost nostalgic for the version of the class system of the 18-19th century - witness the constant rehashing of stories set before liberalism took hold. British people will joke about incomers to some villages being treated as the "new people" for three or four generations. This is a joke based in reality. Some people are really like that.

In fact immigrants have long played a part in British society, though usually on a small scale. An almost continuous series of waves of immigration from Europe have arrived over the centuries. Some were completely absorbed (e.g. Huguenots) and some were not (e.g. Jews, Roma). For their own reasons Jews tend to retain their identity, live somewhat apart from the mainstream. Hasidic Jews are definitely separatist. Which brings us closer to my main point. Ironically this very practice of separatism has itself often been a trigger for prejudice against Jews. This is not a justification or an excuse. I'm not saying that it is right! I'm saying that anti-Semitism is a something that Jews still encounter and that sometimes they inadvertently trigger it.

The trouble is that if you are apart from the mainstream, then when times get tough the mainstream may well turn on you. This can happen in any number of ways. In contemporary Britain there is a backlash against people who accept welfare for example. It was relatively socially acceptable in the 1970s, but nowadays if one accepts welfare it is, for example, very difficult to rent a house to live in. All people who accept welfare are tarred with the same brush: lazy, unreliable, and criminal; whereas British people generally see themselves hard-working, steadfast, and honest. Fifty years ago the Brits described people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity using the same slurs. Before that it was the Irish. The Spanish have often been a target. As have all people of colour from Africa, America, Pacifika, and Asia. Outsiders, especially minorities, are easily portrayed as representative of the antithesis of in-group values. The English language has many apparently innocuous terms that were once ethnic slurs: French letter, Dutch courage, Wandering Jew, and so on; and even more outright terms of abuse, such as nigger, kraut, frog, dago, wop, spick, etc. The English will still depict the Scots as miserly (when in fact they were just poor, mostly because of the English). Within England the English make fun of the accent of Birmingham, or suggest that people from Norfolk are inbred. It's often done in a jocular way, with a nudge and a wink, but its done almost continually. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And the thing is that this kind of attitude is general amongst people I've met. In India the low caste Buddhists I know tell me that even the very low castes have other low castes that they look down on. Despite how caste has blighted their lives, they are still caste conscious. Where I grew up, people from Auckland are called jafas (after a sweet called a Jaffa). This is an acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. And we told jokes about Australians being stupid and immoral (they told more or less the same jokes about us). When I lived Auckland, my neighbours from mainland China confided in me that they "did not like Indians". The awareness and marking of difference seems to be ubiquitous. I would argue that it reflects an evolutionary outcome of being a social species: high in-group trust, low out-group trust.

I want to argue, against the liberal mainstream, that this distrust of strangers is not a bug of society, its a feature. Again, this is not an endorsement. It is an attempt to understand an apparently senseless behaviour in evolutionary terms. I believe that the better we understand our unconscious motivations, the better able we will be to overcome the conditioning. But the first step is admitting that most of us don't like strangers. If there is any doubt about this, I can cite various politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Tony Abbott, Marine La Pen, from around the world who represent a silently fuming body of people who are fed up with multiculturalism, tolerance, and immigrants; fed up with liberal values being pushed down their throats. The danger is that we don't understand this phenomena and fail to take adequate steps to counter it. We ought to be reflecting on our failure to effectively communicate evolution for example. If we believe that tolerance and migration are good, then we need to better understand why some people oppose it and why politicians who voice that opposition are increasingly popular at the moment. But too often liberals are not at all interested in how their opponents think. Rather ironically, they define conservatives as out-group and demonise them.

The Religious Other & Liberalism

This essay was sparked by reading a news item about a Sikh man who had been beaten up by a red-neck in America. The Sikh man's family had lived in their adopted town in the USA for over a century. And the man who beat him shouted, "Why are you here?" Chances are, the Sikhs migrated to America before the red-neck's family did! Any thoughtful American would already have concluded that they have more to fear from "white" Americans with guns than from any Sikhs. A quick trawl through the long list of mass shootings in the USA suggests that none of them were carried out by Sikhs. In fact one of the shootings involved a white American shooting up a Sikh temple and murdering many people. So it seems that a Sikh is significantly more likely to be the victim of mass murder than the instigator of it. So why would a red-neck target a Sikh man?

Part of my answer is to do an image search for "Sikh". The top 100 images are mostly of men with long beards, wearing turbans. The images are of Sikhs are mostly men, but from all walks of life. Importantly Sikhs often serve their adopted countries in the military (usually a high status job for red-necks). But a Sikh man is instantly recognisable as a Sikh. Sikh men ensure that they stand out as Sikhs. What I am suggesting is that if you were never educated about Sikhism, and most Americans are not, and at a time in history when the news was full of stories about foreigners who want to kill Americans, and all you saw was someone making a sartorial statement along the lines of "I am not one of you, I am a Sikh", then that might trigger a primal, aggressive response. I'm going to emphasise this point: this explanation is not an excuse, the point here is to try to understand why people become aggressive towards strangers and suggest ways to mitigate such reactions. 

I don't mean to single out Sikhs, it's just that the news story featured a Sikh man and they do often make this strong statement of setting themselves apart. Another group who often suffer this kind of abuse, in Britain at least, are Muslim women who insist on wearing full-face veils, something which is almost an anathema for mainstream British women who fought for the rights to be seen and heard, and are still fighting for equality. The British women I know find the wearing of veils and face coverings very difficult to empathise with. They are still concerned with finding an equal footing in society with men. They continue to fight inequality and discrimination and the veil seems to represent both. I recall quite an interesting radio interview with a British Muslim woman who became so fed up with hearing cat-calls from men that she decided to wear a full-face veil. She would go out covered from head to toe with only her eyes showing. But unfortunately this change in her appearance meant that cat-calls turned to sometimes violent abuse. It was awful. She was in an invidious position, but it was made considerably worse by her adoption of ostentatious religious garb that set her apart from the people around her. It was not an effective strategy. Anyone who looks, speaks, or acts differently from might become a target for hostility - where difference is entirely relative to the situation.

As I say, our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Who that enemy is, is also entirely relative. 

Liberals seem to naively expect society to just accept differences. To be sure, they have had notable successes in outlawing prejudice against people who are different in ways that they have no control over. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for example, which is not the same as saying that it has been eliminated. But for example, being sexually oriented towards your own gender carries far less stigma than it used to. We have also made it illegal to discriminate on some differences that are based on individual choices, such as political views (up to a point) or religious profession. Social liberalism has been a force for good in that it has helped minorities to emerge as equals in society. And it continues to have successes, in the form of marriage law reform for example, despite a decisive shift to the right in politics in Britain. But liberalism has to some extent steam-rolled these changes through. And under these circumstances there is always the risk of a backlash.

The Liberal response to all of the situations I've described: aggression towards a Sikh, cat-calls, and violent abuse is the same each time. Such things should not happen. Every one must be tolerant. Our laws reflect these values. But our streets, apparently, do not. We invent new crimes to make it clearer. Now if you abuse someone of a different race or sexual-orientation, that is not simply a violent crime, it is a race hate crime that carries harsher penalties than mere violence. We've defined a whole variety of hate crimes with harsh penalties. These offences often come with new labels. We mistaken refer to hatred of something as a phobia (or fear). I'm not sure this confusion of terms helps. Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam, it refers to a hatred of Islam. It's not born from fear, it's more likely born from disgust, the response to a stranger. Similar homophobia is not a fear of homosexuals. Personally I see theistic religion as a rather negative influence in society, though for some people it can be personally positive. Hate is probably too strong a word for what I feel. I'm certainly against theists having more say in society and would very much like to see the Church of England disestablished and a true separation between church and state. Nor do I hanker for a Buddhist state, since all the Buddhist states in history have been awful or even monstrous. In this sense I'm a secularist.

Making a law and punishing offenders is not the same changing the culture. A more successful strategy might be to welcome different people into public life. It's only in living memory that Britain allowed radio and TV presents to speak in regional accents. People of colour are still vastly under-represented in public life. And as we've seen some institutions, like the Oscars, seem determined to resist any liberal reforms that would make them treat women or Africans as being of equal status and value. TV is currently squeezing in a trans-gendered character where-ever it can, because this has become a cause célèbre. No reason it should not be a time for more awareness of this issue, but it's not as if we have solved the problem of under-representation in a broader sense. Women are still vastly under-represented in the higher echelons business and politics for example. The chances of an African American winning an Oscar are still minimal. And so on. Equality laws are not going to change things while, say, a woman only rarely gets a senior cabinet post in a British government (and this true of the cabinet of the only woman Prime Minster we've had as well).

With regard to "race" it's important to emphasise that skin colour is a particularly bad determinate of relatedness. Skin colour is simply a measure of how close to the equator your ancestors lived. If they were from the tropics, you'll have dark skin. If they were from higher latitudes you'll have pale skin. It's all to do with how much vitamin D one can synthesise and it changes quite rapidly - just 5000 years and your skin will change to suit. Humanity is all one species by any definition of the word. That said, the human population of, say, Africa is far older and thus far more genetically diverse than the rest of the world. Thus any two Europeans with pale skin are far more likely to be related than any two African people with dark skin. It's only legacy thinking that makes us think of dark skinned people as homogeneous. Of course in countries where Africans were transported as slaves, the slave population became a melting pot. The whole concept of "race" is bankrupt and more or less meaningless. The fact that Britain uses "black" and "white" as ethnic terms still makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, because the terms are meaningless (no one in the world is either black or white), but also because they preserve the prejudice of the recent past and reflect continuing discrimination against people with brown skin.

An important issue in Britain is immigration. In 2015 around 100,000 people emigrated to the UK. That's a town the size of Cambridge, where I live. Providing housing, infrastructure, and services to another 100,000 people, at a time when government spending continues to fall is stretching the resources of the country. If it happens every year, and it does, then we have a major problem here. Research seems to show that migrants taken as a whole make a net contribution to the economy, but even so the government is still cutting spending on things like the National Health Service, which struggles to cope with serving the needs of the present population. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of Europe, Britain continues to attract economic migrants, both temporary and permanent. And European law says that we cannot place barriers in the way of the movement of labour within the Union. This has led to the leaders of the country to offer an in-out referendum in which the citizens can vote to leave the European Union. The issue of identity and where we belong (and how we treat outsiders) is playing out in national and international politics also. 

Britain has also seen a number of high profile terrorist attacks on our soil. These were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. And we are told that a large number of plots to commit acts of terror are foiled on a regular basis by the security services. Some of these result in public prosecutions. And yet we are being drawn further into wars in the Middle East that appear to be fuelling the fundamentalist recruitment drive. The media that reports these situations has a vested interest in promoting negative emotions. The media thrive on our fear, anger, and disgust. And we, collectively, seem only too willing to feed the troll. The local terrorists are ostentatiously Muslim. There is a legitimate fear of religious fundamentalism amongst Muslims inspiring violence against British citizens. Some say that such people are "not Muslims". But this is facile. Islam, like every religion is split into sects that disagree on who is in charge and who is an authority. Appeals to the authority of the Koran are meaningless unless we accept the premise that it is God's word. Even then, what God meant is open to interpretation - God always seems to like to leave room for different readings. In the end it is men who decide what God's will is. The terrorists are Muslims. Very much so. The fact that other Muslims disagree with them is interesting, but not definitive, even if the British Prime Minister co-opts that view for his own ends. 


And amidst all of this are religious people who insist on asserting their religious identity over and above any other aspect of their identity. Like many groups who are insisting on their "right" they seem to unconcerned with unforeseen consequences. They have a right and it is up to the rest of us to protect that right of theirs, whatever it may cost us. In Britain I observe that there is a general unwillingness to think that one's actions might have consequences, especially if the actions are an expression of some right. If one is claiming a right then the consequences are not the responsibility of the individual. Society is seen as a guarantor of rights. And if our behaviour involves risk then it is up to society to eliminate that risk. So many people here go out at night and binge drink so that they completely lose control of themselves. And these people expect to be safe. But they are not safe. In many cases they might not even be safe doing what they are doing if they were sober. They are definitely at risk when falling down drunk. And yet they assert they have a right to be safe, whatever risks they may take. And complain when the government treat them like children. Sadly in the Cambridge News today is the story of a bright young Cambridge University student who was killed by a car: it was 1:30am, she was very drunk, wearing dark clothes, walking in the middle of the road, on a major arterial road, when she was struck by a car. The driver was going under the speed limit and watching out for cyclists with no lights (very common in Cambridge). 

Having been a victim of violence I sympathise to some extent, we all want to feel safe when we go out at night. But while society has yet to eliminate violent people, wouldn't it be more prudent to take reasonable precautions against becoming a victim of violence? Is there any rational or realistic expectation of eliminating violence from society? I can't imagine it myself. Is it realistic to expect everyone to obey the law all the time? Not really. So why would anyone expect to act as though they lived in a utopia? Of course we don't want to simply blame the victim. That's not what I'm getting at. But if you are in a minefield, there's no point in complaining that mines are illegal and immoral. One must take practical steps to get get out of the minefield without getting blown up before complaining. Nor am I saying the campaigning is pointless. We have seen a good deal of positive social change in my lifetime. What I'm talking about is a culture of entitlement. The idea that we are entitled to live in a utopia. That we ought not to have to make an effort to defend our rights from those who would deny them to us. It's the sense of entitlement that I don't understand. 

Talking about these things is difficult because if one expresses a dissenting opinion one tends to become a target for trolling. Labels get thrown around and thinking through the issues gets replaced by an enforced orthodoxy. And anyone who dares to dissent from this orthodoxy is characterised as evil. Lately the trend is to label anyone who argues with the liberal mainstream as a Nazi. Its as if we've forgotten the mad imperialism that brought the whole of Europe and half the world into an all-out war characterised by massive loss of life and destruction of property. We've forgotten that the Nazis attempted genocide, murdering sex million Jews. The Nazis were not simply authoritarian or dictatorial or anti-liberal. They were mass murderers on a scale that's hard to imagine. We trivialise the word Nazi at our peril. Once we trivialise a phenomenon like the Nazi's we raise the risk of it happening again: and this at a time when far-right groups are making steady gains in some European countries. 

There's a worrying trend to argue that people should not be allowed to say things that liberals disagree with. That one should not be allowed to say things that people might take offence at. Recently the British parliament actually spent time debating whether or not Donald Trump, a major investor in the UK economy, should be allowed to visit the UK. The reason was that he'd just said that his policy would be to stop Muslims entering the USA until there was some way to be sure they were not terrorists. This was shortly after the Paris bombing, where one of the bombers had entered France as a refugee. Many people argued that Trump should not be allowed here any more. The fact that this was a debate suggests that we have lost sight of what freedom of speech means. Trump can say what he likes. Our fear can only be that people will take him seriously. Why would we fear that? Of course the Trump the irony is that apart from one egregious example (9/11) most of the murderous attacks on American soil, the mass-shootings, are by non-Muslims and Americans of European rather than Middle-Eastern origin. Their problem is not so much religiously inspired terrorism as it is gun crime.

Setting Ourselves Apart.

If we religieux wish to set ourselves apart then we need to be realistic about the possible consequences of this. Out-group members may well receive harsh treatment, especially at times when there is economic or political upheaval. Arguing that this is not fair is childish. The world is not fair. People are what they are. Liberalism has certainly made some progress in the West, but our society is far from perfect, and many places are profoundly anti-liberal. We do not live in a utopia and probably never will. (I've written about this before: Living in a Non-Utopian Universe, 12 Sep 2014)

On the other hand I don't think it's true to say that religious people have more in common with each other than with non-religious people. The shared values that we have tend not to come from religious profession, but from the wider society. Religion is paradoxical in this sense. Since any one religion is always a minority these days, identifying with it to the point that one feels one must make a public statement of identification makes for a stronger sense of belonging to the religious community, but of being more set apart from society generally. If one also characterises society as generally evil or misguided, then the "us & them" effect is even stronger. Do we ever think about what we are sacrificing in order to experience a strong sense of belonging to our religious group?

Setting ourselves apart amidst a larger community is a two edged sword. A common enemy does bring people together, but we run the risk of becoming that common enemy and uniting people against us. This ought not to surprise us. At the level of our adaptation to pre-civilisation lifestyles, this makes perfect sense. It's part of our of survival strategy. As admirable as liberal values of tolerance inclusivity, and egalitarianism are, by setting ourselves apart we run the risk of testing how deep those liberal values go. And all too often they don't go very deep. So it might be worth religious people asking themselves, is it worth it. Can we get that feeling of belonging without all the public displays of affiliation and overt tribalism? Or is the acknowledgement of strangers really that important to us? 

One thing we need to think about is why some people are happy to define their in-group as "humanity" and why for some it is so much narrower. Why for some people seeing a man in a turban is a delightfully exotic sight, and for another it is a trigger for violence. And we really urgently need to drop any moral rhetoric along the lines of "because they are stupid". Sometimes people are stupid. But pointing this out never really helps. We need to try to get beyond our own simplistic, moralistic judgements and really connect with the values of others. That we might not share those values makes this difficult, because all of us find it difficult to embrace someone who's values are different from ours. But until we understand those values we will not make a connection of the kind that can bring change.


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