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."
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