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.


Conclusion

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.

~~oOo~~


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