23 December 2016

Continuity & Philosophy

I recently used our Order Facebook group to discuss some aspects of karma doctrine. I discovered, with no great surprise, that there were a multitude of views on the subject that spanned the spectrum of historical views: from sutra style views, through Abhidhamma and Madhyamaka, to Yogācāra and various hybrid views. I know for a fact that we have a few secular humanists as well. So there seems to be no coherent view on karma in the Triratna Buddhist Order, and whether or not this even matters is up for discussion. Some of us simply don't care about it. I do find karma a boring subject, but what got me interested was all the internal contradictions in the traditional doctrines. And not just the contradictions that I found, but the historical records of sectarian Buddhists finding fault with each other's views on karma.

In writing up some comments, I revisited a well-known passage from the Milindapañha (Mil). Nāgasena's discussion with King Milinda is interesting in relation to some of the issues I have been highlighting lately in my writing about philosophy (in the PTS translation this discussion starts on p.54. In Pāli, MP 40). The king raises the question of whether the one arising (yo uppajjati, i.e., the one being reborn) is the same [as one the one who died] or different. Nāgasena walks him through the answer in his usual Socratic way
Ns: Is your younger self the same as you present self?
KM: No.
In modern Buddhism is the right answer. However, back when the Mil was being written, this was the wrong answer! Nāgasena replies that if the King was correct then he could have no mother or father, nor could he have had a teacher, nor have mastered a craft, nor cultivated moral habits or wisdom. All these require continuity over time. And Nāgasena locates this continuity in the body, "... all these are held together as a unity in dependence on this body itself" (imameva kāyaṃ nissāya sabbe te ekasaṅgahitā Mil 40)

Nāgasena likens the body to an oil lamp. Although the flame changes constantly as the lamp burns, the lamp itself does not change, at least over the length of a single night. As the King puts it, the lamp was "burning all through the night in dependence on itself." (taṃ yeva nissāya sabbarattiṃ padīpito Mil 40).

I think this view has merit because it makes a sensible distinction between the effervescence of mental states and the relative stability of the body. The persistence of the body over time is also acknowledged at SN 12:61. So, at an early point in Buddhist philosophy, it was OK to admit that objects existed and persisted in time. At this point the problem of persistence only properly concerns dhammas—i.e., mental objects—as this sutta affirms. Mental events arise and cease constantly and do not persist. And it is precisely by paying attention to mental states as dependently arisen that one attains cessation of suffering.

Of course, the idea that something might be a condition or basis (nissāya) for its own existence is problematised by Nāgarjuna. I need to make a few more comments and then I'll come back to this issue.

Coming back to Milandapañha, the texts seems to record a view that existed just prior to dependent arising becoming a theory of everything, as it was for Nāgārjuna, for example. After Nāgārjuna we are forced to apply a rule designed to describe the dynamics of mental events as our main framework for understanding the objective world. Suddenly, nothing at all may persist. Suddenly, we are forced to deny that the lamp persisted through the night! This causes problems because objects (like the lamp) clearly do persist, so Buddhist doctrine now claims to be about ultimate reality but, in fact, it contradicts reality. And although Nāgārjuna seems to have been aware of the problem, he seems also to have avoided back-tracking and committed to ploughing forward with this contradiction, which he rationalises in the metaphysics of the two truths. One error leads to another and, before we know it, we are endorsing paradoxes and other fallacies.

If we step back from this and allow that external objects exist and that they follow a different pattern of evolution from mental events, then there is no need for two truths. What the two truths do is mix up ontology and epistemology (what exists and what we know about it). But this is simply bad philosophy. Perception is patently not reality, so why would we expect the same pattens of evolution to apply to both?

So now we can see why the lamp being a condition for itself is not really a problem. If a mental state were to be the sufficient condition for its own existence, then there are only two possible outcomes: either it always exists (which is forbidden), or it never exists (which makes it irrelevant). And since mental events are constantly arising and ceasing, neither of these options can apply. But these rules don't apply to objects like lamps. The lamp persists because that is what macro-objects can do. This does not mean that it does not change, eventually. Nāgasena may have chosen to use the image of the lamp because another feature of lamps is that they are not consumed by the flame that they sustain. Even when the flame stops, you still have a lamp.

This begs the question of why the universe and the mind follow different patterns of evolution. The answer to this is scale and structure. In my philosophy we admit that the universe is made of one kind of stuff. At the fundamental level it is made of quantum fields. But, depending on at which scale we observe the universe, we see different kinds of objects and different kinds of behaviour. So, yes, the universe is made of one stuff, but that stuff is made into a vast array of objects, each of which may have behaviours that only emerge because of the of structure of the stuff that makes them up. In this view, both substance and structure are real. Indeed, we can talk about a fundamental substance, but not about a fundamental reality. The objective world is real in different ways at different scales. So, if we look at how objects behave at one level of organisation (e.g., our house and the objects in it) there is no reason to expect the same behaviour from objects at a different level (e.g., our brain and neurons). 

Take a pottery lamp. As unfired clay, it has one set of properties. Clay is an aggregate of particles of minerals. It absorbs water, is malleable when wet, and not durable. But, provide enough heat to drive a series of chemical reactions, and the aggregate turns into a new compound in which there are no longer particles but a single new substance with quite different properties. Fired clay is porous but does not absorb water; it is brittle and not malleable, and it is durable over thousands of years. What has changed is the internal structure of the material. Structure makes the difference and it is structures that persist. 

In this view there is still one reality. This one reality is monistic with respect to substance, but it is pluralistic with respect to structure. So the differences between how the objects behave and how our minds behave is not a contradiction, but a confirmation of this ontology.

However, when I say that objects exist and are real, this is not to say that objects are permanent. Nor have Western intellectuals ever considered them to be so. From Heraclitus down the ages, the refrain of the Western intellectual tradition as been: "everything changes" (except God and we got rid of God). Change is a given when talking about existence in my intellectual tradition. In contrast to the Buddhist tradition, existence is always temporary. Our Western view leads to more sensible philosophy (eventually).

If there is one axiom of Buddhist metaphysics that needs to change, it is the idea that existence is equivalent to permanence. This axiom forces us to take up indefensible positions and defend them using irrational arguments, such as those involving paradoxes. And the thing is, there is no need to invoke paradox and, before Nāgārjuna, no Buddhist text does invoke paradox. The Pāḷi suttas acknowledge the difficulty of communicating the experience of liberation, but then immediately go about forming similes, metaphors, and abstractions that attempt the difficult task. They also emphasise that the recipe is not the cake and encourage everyone to see for themselves using the traditional idea that the dhamma is ehipassiko (literally, either "come and see" or "go and see"*). Although there are some wrong ideas and bad philosophy in the early texts, they don't seem to deliberately obfuscate either the process or the outcome.
*The first person singular imperative form of the verb √i 'go' is the same as for the verb ā√i 'come'; i.e. ehi.

Even if objects were permanent, our experience of them would not be, because the object is only half of the equation of experience. Our minds are the other half. However, once dependent arising was accepted as a theory of everything, then epistemology got thoroughly confused with ontology; perception with reality. We are left trying use an explanation suited to one level of reality for all levels of reality. And this never works. 

If we disentangle epistemology from ontology, then Buddhists presents us with many fewer problems. Dependent arising still more or less does the job it was designed to do: explain the arising of mental states, especially from the point of view of those who base their account of the mind on experiences in meditation. Once we peel back the faulty and redundant metaphysics, we are in a much better position to think about our world and our place in it. I don't find karma an interesting subject, per se. I'm not fascinated by supernatural explanations of morality, though; I am more interested in naturalistic explanations of morality. The fact that these contradictions are so obvious in the doctrine of karma is what interests me most about it. Karma is one area of Buddhist thought in which the ancient cracks are fairly obvious and this gives us something to work with.

Orthodoxy clearly changes over time. In some cases, as in our Order, there is hardly any orthodoxy on some subjects. I think most of the Order probably agree that karma is part of our intellectual landscape. Like all social primates, we believe that actions have consequences and how we treat each other is important. Of course, we tend to yoke this to the practice of meditation and the cultivation of altered states of mind.

Most of us want the intellectual equivalent of our emotional/intuitive commitment to "actions have consequences". We want to think we are sensible, rational, and reasonable in taking on these religious doctrines. Unfortunately, I don't think we are, but then, generally speaking, nor is anyone about anything. We just aren't very rational. Given a feeling, we go looking for a justification and we tend to settle on the first one that comes along. We look for confirmation of our beliefs. We uncritically accept ideas that seem to fit our worldview and uncritically reject ideas that don't fit. This is humanity. We just have to be honest with ourselves and work with what we have. 

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