29 April 2011

First Person Perspective

McCory Photography
I've already blogged about Thomas Metzinger a couple of times. In this post I want to write about another of his ideas. His book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self opens with the words "In this book, I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self" and as Buddhists we may immediately feel that this is familiar ground. However Metzinger is not a Buddhist, and sums up the Buddha as a pessimist who posited, "essentially, that life is not worth living". (Ego Tunnel, p.199) Of course I disagree with this summation - the Buddha wasn't a pessimist, and did not say this, although he did place limits on what kind of life is worth living.

In this post I want to look not at Metzinger's book, but at a talk he gave in 2005 as part of the Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul, (available on YouTube) entitled "Being No One" (also the title of a book) which explores the idea of a first person perspective.

Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
I'm not sure where he got these criteria, but after working on the Alagaddūpama Sutta recently I am struck by a parallel. Selfhood in the Pāli texts is often summarised in the phrase:
etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā.
this is mine, I am this, this is my self.
I suggest that:
etaṃ mama = this is mine = mineness.
eso'hamasmi = I am this = centredness.
eso me attā = this is my self = selfhood.
The order is different but the criteria are almost identical. I've recently argued that these are general observations, and not specifically connected with Brahmanical ideas about ātman with which the only minimally overlap.[1] Buddhists will hopefully be familiar with the traditional analytical approach to deconstructing these statements, so I can focus on Metzinger's approach.

Drawing on work by Antonio Damasio and Ronald Melzack, Metzinger proposes we replace the notion of a 'self' with a theoretical entity which he calls a Phenomenal Self Model. This is a representational system, created in the brain, the content of which is us, ourselves. "We" are in fact a simulation. We simulate and emulate ourselves for ourselves, and thereby create what we call consciousness. This model is rooted in our proprioceptive sense (the information derived from muscle tension, inner-ear and other bodily sensations) according to Melzack; and in our bodily systems (especially endocrine, blood and viscera) and emotions according to Damasio. These (probably both) generate a constant input which is modelled in the brain for the purposes of regulation and optimisation. This model is sub-personal, it is not a 'person' in our heads directing our actions (there is no homunculus as it used to be called). What we call our 'self' is in fact simply a representation of our bodily, and mental states, combined with a representation of representing (reflexive awareness).

However this model is transparent to us - we do not understand ourselves to be relating to a model of reality, we understand ourselves to be relating to reality. This is because the processes which generate the model are not available to introspection - they happen too fast, and too seamlessly for us to see them. There was a clear evolutionary advantage to having this ability to model reality and use that model to guide our actions; but there is no advantage in knowing that we are doing this - we see a danger and react, but to complicate things by seeing the picture of a danger in our head as a picture would only slow our reactions down, and we would not survive. For Metzinger the transparency of the Phenomenal Self Model is a strong limit that we cannot break through. It only becomes obvious through detailed analysis of what goes wrong with consciousness in specific brain injuries. We are all naive realists according to Metzinger, i.e we think we interact directly with reality, because that is how it feels. It is probably this naive realism that makes us resistant to reductive explanations of consciousness - whether Buddhist or scientific. The mechanisms of consciousness are not available to introspection, but we feel (want, assume) it to be something more than simple biological processes, and we are baffled by complexity generally so we think of consciousness as something rather magical. We may be wrong.

Metzinger's critique of the idea of a first-person perspective centres on the way that the Phenomenal Self Model can go wrong. In the case of "mineness" for example, we get cases where our thoughts do not seem to under our control, as in schizophrenia. In unilateral hemi-neglect a person may not recognise their limbs as their own. In alien hand syndrome one of the hands appears to act independently of our conscious will. Likewise some delusional people experience everything that happens as caused by their intention - Metzinger relates meeting a person who stood all day looking out the window making the sun move. In the rubber-hand experiment we find that an artificial hand can become included in our body image by confusing the physical and visual senses. Finally he cites the case of a woman born with no arms or legs who never-the-less has phantom limb sensations. Having never had limbs where could such phantoms come from if not the brain itself? The sense of mineness is actually prone to error in many ways which would not be possible if it actually reflected our bodies. The sense of ownership is generated within the Phenomenal Self Model, within the brain.

Similarly the sense of selfhood is prone to malfunction. Various disorders of the dissociative type show that what R. D. Laing called 'ontological security' is by no means assured, and some people experience a complete breakdown of their sense of being a self, while remaining conscious. Or we may, through delusion, wrongly identify ourselves as some other person.

The first person perspective also capable of being disrupted: in out of body experiences for instance (which Metzinger has vivid experience of); and in mystical experiences of oneness with the universe. Compare Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her stroke in which the left-hemisphere of her brain shut down. (TED) Taylor's description of the breakdown of the first person perspective is similar to the mystical experience sometimes called oceanic boundary loss that is described by mystics of many traditions. Note that Taylor lost all language, the ability to speak, memory of who she was, and the ability to walk, but she did not lose consciousness nor the ability to make intentions or memories. However Taylor associates "I am" with the left hemisphere of the brain which "shut down" during here stroke - she remained conscious and aware, but with no sense of "I am".

So Metzinger argues that all of this plasticity and bugginess [my choice of terms] in the three qualities tells us that they do not exist as such, but are elements of a simulation. Consciousness, self-consciousness is a virtual reality. He sums up the idea with an annotated statement about the process of cognition.
I myself [the content of the currently active transparent self model] am seeing this object [the content of the transparent object-representation] and I am seeing it right now [as an element within a virtual window of presence (i.e. working memory)] with my own eyes [the simple story about "direct" sensory perception, which suffices for the evolutionary purposes of the brain].
He says "of course you don't see with your eyes!" We see with our visual perception systems. But we cannot experience these systems working, we just experience seeing. In the final part of the lecture two questions emerge from the the title of the lecture series which concerns the question of "the immortality of the soul". The first is: is the self an illusion? "For the self to be an illusion," says Metzinger, "there would have to be someone whose illusion it was, and there is no one," thus: "if it is an illusion, it is no one's illusion". The second question relates to immortality, and to this idea he says: "strictly speaking nobody is ever born, and nobody ever dies". His phrasing perhaps suggests a Vedanta outlook (we know he meditates but not in what tradition).

Having begun with the familiar and traversed some unfamiliar territory, we find ourselves back on familiar ground with these last statements. It sounds a lot like Buddhism - from a non-Buddhist scientific philosopher. But note that Metzinger is saying that the process is transparent, that it is not available to introspection - he does not seem to allow for a radical change in consciousness like bodhi. In traditional Buddhist terms there is no possibility of direct contact with reality - this becomes a contradiction in terms because consciousness is only a simulation. In my own terms, which derive mainly from the writing of Sue Hamilton, he does not allow for access to the khandhas, the apparatus of experience: he allows for no insight into the creation of a first person perspective which might allow for liberation from it in a positive sense. I believe, to some extent I know, that in meditation the Self Model becomes opaque and available to introspection.

In The Ego Tunnel Metzinger explores some of the ethical and even spiritual implications of his theory, and here he says some very interesting and attractive things which I will try to write about at some point. For more on Metzinger's theory see the self-model page on Scholarpedia.

  1. In making this claim I am consciously and explicitly contradicting both K. R. Norman and Richard Gombrich who see this particular phrase as a specific echo of the early Upaniṣads - Chāndogya in the case of Norman, and Bṛhadāranyaka for Gombrich. Part of my rebuttal is précised in the post Early Buddhists-and ātman/brahman - while the whole argument is set out in a longer but not quite finished essay. Suffice it to say, I do see a connection of a sort, but nothing to indicate that the Buddha had any direct contact with Upaniṣadic sages or was directly dealing with issues central to their texts. The papers I am thinking of are:
    • Gombrich, Richard. (1990) 'Recovering the Buddha’s Message.' The Buddhist Forum: Seminar Papers 1987-88. Ed. T. Skorupski, London, SOAS.
    • Norman, K. R. (1981) 'A note on attā in the Alagaddūpama-sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy (Memorial volume for Pandit Sukhlaji Sanghvi), Ahmedabad, pp. [Reprinted in Collected Papers, Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1991; vol. ii, p.200-209.]

22 April 2011

Parallels to the Kālāma Sutta

THE KĀLĀMA SUTTA is probably over-rated. It is an interesting sutta, but far too much has been claimed for it, and so it has become something of an albatross around the neck of Buddhists. It's wrongly quoted in support of a raft of ideas, many rooted in 19th Century Romanticism, that appeal to modern Buddhists but that don't have much to do with traditional Buddhism.

Still, it was a good exercise to translate it, and see for myself what it actually says. I concluded that far from being a "charter for free enquiry" as Soma Thera has suggested, it is a more of an apologetic for Buddhist morality. The text basically says this: "if you are an intelligent person, then you will be a good Buddhist". It is aimed at people who are already Buddhist, so it is really saying, "congratulations on choosing Buddhism as your religion, the choice of all right-thinking people". The morality it portrays is attractive, however, because it it is located in relationship with other people. We Buddhists can often talk about 'skilful' and 'unskilful' actions in the abstract, but in the Kālāma Sutta it's clear that these terms convey qualities of how we relate to people.

In any case, the Kālāma Sutta is puzzling in some respects. Although teachers who "proclaim one thing and dispute everything else" are cited, we never quite find out what they teach, nor why they disagree. And, although the sutta portrays the ideal Buddhist as dwelling in the brahmavihāras, we are not told how this relates to the morality preceding it. Nor is it clear how the four consolations at the end of the sutta relate to the rest of it.

So it was with interest that I stumbled on the Pāṭaliya Sutta (SN 42.13; PTS S iv.340). Although the setting is different, this is basically the same story as the Kālāma Sutta. [1] Here the Buddha is in Koliya, rather than Kosala, and the town is called Uttara, instead of Kesaputta. The teaching is delivered to a single person, rather than to a group. However, the outline of part iii of this sutta is the same as the Kālāma Sutta, and many of the same standard phrases occur in the same places. In the Pāṭaliya various teachers come and teach different things, though this time the teachings are spelled out as various extreme views on the connection between actions and consequences. One can see why their views conflict because they take diametrically opposed stances. However, the result is the same: doubt and perplexity. The solution here, though, is to achieve concentration of dhamma and concentration of mind.

One begins by practising the ten right actions. [2] One who abandons the unskilful states of mind dwells in the brahmavihāra states - mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā. So here the connection between morality and the brahmavihāras is explicit. Contra later traditions, here one cultivates loving kindness, compassion, etc., primarily through practising the precepts; that is, primarily through cultivating non-harming (and its corollaries) towards other people. Rather than a seated meditation practice, here the brahmavihāras seem to emerge from personal interactions. From this sublime state of constantly relating to all beings on the basis of kindness and compassion, elsewhere compared to liberation itself, one is able to reflect properly on the content of the various teachings on actions and consequences.

But here's the thing: the text does not untangle the views of these other teachers. It just says that whatever the truth is, the Buddhist is better off (like the Kālāma Sutta this text is a Buddhist apologetic). Whatever the various doctrines are, the virtuous person, dwelling in brahmavihāras, knows that they themselves never oppress anyone and, therefore, in each case, they are "lucky both ways": in this life, and in any future life, they are protected by their harmless lifestyle. There is no attempt to engage with the metaphysics of the various doctrines and ideologies. This lack of interest in metaphysics seems to underlie the argument that it doesn't matter what you believe - "Buddhism without beliefs", as it is sometimes called. And, maybe, it doesn't so long as you relate to all beings with loving kindness and compassion and sympathy. In reality, the view that it doesn't matter what you believe is a philosophical fudge. The text is very much in the camp of saying that actions do have consequences, and that we can think of those consequences, at the very least as desirable and undesirable, but probably in terms of good and evil, as well. And this is a very definite metaphysical position on actions having consequences. Only an naive reading of the Kālāna Sutta concludes that it doesn't matter what you believe, but here in the Pāṭaliya Sutta it is much more clear.

Knowing that they are protected by their own virtue, the ideal Buddhist experiences joy, rapture, serenity, bliss and concentration (pamojja, pīti, passadhi, sukha, samādhi) . These are the central steps on the Spiral Path (or upanisās, as I call them) and the steps that unite all the textual variations of the Spiral Path. I also see them relating to the jhānas. With joy as a base, I think each item from rapture to samādhi represents the primary quality of a series of increasingly refined states of consciousness roughly equivalent to the first four jhānas.

It is from integration (samādhi) that one is able to dispel perplexity. From a state of equanimous absorption one is able to see things as they are. Though this text leaves the reader at samādhi, dozens of other texts make it clear that it is on the basis of samādhi that knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) arises.

The Pāṭaliya Sutta has some advantages over the Kālāma Sutta. Firstly, the details of the story are more complete. The kinds of teachings which perplex are spelled out, and it is clear why anyone espousing those views would vehemently disagree with other views. The argument is over whether actions have consequences. Some argue that there are no consequences. One graphic image used for this is going along the banks of the Ganges killing or mutilating every living being. One teacher argues that no evil will result, another that it most certainly will result in evil. Note here that we are not arguing over whether the act itself is evil - we are concerned with consequences. This is a feature of Indian moral philosophy as portrayed in Buddhist texts (whether this is a genuine portrait of Indian moral philosophy is a moot point).

The method of the Buddha is also spelled out, and more clearly linked to the threefold path of morality, meditation and wisdom. Because it incorporates the Spiral Path, this is a more coherent telling of the story. The Spiral Path has the special function of showing how liberation is possible. Without it, it is more difficult to see how the unawakened can create the conditions for awakening through living an ethical life, through paying attention in particular ways, and through contemplations leading to seeing through (vipassana). [3]

This sutta also allows us to see how the four consolations of the ideal Buddhist (ariya-savaka) relate to the views being expressed by the various teachers, and to "being lucky both ways". They aren't stand alone ideas, but link back to the morality under discussion.

This story is told in full no less than three times in the Canon, each time in a different place to a different audience (see note 1). So we should careful about associating it too strongly with the Kālāmas. It's a story, remembered in several different forms. In addition, there are cross-over points with some other stories. I think these examples of multiple recensions of stories, with substantial differences, represent different oral lineages. Though I don't have the patience or the skill to do so, I predict that through a detailed examination of the language used in these parallel versions of stories it would be possible to identify lineages of story telling. I gather, for instance, that there are stylistic and even linguistic differences between the various nikāyas - though these might be due to the collators imposing a 'house style' on their collection.

All this goes to show that while making an accurate translation is invaluable, sometimes reading a sutta in context is as important if we are going to understand it fully. And filling out the context can mean painstaking work identifying parallels and related texts. Sometimes the differences between recensions of a story can tell us more than the similarities.


  1. The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) is repeated more or less verbatim in the next sutta AN 3.66 (A i.190) where it is spoken by the Elder Nandaka to Sāḷha and Rohaṇa; AN 4.193 (A ii.190) contains all of the parts dealing with morality and crossovers with SN 42.13 (S iv.340) which itself spells out the doctrines being disputed (and shows that the consolations are related to them) and that the brahmavihāras are related to the practice of morality; MN 56 (M i.375) shares the SN 42.13 framing story of magical powers for converting other religieux. We should also read the sutta in the light of MN 136 which shows that predicting karmic outcomes is difficult, and MN 60 about alternatives to believing in karma and rebirth.
  2. i.e., abstention from killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, harsh, divisive and idle speech, covetousness, aversion and wrong views - aka the Ten Precepts which are followed by members of the Triratna Order, and by Shingon Buddhists. Sangharakshita has written that: " abstention from killing living beings, or love... is the most direct and most important manifestation of the spiritual and existential act of Going for Refuge. Moreover, it is a principle that finds expression, in one way or another, and to a greater or lesser degree, not only in the First Precept itself, but in all the other Precepts as well." (The Ten Pillars, p.53)
  3. More than once I have been tempted to suggest that we stop using 'insight' as a translation, as the word has other uses in general conversation. Vipassana is from vi- with several senses, but here probably meaning 'through'; and passana 'seen' (a past participle from √paś 'to see'. So in-sight 'to see into' is not accurate in any case! Through-sight would be more accurate. We could replace it with the Greek derived term diaphany, on the model of epiphany. The -phany part comes from the verb phainein "to show"; while dia- means 'across or though' and is very likely cognate with Sanskrit vi- which also ultimately derives from the PIE word for 'two'. So diaphany means 'showing through, or seeing through'. It would be related to diaphanous 'transparent'. The advantage being that we could use insight for it's intended purpose of talking about self knowledge.

15 April 2011

Another Version of the Spiral Path

jacobs ladder as illustration of the Spiral PathI have now identified more than two dozen texts which describe the Spiral Path. [1] Two more recently came to my attention. AN 10.61 and 10.62 are the same except that AN 10.62 adds 'craving for becoming' at the bottom of the spiral. These two texts are significantly different from all other Spiral Path texts. For one thing there is a downward spiral and an upward one, which both seem to operate on the same principle. The nodes on the path are distinctive, though reminiscent of the path outlined in the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2). The central sequence from pamojja to samādhi, a feature of virtually all the other Spiral variations is entirely missing. From the morality related nodes we go into a meditation phase of a different sort. The wisdom phase is collapsed into one node and does not highlight the distinction between the experience of liberation and the knowledge of liberation. What makes this a Spiral Path is the syntax, and the presence of the rain simile. Below is a condensation of the two texts combined. [2]

Spiral path at 10.61 & 10.62
The beginning of craving-for-becoming isn’t clear. And yet craving-for-becoming has a specific condition (idappaccaya).

Craving-for-becoming is fed, and fulfilled by ignorance,
Ignorance is fed, and fulfilled by the five hindrances,
The five hindrances are fed, and fulfilled by the three bad courses,
The three bad courses fed, and fulfilled by the non-restraint of the senses,
Non-restraint of senses is fed, and fulfilled by the unmindfulness and inattentiveness,
Unmindfulness and inattentiveness are fed, and fulfilled by unwise attention,
Unwise attention is fed, and fulfilled by lack of faith,
Lack of faith is fed, and fulfilled by not hearing the good teaching,
Not hearing the good teaching is fed and fulfilled by not associating with good people.

Association with good people feeds and fulfils hearing the true teaching,
Hearing the true teaching feeds and fulfils faith,
Faith feeds and fulfils wise attention,
Wise attention feeds and fulfils mindfulness and attentiveness,
Mindfulness and attentiveness feeds and fulfils sense restraint,
Sense restraint feeds and fulfils the three good courses,
The three good courses feed and fulfil the fours foundations of mindfulness,
The four foundations of mindfulness feed and fulfil the seven bodhi factors,
The seven bodhi factors feed and fulfil liberation through knowledge.

Just as, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains, water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies; having filled the crevices and gullies, small lakes, and the great lakes are filled; the great lakes being filled the small rivers fill up; the small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
In Pāli the terms for the second, upward path are:
  • sappurisa-saṃseva - association with good people.
  • saddhammassavana - hearing the true dhamma
  • saddhā -faith
  • yoniso-manasikāra - wise attention
  • sati-sampajañña - mindfulness and attentiveness
  • indriya-saṃvara - restraint of the sense faculties
  • tīṇi sucaritāni - three good courses (i.e. good actions of body, speech and mind)
  • cattāro satipaṭṭhānā - four foundations of mindfulness
  • satta bojjhaṅgā - seven factors of bodhi.
  • vijjāvimutti - liberation through wisdom
What we have here is a collation of other lists into a coherent spiritual path according to the Spiral Path paradigm. There are some interesting features of these lists. Both suttas begin by invoking idappaccaya 'specific condition'. This is an important aspect of paṭiccasamuppāda. The literally meaning is 'grounded on this' where ida is short for idaṃ 'this' the deictic (or pointing) pronoun. Idaṃ refers to something immediately present to, perhaps even within the grasp of, the speaker in Pāli. The term conveys the idea that what's being talked about has a specific condition (paccaya). Both paccaya and paṭicca come from the verb pati+√i which means 'resting on, foundation'. Although some commentators describe the relation of paṭicca/paccaya as causal, it is incorrect to think in terms of 'this causes that'. The words indicate a conditional relationship: 'with this condition in place, that arises'.

Note that the specific condition for faith is hearing the dhamma. Faith here does not arise on the basis of practice or personal experience, but either through the intellectual understanding, the intuitive grasp of what is heard; or the charisma of the speaker. This seems to contradict the usual modern narratives about faith being based on personal experience (hence the cliché that Buddhism doesn't require blind faith). From experience, as we see in complimentary texts like AN 6.10 or AN 11.12, arises 'confirmed confidence' or 'definite clarity' (aveccapasāda) not faith. I've not seen this distinction made before, and plan to return to this theme in a future post.

In the upward spiral to the restraint of senses the nodes are very similar to other Spiral Path texts (e.g. DN2, SN 55.40, MN 7 etc). Then we have three sub-lists. The three good courses, the four foundations, and the seven bodhi-factors. This is similar to the list found in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) where ānāpānasati fulfils (paripūri) the four foundations and seven bodhi-factors as well, and leads to vijjāvimutti. Note the use of the same verb.

The prefix in sappurisa and saddhamma is a contraction of sant (or Sanskrit sat). This is a present participle of the verb √as 'to be' (related to English is) and means 'being; true, real, actual; good'. The related word sacca (Skt. satya) is 'truth, reality'. So a sap-purisa is a true or good man, in the moral sense (a 'good' Buddhist). Similarly the sad-dhamma is the 'true or correct teaching'.

Vijjāvimutti seems like an unusual term to me. As PED notes vijjā is usually only secondary when it comes to bodhi. The opposite of avijjā is more often ñāṇa 'knowledge'. Vijjā is often associated with mundane, worldly knowledge on the one hand; and with esoteric or occult knowledge on the other. Later in tantric Buddhism vidyā is used as a synonym for mantra. Of course there are the tevijjā, the three types of knowledge which constitute the intellectual content of the Buddha's awakening, though this formulation seems to be a conscious parody of the Brahmanical triveda, the three books of sacred revelations. In his Saṃyutta translation Bodhi translates vijjāvimutti as a dvandva compound "true knowledge & liberation". The latter is justified in a note (p.1904, n68) which points to the phrase vijjā ca vimutti ca at SN 45.159 (PTS S v.52) and (PTS v.329) which says the bodhi-factors fulfil two things, i.e. vijjāvimutti. So vijjā here may well signify seeing through (vipassana) or knowledge & vision of things as they are (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) which results in liberation (vimutti).

Another interesting feature of these two texts is way the nodes are linked. Each sutta gives two sequences, both linked in two ways. Firstly the nodes are the food (āhāra) for next node. Secondly each node fulfils (paripūri) the next. The former, āhara, is possibly interesting because it is a typically Vedic expression - the sacrifice becomes food for the devas for instance, or it can refer to Soma which both feeds the devas, and inspires the ṛṣi. However we must temper this suspicion by reading it along with SN 46.2 which compares the way the five hindrances are sustained by the 'food' of e.g. careless attention (ayoniso manisikāra) to 'signs' (nimitta), with the way that the body is sustained by food: i.e. the metaphor is simply a reference to eating, and probably not a reference to Vedic metaphysics in this case. The latter is the verb used in the rain simile which is found in many other places, but notably in the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23) taken by all commentators to date as the locus classicus of the Spiral Path (though I would say it should be AN 11.2!). The root is √pṛ 'to fill' used in the causative form pūreti 'to cause to be filled' and with the prefix pari- here most likely indicating 'completeness' so that paripūreti means 'to fulfil, to complete, to perfect'. We also have the action noun paripūri 'filled up, fulfilled'. So these two metaphors - feeding and fulfilling - give an insight into the nature of idappaccaya, and into paṭiccasamuppāda.

The kind of progression here, though linked to the more typical Spiral Path imagery, is also typical of some texts which talk about the bojjhaṅgas - the bodhi-factors - particularly the suttas of the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta (SN 46). Indeed we can see the bojjhaṅgas in this context as another distinct formulation of progressive conditionality.

So these two suttas are drawing together material from a number of different formulations of the path: Spiral Path, ānāpānasati, and the bodhi-factors. And presenting them as a sequence to be followed. This kind of progressive path seems to be typical of Buddhism even beyond the early Buddhist texts - Buddhism is a path. Later in the development of Buddhist thought the path metaphor is replaced by other metaphors which emphasise being rather than doing. These constellate around the notion of the tathāgata-garbha which itself draws on Brahmanical ātman 'contained within the cave of the heart'. My (untested) opinion is that doctrines like tathāgata-garbha (and aspects of Yogacāra) had to be innovated partly because the Spiral Path teaching was lost. The loss of the Spiral Path left Buddhists wondering how liberation could be possible for the deluded, grasping and hating individual.

  1. My current list of Spiral path texts includes:
    • Samaññāphala Sutta (DN 2; repeated at DN 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )
    • Dasuttara Sutta (DN 34)
    • Vatthūpama Sutta (MN 7; repeated at MN 40)
    • Kandaraka Sutta (MN 51)
    • Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23)
    • Pamādavihārī Sutta (SN 35.97)
    • Pāṭaliya Sutta (SN 42.13)
    • Nandiya Sutta (SN 55.40)
    • Parisā Sutta (AN 3.96) – partial to samādhi only.
    • Vimuttāyatana Sutta (AN 5.26)
    • Mahānāma Sutta (AN 6.10)
    • Satisampajañña Sutta (AN 8.81; truncated at AN 7.65, AN 6.50, AN 5.24 & 5.168)
    • Kimatthiya Sutta (AN 10.1 = AN 11.1)
    • Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta (AN 10.2 = AN 11.2)
    • Paṭhama-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.3 = AN 11.3)
    • Dutiya- & Tatiya-upanisā Suttas (AN 10.4 & 10.5; = AN 11.4 & 11.5)
    • Avijjā Sutta (AN 10.61)
    • Bhavataṇha (AN 10.62)
    • Dutiyamahānāma Sutta (AN 11.12)
    • Visuddhimagga (Vism i.32)
  2. craving for becoming in AN 10.62 only.

08 April 2011

Positive Criteria for Moral Decision Making in The Kālāma Sutta

LAST WEEK I DWELT in some detail on the negative criteria in the Kālāma Sutta - trying to tease out the intended meaning of the terms individually and collectively. My conclusion was that the intention of the text was not to provide general decision making criteria, or to encourage 'free thinking' - as the popular account would have it - but to link thinking about morality to experience. This week I'll be continuing my exploration of the Kālāma Sutta taking up where I left off by looking at the positive criteria that follow and showing that the 'experiences' in which decisions about what we should do, or how we should live are rooted in our relationships to other people.

The positive section of the text begins like this:
Yadā tumhe, kālāmā, attanāva jāneyyātha – ‘ime dhammā akusalā, ime dhammā sāvajjā, ime dhammā viññugarahitā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā ahitāya dukkhāya saṃvattantī’ti, atha tumhe, kālāmā, pajaheyyātha.

When you know for yourselves -- 'these things are unskilful, these things are offensive, these things are criticised by the intelligent, these things undertaken and accomplished result in harm and misery' -- then you should abandon them.
The word kusala (Sanskrit kuśala) means 'clever, skilful, expert'; and therefore in the moral sphere 'good, meritorious', where it is synonymous with puñña 'merit'. None of my dictionaries offers an etymology for kusala, and I cannot propose one. This leads me to suspect that, like other words beginning with 'ku' (e.g., kumāra), it might be a loan word from the Munda family of languages.[1]

It's not unusual to read this injunction to abandon the unskilful separately from what comes after, but this can lead to doubtful conclusions. Immediately following this paragraph is a series of questions and answers which we can easily condense. The Buddha asks the Kālāmas about the effects when craving, aversion, or confusion arise inwardly in a person. The Kālāmas agree that when these arise it is harmful because the result is that, overwhelmed and overcome by these mental/emotional states, the person causes physical harm, takes what is not given, goes with others' sexual partners, and speaks falsely. They encourage others to behave like this as well. The message here is that behaviour rooted in unskilful states is harmful. The whole passage is about how we should live; i.e., morality, not what we should think or believe. It is not about assessing spiritual teachings or philosophical positions generally. This is further emphasised when the Kālāmas agree that such behaviour is offensive (sāvajja) [2], criticised by intelligent people, and results in harm and misery. The whole passage is repeated accentuating the positive, i.e., that acting from non-craving, non-aversion, non-confusion is beneficial. We note that the Kālāmas are apparently in full agreement with the Buddha about morality and virtue.

The next section of the sutta describes the ideal Buddhist (ariya-savaka) dwelling in the four brahmavihāras: mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā. This description is not linked to what comes before in the Kālāma Sutta. However, if we compare the version at SN 42.13, then we see that what is intended is that the person who cultivates virtue ends up dwelling in these four sublime states. This is a point I have not seen made before. Here the cultivation of these qualities (mettā, etc.) is achieved through practising virtue, not through seated meditation! The brahmavihāra states are seen as active, and characterise the quality of our relationships and interactions with other people. The precepts can be seen to epitomise the kind of behaviour that conduces to brahmavihāra. So it becomes clear that "these things" (ime dhammā) are not 'things' in general, but our willed acts of body, speech and mind in relation to other people.

Many readers and commentators seem to have taken this sutta as suggesting that it's up to each of us to decide for ourselves how to think or behave. They take it as a confirmation that the Buddha preached something like the Romantic view of natural virtue spontaneously emerging in the individual free of social constraints. [3] In fact the Buddha's view was not like this at all. For the Buddha, the way of virtue was one of restraint (saṃvara) and vigilance (appamāda); where remorse (hiri) and shame (ottappa) were uppermost in the mind; and one restricted sensory input by guarding the senses (indriyesu guttadvāra) and carefully avoiding contact with disturbing influences (yoniso manasikāra). Buddhist morality, as we find it in these early sources, is in fact about carefully and strictly conforming to a set of norms which provides the mental clarity and calm that enable effective meditation. The Buddha apparently had more in common with Puritans than with Romantics!

The reader influenced by this Romantic view finds a contradiction between the negative criteria "don't use 'we respect the toiler'" ( samaṇo no garu) and the positive criteria "these things criticised by intelligent people... should be abandoned" (ime dhammā viññugarahitā... pajaheyyātha). The conflict here arises because of reading the former as saying we shouldn't listen to anyone else's opinion, and the latter as the opposite - and such readers usually have clear preference for the former! A little historical info might be useful at this point. The samaṇas were a mixed bunch. At the extreme end were people who believed that any action caused harm, and that the future effects of karma could be mitigated through suffering in the present. As a result they tortured themselves, and the apotheosis of their practice was to sit down rigidly unmoving, and starve to death. The story goes that the Buddha himself once followed this path, but abandoned it at the last minute, before finding his own path. At the other end were samaṇas who were utter nihilists, believing that no action could possibly have consequences. If I am correct about how to read this text then the Kālāmas were asking who they should follow; i.e., whose morals should they should emulate. And emulating a person torturing themselves or starving themselves to death, or emulating someone who did not believe in moral consequences, would not be sensible (at least from the Buddhist point of view). One might feed a samaṇa out of generosity, or to gain merit. One might politely listen to their dhamma. But to emulate their morality would be folly.

On the other hand, consider who is meant by viññū (Sanskrit vijña). The word is often translated as 'the wise' but really just means 'knowledgeable'. The viññū are simply intelligent people, wiser in the sense of 'older and wiser' perhaps, not necessarily in the sense of awakened. The Cūḷaniddesa provides a representative list of synonyms for viññū: learned (paṇḍito), sensible (paññavā), intelligent (buddhimā), knowledgeable (ñāṇī), clear-headed (vibhāvī), and clever (medhāvī) [Nd ii 125]. I suggest that in fact they were probably the older members of the community - elders who were skilled at inter-personal relationships and had learned how to get on with everyone. We still rely on these people in groups to help navigate personal differences between members. So in fact there is no contradiction in these two criteria when they are seen in the proper context. Together they tell us not to pay attention to extremists, but emulate those who have the practical skill of getting along with people.

Against the Romantic view we must also balance another fact. If you read through the Vinaya you will find an enormous number of rules are made because the monks upset the villagers and towns-people with their impiety. I've noted passages, for instance, where people complained about monks singing like villagers (Vin ii.108), I've written about the episode of the sneeze. Similarly the Buddha tells the monks not to insist on a particular language, but to use the local dialect (Vin ii.139 & M iii 234-5). The rules of etiquette in the Vinaya were very much concerned with social harmony, and to some extent were a negotiation between the lay people and the bhikkhus. Most of the rules can be seen as curbing the natural impulses - especially the sexual impulses - of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

To quote Jamie Lee Curtis's character in A Fish Called Wanda: "The central message of Buddhism is not 'every man for himself!'" [4] Indeed, the morality outlined in the Kālāma Sutta is quite the opposite of this. Nor is it about 'cause and effect' in a mechanical sense. The feedback that we need for understanding morality comes from interacting with other people. I would go so far as to suggest that the idea of the individual in the sense that we mean it in the modern West - the individual with rights and autonomy - is completely absent from the Buddhist canon. It is true that the Buddha recommended solitary meditation for the purposes of attaining liberation. But this was a solitary retreat in many cases lasting only days or weeks. In fact, everyone in the canon can be seen as embedded in the fabric of society. Even the renouncers who gave up the home life remained in relationship with householders - depending on them for food, clothing and (at times) shelter.

Reading this sutta in Pāli, studying it in detail, pondering the meaning of it, and looking into the parallel texts has changed my thinking about Buddhist morality. I had not seen how morality is rooted in social interactions. It has made me see that Western Buddhist discussions on morality are, on the whole, far too abstract and too often divorced from the context of human relationships. Ironically, I imagine my main Buddhist teacher would be surprised to see that I had not understood this earlier. It is one of the central points that he makes in his 1984 book on morality: The Ten Pillars of Buddhism (which examines the ten precepts collectively and individually). He says for instance:
The Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings. (p.57)
What's more, thinking about this text has helped to make clear the value of Sangha, of living amongst a community that shares our values, and appreciates the virtues we cultivate; and which can reflect back both our successes and our failings in a helpful way. We need to participate in a particular kind of moral ecology; to interact with people on this shared basis. Without this positive social environ-ment we are seriously hampered in trying to lead a good life as understood by the Buddha in the Kālāma Sutta.


  1. The only related form I can identify is kusalatā 'skilfulness' which tells us nothing. Kusa is the name of a grass (Poa cynosuroides aka Desmostachya bipinnata) but I can see no connection. Loan words from Munda are discussed in: Witzel, Michael. (1999) 'Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).' Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 5 (1). http://www.ejvs.laurasianacademy.com/index.html
  2. Sāvajja is often translated as 'blameable', but this strikes me as an awkward expression. Sāvajja parses as sa- 'with' + avajja. There is some dispute over the etymology of avajja, though the obvious a-vajja (= Sanskrit a-vadya) is thought unlikely by PED. Childers considered this to be related to hypothetical Sanskrit *ava-varjya < *ava-vraj 'not forbidden' though this doesn't fit the usage since we are discussing bad behaviour. PED notes that the Pāli commentarial tradition prefers ava-vad (Skt *ava-vadya) 'to blame'; however cf BHSD which lists avavāda = Pāli ovāda. PED defines avajja as 'low, inferior, bad'. C.f. BHSD avadya-bhīru 'dreading reproach'. MW also lists avadya as 'low, blameable'; c.f. MW ava-dyat 'breaking off'. I think PED is probably wrong here and the simplest explanation is that avajja = Sanskrit avadya. Avajja then literally means 'not spoken of, unmentionable'. In plain language doing something conventionally unmentionable is 'offensive'.
  3. David L McMahan traces this line of thought to Buddhist modernisers, e.g. Dwight Goddard and especially D. T. Suzuki. (The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press, 2008.) See especially chapter 5 - where my main Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, is also mentioned. Another view on Romanticism and Buddhism is articulated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro in a recorded lecture: Buddhist Romanticism [the main part of the lecture is about 25 mins.]
  4. The full quote is "Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not 'Every man for himself.' And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up." IMDB.

image: The Three Graces. Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822)

01 April 2011

Negative Criteria for Moral Decision Making in The Kālāma Sutta

moralityIN THE KĀLĀMA SUTTA the Buddha provides a list of negative criteria for making moral decisions. These are quite interesting, but I don't think any of the mainstream translations really captures what's going on. We all seem to agree that the criteria form sets, but the translations offered don't seem to hang together as sets. What's more, some of the translated criteria seem counter-intuitive or confusing. This may be because the terms are vague, or in some way unusual. What follows is my attempt to combine etymology with historical and textual context to tease out more connected meanings and translations of the terms used so they makes sense on their own, and also form natural sets in English.

The general formula is mā X-ena - i.e., the prohibitive particle 'don't' with a word in the instrumental case, and no verb. The sentence then means 'don't use X to do something', and we are left to discover what the something is from the context. Clearly, the context shows that the something is making a decision about morality, about how to behave. I'll just mention that Buddhaghosa's commentary supplies the verb gaṇhittha which I take to be the second person aorist of gaṇhati ' to grasp, seize, take hold' - the combination of + a verb in the 2nd person aorist forms a strong prohibition. Though this raises the further question of 'don't seize what with X?'

The same set of criteria are used in the commentaries (DA iii.879 & SA ii.308) as part of the explanation of the phrase ekaṃso gahito (SN 47.12, and elsewhere). In SN 47.12 the Buddha is describing Sāriputta's declaration of trust (pasanna) that the Buddha is more knowledgeable (bhiyyobhiññataro) than anyone -- past, present or future -- on the subject of sambodhi. He says that Sāriputta's statement has ekaṃsa gahito 'grasped certainty ' (gahito is the past-participle of gaṇhati). Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this phrase as an adjective -- 'definitive' -- of the next phrase: "a definitive, categorical lions roar". (Connected Discourses, p.1641) Here the Buddha accepts Sāriputta's inferred knowledge of the Buddha's attainment as trustworthy which I'll come back when discussing nayahetu below.

Coming back to the Kālāma Sutta. The list of criteria in Pāli, with my translation, is:
mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piṭakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samaṇo no garūti. (A i.189)

Don’t use revelation, don’t use lineage, don’t use  quotation and story, don’t use tradition; don’t use pure reason, or inference, or the study of signs, or speculation, don't just accept what seems likely; don’t use respect for a toiler.
We begin with anussava which comes from √śru 'to hear'. In this kind of context what is heard is religious teachings. The Vedas, for instance, are known as śruti 'the result of hearing' or more aptly 'revealed'. The suffix anu- means 'after, along, along with'. This and the next three terms can all be translated as 'tradition', PED has "hearsay, report, tradition", but each of our terms brings out a different aspect of tradition. Buddhaghosa merely supplies the gloss anussavakatha 'talk of tradition'. My sense of this word is that it reflects the origins of tradition in revealed truths, and that it not only forms a set with the next three items, but that they form a sequence.

Next, we have parampara: literally this means 'another and another', i.e., 'one after another', or 'a succession'. We might translate it as 'lineage.' This refers to the passing on of revealed truths from teacher to student generation after generation. In the parallel list in his commentary on SN 47.12 Buddhaghosa substitutes ācariya-paramparāya, i.e., a lineage of teachers. This kind of succession of teaching receives a sharp criticism in the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13), where the Buddha suggests that what is passed on is only empty words (appāṭihīra-kathaṃ). He doesn't accept the original revelation because it is not based on personal experience (sakkhidiṭṭhi). Buddhaghosa, again, merely glosses paramparakatha 'talk of succession'.

Then comes itikirā, which is a (dvandva) compound of two words used to indicate quoted speech: iti & kirā. The two words together as a compound occur only infrequently (here, A ii.190, and in the commentaries on these texts). PED says that kirā is used in continuous story, whereas iti is used in direct or indirect speech. PED suggests 'hearsay', but I think the context makes this more specific and suggests to me the practice of quoting from spiritual teachers and telling spiritual stories. The contrast is, again, with personal experience. A more speculative translation might be 'aphorisms & parables'. This kind of thing is a step further removed from a revealed truth than the lineage of teachings - it is the teachings becoming popular culture.

The last term in this set is piṭaka-sampadāna: 'handing on of collections'. We call the three main sections of the Buddhist Canon -- sutta, vinaya, abhidhamma -- the tipiṭaka 'three collections'. The etymology is not clear, but it apparently means 'basket' with an agricultural application - e.g. vīhipiṭaka, 'a basket for rice'; kuddāla-piṭaka, 'hoe & basket'. It's not clear when this term came to mean 'a collection of writings' - the usage seems to me to be Buddhist, so for example, the Vedas use different terminology for collections of texts. Would the metaphor predate writing; i.e., predate the need for a physical container to place physical texts in? Or might it refer to the mind of the expert who memorised the texts before they were written? Buddhaghosa is no great help: ...piṭaka-tantiyā saddhim sametīti 'collections of sacred teachings (tanta = Sanskrit tantra) together with associations (PED sameti 'to come together, assemble' with a connotation of 'what is learnt'). I suggest that what is collected are the quotations and stories (itikirā) just mentioned. By the way, the word anthology has a similarly rustic origin: it comes from the Latin for 'a collection (logia) of flowers (anthos)'. The anthology is the museum of religious teachings: frozen in time, and devoid of the living context of revelation or personal communication of that revelation.

So the sequence is: 'revelation, lineage, aphorisms & parables, and anthologies'. Each step is further from the source of wisdom, but even revelation is not necessarily connected with personal experience and is therefore not a reliable guide to how to behave.

Having dismissed tradition in its various forms, the Buddha then moves on to deal with intellectual criteria. Firstly, takkahetu. PED gives 'ground for doubt, or reasoning'. Hetu, of course, is 'cause, reason, condition'; and takka is literally 'twist, turn' and metaphorically 'to turn something over in your mind, to think about'. For the Sanskrit tarka MW suggests 'reasoning, speculation, inquiry' or 'logic'. Buddhaghosa glosses: takkaggāhenapi mā gaṇhittha 'also don't grasp by seizing of reasoning'. The question then is: what kind of compound is this? So we may see this as a karmadhāraya: 'logically-caused'; or a bahuvrīhi: 'whose cause is logic'. The sentence seems to be saying 'don't reason'; but in light of what comes after we have to take this as referring to hypothetical reasoning, to what Kant called "pure reason", i.e., reasoning disconnected from experience, and especially from emotions and values.

The next term is similar in form: nayahetu. Naya is from √'to lead' and means 'method, plan, inference; sense; behaviour, conduct'. 'Inference' fits the context nicely as a counterpart of logic. However, in SN 47.12 Sāriputta understands according to the Dhamma (api ca me dhammanvayo vidito) where dhammanvaya = dhamma 'nature, truth, the teaching?' + anvaya (anu- + √i) 'conformity, accordance; according to'. One of Buddhaghosa's glosses of this passage suggests that such understanding is anumānañāṇaṃ 'knowledge from inference' (where anumāna is a synonym of naya). So inference per se is not a bad thing, as long as it is based on dhamma.

Next we have ākāraparivittaka which is a bit more complex. Ākāra is from ā + √kṛ and means 'a way of making; a state or condition; a property, sign; a mode'; while parivitakka derives from takka with prefixes pari- and vi- and means 'thought, reflection' or 'meditation' (in the English sense). PED suggests 'study of conditions, careful consideration, examination of reasons' but these seem to be perfectly good ways of approaching moral decisions, and in keeping with the general trend of Buddhist approaches. Nyanaponika & Bodhi translate it "reflection on reasons" (Numerical Discourses, p.65). I'm not satisfied with this, especially in light of the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta (MN 47) where one places faith in the Buddha as teacher (sarathi pasīdaṃ) for the reason (ākāra) of having heard the dhamma. Turning to Buddhaghosa we get:
'sundaramidaṃ kāraṇan'ti evaṃ kāraṇaparivitakkenapi mā gaṇhittha

One should also not grasp thinking about obligation as 'this obligation is beautiful'.
So Buddhaghosa appears to relate ākāra with kāraṇa - both from the same root. I'm not convinced that this fits the context either. My feeling is that it might be a reference to seeking knowledge through interpreting (parivitakka) signs (ākāra), i.e., divination and reading omens. The extensive list of divination practices banned in the Dīgha Nikāya make it seem likely that many such practices were in use and popular. This is placed amongst intellectual approaches to making moral decisions because it provides a rationale for behaviour which is not related to experience, but not tied up with larger religious revelations, and therefore continues the theme.

After this comes diṭṭhinijjhānakhantiya; PED 'delighting in speculation'. It's a triple compound with diṭṭhi 'views' nijjhāna 'understanding, insight; favour, indulgence' and khanti 'patience, forebearance'. Nyanaponika & Bodhi suggest "accepting a view after pondering". Clearly khanti here suggests passivity so 'accepting' fits quite well. I can just about see how the compound could mean a view accepted after pondering, presuming that nijjhāna can mean 'pondering'. I wonder if it would be more straightforward to read it as saying 'accepting & indulging a view'; i.e., uncritically accepting an ideologically based understanding (reading nijjhāna-khanti as a dvandva; and then as a tatpuruṣa with diṭṭhi). The compound allows for this, I think, and it makes more sense to me. It also fits the context of decision making based on something other than personal experience.

Next comes bhabbarūpatā. PED has no suggestion for this compound though bhabba (a gerund from √bhū) means 'able, capable; fit for'. Rūpatā is from rūpa 'form' and means 'appearance'. Nyanaponika & Bodhi, apparently following Buddhaghosa, attribute the fitness (bhabba) to the 'speaker' (or bhikkhu in AA). I understand the quality of 'fitness' to relate to the idea, however. I think it means something that 'seems likely'. That is to say, intellectual laziness. Something seems likely so we just accept it uncritically. It would, therefore, relate to how I understood the previous four terms, and I place it with that set. Nyanaponika & Bodhi, however, takethe plausibility to be a quality of the speaker rather than the idea and so place this criteria with the next one. There is a symmetry to this - four criteria relating to tradition; four to intellect; and two relating to teachers.

The last criteria is samaṇo no garu 'the toiler is respected by us'. Here it seems that the samaṇa (literally 'one who toils' from √śram 'to toil') is the one mentioned at the beginning of the sutta who outlined a doctrine, but lashed out at other doctrines. The most common translation seems to be 'teacher'. Samana is one of the words that are difficult to translate. We find: ascetic, contemplative, recluse, etc., but none of these are accurate and all of them carry a heavy burden of connotation. My coining, 'toiler', is more literal and in this context has less baggage. Garu means 'weight', and by association 'respect'. A guru (from the same root) is someone with gravitas.

It may be that in aiming to fit these terms into sets I have done some violence to the original text. I hope not. I prefer to be creative in finding a translation that makes sense, rather than sticking rigidly to the dictionary definitions and producing something which is not coherent. All of my translations can be justified on etymological grounds, however. I did not pluck them out of the air. I used the dictionary as a starting point, and read each one in the context of its neighbours, as well as other texts which use the terms. In each case the aim was to produce a decision-making criterion divorced from experience, but one which makes sense on every level. For instance, it doesn't make sense to admonish people not to use their reason to think about their behaviour, but it might make sense to tell people to reason in the light of experience.
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