26 August 2011

The Science of Pleasure


MOST BUDDHISTS AND MANY NON-BUDDHISTS would not be surprised by statements along the lines that desire and craving are what cause us to suffer. The message is repeated throughout Buddhist literature, both canonical and commentarial. But what is it about desire and pleasure that is problematic? I want to approach this via an overview, culled from many different sources, of the neuro- and evolutionary biology of pleasure.

The feeling of pleasure is associated with activity in a surprisingly large number of areas of the brain with no one area alone that is responsible. This may be because pleasure itself is a complex phenomenon, and it is tied into so many other functions. But we know that pleasure is correlated with dopamine and a group of endogenous (made in the body) opioid compounds known as endorphins and encephalins.

Dopamine, again, is involved in all kinds of brain and gut activity, but it is particularly correlated with such activities as determining the desirability of an object or stimulus; with anticipation and enjoyment of rewards, with alertness or arousal, and motivation. Although clearly involved in these functions dopamine is also implicated in the experience of pain and fear as well. It seems that the same physical mechanisms may be involved in both cases. Research has found that those with more hunger for stimulation, including drug addicts, have higher dopamine levels than those with less. Dopamine levels rise in anticipation of a reward.

The opioid compounds are associated with feelings of pleasure, satiation and well being. Exogenous opioids (those not produced by the body) include the various chemicals found in the juice of the opium poppy: heroin, morphine, codeine; and there are also synthetic opioids like methadone, and pethidine. Opioids are involved in the pain response, so exogenous and synthetic opioids find use an painkillers, with morphine being the strongest known pain relief drug. Most people will know that activities like sex, vigorous exercise, and even singing in groups, stimulate the production of endogenous opioids and these are thought to account for the feelings of well being engendered by these activities. Incidentally, this is probably why chanting together in groups usually leaves us with a feeling of well being, and can be ecstatic.

There are certain features of the physical side of these systems—the chemicals, synapses, receptors etc—that are salient to a discussion of the problems of pleasure. Consider heroin (I was going to write "Take heroin", but realised this might be read as an imperative!). I recently enjoyed Keith Richard's memoir, where amongst other things he describes the process of becoming addicted to heroin and getting off it. Most people find that over time they have to increase the dose this drug to get the same effect. Humans beings build up a tolerance to heroin. What happens at the level of the neuron is that a cell reaches a threshold of excitation through incoming signals coming in via it's dendrites, and discharges through it's axon - thereby exciting the dendrites of other neurons. Reaching this potential always takes a little time, and after the discharge it takes time to recharge. What happens in the synapse is that as the signal reaches the end of the fibre special organelles release neurotransmitter chemical into the gap of the synapse. These travel across the gap and bind with receptor organelles on the dendrite of the receiving neuron. The synapse also has organelles for mopping up stray molecules, and this helps to reboot the synapse ready for the next signal.

In the every day business of the neuron it seldom exceeds its operating tolerances, and has plenty of time to recharge, and to mop up after every discharge. But with intense or repeated stimulation the neuron cannot keep up. And as the individual neurons cannot keep up, the system its forms a part of cannot keep up. So for instance if we flood our blood stream with heroin which binds to all the receptors for endorphins, we get a rush of pleasure. But if we keep doing this the feedback mechanisms which moderate the production of endorphin shut down, because they assume they are not needed. This renders the heroin addict incapable of feeling pleasure or well being without their drug. And when you go cold turkey, as Keef gives heart rending testament to, you go through a period of 72 hours of hell as the body takes this long to restart endorphin production for itself. The acute lack of endorphin leads leads to vomiting, incontinence, shaking, sweating, and global bodily pain.

Of course our brain chemistry is usually operating on more subtle levels than the heroin addict. Isn't it? Not necessarily. Consider that the pleasure we feel is related to endogenous opioids. Living as we do we are exposed to a lot of intense stimulation: refined sugars and fats are not unlike heroin in terms of the neurochemistry: a huge dose of sugar and/or fat overloads our ability to deal with the stimulus and can crash the system. Repeated doses make it difficult for user to experience pleasure when eating ordinary food.

A little fact I picked up recent from the Science Blog, is that men who use pornography on a daily basis often develop erectile dysfunction. The problem appears to be related to overloading the pleasure response - the anticipation of orgasm, the intense stimulation of pornography create a situation where lesser stimuli do not lead to arousal (which is also mediated by dopamine). Following the links on this I discovered that researchers have found that having sex more often with a partner leads to losing interest in them more quickly. This usually leads either to moving on or infidelity, since the new partner freshly excites arousal (for a time); or it leads to interest in more and more intense, not to say extreme, forms of stimulation. Users of pornography often find themselves trapped in the same kind of cycle as the heroin addict - it takes more and more to get the effect you seek, and lesser pleasures lose their savour.

So what have we learned? It seems that seeking out pleasurable experiences produces diminishing returns, and the pleasure response has a natural level beyond which it cannot respond. The pursuit of pleasure is self defeating. This should be no surprise to anyone that has opened a packet of [insert name of favourite comfort food] and just kept eating. But if it is no surprise then how come we can't stop? More or less everyone I know indulges in some kind of pleasure seeking behaviour which has no other goal than to experience pleasure, be it the stimulant effects of caffeine, the 'rush' (and crash) of sugar, or the excitement of driving fast. Even the bliss of meditation can be addictive. Why is it that we do these things in the full knowledge that we'd be better off if we didn't?

I argued before that these urges are biological, evolutionary adaptations. It seems that these systems are not entirely or easily under our direct conscious control. Dieting is hard because confronted by high calorie food we naturally desire it (elevated dopamine) and we get so much pleasure from eating it that it seems a little puritanical to deprive ourselves. But it's even more difficult if we've spent a lifetime training our bodies to expect to get that pleasure, and habituating it to higher levels of stimulation. The sense of anticipation (again dopamine) overwhelms our conscious decision to lay off the chocolate biscuits (or whatever); and since we no longer feel truly satiated without the intensity of refined sugar and fat, then we don't feel satisfied till we've had it. Our pleasure response is tuned so high that we simply don't enjoy anything less.

Of course for most of us this is not a runaway process - we don't gradually build up our sugar intake over time, or have sex increasingly often. But for some it is. In the days before medical ethics committees a man had a wire implanted in his brain that stimulated pleasure. He ended up self-stimulating to such an extent that he lost interest in all other activities including eating! He would have died if the experimenters did not disconnect him, and complained when they did. It is also possible that the mystery of falling fertility rates in the Western World is simply due to the increasing availability, intensity and use of pornography depleting the reserves of sperm (it takes more than a day to replenish them). Look also at the way the media has changed in the last 50 years with increasing use of anger, violence, and sex to 'spice shows up'. We think of this as related to more liberal attitudes, but what if the driver is that we have slowly become less able to respond to more subtle forms of entertainment? It does seem that even if we as individuals manage to find some kind of equilibrium, that over generations the ability to indulge our desires is causing us to be fatter and to seek more and more extreme forms of stimulation and entertainment. Pushing the envelope can lead to experiencing new pleasures - just as someone bored with a partner can find a new person exciting (for a time). But once we start pushing the envelope, the returns diminish, and we feel the need to keep pushing. We are probably moving along the axis in the wrong direction and should be thinking in terms of less extreme forms of stimulation, indulged in less often, in order to maximise pleasure and satisfaction.

So the picture that is emerging from neuroscience and evolutionary biology is one which leads us towards conclusions that are not new. Find pleasure in what you are doing, don't do things only for pleasure. Moderation is a virtue, and abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. Spacing out intense stimulation - whether food, sex, TV, movies, drugs, or whatever - gives the body time to reset and allows us to feel pleasure more easily, more naturally. Cutting down on strong stimulation allows us to appreciate more subtle experiences.

Satisfying natural urges is probably not a bad thing, but we need to recall that we have not lived in 'natural' circumstances for something like 10,000 years (since the dawn of agriculture and civilisation). People often cite the middle way as justification for their indulgence, and I like to remind them of what the early Buddhists considered the middle way in terms of lifestyle: no family, no job, one meal a day, no possessions, no sex, several hours of meditation etc. So, what is natural? In fact most of us could do with drastically reigning in our desires and impulses and the language of early Buddhist ethics begins to seem highly relevant again. The Buddha reportedly said:
nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññāṃ ekadhammaṃ pi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ adantaṃ, aguttaṃ, arakkhitaṃ asaṃvutaṃ, mahatp anatthāya saṃvattatīti yathayidaṃ, bhikkave, citta.

I do not see any other single thing, monks, which left untamed, unguarded, unprotected, unrestrained, leads to so much misfortune: i.e. the mind [citta].
And though this kind of thinking is deeply unfashionable these days, in light of the research I've been exploring it starts to make a new kind of sense. Guarding the gates of the senses seems more important than ever.


19 August 2011

Amateur Scholars: Pros and Cons.

I'M AN AMATEUR SCHOLAR. I don't get paid to write about Buddhism. Although I've been a Buddhist for 18 years, like many Buddhist bloggers, I have almost no training in linguistics or Indic languages; no training is philosophy, history, anthropology or any of the relevant disciplines.[1] I'm not a lineage holder, or a Buddhist 'teacher' or anything fancy like that. And yet every week I make pronouncements on language, on philosophy, on history, and especially on Buddhism.

I admire amateurism. I grew up in the twilight era of amateurism in sport and politics: a time when a professional could not compete in the Olympics; when our national rugby team all had day jobs; and our government was run by people who once had real jobs. Many of the fundamental breakthroughs in the modern study of Buddhism were made by enthusiastic amateurs.

However professionalism brings advantages in scholarship. Access to resources, to conferences, to mentors, to critical dialogue with peers. The lack of mentoring and critical feedback are probably the biggest hindrances to the amateur, especially in this day of freely available internet resources. Pali is not a difficult language to learn. There are several self-teaching guides, as well as dictionaries and grammars available online. Anyone can teach themselves Pāli and dive into reading and translating texts. I wish more people would. But scholarship requires more that this. We amateurs face some difficulties that professionals do not. I want to look at some of these problems with cases studies drawn from reading Buddhist blogs.

Access to resources.

Although there is a huge amount of material online, most of the secondary literature is not. Amateurs seldom have access to journals for instance. We might get the occasional article, but really as scholars we should at least scan every issue of the main journals in our field. So much of Buddhology, and especially Pali philology, remains buried in journal articles. The internet has facilitated identifying articles, but unless one is a member of a university, it hasn't helped with access because publishing companies charge as much as £30 per article for one-off access, and subscriptions are often expensive as well. An exception to this is Buddhist Studies Review which is quite cheap to subscribe to (and probably needs your money!).

But then there are the monographs. If we are interested in history and want to read Johannes Bronkhorst's two most recent tomes then we're looking at around £300 for both. They are the sort of books that only libraries buy, and only in universities with a large Indology or Buddhist studies department. I imagine there are not more than a dozen copies in the UK. But if the history of Buddhism is your subject, then you can't not read these books. In fact if have any interest in the context within which early Buddhist texts exist then you must read these books to be well informed. So most amateurs are not well informed, or not well enough.

The lack of access to, or even interest in, resources often mean that Buddhist bloggers are out of touch with academic Buddhist Studies. Amateurs are often simply uninformed; or they are informed, but about the state of Buddhist Studies 20 years ago, when in fact the last 20 years have seen some remarkable publications.

Critical Thinking

One of the major problems that amateur scholars have is working with their own preconceptions, especially the extent to which our modern Western worldview intrudes. All too often the amateur has an idea, comes to a conclusion, and then goes looking for material to support their thesis. And usually of course they find it. Professionals will do this as well, but less often. A good scholar does have a working hypothesis, but they look at all of the evidence and try to decide what it is telling them. They also have peers and mentors to bounce ideas off.

The following case study is a composite drawing on real blogs that I read. The point is not to make personal comments but to highlight the kinds of problems that all amateur scholars confront (which are not necessarily the problems that all bloggers face). Blogger A is a modern Western Buddhist. They read a little Pali, and they have access to a version of the Canon on the Internet. They think of themselves as a Buddhist, but they are concerned about certain aspects of Buddhism that contradict their worldview. As moderns we are inheritors of the European Enlightenment and its fallout. We have been told (since the late Victorian period) that Buddhism is a "rational religion", consistent with Western scientific paradigms (even quantum mechanics) and does not require blind faith. Not only this, but we have been taught that the Buddha himself was supremely rational. The doctrine of rebirth is a contradiction of all of these: it is not rationally based, conflicts with science, and requires blind faith. There is no doubt that rebirth is a problem for Western Buddhists, even if they don't think it is!

Blogger A, like many other Western Buddhists, sees the Kālāma Sutta as one of the most important suttas in the Canon since it appears to confirms their doubts. They have read it in several translations, but never got around to translating it themselves or studying what it says in detail, so they tend to go along with the urban legends about this text. In particular they take the consolations of being an ariyasāvaka discussed at the end of the text as saying that one need not believe in rebirth. Which is a relief to them.

Blogger A decides that rebirth cannot be true, since it fails the test of rationality, and the Kālāma Sutta says we need not believe it. But it is clearly a major part of all the Buddhist traditions. So how to make sense of these facts? Blogger A comes to the conclusion that the Buddha himself did not believe in rebirth, but that this 'foreign belief' was smuggled into Buddhism by his corrupt (possibly Brahmin) followers in the years after his death. Either the Buddha did not actually teach rebirth at all, or if he did, then he took it as a metaphor and did not believe or teach literal rebirth.

This "later corruption" narrative does not spring from nowhere. It goes back to the early Victorian translators, particularly Mrs Rhys Davids. They had the very same project: squaring the obviously irrational and superstitious elements which abound in Buddhism as it is practised today, and as we find it in Buddhist texts, with the idea that the Buddha was effectively an Enlightenment figure who, had he met, say, Newton or Leibniz would have got along fine with them. What most amateurs don't see is that the 'rational Buddha' is a product of the Western imagination in the first place, the Buddha of tradition is not quite irrational, but there is plenty of non-rational mysticism attached to him—he very often converses with gods for example (more like William Blake than Isaac Newton).

The 'later corruption' narrative is a polemic developed amongst Protestant intellectuals to account for the decline of the Roman Catholic Church due to moral corruption, which appeared to mirror the decline and fall of the Roman Empire due to its moral corruption. It was first employed in relation to Buddhism by Victorian scholars who were culturally, if not religiously, Protestant. In fact there is no a priori reason to treat a development or an evolution as a corruption: the emergence of Tantric Buddhism, for instance, corresponds to a major re-invigoration of Buddhist culture in India following the chaos of the Post-Gupta Empire period. Blogger A doesn't see that their ideas are conditioned by their own culture, or that their ideas themselves have a history.

The popular idea that, ignoring what Buddhists themselves believe and practice, one could reconstruct the 'original' Buddhism from the Pali texts is the very essence of the Protestant project transferred into the Buddhist arena. Although it was seen as a viable project into the mid 20th century, it is largely discredited now. And worse, as Greg Schopen has vociferously (and, one might say gleefully) pointed out, is the fact that where we do have epigraphical and archaeological evidence for early Buddhism it tends to conflict with the textual accounts rather than confirm them. Let me quote a professional at this point:
"But, during the present century, and especially during the past several decades, Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about this naive use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history. Thus it is now recognised that the form in which the suttas survive today, like Pāli itself, is the result of grammatical and editorial decisions made in Sri Lanka centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha... More important still, historians and anthropologists have pointed to the rift between Buddhism constructed as 'canonical' on the basis of the teachings in the suttas and the actual practices and ideas of contemporary Theravāda Buddhists. As similar divergences from this 'canonical Buddhism' are evidenced as early in Buddhist history as our evidence itself, namely the time of Aśoka Maurya (third century B.C.), the question emerges whether the reconstructed 'early Buddhism' ever existed at all.

... I think it fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda there has been a marked shift away from attempting to say much of anything at all about 'early Buddhism'"

- Walters, Jonathan. S. (1999) 'Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the Sermon on the Noble Quest (Ariyapariyesana Sutta).' History of Religions 38.3: 247-8. [my italics]
But because amateur scholars are not part of this broad scholarly discussion, because they never read articles like Walters', they have not participated in this marked shift. They continue to work an abandoned gold mine, even though they only find iron pyrite. Though I note that professionals still sometimes stray into this quagmire! [2]

Pursuing this course they proceed to look for texts which supplement the Kālāma Sutta and 'prove' that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. Perhaps they stumble upon SN 15.1. This is an interesting text which describes saṃsāra in terms of ancestors stretching back through beginningless time. A couple of the other texts in this short saṃyutta also use this metaphor. However if we keep reading we see that the metaphor changes at SN 15.10 and describes one person (ekapuggala) wandering through saṃsāra leaving a mountainous pile of bones behind them. This is also somewhat anomalous, but since it contradicts the starting premise that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth it is not even considered by Blogger A. In fact SN 15.10 creates a paradox - because in it the Buddha is talking about one person over several life times, and this contradicts the accepted Buddhist notion that the next life is not the same person, but only the inheritor of previous karma. So we have here three views on rebirth - traditional rebirth, ancestral lineage, and reincarnation. All of them in the Pali Canon, and all in the mouth of the Buddha! I've read through these texts and I don't see any way of deciding which should have priority on the basis of the texts. There are no criteria one could apply.

But Blogger A has an a priori criteria, they have their view that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. So it is obvious to them that the text which describes saṃsāra in terms of an ancestral lineage is the "true text", and the others are corruptions. And so it goes. This is technically called confirmation bias. Amateurs are particularly pray to this it seems.


Teaching oneself a little Pali in order to read texts which are already familiar in translation, or where there are excellent translations already available to act as commentaries, is one thing. Knowing the language and the literature thoroughly so that one can understand the texts from the inside is another. It takes time, and is unlikely to be possible without an experienced mentor. I've more or less given up trying to translate texts from the Suttanipāta for instance because the poetry and the archaic language are so difficult to understand, even though I have access to translations and extensive notes by the great Middle-Indic philologer K. R. Norman. Interestingly Norman himself declined to formally translate the Dhammapada for the Pali Text Society because it would be "too difficult"! Let us pause to consider the implications of that!

As an amateur one can spend hours chasing one's tail. The other day I wasted a lot of time on the word esevanto = es'ev'anto = eso eva anto = "just this is the end". It just took ages for it to dawn on me that there must be two sandhi, partly because I saw -vanto and assumed it must be a present participle. And I had the English translation in front of me! This is what inexperience is like. It gets worse when we want to look at the untranslated commentaries. And it must be said that anyone seriously reading a text must look at the traditional aṭṭhakathā alongside, if not also the ṭīka. But the Pāli of the aṭṭhakathā is much more difficult—being a literary form highly influenced by Sanskrit models—and there is no guide, no standard translation to consult.

I've said that Pāli is not a difficult language, but like all languages it is idiomatic. This means that Pāli learnt from a primer must be supplemented by reading many texts. So Blogger A following up their desire to prove a supposition about rebirth finds this phrase from the Dona Sutta (A ii.37):
‘‘Devo no bhavaṃ bhavissatī’’ti? ‘‘Na kho ahaṃ, brāhmaṇa, devo bhavissāmī’’ti.
Blogger A wants this sentence to say: "Will you, Sir, become a god? No, Brahmin, I will not become a god". In the Dona Sutta various other words are substituted for deva as the Brahmin tries to decide what to make of Gotama: is he a god? A yakkha? A man? The implication deduced by Blogger A, on the basis that the verb is in the future-tense, is that the Buddha is rejecting the idea of his rebirth in various realms. The form bhavissati is undoubtedly the future-tense of √bhū 'to be', but here it is used idiomatically. As Warder points out (Introduction to Pali, p.55) "The future also expresses perplexity, surprise, and wonder." Warder's example is directly relevant: kim ev'idaṃ bhavissati 'what can this be?' So our question means 'Sir, are you a deva?', but with a tone of puzzlement. Dona the Brahmin is expressing his perplexity, and is trying to determine just what class of being the Buddha is. Blogger A over-rides these grammatical facts—ignores the cases, and idioms—and finds only confirmation of their pre-existing view.


I love the way that the Internet has reopened the field to amateurs. But the Internet has produced very few scholars of note, and few commentators consistently worth reading—some exceptions that I enjoy can be found in the "Blogs I Read" section in the sidebar. The best Buddhist blogs are usually the popular comment blogs with no pretension to scholarship, or the scholarly blogs by academics (though again there are exceptions). The tensions that often exist between popular magazine writers, and popular blog writers are a feature of the landscape of popular Buddhism, but they don't usually impinge much on the realm of serious scholarship. Where popular and professional Buddhist writing and Buddhist scholarship do cross over the result is often mutual incomprehension.

We need to be aware of our limitations. Unfortunately amateurs, with no training and often no discipline, no access to the secondary literature, and no participation in critical dialogue, can be unaware of their limitations. But amateurs are also free from the constraints of earning a living from their writing, from the artificial conditions imposed on 'serious' writing, and from the paradigmatic thinking that makes new ideas hard to see in academia. As amateurs we do not have to find approval from our peers, and this can be both weakness and strength.

Scholars, whether amateur or professional, play an important role in the ecosystem of Buddhism. Scholars are part of the system of checks and balances that characterise a healthy society. Old ideas are conserved, and put into appropriate context and perspective. New ideas, emerging from experience, are assessed in the light of existing intellectual frameworks. Knowledge gradually accumulates. Scholars, whether directly or indirectly, are in dialogue with practitioners (and increasingly span both camps) and help to refine interpretations of experiences, and the language by which our ideas, images and practices are communicated. Without scholars our ecosystem would collapse. We need only look at the toxicity of the the anti-intellectual fundamentalist religious sects to see where a rejection of scholars and scholarship lands us. Of course scholarship should not blind us to the experiential nature of the Buddhist program. Ideas can get in the way of practice—too many of us are trying to prove a dogma instead of paying attention to what is happening—but a good scholar knows this limitation and works with it.


  1. My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and my graduate qualification in library management.
  2. I refer to Alexander Wynne's recent, award winning, article: "The Buddha's 'Skill in Means' and the Genesis of the Five Aggregate Teaching." J. of the Royal Asiatic Soc. 2010, 20(2):191-216. Wynne piles up speculation and conjecture without ever citing solid evidence, because of course there is none, and comes to a conclusion about the "original" teaching of the khandhas. Wynne's concatenation of multiple uncertain conjectures doesn't take into account what every scientist knows: that when you add two uncertain quantities together, the uncertainty accumulates.

12 August 2011

Five Facts to Continuously Reflect on.

This is the 250th post on this blog. That's 250 raves in a little less than six years, one per week since the beginning of 2008. I started out limiting myself to 1000 words, though that has gone by the board. So I've written perhaps 300,000 words, mostly on the Buddhadharma. Thanks to all my readers and commenters over the years. And thanks to my friend Ann (Pema) Palomo for inspiring the first raves. I'd like to dedicate this one to all practitioners everywhere.

THESE LINES FROM THE Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57 PTS A iii.71f) [1] are fairly commonly cited, and the kind of thing I would expect every Buddhist to be familiar with. If not in this form, then something very like it. Still... I get a shudder each time I read them. How often do we really give time to contemplating the facts (ṭhānāni) presented here?
Five facts should be continuously reflected on by men and women, at home and on retreat. Which five?
  1. I am subject to ageing, ageing isn't overcome (yet),
  2. I am subject to illness, illness isn't overcome (yet),
  3. I am subject to death, death isn't overcome (yet),
  4. I will be separated and cut off from everyone I love, and everything I hold dear.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, the heir of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, and find refuge in my actions. Whatever actions I do - beautiful or evil - I will be the heir of them.
These should be reflected on continuously.
These are reflections for every one. Men and women. In its essence Buddhism is not gender specific, though of course different cultures have imposed gender based restrictions on practitioners.

My translation "at home and on retreat" does not exactly follow the Pāli: gahaṭṭena vā pabbajitena vā. More literally this says 'by householders and those gone forth'. Since in the Triratna Order we don't necessarily make this distinction I wanted a translation that reflected our approach more accurately. We are all householders, all settled monastics, and all forest renunciants, some of the time. We may spend the majority of our time in one or other mode—and in our movement we have all three—but we are free to move between lifestyles because we have rejected the formalism associated with each. This point, based on Reginald Ray's tripartite model of Buddhist society in his book Buddhist Saints in India, was made by Dharmacārī Subhūti some years ago. Not so long ago I might have said this was unique to the Triratna Community, but lifestyle mobility is a feature of contemporary Buddhism generally, and any serious Buddhist is unlikely to have just one lifestyle all the time. Householders go on retreats of varying lengths. I've been on many retreats from single days up to four months. I have literally been a forest dweller during some of that time. I've lived for months at a time like a cenobitical monk, and may well do again. Even my home life is not exactly classic nuclear family because I live in a Buddhist community with other single men for instance. So in this translation I wanted to suggest something of the modern spirit of Buddhism, especially as the Triratna Community conceives it. I leave readers to judge whether I have succeeded.

These five phrases are 'facts' (ṭhānāni) to be reflected on (paccavekkhitabbāni) constantly (abhiṇhaṃ). The translation of thāna as 'fact' is also used by both Nyanaponika & Bodhi, and by Thanissaro. The word ṭhāna more literally means 'place', or 'state'. It derives from the verbal root √sthā which is cognate with the English 'standing'. In Sanskrit and Pāli the verb means 'to stand, to remain' and hence 'to be located'.[2] It has a number of abstract or applied meanings one of which is 'standpoint' i.e. ground for, reason, principle. A ṭhāna is the valid ground for a logical conclusion: i.e. a fact.

Each of the first three phrases is in the form: jarā-dhammomhi, jaraṃ anatīto'ti. The final ti means this is something one says or thinks. The morphology of jarādhammomhi foxed me for a little while, and eventually my friend Dhīvan pointed out the correct reading for me. It is a phrase: jarā-dhammo (a)mhi.[3] Here amhi is the first-person singular of the verb 'to be', i.e. 'I am'; while jarā is 'ageing' and dhamma (in this case) means 'nature': jarādhamma 'subject to ageing' or 'of a nature to age'. Dhamma as a suffix can sometimes be translated as the English suffix -able in this context, though it doesn't work in this case, nor with byādhi (disease) or maraṇa (death), c.f. vayadhamma which I translate as 'perishable' relying on the double meaning of perish: 'to die, to decay' to capture the same double meaning of vaya. 'Subject to ageing, disease and death' is a serviceable enough translation. As an aside it occurs to me that the contemporary interest in the "living dead" could be seen as a morbid rejection of these facts about old age, sickness and death.

The word atīta has two senses. In terms of time it means 'past'. Modally it means 'having overcome or surmounted', or even 'free from'. It combines the prefix ati- (beyond, past) with the past participle of the verb √i 'to go' so it literally means 'gone beyond', or 'gone past'. Here it has the negative prefix a(n)- added, so jaraṃ anatīta means 'ageing is not overcome', or 'I have not gone beyond death', or perhaps 'I am still subject to ageing'. I've added yet in parentheses because these are not the morose deliberations of a fatalist waiting to grow old and die. They are a clarion call for those who seek to go beyond. And it must be said that these statements make a lot more sense in a milieu where rebirth is an accepted fact.

At death I will be cut off (vinābhāva) and separated (nānābhāva) from everyone I love (piya) and everything I hold dear (manāpa). Piya is 'love' in the ordinary sense, including familial and romantic love.[4] Manāpa means 'pleasant, pleasing'. All the people and things we are attached to we leave behind at death. Everything. We may have the misfortune to be reborn—and for Buddhists rebirth is a disaster—but we won't come back to what we know and love. Each time we start over, except for underlying tendencies. We have to find new friends and loved ones, accumulate new possessions and memories, only to lose them all over again. For those who believe in rebirth what stronger motivation could there be to practice? For those who don't, what strong motivation to practice can replace it?

In the fifth reflection 'actions' translates kamma, which occurs in a series of compounds: kamma-ssaka, kamma-dāyāda, kamma-yoni, kamma-bandhu, kamma-paṭisaraṇa: owner of actions, heir to actions, born from actions, bound to actions, with a refuge in action.[5] The last is particularly interesting. The word is paṭisaraṇa which has more or less the same meaning as saraṇa 'refuge, protection, shelter' - we are not only the victims of our own misdeeds, but actually the authors of our own salvation as well. The message of these terse statements of the idea of kamma is that morally significant actions have consequences. It's useful to think of kamma in terms of how we treat people. It is our actions in relationship to other people that are morally significant, or should I say that that our actions find their moral significance when considered in terms of our relationships with other people. I think this is why the traditional precepts are phrased the way they are. But also it is in relationship to people that we experience the moral effects of our actions. We see the way patterns develop, habits and characters are formed, and harmony preserved or destroyed. This is not the only way to see kamma, but it is useful.

Note that the second part of the fifth reflection, beginning with "Whatever actions I do..." juxtaposes the words kalyāṇa 'beautiful' and pāpa 'evil'. So morality here is linked to aesthetics. Kalyāṇa 'beautiful, auspicious, helpful' is from the root √kal. It is cognate with the Greek κάλλος (kallos) that we find in English words such as calligraphy (beautiful writing), calliope (beautiful voice) and kaleidoscope (beautiful shape observer). Evil (pāpa), then, could be seen as 'ugly' in the sense of a quality of relating to people which is ugly.

Finally we should reflect on these five facts continuously (abhiṇhaṃ). This could also be translated as 'repeatedly'. The word is a contraction of abhikkhaṇaṃ. It is thought to derive from the verbal root √īkṣ 'to see', with the suffix abhi-, which according to PED has the primary meaning of 'taking possession and mastering'. One of the figurative senses (PED I.2) is "intensifying the action implied by the verb". Thus the sense of abhiṇham is to look at these facts closely and repeatedly, to reflect on them over and over again. We can always gain perspective by placing whatever is happening within the context of these five facts. Whatever else is true about our situation, these five facts are also part of the existential situation. Reflecting on these facts helps us to orient ourselves to the world, and to assess our priorities.

All of this could be seen as quite pessimistic and depressing on its own. But behind it is the idea that ageing, illness and death can be overcome. Through our own actions we can find ourselves no longer subject to suffering, and suffering (as distinct from pain [6]) is a result of choices we make. We can develop equanimity in relationship to the people and things that give us pleasure or pain, and that we think make us happy or unhappy. We can find a happiness that is not dependent on sense objects (i.e. which is 'unconditioned'). And as I have already said we can be the authors of our own liberation through choosing our actions carefully. The point is not to deflate, but to inspire—we may still have much left to do, but it can be done! We can all be liberated from the oppression of craving and aversion, especially in relation to other people. I have no doubt about this, though I am not yet liberated from them myself.


  1. Also known (particularly in CST) as Abhiṇhapaccavekkhitabbaṭhāna Sutta. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Hence place names like Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The -stan ending comes from the same verbal root.
  3. In other words we have a compound and an external sandhi which joins two words. External sandhi is relatively rare in Pāli: we'd expect to see jarādhammo amhi as two separate words in Roman script.
  4. C.f. my comments on the Piyajātika Sutta: From the Beloved.
  5. I read the first four compounds as tatpuruṣa of various kinds, and the last as bahuvrīhi.
  6. I've written about the distinction between Pain & Suffering.

05 August 2011

Not Two Truths

alchemy pictureFOR SOME TIME I have wanted to write a critique of the Doctrine of the Two Truths. The task is potentially a large and difficult one because there is no single version of the idea that is universally accepted, and the history of its development is complex. Some version of the idea of Two Truths is accepted by most schools of Buddhist thought, but they do not agree on the details. An in-depth exposition on the subject would be a long book project.[1] However, I think a single wrong step begins the path that leads to all versions of this theory. Therefore, I may be able to head them all off by identifying that step and suggesting reasons why we should not take it.

In broad outline, the idea of Two Truths says that there are two ways of understanding the world. In the conventional (samvṛti) sense the world is just as it appears to the unawakened. So, for instance, we find the world to be a relatively reliable place where the laws of physics and chemistry apply; where we are born and die; where we interact with people. And yet, according to this theory, this conventional world is not real. Taking the world to be real is why we suffer. Buddhist theorists came up with the idea of an ultimate (paramārtha) truth, the perception of which is liberating, and the understanding of which is liberation—those who see things this way see things as they really are, i.e., they see Reality (with a capital R). Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong. So, I'm probably mad, or deluded, but bear with me.

Let's begin at the beginning, or as close to it as we'll ever get. We do not find the idea of Two Truths in the Pāli suttas, nor, so far as I am aware, in the early Buddhist texts preserved in other languages. So, we cannot cite any Pāli sutta in defence of this idea. And this is, unsurprisingly, my first point. The idea is a later development. If the early Buddhists did not feel the need for such a theory why did later Buddhists invent it? (This is a question worth asking for many other ideas as well!).

I have argued for some time now that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a Theory of Everything.[2] Not only does paṭicca-samuppāda not explain the universe and everything in it, it was never intended to be applied beyond the arising of experiences in the mind, i.e., dukkha (literally: disappointment, dissatisfaction; suffering)—dukkha is our experience. The 'things' that arise in dependence on conditions are none other than dhammas, and these are the objects of the mind sense. The early texts have little or nothing to say about the ontological status of these dhammas. Indeed, the early Buddhist texts explicitly argue that ontological terms like 'existence' and 'non-existence' do not even apply (especially the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S ii.16). This is not to say that non-mental phenomena are not conditioned, or that cause and effect are not observed. They are. But this was not, so far as we can tell, the Buddha's insight, nor his teaching. So much should be familiar to readers of this blog. [and if this is not familiar then please read the essay referred to in footnote 2.]

Perhaps because their non-Buddhist contemporaries were deeply interested in ontology, such issues also came to occupy the minds of Buddhists. Not content to leave the dhamma as an indeterminate 'mental thing', what I refer to deliberately vaguely as 'an experience', they began to speculate on the nature of dhammas. Were they real? Were they ultimate? How long did they last? The answers to these questions were, from the beginning, irrelevant to the Buddhist program of practice. But, in some cases, they came to occupy centre stage of Buddhist discourse—so much so that many people today talk about the goal of Buddhism as "insight into the nature of Reality". [Google that phrase] The trouble with asking such questions is that people are rarely satisfied with not coming to a conclusion. I suspect that one only asks such questions when one already considers there to be a definite and preferable answer. A lot of time and energy is then wasted over competing opinions about something that is simply not relevant.

I understand the early Buddhist response to the question of whether dhammas are real or unreal to be that the question was neither answerable nor relevant, so even attempting to answer it is pointless. By extension I take the appearance of answers to this question to be one of the limits of what we I think of as early Buddhism.

It is a relatively straightforward proposition to argue that the external world is not dependent on my seeing it, for it to have form. It is harder to believe that the entire universe blinks out of existence and back into existence each time my eyelids close and open than that the Buddha was talking about was the world of 'subjective' experience. In fact, even the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are out of place here, since the 'world' the Buddha was talking about arises from the condition of both sense object and sense faculty—that world is neither subjective nor objective. In any case, I have found no reference in any early Buddhist text to the reality or unreality of sense objects, nor any mention of it in secondary literature which discusses the early Buddhist world-view. Sense objects are always part of the process of unenlightened consciousness, but there is no speculation on their nature.

However, if I close my eyes then my mode of perception has changed, and my experience of 'the world' has radically changed. This probably leaves the world itself unchanged. I say 'probably', because I do not know and I do not believe I can know the world except through my senses. This leaves me uncertain, and unable to come to any firm conclusion. So neither materialism or idealism in the strict senses are intellectually honest. All I know for certain is that I have experience of something; I find the experiences I have problematic; and early Buddhism tells me that the something is not the source of the problem.

This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse, that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.

If we begin to apply the paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory to everything, if we apply it not only to the arising of experiences in our minds, but to the arising of what we suppose to be objects in the putative world, then we create a problem. I have discussed this problem with respect to the simile of the chariot. In this case we lose sight of the fact that the chariot is a metaphor for how our 'world'—that is the world that we experience, not the world as ontological reality—is conditioned by the meeting of sense faculty (indriya) and sense object (dhamma) in the present of sense awareness (viññāna). The chariot is not the point of this story and neither is the world of sense objects. The main point is made in the seldom quoted statements that follow the simile:
"apart from dukkha nothing arises, and apart from dukkha nothing ceases".
When we focus on the chariot and its parts we start asking questions like: is the chariot real or not? Is there a chariot apart from the parts? Is there some essence of chariot? And we come to strange and speculative conclusions. In effect we must invent something like the Two Truths to account for the paradoxes that arise. Plainly, the chariot exists and is, in a sense, 'real', since we perceive it; but it can't be really 'real', or solidly existent because we know it to be merely a conglomeration of parts. Clearly, it cannot be both real and unreal, both exist and not-exist at the same time, so... there must be two distinct truths about reality: at one level it is real and at another unreal.[3]

If we reframe the question in terms of experience, then we already know that our mental states are neither real nor unreal—these kinds of dichotomies don't apply to experience. If we remove the sense object, the sense faculty or awareness from the equation our experiential world ceases or fails to arise (that being, this becomes, etc.). While the three factors are present, then there is both the experience and the experiencer. The khandhas are just another way of breaking up the experience and making the same point. [See The Apparatus of Experience] When we limit our domain to experience, then dualities like real/unreal or existence/non-existence simply and straightforwardly do not apply, and we do not create paradoxes.

All experiences, including the experience of self-hood, are formed this way: from an interaction of our mind, sense faculties and sense objects. And all experiences are characterised as impermanent, disappointing and insubstantial. We may think that a pleasant experience equates with happiness, but we find the experience is fleeting, and it isn't repeatable, which we take to mean that we are unhappy. We grasp after pleasure, but can never be satisfied, and the harder we pursue pleasure the less pleasure we experience. It is not that there is no experience, just that we fail to understand the nature of experience. And experience has only this nature. Awakening, I would say, is awakening to the nature of experience.

It's not that conventionally something exists, but ultimately it doesn't—if we are using words like exist, true or real then we're applying the theory in the wrong way and/or in the wrong domain. Because we are, or should be, talking about experience of things rather than the things in themselves, we have no need of two different truths. Only those who attempt to stretch the application of the paṭicca-samuppāda beyond it's intended domain require two truths.

The other aspect of the Two Truths that is insisted upon is that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to words: "Reality is ineffable". Words do a fair job of communicating about objects and ideas. But when it comes to experiences... no experience can be communicated in words. We can say that we have had an experience; we can say how we explain and/or interpret that experience; we can say how we feel about having had that experience; we can say how the experience changed us: but with mere words we cannot communicate the experience we've had. This is true of every single experience. So experience, all experience, is ineffable. And in fact probably all of us have had life changing experiences after which we have never been the same. We shouldn't make a big deal out of that in the case of bodhi. The ineffability of experience is a simple truism, not a profound Truth. I think the tendency is to emphasise the mystical aspects of bodhi, and for someone like me it makes it seem impossible.

So this is my mad thesis—that all Buddhist philosophers (including the modern Theravāda) are barking up the wrong tree with this business of Two Truths. If we take paṭicca-samuppāda in its natural domain there is no need to go down the route of inventing this dichotomy, because we do not meet the paradoxes that arise from the misapplication of the theory. The early Buddhists had no need of a Two Truths theory because they understood the domain in which paṭicca-samuppāda applies. We have no need of it either; in fact, it is probably a hindrance.


  1. A good overview of the subject is: Thakchoe, Sonam, 'The Theory of Two Truths in India,' The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online: plato.stanford.edu. [though of course the theory developed outside India as well!]. See also Ñāṇavīra. 'Paramattha Sacca.' Notes on Dhamma. p. 27-33. Online: www.nanavira.110mb.com.
  2. For an extended treatment of this topic see my long essay: Is Pāṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? This is based on a close reading of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16). I've covered some of the same ground in this blog:
  3. If you are at all tempted to invoke Quantum Mechanics at this point then I suggest that you read my essay: Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. I don't think QM has anything helpful to say to us about this issue because conclusions about the nature of single sub-atomic particles do not apply when several septillion of them conglomerate at room temperature.
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