25 November 2011

Taking the Not-given

I've just come across the website Buddha Torrents which specialises in linking to illegally copied and uploaded Dharma books. You would have thought that facilitating the stealing of Dharma books would be a no-brainer - just don't do it - but many Buddhists apparently feel quite comfortable with theft of electronic files when they would not walk into a shop and steal the physical book. Let me just be quite clear here. Copying is theft. All those pirated books, DVDs, and CDs are stolen. There is no grey area here. Consider the wording of the second precept:
adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the training step of refraining from taking the not given.
Since I've covered the general outline of the precepts in other posts [1] I'll just concentrate on the main word: adinnādānā. The Pāli word dinna means 'given, granted, presented'. It's a past participle of the verb √ 'to give'. In a Buddhist context it frequently refers to alms given to bhikkhus. The word is used in the negative adinna 'not-given, not-granted, not-presented'. The other part of the compound is ādānā which is a noun from the same verbal root. The stem dāna means 'that which is given, donated, granted', while the prefix ā- reverses the direction and gives it the meaning 'that which is taken, taking'.

If we take a step back into the Proto-Indo-European roots of the words, we see that the original form was *do meaning 'to give'. The word comes into Latin as donum 'gift' from which we get the English words donation, & donor. The root also underlies the words date, and time. [For more on this branch see the Online Etymological Dictionary].

So our word is a-dinna-ādāna 'taking the not-given'. In the precept verse the compound is in the ablative case - giving the sense of 'I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given'.

Clearly this is a precept about property. You cannot take someone's property against their will except by force or deception. If they give you everything they own of their own free will, in full knowledge of the consequences, that's fine. But if you take even a penny without being first offered it, then you are involved in doing something to that person against their will, i.e. doing violence. So it's not only about property, but an extension of the first precept against causing harm, with a focus on property.

It is true that as Buddhists we preach that we ourselves should not be attached to material possessions. I tend to agree with the line of reasoning that an abundance of material possessions causes more misery that it prevents. However without a roof over our heads and food to eat most of us don't cope very well. So ruling out all possessions for everyone would cause more pain that it relieved. It's not up to us to judge for other people what constitutes a minimal level of possessions. The precepts are carefully phrased in the first person: samādiyāmi 'I undertake'. It is we who undertake the training and our judgements should be directed to ourselves. So our non-attachment should make us less likely to take what is not given (in theory). If we feel that a close friend is in danger of breaking this precept, we might have a quiet word with them, tell them what we have observed and related our concerns in a kindly way. But there is little scope for standing in judgement on others. This creates a tension for people raised to believe that justices involves determining guilt, and meting out punishments.

However Sangharakshita has expanded the context of this precept beyond material possessions. He includes things like a person's time or their energy. If someone doesn't have time for us, we should not try to detain them. If they don't want to, for instance, listen to our problems, then we cannot make them. Each time we take the not given we seek to negate the other person; we seek to impose our will, and our ego, over theirs. It is a subtle form of violence. So this precept can be seen as an extension of the first precept against doing violence to other beings.

I'm going to assume that we understand the problem of doing violence and move on to consider some more specific issues.

In 2000 the internet music sharing service Napster was taken to court by the the band Metallica along with rapper Dr Dre. A separate case was brought by several major record labels. Judges ruled that Napster were indeed breaking the law by facilitating the sharing of illegal copies of music. But for some reason this remains a grey area. Lots of people I know are copying and not paying for music, films, and software. If what was being shared was physical property the issue would be clear cut. We would not condone either the burglar, nor the fence, nor any part of an operation which facilitated someone stealing our property. But apparently we are happy to do so with music. Music is different of course. Digital music is immaterial, very easily reproduced or copied, and it is very difficult for the average consumer to relate the mp3 file back to the performer.

Musician's make their livelihood from selling that music. There are some who are saying that the new media calls for new models of distribution and ownership. I notice that these people are typically already successful and wealthy, i.e. they do not have much to lose. They usually got into the position of being successful and wealthy by selling albums the old fashioned way. Start up bands, with no money, are not so convinced that giving away their music is such a good thing. Once you give people something for nothing you set up expectations.

Some people argue that so much money is made that it hardly matters if a few copies are made. But this is not an argument from Buddhist ethical principles. It seeks to bypass the principle of not taking the not given, and replace it with taking what will not be missed. And who says it won't be missed? The music industry say they are missing that revenue and record labels and music shops are struggling to stay in business. Whether or not this is good for the music is irrelevant to the Buddhist ethical case, because someone has come out and explicitly said: "do not copy this music without paying us for it." Music is not given except within the limits set out by music industry. Whether or not we think these limits are moral, ethical, or legal, is irrelevant because the relevant precept is about the not given. And outside the framework of buying CDs of MP3s the thing is not given.

There is such a thing as fair use. For instance in this blog I often cite the words of other people, from books and articles that form the basis of their livelihood. On the whole they ask that we do not copy their work wholesale, or use it without acknowledgement. So I quote little bits and endeavour to accurately state where the text comes from. This seems fair enough, and if we did not have this provision then any kind of dialogue about literature (scholarly or otherwise) would not be feasible. Indeed I believe I have raised the profile of several authors by bringing their work to the attention of a new audience.

I also use images. Images are usually classed as a whole work, so copying them is usually considered to be outside of fair use. I try to use images that are clearly free of copyright restrictions. Sometimes it's hard to tell, and I have to confess that I sometimes interpret fair use in my favour. I still stick to stating where I got the image, and when it's clear who made it I make sure I include that information. My purpose is to decorate a blog post, not suggest that I am an artist. I suspect that I could be criticised for this practice, and I'm always ready to remove images without a fight. So far no one has ever asked me to remove an image from this blog. But I would if asked to, even if fair use suggested I might get away with it. I do get a few pennies a day from Google ads and Amazon referrals but given the time I spend on this it could hardly be called a profit making venture. In my books, however, I had to be a lot more assiduous about observing copyright because the law says that where you are selling something then fair use provisions don't apply. I can't make money from someone else's work. This seems fair to me.

Buddhists are not always scrupulous when it comes to the internet and taking the not given. I have had several people copy my entire mantra website, for instance, and present it as their own work. They get quite hostile when I tackle them on the illegality and immorality of this. I've been called some nasty things because I've acted to protect my work from being degraded by poor copies. But taking the not given seems clear enough. And unless we take such principles seriously then we aren't likely to make progress, so it's in our best interests to keep the precepts.


I've had second thoughts about my addendum, and have removed it.

18 November 2011

A lesson from the Tevijjā Sutta

This is an extract from my (unfinished) translation of the Tevijjā Sutta, but I'm presenting it with a little twist. In this extract I have replaced "Brahmins" with "Buddhist Teachers" and "Brahmā" with "Nirvāṇa", and tweaked the text a little to fit around the change - the structure and most of the dialogue is a fairly literal translation of Pāli however. I will admit that in doing this I intend to be provocative. However I think this is an interesting exercise.

Tevijja Sutta
D 13, D i.237-8

"So, Vāseṭṭha, you are saying that you cannot decide between what your two teachers are saying. But what is the nub of the argument? Why is there disagreement?"
"The path and not the path, Gotama. Various Buddhist teachers – Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, Theravada, Triratna – all teach a way out for one seeking Nirvāṇa. Just as if there were a town not far away, and even though there were many roads, they all converged at the town: so these Buddhist teachers teach a variety of ways out of saṃsāra.

"Did you say 'they lead out' Vāseṭṭha?"

"I did say 'they lead out' my dear Gotama."

"But, has any of these Buddhist teachers personally seen (sakkhidiṭṭhi) Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"So, have any of the Buddhist teachers' teachers personally seen Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"Well, have any of these Buddhist teachers, as far as the seven generations back, personally seen Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"But what about those ancient Buddhist teachers , the sages who made the suttas, and handed them on, the old texts that were chanted, proclaimed, and compiled that the Buddhist teachers today chant, recite and repeat – repeating what was said, speaking what was spoken – what about them? Did they say 'we know this, we see this, we know where Nirvāṇa is, the location of Nirvāṇa, and the way to Nirvāṇa?'"

"No, Sir."

"From what you've said, Vāseṭṭha, there is no single one amongst the Buddhist teachers , who has gone to Nirvāṇa personally; none of the teachers, or their teachers, up to the seventh generation of teachers, and none of the ancient sages can say 'we know Nirvāṇa'. These Buddhist teachers say 'though we do not know or see, we teach: this is the only way, the straight and direct way leading out of saṃsāra for one seeking Nirvāṇa.'"

"What do you think, Vāseṭṭha, this being the case, isn't it true that what these Buddhist teachers say is just religious cant?"

"Yes, Gotama, that is certainly the case."

"It's just as if there were a line of blind men – the first one does not see, the middle one doesn't see and the last one doesn't see. The talk of these Buddhist teachers turns out to just be laughable, empty, worthless, cant."
My point here is not to say that there is no one around who is liberated. I believe in the possibility and I'm aware of people with substantial experiences of insight. No. My point is that we Buddhists are always talking about things we have no experience of. I was in a discussion not so long ago about the dhyānas, and realised that no one in the group had much experience - none of us had mastered them by any means. One of the group expressed the wish to write a book about meditation, but later admitted that he never experienced dhyāna. When we moved on to talking about insight, the problem was even worse. Our discussion become entirely theoretical. And I'm not sure it's a discussion worth having. We weren't simply picking over what the various Buddhist traditions say about insight, but actually expressing our own opinions on it. This is all too common.

Buddhists have this seemingly irresistible urge to speak from the point of view of liberation. But if we have not experienced it for ourselves then our words are "laughable, empty, worthless, cant." (hassaka, nāmaka, rittaka, tucchaka.) I've been aware of the discomfort of being lectured about liberation by someone who isn't liberated for a while. As a result I tend avoid talks by Buddhists. I also try to avoid expressing opinions about things I have no experience of. It's one of the good things about scholarly writing that one has to identify the sources of one's ideas. Further if one has what seems like a new idea, one makes an effort to see if anyone got there first and acknowledge them for it. Very few of our ideas are original. Most of them we picked up along the way, forgetting the source as we go. Our opinions are mostly shaped by our conditioning, and we should be acknowledging this rather than pretending it is not the case.


image: Brahmins. Columbia.edu

11 November 2011

Origin of the Idea of the Soul

IN MAY 2011 I EXPLORED the idea of afterlife, and précised some explanations for the ubiquity of beliefs in life after death. In June I outlined a taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, showing that most are variations on two themes, and stem from the same kinds of observations. In this post I want to look at an explanation put forward by Thomas Metzinger for the origin of belief in a soul - i.e. some conscious aspect of 'us' that is not tied to the body. [1] Obviously this subject is closely allied with the theme of life after death since in order to have post-mortem survival some part of us must survive the death of the body.

Those familiar with Metzinger will know that he has had a number of out-of-body experiences (OBE). In his paper he outlines the phenomenology, psychology and neural correlates of OBEs. He attempts to understand these from his own representationalist point of view. Metzinger's view is that the phenomenon of selfhood—the sense of being a self with first person perspective and agency—is related to a sophisticated self-model sustained in the brain. Reality is modelled by our brains in such a way that we do not know we are interacting with the model, except in exceptional circumstances such as brain injury which disrupts the model. Our 'self' is part of the model related to monitoring our own responses to the reality model. But again we experience our 'self' as real, not as a model. In his terms we are all naive realists with respect to our self-models. If one is not familiar with Metzinger's self-model I would recommend reading up on it, and not relying on my very brief summary which can hardly do it justice.[2]

OBE's are often associated with trauma—accidents, epileptic fits, brain injury—but some healthy people have them as well, sometimes in the waking state. They also occur in the dream state, or in the pre-waking state accompanied by sleep paralysis. OBEs are really a cluster of phenomena and that makes it hard to give a single representative example: but the common factors are that one sees oneself and one's surroundings, but feels oneself to be separate from one's physical body, or floating. In the OBE the locus of thought and identity is experienced as being outside the body, while the body and thoughts are still identified as 'mine'. This distinguishes it from phenomena such as depersonalisation and derealisation. Interestingly OBEs can also be artificially induced by direct brain stimulation, or using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. The part of the brain concerned is the angular gyrus which is on the temporo-parietal junction - where the temporal and parietal lobes of the neo-cortex meet. Put simply if we pass a tiny electric current through the angular gyrus and there is an instantaneous out-of-body experience, switch it off and the OBE ceases.

Metzinger interprets the phenomena of OBE in terms of simultaneous but integrated self models. The first self-model is rooted in bodily sensations: muscle tension, inner ear balance information, the sense of touch etc. The second is primarily visual. Normally these two streams of information are integrated into a single self-model, but in the OBE for whatever reason the result is two self-models. The primary self-model, the one which the subject identifies with as the locus of their ego, is the felt sense of the body, though typically without the sense of weight from gravity which leaves the person with a floating sensation. The visual self-model is functional but not integrated with the felt sense allowing the sense that the subject is not "in" their body. In the OBE the subject will experience themselves as located in an ethereal body rather than as disembodied. Sometimes one simply floats, but frequently one has more or less agency and can decide to move about. This used to be called "astral travelling".

Metzinger describes his own OBEs in his book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. He does not doubt the phenomenological accounts of OBE, however he seeks to explain the OBE from his representionalist point of view, which is based on the observations of neuroscience. Metzinger is particularly interested in disorders like phantom limb syndrome, but also in ways in which the brain decides what is part of it's body and what isn't. For instance in virtual reality experiments subjects can have virtual OBEs where they experience a virtual body projected as separate from them physically in space as their own body. Alok Jha, science journalist, likened this to the movie Avatar where people 'inhabited' specially grown alien bodies. Our sense of being embodied, in our own physical body, is a simulation and it can be disrupted in many ways. If it were not a simulation then explaining phantom limb syndrome or the rubber hand illusion would be very difficult to explain.

The main phenomena the subject in an OBE will experience is that their thought processes are taking place separately from their physical body. Metzinger speculates that OBEs might be good candidate experiences for the origin of ideas about the soul. As he says:
For anyone who actually had [an OBE] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (p.78)
We are all what Metzinger calls 'folk phenomenologists'—we all interpret our own experiences. On the whole we clearly do a good job of this. But when we have unusual experiences such as hallucinations, sleep paralysis, OBE, or even meditative experiences, we tend not to do such a good job. Although Metzinger does not say so, we are powerfully conditioned by a number of other factors which reinforce the ontological dualism. Here our predisposition to believe in life after death comes to the fore. This in turn is reinforced by our strong Theory of Mind: our ability to project consciousness not only into other humans, but into animals, trees, and even inanimate objects. The Theory of Mind is fundamental to our humanity, without it we would be incapable of empathy or relating to other people. But we are apt to see consciousness, and conscious agency where there is none. Particularly in the dead. If we combine this with an OBE or some other kind of experience which shifts the apparent locus of thought out of the body, such as a lucid dream, then ontological dualism might seem incontrovertible. Clearly some form of dualism is present in almost every afterlife belief, including Buddhist rebirth. It's impossible to posit post-mortem survival (let alone post-mortem memory) without implying, however subtly, an entity which survives separate from the body.

It's important to note that Metzinger is making conjectures here. He is taking the evidence and putting together plausible narratives to account for them. His representationalist explanation of consciousness is highly plausible, and appears to be a useful way of thinking about consciousness and especially self-consciousness. It is powerfully demystifying and disenchanting. It emerges from trying to explain observations from neuroscience, particularly the way the sense of self breaks down. These observations are intriguing, but more work must, and is, being done. And this is crucial difference between science and religion - in science we rigorously test theories hoping to prove them wrong (which is how a scientist gains kudos!)

If Metzinger is right, and I think his suggestion is entirely plausible, then we can see that this idea of being able to separate mind and body feeds into the powerful complex of ideas about post-mortem survival. The belief in an afterlife no longer seems so strange or strained. It's not only a psychological fantasy, but emerges to some extent from our experience of the world - or at least the experience of some of us. Afterlife beliefs are extremely persistent in the face of scientific rationalism, and my exploration of such beliefs has, to some extent, shown why they might seem plausible and preferable to the alternative. Metzinger remarks that trying to destroy a person's deeply held belief in the afterlife has ethical implications. In attempting to undermine a person's belief system we may be doing them a violence. It's all very well to debate the facts such as they are, but as self-aware beings we have an obligation to try to relate to people first and foremost on the basis of empathy. We may simply have to acknowledge that some people will be eternalists no matter what facts we present, because our version of the facts seem implausible compared with the alternative. I don't think this is a problem as long as what they believe is not causing them to be unkind or prevents them from relating on the basis of empathy.


  1. Metzinger, Thomas (2005) 'Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a "Soul".' Mind & Matter Vol. 3(1), pp. 57–84. http://www.philosophie.uni-mainz.de/metzinger/publikationen/OBE_M&M_2005.pdf
  2. Fortunately Metzinger himself has provided an introduction: Scholarpedia. Self models. See also his book: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. I précised Metzinger's lecture on the first person perspective in April 2011. I would also recommend reading Antonio Damasio's book: The Feeling Of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness which gives an account of how self-consciousness might emerge from modelling body states in the brain.

See also

04 November 2011

Emotions in Buddhism

IN A LENGTHY WRITTEN exchange with a colleague on the subject of citta it became clear that there is something unusual about the way early Buddhism treats emotion. To begin with there is no word in Pāli or Sanskrit for "emotions" as a separate category of experience. On the other hand there are words for distinct emotions such as fear (bhaya), anger (koda, rosa), hatred (dosa), joy (ānanda, pamojja), sadness (domanassa, soka) and so on. So emotions are concepts in themselves, but do not form a natural category different from other kinds of experiences. However the received tradition is that ancient Indians treat emotions under the heading of 'mind'. Alongside this we frequently find the suggestion that citta ought to be translated as 'heart'. I want to look again at this.

When I wrote about citta back in March 2011 (Mind Words) I bent my definition to include emotions. I am not so sure now. To recapitulate: citta comes from the root √cit which I defined thus: "√cit concerns what catches and holds our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards [or away from] on the other." My colleague had consulted Margaret Cone, the Pāli Lexicographer and author of the new Dictionary of Pali, about her dictionary definition and she replied that citta means 'thinking, thought, intention'; with no mention of emotion. This raised the concern that emotions were being "left out", which is quite an interesting proposition. Are emotions being left out here?

On reflection I decided that emotions are not being left out, but they are being defined differently from how we define emotions. From the early Buddhist point of view experience has a bodily component (kāyika) and a mental component (cetasika). This much is clear from the Salla Sutta (SN 36.6, PTS S iv.207), which makes a distinction between bodily pain, and mental suffering: the arahant has the former, but not the latter. [1] Now, we know that emotions too have a felt bodily component, and hence we often use 'feeling/feelings' to talk about or describe emotions: "I feel happy", "how are you feeling" etc. And we know that emotions have a mental component and that this mental component is what distinguishes emotions from other types of bodily sensation (i.e. proprioception, the normal operation of the viscera, or physical touch).

Likewise from the point of view of physiology emotions are indistinguishable from each other. Cordelia Fine summarises some the research on this in her entertaining little book A Mind of Its Own. She points out, for instance, that the mechanism that makes our heart race with fear, exhilaration or plain physical exertion is the same in each case. The body has very limited responses to stimulation. Fine sums it up with this equation:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts.

Arousal, it turns out, comes in one flavour but differing intensities. Arousal simply prepares the body for activity. If you are shaking fear, or anger, or trembling with anticipation of reward it's all just arousal. And what makes the experience distinct is the accompanying thoughts.[2]

Now this view of emotion is quite consistent with the early Buddhist model which seems to see emotions as agitation accompanied by thoughts. The Pāli word for empathy is anukampa: literally 'to tremble along with' i.e. to feel what someone else feels. In the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta we find that one aspect of the highest blessing is:
Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na kampati;
Touched by objects of experience, his mind is not agitated. (Sn 47)
Considering lokadhamma recall that loka is our experiential world, and a dhamma is the object of manas, hence my translation as 'objects of experience'. So what usually happens when we have an experience is agitation (kampati) of our mind (citta). Interestingly when the word emotion first entered the English language from French in the 16th century it meant 'agitation'. So what has changed?

I think what changed was first the 18th century European Enlightenment, followed by the Romantic reaction against it, which itself found expression in the Psychoanalytic movement. I think this partly because I've read David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and agree that these are some of the main influences on the modern world generally, and have deeply influenced the presentation of Buddhism around the world since the 19th century. McMahan includes Protestantism as well, but we can leave that aside for now.

Partly due to Enlightenment propaganda we see the period before the emergence of science as one of rampant irrationality and superstition. (Though this was countered in the popular imagination by the Romantic idea of the "noble savage", and in fact superstition and irrationality are still rampant!) Enlightenment thinkers began to apply objectivity and reason to many problems, and discovered they could solve many of them. Whatever else we say about Newton, Locke, Hook & co. we must acknowledge their great achievements. So great was their success that they and their successors began to see reason as superior to emotion. To them the universe seemed like a giant clockwork machine that they could take apart and fully understand. To be fair this notion was not new to them, but was originally a product of theological thinking about 'the music of the spheres' and the 'great chain of being' which had been around for centuries. Enlightenment thinkers were consciously disenchanting the world, and felt more free as they did so: free from the irrational leadership of the Church which feared reason and knowledge, and free from the small fears which ruled every day life. Soon they began to be free of the fear of diseases like Smallpox as well. And free from some of the uncertainty of life. We enjoy these freedoms largely without acknowledgement these days, and with apparent resentment amongst many Buddhists (who seem to hate scientists, perhaps because they have been so successful?).

However the disenchantment cultivated by Enlightenment figures left some people feeling that such a mechanical universe was lacking something. In England especially poets began to celebrate the mystery of the cosmos, and especially to revel in the unreasoning and irrationality of flights of emotion. They sought to topple reason from the pinnacle of human endeavour and replace it with emotion. The Romantics indulged in all kinds of emotions, and produced art, literature and music designed to stimulate strong emotions - everything from love to horror. And they took all kinds of mind altering substances for the intense experiences they produced. They did not let society tell them how to live - the heroic individual and their emotional life ruled. For Romantics the exotic and mysterious provoked the kinds of emotions they enjoyed, so they cultivated an interest in them - the intellectual was seen as dull and lifeless. They also worshipped nature and valued the natural world, or at least an idealised notion of it. In many ways the morality 1960s was simply a late flowering of a seed planted by the 18th and 19th century Romantics (and just as misguided). This focus on emotion seems to underlie the idea that emotions are a particular category of human experience, and one of very high value.

In some ways we can see the Psycho-analytical movement as an attempt to reconcile these two rather monstrous cultural forces. Freud certainly saw himself as a scientist, and his subject of study was the emotional life of the patient. History has shown that Freud, while a gifted observer and writer, was no scientist. Only recently are neuroscientists starting to put psychology on a proper scientific footing. But Freud and his successors have profoundly influenced the way we view emotions. Emotions are hypostasized and become a special category of experience, distinct from thoughts and simple body sensations. Thoughts convey reason, while emotions are an expression of our mysterious 'soul' or 'spirit', a Romantic expression of our true nature. If we are to understand ourselves, the Psychologists tell us, then we must understand our inner emotional life; we must delve into the sources of our emotional reactions. It is because of the Romantics and Freud that we believe that an unexpressed emotion represents a danger to our well-being. As William Blake said:
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
This is very far from either the early Buddhist view, or the emerging consensus from neuroscience. Buddhists texts are constantly telling us to use reason to keep our emotions in check. We are to avoid stimulating agitation by withdrawing our attention from sensory stimulation. This aspect of Buddhism is notably unpopular in Romantic Western Buddhism. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that saṃsāra is all bad. We just want to enjoy ourselves a little: by which we seem to mean to stimulate the emotions: be it joy, or horror. Unfortunately for us Western Buddhism is mainly lead by people from the Baby Boomer generation, and from that part of it which saw the Hippy movement, with its Romantic hedonism, self-absorption, self-indulgence, and intoxication, as a good thing. Renunciation is anathema to the Romantic.

In conclusion early Buddhism had a very different view of emotions than the view current in the Western World. Emotions were not a distinct category of experience, though I would argue that most of what we call emotion these days does fit into the broad category of papañca (though even the definition leans towards the mental rather than physical). Therefore the Buddha has no position on emotion, and emotions as a category play no part in his methods. Yes, we cultivate metta, but note that in the locus classicus, the Karaṇīyametta Sutta it is the mind (mānaso) that includes all beings, not the heart. Yes, we cultivate pamojja; and yes we suppress anger. But there is no theory of emotions as a distinct type of experience. At best emotions simply agitate us, and can be divided into those that fool us into craving, and those that fool us into aversion.

We Buddhists have long had critiques of materialism. We understand to some extent the influence of Scientific Rationalism. We also have some understanding of the influence of Protestantism. But we seem to have almost no notion that we are influenced by the Romantic movement, or by the German philosophical counterpart Idealism. Most Buddhists get interested in Psychology to some extent since it seems to related to what we do, but we have no sense that it channels Romanticism. There is no traditional critique of Romanticism perhaps because it wasn't a traditional view, whereas some form of materialism always was. Western Buddhists (and I may say the Triratna Order in particular) desperately need to develop a critique of Romanticism because it is such a powerful influence on how we see ourselves and the world, and its unchallenged assumptions impede our progress in the Dharma. This is not to say that we should reject Romanticism out of hand, only that we should be aware of the history of these ideas and how they influence our worldview.


  1. The kāyika/cetasika distinction occurs in other places as well, e.g. M i.302, iii.288-90; S iv.209, iv.231; v.111; A i.81, i.137, ii.143.
  2. That these different kinds of thoughts are handled by different brain structures using different neurotransmitters doesn't change the facts of the physical manifestation in the rest of the body produced by the sympathetic nervous system and a narrow range of hormones.

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