25 May 2012

Facts and Feelings

WESTERN PHILOSOPHERS have pondered the questions of 'what is knowledge?', and 'what is truth?' for centuries. Without, it must be said, coming to any kind of consensus. And without, it seems to me, acknowledging that the inability to come to a consensus after many centuries says there is something terribly wrong with the whole enterprise of philosophy! The question of why two philosophers can never agree is part of a larger question that interests me. On the surface there seem to be very different modes of knowing and processing knowledge. We distinguish intellect from feelings for instance, and reasoning from intuition. We have always insisted that the differences are important and have often valued one over the others. The classic contest is between reason and emotion. But some research (now decades old in fact) raises the question of whether these are even valid categories when it comes to knowledge.

I've already mentioned, several times, a case study cited by Antonio Damasio in which he meets a patient with damage to his ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex (red in the image). This part of the brain is involved in the regulation of emotions. Emotional impulses typically come from deeper brain structures in the so-called Limbic System; a series of related structures in the lower and mid-brain. However emotions are also processed and regulated by our neo-cortex. In the patient mentioned by Damasio his awareness of emotions is extremely attenuated. Asked to describe his journey to the appointment his emotional tone was flat, even when describing the traffic accident he witnessed along the way. The emotions do not register. But his narrative shows that his powers of observation and understanding are not impeded; for example his recall of the trip is detailed and the facts are accurately related. He understands cause and effect. What is missing is the emotional response. And this shows when the patient is asked whether an appointment on Tuesday or Thursday next week would suit him better. He has a complete grasp of the facts relating to the choice - his and other's schedules, traffic conditions at different times etc, and he understands the task: but after 30 minutes of reviewing the facts he cannot come to a decision. The facts appear to be evenly weighted in his mind. Each fact is as important as every other fact. So that he has no basis on which to make a decision. (Descartes' Error. p.192ff.) (see also Grabenhorst & Rolls, van den Bos & Güroğlu).

This points to a very important conclusion: that facts alone are not the basis of how we make decisions. We need to know the relative value of each fact, and this information comes from the emotional response we have in relation to the fact. When we consider the facts we don't just decide what we believe to be true. In any given situation there are likely to be hundreds of true facts. We need to decide, given the context, which facts are relevant and important, i.e. salient. Facts make for sense, and emotions make for salience. We simply cannot make decisions without both.

Salience is terribly important. I recently learned for instance that schizophrenia is going to be renamed salience syndrome in the DSM-V (The DSM Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. due out next year) The current thinking is that a person with the disorder assigns the wrong level of salience to their experience which leads to delusions. Cause and effect can become confused or disconnected, and coincidences start to take on far too much salience. Inner experience can seem as though it is connected to external events in ways that only the sufferer can detect. An urge to act may not be felt as coming from 'me' so must be coming from outside. And so on. Schizophrenia means 'split mind' (though the etymology of Greek phren 'mind' is unknown), which is not at all descriptive of the disorder and has often lead to confusion amongst lay people. Correctly assessing the salience of our experience is virtually a definition of sanity, though the definition has a broad and ill-defined boundary.

So part of the reason that philosophers (or people generally) cannot agree on things is that we have different notions of value and salience, and since these are primarily emotional they are difficult to articulate. In fact we tend to unconsciously absorb the values and notions of salience from the people around us. Values are strongly conditioned by relatives, friends, race, region, and religion (i.e. by all the various groups we are members of). Attempts to articulate universal values have so far failed to convince everyone. The problem of inarticulate values is exacerbated by those aiming at what they call 'rationality' or 'objectivity' since this usually involves consciously suppressing emotional responses.

Incidentally, this shows that unless the Vulcans of Star Trek were wired very differently from humans, that Mr Spock & co. would have been unable to make decisions. Without a way to assign value to facts they would all be just like Damasio's brain damaged patient.

Intuition and Reason

People I know have been using the term 'intuition' a lot lately and have consistently failed to respond to my request to know what they mean by it. I think I'm in a position to offer a definition which demystifies the word. Let's start with reasoning. In reasoning, as I have indicated, we don't just manipulate facts to make sense. In reasoning we tap into emotions to give value to facts, and then compare the relative values to decide which is salient, or which is most salient. Saliency is a much more fuzzy concept than truth. We know that two intelligent people can reasonably come to opposing conclusions given a set of facts. This is the basis of of arguments in politics and well as philosophy for example. It's so much a part of our daily lives that it hardly needs an example, but the classic illustration is between conservative and liberal politics. Given identical facts, right and left leaning people will come to completely different conclusions about appropriate courses of action, because each assesses the salience of competing facts differently. (The different values of left and right are summarised very well in a diagram produced by David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec for the Information is Beautiful website. See also McCandless on TED) The irreconcilability of left and right rests not on the facts per se, but on what each side considers to be the most salient facts. This is true of the irreconcilability of philosophies, ideologies, and religions also.

The champions of reason initially saw it as a way of freeing us from superstition. The great discovery of the Enlightenment was facts that were apparently independent of belief systems (though geometry was known to have this property since antiquity). Gravity affects the Atheist and the Christian in precisely the same way. If we measure the acceleration due to gravity anywhere on the earth then it is about 10 ms-2 with a variation proportional to our distance from the centre of the earth, and the density of the material directly under us, and a margin of error. In a world where most conflicts are based on mutually antagonistic belief systems this revelation from science seemed to be incredibly valuable. The hope was that we had discovered a reliable way to make decisions, and there were things we could all agree on! Some people still see science in this light, but most of us now acknowledge that values play a role in science as well. Though of course some religieux still fail to acknowledge facts that conflict with their (highly valued) belief systems.

Reason came to be associated with the conscious manipulation of these facts divorced from emotional involvement. And the Romantics (over) reacted to this by revalorising emotions at the expense of reason (leading Romantics tended to break with the values of the society around them). Unfortunately there is a great deal of difference between a value independent fact (like gravity), and value independent thinking (which amounts to suppressing one's awareness of emotions and therefore empathy). We still have to decide what facts are relevant to any situation, and all too often empathy is left out of rational equations. Cold reason has caused atrocities every bit as wicked as unchecked emotions have.

So reason, it seemed, could free us from superstition. Obviously it has failed to do so. Why? It could only have succeeded if the supernatural had low salience for us. In fact supernatural thinking tends to have a high value, and therefore high salience for many people I know (C.f. On Credulity), and though they are a bit credulous they are by no means cretinous. The survival of the supernatural is partly due to the pernicious influence of the Romantics who celebrated the irrational, but of course they only tapped into something that already existed in the hearts and minds of people. There is a very great reluctance to abandon the supernatural, many of us value it, and continue to find it salient in understanding our experience. People who rail against religion (often to a highly irrational extreme, marked by very strong emotions) on the whole seem to be ignorant of this dynamic, making their criticisms unhelpful (and I'm specifically thinking of Richard Dawkins here).

Which brings us to intuition. Unlike reasoning where we try to consciously compare the values we have assigned to facts, intuition is the same process undertaken unconsciously. Experientially it seems as if we leap to a conclusion, or the answer to a problem appears as if from nowhere. We tend to be quite naive about this and since we don't see a process, we assume that one doesn't exist or that it is a bit magical. Intuition then becomes mystified. All that is happening is that we are weighing the value of facts subconsciously and coming to an unconscious decision. It may also be that our phenomenal ability to detect patterns operates better at an unconscious level, since it it something we developed early in evolutionary terms (other animals also use pattern recognition to help them survive).

It may even feel as though trying to think consciously about a problem is counter-productive. Perhaps this is because we cast the net too widely and overload our judgement of salience with too many facts; or perhaps our intellectual (or ideological) values actually conflict with our unconscious values; or perhaps we are just alienated from our body and emotions which makes are values difficult to access. In any case often we solve a problem by allowing ourselves to work on it unconsciously. Many of the great advances in science have come through allowing the problem to mull over unconsciously. Breakthroughs often come after a night's sleep and have even come in dreams (like the structure of the benzene molecule). There's nothing very mysterious about this process, and in many ways it is simply the same as "reasoning" - connecting facts and/or experience, to emotions and values, to decide what makes the most sense of the given facts under the circumstances.

It seems to me that a number of fallacies about how we think persist in spite of new evidence which is constantly emerging. Folk ideas about the mind are still in the process of assimilating the ideas of the 19th century psycho-analytic movement and it's more popular spawn, let alone the insights of neuroscience. As I understand it there is no fundamental difference between reason and intuition, they are the same process operating at different levels of awareness. There is nothing magical about intuition (I frequently rely on it), though the unconscious nature of it does lend itself to magical explanations.

In a sense the magical explanations of intuition are rather egocentric: 'I' am the owner of all that I'm aware of in my mind and body, and since intuition is unconscious it must be 'not I'. And being both 'I', in that the inputs and outputs happen in my mind, and not 'I', in that I am unaware of the process of producing the output from the input: then something super-natural must be happening.

Embodied Cognition

Another fallacy about reasoning is that it is wholly abstract and divorced from experience. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have showed that this is not so. Lakoff and Johnson have showed for instance that when we think abstractly we employ metaphors which draw on our physical experience of being embodied. We employ metaphors like UP IS GOOD/DOWN IS BAD. So if the stock market 'rises', then that is a good thing. But the stock market is only a notional entity and is not able to move about in space. Our reasoning here depends on the experience we have of moving about in space with our bodies. UP IS GOOD is likely related to an upright position being consistent with life, and lying down with death. And note that UP is not always GOOD. When we have a "high" fever this is a negative. Temperature being "high" or "low" is also a spatial metaphor (perhaps related to the position of the sun in the sky).

If I say "a thought just came into my head" I am performing quite a complex metaphorical translation. I am employing a range of metaphors: thoughts are objects, thoughts are agents, my head is my awareness, my head is a container--therefore awareness is a container). I'm relying on my experience of placing objects into containers, without which the sentence would not make sense. I'm also placing my first-person perspective inside that same container. The thought has to enter the same container, because containers can also hide objects. The unconscious is a container I cannot see into for instance. And note that the thought is an autonomous agent - it comes into my head, without me willing it (c.f. my previous statements on intuition). Although we all have an experience like this, the expression is metaphorical. Even apparently simple statements of fact are often couched in terms which rely on a complex interlocking system of metaphors that ultimately depend on how we physically interact with the world.

This argument from linguistics is confirmed from a neuroscience angle by the existence of mirror and canonical neurons, which form part of the motor cortex. When we do an action, say clenching a fist, parts of the motor cortex are active. Mirror neurons are active when we see someone else perform an action. Canonical neurons are active when we are presented with an object, or an image of an object, and we imagine how we might manipulate it. It is an unsurprising conclusion that we relate to the world in terms of how we might interact with it or manipulate it. However these same interactions form the basis of the metaphors that we use in abstract thought, which is not generally recognised.

Reason, then, is very much embodied and abstract thought depends on metaphors arising from our physical interactions with the world. Reason relies on assessing the salience of a fact by connecting it to our emotions, which we experience as bodily sensations. Reason also relies on metaphors and abstractions which are based in how we physically interact with the world. When we consider the nature of belief we need to keep all this in mind. A belief is a proposition that we have decided is not only true, but which has great salience. To shift a belief by offering alternative truths is ineffective. One can only shift a belief by changing the relative importance of the facts - that is by addressing salience. Indeed if we hold something to be highly salient, then the "fact" that it is untrue might not be salient - and we can comfortably and tenaciously believe untrue propositions. I would say that it is frequently the case with fundamentalist religious beliefs. In a future essay I want to look at how scientists have failed to communicate the salience of evolution, and allowed some religious people to continue to deny it despite the "facts". This is paralleled by Buddhist responses to the demonstrable fact that rebirth is factually implausible.



  • Damasio, Antonio. Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books, 2006.
  • Grabenhorst, Fabian & Rolls, Edmund T. 'Value, pleasure and choice in the ventral prefrontal cortex.' Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 1 February 2011 (Vol. 15, Issue 2, pp. 56-67) doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.12.004
  • Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
  • van den Bos, Wouter & Güroğlu, Berna. 'The Role of the Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Social Decision Making.' The Journal of Neuroscience, June 17, 2009 • 29(24):7631–7632. DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1821-09.2009
  • van Os J. 'Salience syndrome' replaces 'schizophrenia' in DSM-V and ICD-11: psychiatry's evidence-based entry into the 21st century? Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2009 Nov;120(5):363-72.

2012 article on Phineas Gage in the Guardian.

Reference: Van Horn, J. D., et al. (2012). Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage. PLoS ONE, 7(5): e37454. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037454

18 May 2012

The World

It's become one of the staples of my writing that what the Buddha means by loka 'world' in the Pāli Canon is not simply 'the world' as we usually understand it. The word loka is undoubtedly used a number of different ways, very similar to how we use it in English, but it also has a technical meaning that is bought out in three suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya.

In the Lokantagamana 'Going to the End of the World' Sutta (S 35.116), the Buddha is cited as saying: "I don’t say, bhikkhus, that the end of the world might be known, seen or attained by [physically] going. However I also say that one can’t make an end of disappointment without having attained the end of the world."

Since this is unclear to the bhikkhus who hear it, they ask Ānanda for an explanation. After the stereotypical reluctance he says that he understands it to mean:
"That by which one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world; in this ideal discipline this is called 'the world'. By what one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world? By the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body; by the mind one is a world perceiver, a world conceiver in the world."
The Buddha endorses this statement saying that Ānanda is very wise.

As Buddhaghosa says in his commentary loka here refers to saṅkhāraloka ‘the world of constructs’ (SA 2.388) that is to say the world of experience arising out of sense object and sense faculty in the light of sense cognition.

Ānanda's statement is a little cryptic from our point of view. In Pāli he refers to "lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī". Here lokasmiṃ ‘in the world’; saññin ‘having perception, a perceiver, perceiving; mānin ‘having a mind, having a though, thinking’; both in the nominative singular; note that this sense of mānin is not recorded in PED, but the word comes from √man 'to think' which gives us the verb maññati 'thinking', and the noun manas 'mind'. Both lokasaññin and lokamānin seem to be tatpuruṣa compounds: ‘perceiving the world, perception of the world’. The resulting English is awkward, but other translators have not been able to find a more felicitous reading. In any case taken as a whole Ānanda's explanation is understandable. He is emphasising that the Buddha is not talking about the world in the ordinary sense, not being paradoxical. The world of experience is not one that ends by physically travelling (gamanena); and here we add that in Iron Age India it was thought one could get to the end of the physical world by physically travelling.

The Rohitassa Sutta (S 2.26) also mentions going to the end of the world, though here as place without cyclic rebirth:
“However I say, friend, there is no making an end of disappointment, without reaching the end of the world. And, friend, it is right here in this arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world”.
Again this reinforces the idea that 'the world' is one which we create. It comes into being right here in our body and mind - in our arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition. Mrs Rhys Davids translated byāmamatte kaḷevara as ‘this fathom long carcass’ which is certainly a striking rendition, but byāma refers to 'an arm-span' which is typically somewhat less than a fathom, and carcass though allowed by the dictionary is usually a word for a dead animal body. No doubt Mrs Rhys Davids was trying to make a point here, I'm trying to understand the text, not Mrs Rhys Davids.

The last text which I'd like to draw attention to in this context is the Loka Sutta (S 12.44). This text tells us that ‘the world’ arises as a consequence of the nidāna chain, making it synonymous with dukkha! This relates to a point made by Sue Hamilton about the khandhas. These three terms dukkha, loka, and khandha are part of a set of interlocking metaphors for unawakened experience. It's not that unawakened experience makes us suffer, it is that awakened experience is dukkha. This is partly why I choose to translate dukkha as disappointment. Because clearly some experiences are pleasurable. It's not the everything is painful per se, but that nothing lives up to our expectations. Even the pleasurable is ultimately disappointing because it is ephemeral. Biology has programmed us to create experience worlds, in which we seek our pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. This works well for us in our natural environment, but no one reading this has lived in their natural environment for about 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture and high density living. Our internal worlds are out of sync with the world as it is.

One last little observation about this text is that Buddhaghosa makes a comment: "Thus he should see: 'I do not, friend, declare these four truths in grass and wood, but I declare them only in this body of the four great elements.'" This is presented as a quote from the Buddha, although it does not seem to occur in the canonical texts that have come down to us. Buddhaghosa appears to be saying here that paṭicca-sammupāda applies only to one’s world of experience, rather than to external objects.

One of the difficulties this reading of loka presents is reconciling it with the reading of the Pāli texts which say that the nidānas describe an actual rebirth process and that rebirth is essential to Buddhism. There's such strong textual support for these two approaches, one which understands that the Buddha was only talking about our experiential world, and one which understands that the Buddha was talking about the world in a more Realist sense. Citing suttas is certainly not going to resolve such a dilemma. But it does show that my views are not heterodox with respect to the Canon: my view is firmly based in sutta readings that try to make clear that the context of all the teachings was the world of experience rather than the 'real' world (in which one might be physically reborn). Equally, as Thanissaro has showed there is ample textual support for taking rebirth as physically being reborn with some kind of continuity between lives, despite all of the philosophical problems this continuity causes, and the many different ways that Buddhists have tried and failed to resolve them over twenty five centuries.

Untangling the two contradictory views is impossible because from our point of view they have equal antiquity. There is no empirical way of giving one priority over the other. But only one of these views is compatible with a modern view informed by two or thee centuries of science, philosophy, and especially history since the European Enlightenment. So for me there is no dilemma and no difficulty in deciding which of these views I accept and which I do not. My criteria for making such a decision were in place by the time I left primary school. The other view is interesting from the point of view of the history of ideas and anthropology, but it's not something I could base my life on.

That other people have different criteria is not necessarily problematic; but looking at the world around me I do see a problem if the mainstream of Buddhism is seen as upholding beliefs such as rebirth. The problem being that the people who are willing to have blind faith in religious dogmas in the modern world is shrinking, and the hostility toward organised religion is increasing. Our disappointment with organised Christianity generally turns to anger when we see religious fundamentalists trying to impose their views: especially in the area of evolution in schools, or the imposition of forms of law which undermine such important principles as non-discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, and which impose barbaric punishments. Our liberty, equality and fraternity were hard won, and we would be fools to give them up.


23 June 2015. I sometimes get some funny looks when I talk about this view of the world. It's not familiar despite being fairly obvious in the Pāḷi texts, because it's not central to the teachings of any modern teachers. But I recently found a passage in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā which confirms this view (as well as confirming some of my suspicions about the Aṣṭa itself) (Vaidya 126)
atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etada vocat - yad bhagavān evam āha - prajñāpāramitā tathāgatānām arhatāṃ samyaksaṃbuddhānām asya lokasya saṃdarśayitrīti, kathaṃ bhagavan prajñāpāramitā tathāgatānām arhatāṃ samyaksaṃbuddhānāmasya lokasya saṃdarśayitrī? katamaś ca bhagavan lokas tathāgatair arhadbhiḥ samyaksaṃbuddhair ākhyātaḥ?
Then indeed Elder Subhūti said to the Bhagavan, "Bhagavan has said that, 'prajñāpāramitā is the teaching of the world of the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas. What, Bhagavan, is prajñāpāramitā, the teaching of the world by the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas? And what, Bhagavan, is the world declared by the the tathāgatas, arhats, perfect Buddhas.
evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtim etada vocat - pañca subhūte skandhāḥ tathāgatena loka ity ākhyātāḥ / katame pañca? yaduta rūpaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā vijñānam / ime subhūte pañca skandhā stathāgatena loka ity ākhyātāḥ //
That said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Subhūti, "Subhūti, it has been declared that 'the five skandhas are the world according to the tathāgatas'. Which five? Form, sensation, apperception, volition, and cognitions."
subhūtir āha - kathaṃ bhagavaṃs tathāgatānāṃ prajñāpāramitayā pañca skandhā darśitāḥ? kiṃ vā bhagavan prajñāpāramitayā darśitam?
Subhūti said, "How does the Bhagavan teach the five skandhas with respect to the prajñāpāramitā of the tathāgatas?"
evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtim etad avocat - na lujyante na pralujyante iti subhūte pañca skandhā loka iti tathāgatānāṃ prajñāpāramitayā darśitāḥ /
When this was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Subhūti, "they are not destroyed, they don't break down. Subhūti, 'the five skandhas are the world' is taught with respect to prajñāpāramitā of the tathāgatas.
*lujyante is a Prakrit form of the passive of Sanskrit √ruj. The l for r swap is also seen in many of Asoka's inscriptions e.g. lāja for rāja. Pāḷi has rujati but lujjati.
tat kasya hetoḥ na lujyante na pralujyante iti darśitāḥ? śūnyatāsvabhāvā hi subhūte pañca skandhāḥ, asvabhāvatvāt / na ca subhūte śūnyatā lujyate vā pralujyate vā /
What is the reason for this teaching of 'they are not destroyed, they don't break down.' Because of the state of lacking self-existence (asvabhāva-tva), Subhūti, the five skandhas have a self-existence which is emptiness. And, Subhūti, emptiness is not destroyed or broken down.
Cf. Conze's translation p.173 which consistently mistakes the grammar of tathāgata so that the tathāgatas are bring instructed, which they are not!

11 May 2012

On the Nature of Experience

I'VE BEEN READING  a lot of Pāli suttas in Pāli lately and came across an interesting pair: the Uppādā Sutta (A 3.134) and the Paccaya Sutta (S 12.20). They're a pair because they apply two abstract qualities-- dhammaṭṭḥitā and dhammaniyāmatā--to their subjects: the three lakkhaṇas in the first case; dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) and dependently arisen dhammas (paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā) in the second. In cross referencing my notes on the two a reflection flashed into my mind, which I will try to flesh out here.

As always my context is experience. Although the terminology remains a little vague I see dhammas as the objects of the mental sense - arising from mental objects directly, or through the mental objects created when we process sense consciousness arising in relations to sense objects.

S 12.20 is in the Nidāna Saṃyutta, and in Pāli it assumes that we have read and learned S 12.1 where the nidāna chain is spelled out in full. Subsequent suttas of this saṃyutta abbreviate the chain with pe which here means 'etc.' or 'ditto'. Note that here we find the standardised twelve nidānas, so this whole section of the Nikāya represents the mature Canonical thinking with all the wrinkles and differences ironed out. This is just a contextualising comment, not a polemic. It represents a particular stage in the development of this strand of Buddhist thought.

The sutta makes two main points. For reasons of space I will focus on the first, which is that dependent arising is the nidāna chain, and has the form of statements such as 'from the condition of birth, there is ageing and death' (jāti-paccayā jarā-maraṇaṃ). The form and the content of this statement are true if tathāgatas (plural!) arise or not. That is to say the authors believed that this observation is not a special revelation from the Buddha, but a fundamental truth about experience. I would argue that the mature twelve membered nidāna chain introduces some awkwardness into this process because it's become a little more than a model of experience. We have to wonder about the relationship between upādāna, bhava and jāti for instance. But leaving aside metaphysical problems for now, this process of experience is described as:

ṭhitā'va sā dhātu dhammaṭṭḥitā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā

The first part 'this property (sā dhātu) is persistent (ṭhitā eva)...' is relatively straightforward (note that ṭhitā takes a feminine ending so it must be an adjective of dhātu). In the case of birth, everyone born will die. We don't need a Buddha to tell us this. Indeed even the idea that 'everything changes' is not specific to Buddhism. [see Everything Changes but So What?]. The rest of model is not going to be intuited exactly by non-Buddhists, but it's recognisable when explained. In the absence of a Buddha, Western psychologists developed models of experience which are not so different.

The next three terms do need some explanation. But before getting into the individual terms I want to make a comment on the form of this phrase (which itself is actually the second half of a sentence). The last three words are strung together without connectors, which tells us that they are also adjectives related to dhātu. Being a feminine noun, dhātu forces the pronoun () and the adjectives to take feminine endings (-ā) also. It's quite common for the first adjective to precede the noun, and the others to follow it. The dhātu (element, property) is a property of paṭiccasamuppāda, has four characteristics: ṭhita (persistence, stability) and the other three. It will help to reinforce the fact that the context of this phrase that the first half is "whether tathāgatas arises in the world or not". So now to the other three adjectives.

This notion of conditionality is also described as dhammaṭṭhitā. We need to read translations carefully, because other translators do not read this as an adjective of dhātu but as a standalone statement with dhamma (often The Dhamma) as the subject. Hence Bodhi "the stableness of the Dhamma" (p.551). Thanissaro "this regularity of the Dhamma" (ATI). I can't go along with this, and neither does Buddhaghosa who sees dhamma- here as plural i.e. 'mental objects'; and tells us that conditionally arisen dhammas persist with that condition (paccayena hi paccayuppannā dhammā tiṭṭhanti), i.e. as long as the condition persists. Bodhi doesn't often disagree with Buddhaghosa, but here is an example. If we follow Buddhaghosa, and this time I do, then we must read dhammaṭṭhitā as 'the persistence of dhammas [in the presence of their condition].' This makes good sense. Confusingly Buddhaghosa commenting on the parallel phrase at A 3.134 glosses dhamma-ṭṭhitatā with sabhāva-ṭṭhitatā where sabhāva means ‘nature; state of mind; truth, reality’, most likely meaning ‘nature’. I think trying to make sense of this would take us too far from the main theme.

It's worth digressing to ask why two Theravāda bhikkhu's going against the Great Commentator here, to make persistence a quality of The Dhamma rather than of dhammas? Buddhists often want the Dhamma to be something cosmic; not (only) related to the nature of experience, but to the nature of everything. In other words Buddhists want to see Buddhism as providing a Theory of Everything. There are times when Buddhists appear to favour the idea that Buddhism is a revealed rather than an empirical religion, and that paṭicca-smuppāda is a kind of cosmic order to the universe. Perhaps this explains the situation?

We have a similar situation with the next term. Again Buddhaghosa helps as he says that dhammaniyāma refers to the way that the condition constrains the dhammas [that arise] (paccayo dhamme niyāmeti). Again Buddhaghosa uses the plural; and again compare Bodhi: "the fixed course of the Dhamma"; and Thanissaro: "this orderliness of the Dhamma"; both using the singular. Now look at an unrelated passage at M i.259 which explores this quality from the other side:
yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ tena ten'eva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.
From whatever condition cognition arises, it is known as that kind of cognition.
Pāli Buddhism makes no allowance for synaesthesia: eye forms, and eye faculty only give rise to eye consciousness; never to ear, nose, tongue or body consciousness. This is a constraint (niyāma) of the Buddhist process of cognition. So dhammaniyāmatā refers to this kind of constraint which is a feature of dependently arisen dhammas, rather than a magical quality of The Dhamma. The tendency to translate niyāma as 'order' is one that I'm quite resistant to. Certainly paṭiccasamuppāda does seem to impose constraints (niyāma) on experience in the minds of the authors of this text; and this suggests that experience is to some extent orderly - but such order gives rise to constraints, so dhammaniyāmatā is not a reference to the order itself, though it could seen as assuming a fundamental order.

One little note on this word niyāma: my main source of Pāli is the 1954 Burmese Sixth Council Edition of the Tipiṭaka published (for free) by the Vipassana Research Institute, and it always uses the spelling niyāma. The PTS edition will sometimes have niyama in the same place. VRI modestly report: "The version of the Tipiṭaka which [the 6th council] undertook to produce has been recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of Gotama the Buddha and the most authoritative rendering of them to date."

The last of the four adjectives, idappaccayatā, posses less problem since it is a commonly used and understood term. In fact it is almost synonymous with the previous term. It means that each specific outcome has a specific condition: i.e. birth is the specific condition for ageing and death, while becoming (bhava) is the specific condition for birth. It is probably not significant that A 3.134 leaves this adjective out.

So mature Pāli sutta Buddhism sees this process of dependent arising as quite deterministic: this situation persists, the way that dhammas arise from conditions is always the same, the results are determined by the conditions, and nothing else. They see this process as independent of a living Buddha.

A 3.134 applies this same analysis to the three lakkhaṇas using the well known formulae (c.f. Dhp 277-279):
sabbe saṅkhārā anicca - All experiences are impermanent.
sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha - All experiences are disappointing.
sabbe dhammā anattā - All mental events are insubstantial.
Here saṅkhārā seems to refer to complex constructs of sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition along with the resulting responses (vedanā, papañca etc.); that is to say [unawakened] experience in it's fullness. All experience, including the first person experience, is just the ephemeral coming together of conditioned processes; and because we fail to grasp this our expectations are distorted and all experience is disappointing; with the arising of experience nothing substantial (attā here in the sense of 'body, form') comes into being. In other words experience has no clear ontological status: 'existent' and 'non-existent' don't apply in this domain (c.f. the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S 12.15). Experience is just experience, nothing less (i.e. not just an illusion), but nothing more. Experience is neither real nor unreal, it is dependently arisen.

If paṭiccasamuppāda describes the nature of experience, then the lakkhaṇas are the consequences of that nature, with an emphasis on the consequences for those unaware of that nature. Our fundamental problem, according to my reading of the Buddhist tradition, is that we don't see the processes clearly, and therefore we don't understand the consequences. The traditional solution to this problem is to pay dispassionate, even minded, close attention to experience to see for ourselves how it actually works; and then to base our responses to sensations on the knowledge we have gained. Flinching from the flame is perfectly reasonable, but usually this is accompanied by stories both gross and subtle which are the dukkha that we cause ourselves. The authors of the Canon saw similar limitations on the processes and the consequences because they are two sides of the same coin.

We don't have to go along with the redactors of the Canon and see the 12 nidānas as the definitive model of experience; we don't have to accept the deterministic spin they put on it; we don't have to go along with modern exegetes deification of The Dhamma; but we can see that there are some useful principles here, and some practical outcomes.

We don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we should be prepared to throw out the bathwater. If I can stretch this metaphor, Buddhists have been very reluctant, on the whole, to pull the plug on the bath, and have opted to just keep on adding more water; so that often the bathtub over-flows, and the baby is in danger of drowning. However in the West we all have indoor plumbing, hot water on tap, and (mostly) modern sewerage - pulling the plug is not such a big deal. Of course if we do pull the plug we are left holding the baby, but the baby will grow into an adult if we nurture it.

04 May 2012

Rebirth & Buddhist Fundamentalism

Nullius in verba
Accept nothing on authority
Motto of the Royal Society
RECENTLY THANISSARO, the Theravāda bhikkhu of Access to Insight fame, published a forty page essay entitled The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice. Thanissaro's essay is quite measured, and makes it clear that the Buddhist tradition has believed in rebirth since its earliest records of belief. To not believe in rebirth goes against a long record of believing. But as I've tried to show the evidence emerging from several branches of scientific enquiry make any afterlife belief seem implausible, but that this hardly matters to the majority of Western Buddhists. [Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient].

It seems as though belief in rebirth is going to be a watershed issue for Buddhism in the modern world. Either we take rebirth on faith and believe, or we do not. And if we do not, we stand accused by Old Buddhism of being non-Buddhist. Though Thanissaro himself does not make this accusation, several of my readers have suggested that because my views are not traditional, they are not ipso facto Buddhist. Thanissaro himself takes a 'Pascal's Wager' approach to Rebirth (better to believe than not), and rather than dismissing the non-believer, he does suggest that we will not get the best out the Buddha's teaching if we do not at least "give [the Buddha's] statements on rebirth a fair hearing".

Faced with a forty page essay, filled with many citations from the texts, we may feel daunted. We may feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the citations from the Canon. One way to win an argument is just to keep talking until your counterpart gives in. We may grant to Thanissaro and other fundamentalists that the Buddhist texts are full of references to rebirth. Thanissaro himself is very familiar with the contents of the Pāli Canon, something of an expert, so he should know.

But we do not need to deal with Thanissaro's argument on the level of detail for the simple reason that his essay rests on a couple of false assumptions, indeed the whole stack of his citations is built on very flimsy foundations.

Citing Scripture

I too can play the "Citing Scripture" game. Perhaps not as well as Thanissaro, but well enough. In response to Thanissaro I ask readers to consider the Tevijjā Sutta (D 13). I've done this before, but let me recapitulate. In the Tevijjā Sutta many different Brahmins claim to lead out of saṃsāra and into union with Brahmā. But when the Buddha questions the students who have approached him, it turns out that none of their teachers, or their teachers' teachers down to the seventh generation, or any of the ancient ṛṣis who composed the mantras (under divine inspiration) have ever met Brahmā, or been to his realm personally. 'So if they have no personal experience how can they teach?' the Buddha asks. Their words are religious cant (appāṭihīrakata D i.239); indeed their words are just laughable, prattle, empty and worthless (hassakaññeva, nāmakaññeva, rittakaññeva, tucchakaññeva D i.240).

So my main question to Thanissaro is this: if he knows and sees for himself from personal experience why does he argue from scripture and lineage? If he does not know, and does not see, why does he teach? Or is he like the Brahmins in the Tevijjā Sutta: yaṃ na jānāma, yaṃ na passāma tassa desema. 'we do not know, we do not see, yet we teach'. My sense is that Thanissaro, and other Buddhists, do not argue that we should believe in rebirth because they know from personal experience that it is true, but from fear of the consequences if we cease to believe. They fear that without the supernatural elements Buddhism will cease to be meaningful. This is something I need to address separately, but for now let's just say that it's a poor foundation for a lifetime of renunciation (so it must haunt a bhikkhu). The situation is probably worse for someone who's life is predicated on being a "Buddhist Teacher" because in changing their story they'd have to admit they got it wrong all these centuries. Not easy.

Consider this: if our scriptures are to be taken literally, then why not other scriptures? By Thanissaro's underlying logic we should also take the Bible as the literal word of God and an accurate history of the times it discusses. I don't know Thanissaro, but somehow I doubt he would accept that God created heaven and earth in six days just 6000 years ago, and that we will only come to the Father through the Son, else go to hell for eternity. The Buddha's advice to the Kālāmas was not to base their behaviour on revelation, lineage, tradition or citations from scripture, but to act as they knew from experience to be good.

The modern evidence is very firmly against the plausibility of rebirth. Experience is telling us that rebirth is simply no longer plausible, whatever our texts say. I do not deny that this creates problems for us. But we'll just have to deal with them. Won't we?

Textual Authority

Thanissaro has a much, much deeper problem which is the naive assumption that the Pāli texts represent the actual thoughts and words of the Buddha, and an accurate record of the history of mid-to-late first millennium BCE India. There are some extreme positions on this issue - the most extreme seem to come from North American scholars who say that all of this is simply untrue. I try to take take a middle way and to see the value of the texts while seeing their limitations.

What we have, what the Pāli Canon is, is a series of parallel oral histories several of which coalesced and were translated into the dialect we now call Pāli thus becoming "the Pāli texts". Other streams manifested as other lineages in other languages, but most disappeared without a trace. With the Pāli texts we often find several re-tellings of stories with differences in the details (compare for instance D 27, M 95 and Sn 3.9). Where we have records of texts over time (such as when they reappear in Mahāyāna guise) we find that Buddhists have often made major changes to the texts. The example of the Samaññaphala Sutta is one that fascinates me. In the Pāli kamma is inescapable (c.f. Dhp. 127) and Ajātasattu is doomed to hell for killing his father. But this changes in later editions where the magical power of meeting the Buddha firstly mitigates, and then removes altogether the negative consequences of his parricide. The Doctrine of Karma in fact underwent very significant change outside of the Theravādin milieu - there's a long essay in this sometime.

We also see clear evidence of tampering with the texts by monks. For example in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta we find, in section five, a discussion about pilgrimage places beginning at 5.8 (p. 263 in Walshe's translation). The discussion continues in 5.10-12, but 5.9 is just a diatribe against women. As that old curmudgeon Walsh mildly points out: "this small passage seems arbitrarily inserted at this point" (p. 573, n. 430). This means that monks, since it could not have been anyone else, have tampered with this 'sacred text'. The Therīgāthā verses of Bhaddā (Thig 107-111) give the lie to the bhikkhu's hatred towards women having a basis in the Buddha's own attitude (an idea found in many sutta passages, and most of the Vinaya). Reginald Ray has also shown that the story of Devadatta as an evil murderer has been clumsily superimposed on the story of Devadatta the arahant (Buddhist Saints in India p.162ff), probably by sectarian monks.

These are just some of the most blatant examples of tampering. What about the monks who were less clumsy, but no less bigoted or sectarian? How do we tell what comes from the Buddha and what comes from the monks? The answer is that we cannot know with any certainty!

And if you are reading a translation you are in an even worse position since the translators make a range of arbitrary decisions about what the text means when the translate - it's an arcane art. But something even worse happens in Pāli text translations. Frequently, and tacitly, a translator will simply translate the commentarial gloss rather than the text itself, usually because the text is so obscure the translator cannot make sense of it. I've caught most of the famous translators doing this. We don't know for sure that this has not happened from the first - that difficult passages have simply being changed, usually to fit the orthodoxy of the time. You'll never know unless you read the text in Pāli whether you are reading the supposed words of the Buddha or actual words of Buddhaghosa (who lived about 800 years later in Sri Lanka!).

Nor can we be absolutely sure of the period that the texts represent. I do not accept the arguments which say that there is no evidence at all of Buddhism before Buddhaghosa, or the slightly less extravagant version which says that there is no evidence before Asoka. I think these are extreme views that take too narrow a view of what constitutes evidence (literalism is no more attractive in scholars than it is in religieux). There is a middle ground that involves a careful reading of circumstantial evidence. It places the origins of Buddhism this side of the middle of the first millennium BCE, probably in the fifth century or thereabouts. One can quibble about this, but an argument from absence seems considerably less substantial than an argument from circumstantial evidence. There is a further problem in identifying the period of the Pāli literature. At best, if we accept that the form of the Canon became fixed in the first century CE, the Pāli texts represent a period of at least several centuries. Some of the Canonical texts are clearly written a long time after the Buddha - some centuries at least.

Some argue that the consistency in the Pāli texts points to a single founder and point of origin. However one could also argue that the inconsistencies point to an incomplete process of standardisation, as in the cases Devadatta and Bhaddā! Where a list exists in versions with 8, 10 and 12 items, we generally assume that monks added items as time went on. This phenomena of incrementing lists is a fundamental feature of the Canon - the texts remained relatively fluid for an unknown period of time. They do not represent a single written revelation like the Bible or Koran, but the collective working out, over several centuries, of what was understood of what was remembered, by a disparate group.

There is also the embarrassing fact we discover on closer inspection that in some cases we no longer understand the texts on their own terms. Some of the words, and passages can be explained, but when we dig we often find that these explanations originate in the commentary and it's clear that the commentator was also at a loss to understand the text. Important aspects of the Canon are in fact incoherent in ways that are hidden by the received tradition. The down side of learning Pāli and actually reading the scripture is that these problems start to become apparent almost immediately. Thanissaro's translation notes make this clear less often than Bodhi or Ñāṇamoli, but he also has to grapple with mysteries.

Thanissaro's section on "Modern Ironies" seems very dated indeed. I certainly don't think the "modern" arguments that he puts forward only to by refuted by scripture, are very convincing. They appear, ironically, to be tired old straw dogs from philosophers, rather than new arguments from scientists or historians. And I think the really devastating critiques of religion come from history rather than science! There is no answer to the charge of lack of personal experience on the part of Buddhist teachers. So called "scientists" interviewing young children notwithstanding, where are the Buddhist teachers who don't have to rely on scripture, Iron Age world-views, and Medieval dogmas; but who know from personal experience?

Don't get me wrong, I love the Pāli language and the Canon. I spend a lot of my time reading and studying the Canon. But one has to be realistic about what it represents, and Thanissaro, in this essay at least, is not realistic. The texts are not the source of authority he claims them to be. We pejoratively call someone who takes scripture literally a fundamentalist. And Thanissaro is taking scripture literally in this essay. At best we may say that in this essay Thanissaro is expressing a fundamentalist view of Buddhism. For a contrast Thanissaro's critique of Romanticism in Buddhism is really useful. My intention here is not to criticise Thanissaro personally, but to criticise the ideas expressed in his essay. I'm grateful to Thanissaro for his translating efforts.

According to the Tevijjā Sutta Thanissaro announcing the "Truth of Rebirth" is just like a man who has announced that he is going to marry the most beautiful girl in the land, though he doesn't any idea about her background, what she looks like, or where she lives; and in fact has never met her. "The truth about rebirth" is just an idea we read about in books.The irony is that the texts themselves give stern warnings about this approach to Buddhism.

What Danger Does Buddhist Fundamentalism Present?

I've already written about my attitude to Buddhist fundamentalism, but I want to take another look at it in the light of Thanissaro's essay. We might ask what danger Buddhist fundamentalism presents. Isn't it all quite harmless? What does it matter if, on the basis of a literal reading of scripture, someone forms a firm belief in rebirth? On the face of it Buddhists seldom go to war on the basis of what they read in their scriptures, and compared to fundamentalist Christians or Muslims they are relatively benign. Indeed I have argued that a blind belief in rebirth could conceivably motivate a person to be more ethical (which was, I believe, the original impetus for the idea of an afterlife.) But there is a problem, which is that Fundamentalism discourages the use of reason. Thanissaro effectively tells us we don't need to think about rebirth, we just need to read scripture and have (blind) faith.

Actually the same texts tell us that Buddha asked his followers to understand the teachings, and to reason with, and about the concepts he used to teach. Yes, one had to have faith in the Tathāgata (e.g. D i.63; p. 99 in Walshe's trans.), but this came about because what the Buddha said made sense. In the Pāli literature there are some striking examples of the Buddha failing to make sense (or at least people failing to make sense of him) with disastrous consequences: in the Piyajātika Sutta (previously mentioned) the Buddha's failure to empathise with a man whose child has died repels the man and sends him into the arms of vicious gamblers (contrast this with Kisagotamī episode!). Elsewhere the Buddha teaches bhikkhus to reflect on death, then goes off on a retreat. When he returns he finds that there has been mass suicide (the commentator tries to fudge this by invoking a deterministic version of the Law of Karma and the Buddha's psychic powers, but it's really unconvincing!) See my long essay on Suicide in the Pāli Canon for details [written before my ordination, so under my old name]. Reasoning and making sense are important.

Fundamentalism discourages individuality. Where a dogma exists, members of the group will incorporate that dogma into their self-image, so that anyone who disagrees becomes an outsider (a heretic!). My views, for example, have more than once brought forth the idiotic charge that I'm not really a Buddhist. Of course Buddhists don't burn heretics, but they do shun them, and they do disparage them. This contributes to divisions and partisan thinking. At times it has resulted in Buddhists instigating or condoning acts of violence. One only needs to mention, for example, the recent history of Theravāda countries such Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; Japan in WWII; or the Tibetan Shugden debacle - which has resulted in violence and murder. Yes, the violence is rare, but could it exist in the absence of dogma inspired group think? If we want to make the world a better place then one of the main things we can do is dismantle dogmas (we need to be dogmanoclasts). As Buddhists our responsibility is to constantly test our own doctrines against experience. If they are not useful we should not insist that they are necessary. Thanissaro's case is not that rebirth is useful, but that it is Canonical.

Unfortunately fundamentalism also obscures what is good and useful about Buddhism. If we present it as just another superstitious belief system based on sacred texts, instead of a different system of practice based on centuries of experience, then we will lose the attention of the people who we desperately need to reach! Just as we can't drift towards enlightenment, we can't bullshit our way to making a difference in the world. Let's just drop the dogmatic assertions and focus on the practical. Doctrine is the least of what Buddhists have to offer the world! We pride ourselves on our techniques producing results, and they often do. But I would argue that our beliefs change nothing, whereas our actions might just change everything.

Finally dogma makes our mind unreceptive to experience. Indeed a forty page scriptural defence of a belief, with no argument from personal experience or substantial evidence, looks like the work of an intelligent, but ultimately closed mind. It is the experience of disappointment that makes most people interested in practice, and certainly this is the experience that the texts focus on. The central point of the texts is that all unawakened experience is disappointing (or 'stressful' Thanissaro's translations). You can't pour liquid into a cup that is already full. And for most of us the cup is full of dogmas and other beliefs. What can experience teach us, if we have no receptivity to it because we already "know" what it signifies.

I think Thanissaro fails on the idea of using the texts as an authority for belief because the texts are far from being as authoritative as he makes out; but even on the basis of those texts the kind of argument he makes is criticised as unhelpful. The bottom line is that, as far as I have know, the Buddha is never portrayed as saying to anyone: "you must believe in rebirth". In fact he never says "you must believe" in anything. So why is insisting on belief a feature of modern Buddhism? I suggest that we emphasise belief in the absence of personal experience.

I suppose we could see Thanissaro's long essay as a small victory. I see a forty page apologetic for rebirth as a sign that the case against is starting to hit home. The fact that the apologetic rests entirely on a fallacious appeal to authority shows us how flimsy the case for rebirth is. This is helpful in the long run, because it simplifies the task of the dogmanoclastic. So, I hope that rather than finding the Truth of Rebirth daunting, that those of us struggling to throw off the oppressive superstitions and dogmas of Old Buddhism will take heart from it. Clearly our arguments are starting to bite, and dogma is not really defensible.

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