25 February 2013

Insight, Peak Experience and the Supernatural

It's important to be clear that in critiquing the conceptual explanations of experience, as I did in my essay Thinking it Through, I am not denying experience itself. People have experiences. Clearly people have experiences in very many contexts which fall into the vague category of "mystical" experiences - a sense of boundlessness, feelings of transporting bliss, a sense of connectedness, the loss of a sense of self, apparent separation of the self from the physical body, and so on. I certainly do not deny that people have such experiences. To some extent I've had similar experiences. What I don't do is invoke the supernatural to explain and interpret such experience.

It was reading Thomas Metzinger's account of his out-of-body experiences that finally convinced me that a supernatural explanation is never preferable.  Metzinger realised that although he initially was drawn to a supernatural perspective on his OOBEs that there was a simple (and to both him and me) a preferrable explanation which invoked the way that the sense of self is constructed in the brain by integrating several streams of input. An OOBE occurs when the integration breaks down. It's definitely worth reading his account (especially before commenting!) though the very brief summary in New Scientist Magazine 23 Feb 2013 may suffice. (I recommend getting hold of this issue and reading the articles on self!) I finished reading The Ego Tunnel and I simply did not believe in the supernatural any more. It was a relief. It means there are some things I can't explain yet, but there is no principial problem with that, and in most cases the lack does not affect my daily life. Though not having a satisfactory explanation for a phenomena does often make us uncomfortable - the human mind abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does. For many people a supernatural explanation is preferable to no explanation, despite the many weaknesses of supernatural explanations.

We are capable of having extra-ordinary experiences. We all have them to some extent. At their highest pitch these experiences are radically transformative. One can't have a mystical experience, it seems, and remain the same. It is a watershed where one realises that there is another mode of experience that is unlike ordinary waking experience in its beauty, peace, happiness; unlike dream awareness in that it is coherent and consistent; unlike unconsciousness in that there is awareness. I think Jill Bolte Taylor does a pretty good job of describing this mode of awareness in her TED talk about her stroke: beautiful, expansive, unifying, inclusive, blissful. She stresses the word beautiful several times. Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "opening the doors of perception" for such experiences based on his experimentation with hallucinogens and they do help us to see our world anew.

Many writers have noted such experiences across the full range human cultures. These experiences seem to be available to any human being. Sometimes they come spontaneously; sometimes they are induced through intense austerities or meditation; and sometimes through the use of hallucinogens. The mystical experiences that result become the touchstones for religieux, even if only vicariously (for a large but unquantified proportion of religieux - my guess would be 99%).

Leading members of my Order have been struggling with how to convey this kind of experience. Recently Dharmacārī Subhuti has been experimenting with different kinds of language. A year ago he  spoke at an Order gathering about numinous experiences, and confused this with a noumenal realm behind experience, and it was a relief to see him abandon this attempt. These terms are loaded with unhelpful connotations. More recently he has suggested that there is something he cumbrously calls a "supra-personal force" (a term associated with sociologist Max Weber, but also used by psychologist Erich Fromm - Subhūti doesn't cite his sources). The "supra-personal force" is experienced as acting from an egoless perspective. Subhūti's prototypical example being the weeks after the death of Dr Ambedkar when Sangharakshita did his bit to rally Ambedkar's supporters and felt as if "something were working through me" (this period of his life is recounted in his memoire In the Sign of the Golden Wheel). At the peak of experience, the ego melts away and we act on the basis of this "supra-personal force" rather than our own will. Any artist who has created something will most likely be able to describe the feeling of something coming through them as they create. When I have experienced this it is as though I was merely a conduit for something which emerged on a canvas for example, and I could view it quite dispassionately because it did not seem to be "mine" and in a way the whole seemed unrelated to my dabbing paint on a particular part of it. The suggestion is that this feeling is analogous to the egolessness experienced by mystics and meditators. Sangharakshita has also modified a commentarial list -- the fivefold niyama aka the five niyamas -- to provide another name for this "supra-personal force", i.e. dhamma-niyama. It's now common for my colleagues to speak of "the Dhamma-Niyama" as we used to speak of "the Absolute" or "the Unconditioned". I'm not necessarily endorsing any of this, by the way, but I do find it interesting that the traditional ways of discussing mystical experiences are being re-invented by my senior colleagues drawing (without acknowledgement) from various modern(ist) forms of discourse.

There are two important facts embedded in the preceding statements: mystical experiences can be induced by massive left-brain strokes; and they can be induced by chemicals. Indeed we know from experiments conducted in labs that strong magnetic fields which disturb brain activity in certain spots also produce similar experiences; and can add epileptic seizures and migraine to the list of triggers. Even the most ardent proponent of the supernatural must grant that these mystical states have a physical correlate in the brain. The brain is always involved in experience and thus always involved in mystical experiences. Whether this is causal or epiphenomenal or something else is not so important to my argument, I merely wish to state that as far as can be determined there is always a cerebral correlate to experience. I'd be willing to reconsider if someone can show me evidence of the counter, i.e. an experience with no brain correlate, but I'm not currently aware of any such evidence. Direct changes in the brain--through injury or drugs--do change perception and/or personality and/or awareness, and the descriptions of such changes are often indistinguishable from descriptions of mystical experiences.

All of these experiences come under the general banner of 'insight' in Buddhism. But it is reasonable to ask: "in-sight in-to what?" The most general answer is that the mystic has insight into the "nature of reality" and the claim is that the mystical experience is somehow more real than other kinds of experience. The idea being that reality is in fact more like a mystic vision and that other kinds of experience is poor substitutes. I suppose it is inevitable that peak experiences change the way we perceive the world. The peak experience seems to expand possibilities, and even opens new fields of endeavour for us. We know from first hand experience that we can be more, and for some that can be very inspiring. And most people are never the same after their mystical experience - it brings a radical shift in perspective. I've know one or two people dissipate their lives in trying to  recreate that peak experience and never quite managing it.

Humans seek out peak experiences is many ways: meditation, drugs, and extreme situations or activities of various sorts. Starvation and painful austerities have often proved popular and effective triggers. People are often willing to risk injury or death in search of a peak experience. And we often dine out on recounting the peak experiences of our lives, or if our lives are very drab we may simply recount the experiences of others. Buddhists with special teachers are prone to the last. It seems that the peak experience defines us in some way. That peak experiences seem more real because they are more intense. Ironically the pursuit of intense experience of any kind merely blunts our sensibilities, which is a consequence of being embodied in an organic feedback system. Either we reach satiation and stop, or if we persist we experience less and less pleasure from our activity and must seek out more intense forms of stimulation. This may be why pain becomes fascinating as an intense experience. As the Buddha said, we mistake the painful for the pleasant.

How we interpret experience, especially peak experience, is heavily culturally determined. We are not free to interpret experience in any old way. We make sense of the world on the basis of some built in concepts such as causality and time (though these are also to some extent culturally determined); and in terms of concepts we learn through our memberships of various groups: family, school, peers, religious groups, etc. So if we have a mystical experience we will understand it in terms of our previously accumulated categories and concepts. Though the experience itself may give us new categories and concepts.

Thus many of my friends have experienced sleep paralysis and all of the creepy sensations involved, but because they live in a house that is supposedly haunted, they describe the experience as involving the ghost(s) of the house. Some are quite convinced they have experienced a disembodied spirit, some are more sceptical but favour the ghost story, and none have been receptive when I point them to the well documented phenomenology of sleep paralysis.

The belief in ghosts or disembodied spirits comes from our pre-scientific past and has persisted through to the present. Ghosts and other entities which survive death are prominent themes in modern literature and film. The ghost belief forms a complex with the prominent stories of the haunted house which is listed in more than one book as "one of the most haunted houses in Britain". The experience of sleep paralysis is certainly unnerving, but why the resistance to the idea that it might just be sleep paralysis? Why does belief persist in the face of plainer, simpler facts? I addressed this in some depth in my essay Facts and Feelings. Beliefs alter the salience of facts so that when we come to weigh things up, certain facts are deemed by us to be more weighty or more important. (Recent research suggests that those with supernatural beleifs find sleep paralysis more distressing - ScienceBlog). Thus the ideas of a ghost outweighs the idea of sleep paralysis for a whole complex of reasons. And not least of which is the impression that being visited by a ghost comes with a certain notoriety and even popularity and everyone wants to hear your story and marvel at your fortitude in dealing with it. Who wants to give that up?

I'm arguing that peak experiences are just like this. We no doubt have experiences. There is no doubting the sincerity of the people who describe these experiences. But for some it is a meeting with god, for others a glimpse into reality, and still others it is non-dualism or egolessness or brahman. There is a clear coherence in the phenomenology of the experiences themselves, but there is no coherence in the phenomenology of the interpretation except in relation to culture. The interpretation is generally in terms of categories we already have.

However sometimes we have experiences for which there are no convenient explanation. In the modern world we cast about, often in popular literature or on the internet, until we find someone or something who can explain what happened. Thus for instance the people who are sincerely convinced that they have been abducted by aliens. Often such inexplicable experiences are what lead us to religion in the first place. Scratch a Buddhist and you often find a trauma.

The sad fact is that however much we pursue such experiences most of us will not have a mystical experience. Even amongst long term meditators (and I know dozens of people who have been meditating for more than two decades) such experiences are relatively rare. Certainly meditation can give us all peak experiences, and I've my share of those, but the mystical or visionary experiences that transform, even radically transform the practitioner are elusive. Most long term meditators are certainly admirable people, but they are refined versions of themselves, rather than egoless or saintly or whatever. For most of us the path produces slow growth and evolution, but not revolution. Personally I mourn the loss of the value placed on cultivating virtues that has come with our societies struggling free of superstition and supernatural religions. I admire people who consciously cultivate virtues such as generosity, harmlessness, contentment, empathy and heightened awareness. So I don't see it as a problem, nor as any great surprise, that most people are not saints.

In my search for better explanations and interpretations I certainly do not mean to devalue the experiences themselves. In some cases my approach does take away the personal kudos attached to an experience like sleep paralysis because my explanation is at first glance more mundane. But only at first glance, because sleep paralysis reveals a fascinating side of our embodied minds and has its own value. It raises all sorts of questions about our embodied minds, and those who explore such questions are producing the most tantalising results.

When I was a youngster (in the 70s) we used to call vanilla ice-cream 'plain'. We'd be asked "Do you want chocolate ice-cream or plain?" As I got older however I began to appreciate that vanilla is a delightful flavour in its own right, and when I first smelt a real vanilla orchid pod I though I had died and gone to heaven. Serrendipitously, in my third-year organic chemistry lab I was handed a vile of white powder and, with no clues, required to identify the compound before the end of the term. So I analysed it (using chemical methods and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Infra-red spectroscopy) and it turned out to be 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde or vanillin (right) one of the main compounds associated with the smell and taste of vanilla -- artificial vanilla essence is basically an alcoholic solution of methyl- and ethyl-vanillin. If I had a greenhouse I would grow the vanilla orchid. Vanilla ice-cream is my favourite these days. My kind of explanation need not lead to a grey world which lacks meaning. It is not plain compared to the chocolate of the supernatural. My world is full of wonder and colour. Also full of questions to be answered. Life is deeply puzzling. But I no longer feel any need to invoke the supernatural in response to questions and puzzles.

14 February 2013

Emptiness for Beginners

Not surprisingly, some of the most abstruse doctrines in Buddhism are widely misunderstood, or the terms are used vaguely. One of the most abused terms in our Buddhist lexicon is śūnyatā. Since I've been responding to questions about the Heart Sutra recently, I thought I'd put together a basic guide to the term.

So lets begin, as usual, with etymology. The word śūnya means 'empty, void, barren'. Mayrhofer in his Etymological Dictionary lists this word under śūna from a Proto-Indo-European root *kuer (the change from PIE k to Sanskrit ś is regular). According to Mayrhofer "This is probably from *keur 'swell', as in 'bulge, bulge, cavity' (possibly via 'bloat', 'inwardly hollow out')". Porkony lists this PIE root under keu-. In English it can be seen in words such as 'cave, cavern, and church'. It is related to the Greek κύαρ (kuar) 'a hole, an orifice'. Our word zero ultimately comes from the Sanskrit word śūnya via Arabic sifr 'cifer', and Medieval Latin zephirum. In Sanskrit, this idea seems to manifest as the verbal root √svi 'to swell', which may also have forms √śū and √śvā. It's worth keeping in mind another word which appears in the Heart Sutra: ūna 'deficient, defective'. Thieme has speculated that śūna might be from su+ūna where su means 'well, good'. However, I think the latter seems unlikely and that the connection with swelling is much more plausible.

Those familiar with the image of the ball of foam for śūnyatā will immediately see that the simile might have another connotation than the obvious one - i.e., that a bubble is something that has swelled up leaving it's internal space is empty, i.e. it is hollow. I'll come back to this image.

Translating śūnya from a philological perspective is not difficult. It means  'empty, void, devoid, zero' and  possibly 'hollow, barren'. 'Empty' is a good basic translation. And 'emptiness' is the abstract noun from 'empty' in exactly the same way that śūnyatā is an abstract noun from śūnya. Here the - suffix is an equivalent of -ness. So literally śūnyatā is the state or quality of being empty; or the characteristic of something which is empty. However, the word is used in a specific context and we do need to be sensitive to that context.

In order to best understand this word we need to know something about the context in which it was used. In fact, the word is found in the Pāli texts, but as a techinical term of Mahāyāna Buddhism it is used quite differently. Firstly, by this time it is deeply engrained that 'dharmas arise in dependence on conditions'. A thinker like Nāgārjuna lived in a time when this had been the worldview for some centuries. It is fundamental to the discussion. It's worth stressing this if only because it seems to be lost sight of sometimes. Dependent-arising is a given.

The second thing to understand what is empty, and what it is empty of? We find the answer in the Heart Sutra in the two phrases: sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣanāḥ and pañcaskandhān svabhāvaśūnyān.

The first tells us that "all dharmas are characterised by emptiness". Thus the focus is dharmas. And what are dharmas? Dharmas are the objects of the mind sense or manas. This is a theory that applies to mental phenomena. It's important that we don't fall into the trap of saying or thinking that "all things are characterised by emptiness". This is not a doctrine about "things", this is a doctrine about dharmas.

The second phrase is aimed at the skandhas. But consider that the skandhas are aspects of experiece -- embodiment, sensations, names, volitions, discriminations. Sue Hamilton has shown that skandha is synonymous with duḥkha, which  in its broadest sense means 'unawakened experience'; and also with loka, 'experience'. Indeed, duḥkha and loka are both described as products of the process described in the nidānas so they are not only synonymous, but equivalent. (See Is Paṭicca-Samuppāda a Theory of Everything? for a discussion of this correspondence). The skandhas divide experience into useful chunks for vipaśyana meditation (and Avalokiteśvara was doing a skandha reflection practice at the beginning of the Heart Sutra); dharmas are the 'atoms' of experience from a Buddhist point of view. For the sake of this discussion, then, we could subsitute sarvadharmān svabhāvaśunyān here since dharmas are the focus. And this would mean 'all dharmas are devoid of svabhāva'. The word sva-bhāva is a compound. The sva bit means 'own'. If I wanted to say "I'm going to my house" it would be: sva gṛhaṃ gacchāmi. Bhāva comes from the root √bhū 'to be, to become'. Buddhists are sometimes a little too insistent that bhū means 'to become' and want to shy away from the 'to be' meaning, but this is an error. And we see it here because bhāva means 'being, existing'. So svabhāva means 'existing on its own or in it's own right; 'own-being' as Conze quite literally puts it. It's also translated as 'intrinsic-existence, inherent-existence, self-existent, self-nature, etc.' Thus "dharmas are empty of svabhāva" means that dharmas don't exist on their own or in their own right.

Now svabhāva is a technical term that exists in the worldview I described above. For something to exist on its own means that it is its own condition. So for a dharma to have svabhāva means that the condition upon which it arises is itself. Nāgārjuna points out that there is an inherent contradiction in a dependently arisen dharma being its own condition.
  1. If a dharma with svabhāva (itself as a condition for its own arising) is currently non-existent, then that dharma can never come into existence.
  2. If a dharma with svabhāva is currently existent, then it could never cease to exist.
And, just as Nāgārjuna does, in his Mūlamadhyamakakārakā (15.7), I will now point out that the Kaccānagotta Sutta  is the authoritative text on this subject (Pāli SN 12.15; Chinese Taishō 2.99 85a-86c [my translation]; a Sanskrit version is also extant). I've written a lot about this text - in particular, my long essay Is Paṭicca-Samuppāda a Theory of Everything? The Kaccānagotta points out that in practice we experience dharmas arising (utpāda) and passing away (nirodha). Now, if a dharma arises then it cannot be non-existent. The term used here is (nāsti) but Nāgārjuna uses abhāva. And, if a dharma ceases then it cannot be existent (asti/bhāva). So, if a dharma that presents itself to our awareness arises and passes away then it cannot be self-existent. And the Buddhist argument is that our mind only processes dharmas. Thus, we can say with some confidence that dharmas lack svabhāva or, in Sanskrit, sarvadhamāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣana. In the Kaccānagotta, the Buddha tells the Kaccāna that the terms 'existence' (astitā) and 'non-existence' (nāstitā) do no apply to the world of experience (loka). Thus we really ought to drop them from our discourse. Whenever we find out selves talking about real/unreal or existent/non-existent then a red flag should go up - we've strayed into wrong view. And this is the basis of my critique of the so-called Two Truths.

By a quirk of history, the development of Abhidharma thinking drifted towards the opinion that dharmas, as the fundamental building blocks of experience, must actually exist. This wrong view is why Buddhism had to produce whole new categories of sūtra and śāstra. Outside of this context of contradicting a particular wrong view, the doctrine of śūṇyatā doesn't really make sense. This wrong view is said to be the reason behind the name of the Sarvāstivāda sect of Buddhism. The name beaks down to sarva (all) + asti (exists) + vāda (ideology). I understand that the crude depiction of Sarvāstivādins as Realists has been challenged by some scholars, particularly Collette Cox, but I haven't had the time to look into it yet.

As I have previously observed, Nāgārjuna was, to some extent, stuck with this idea because the Abhidharma was canonical (I've referred to this as the Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster). The easiest way to deal with the problem of starting to think in terms of existence ought to have been to start over, but Buddhism is a deeply conservative religion and, rather ironically, it clings on to existing ideas. They can be superseded, but not done away with altogether. So Nāgārjuna was stuck with this idea about the existence of dharmas. His response was to employ the term śūnyatā to undermine the Realism of the Abhidharmikas and get Buddhist thought back on track. It allowed him to agree with tradition--yes, dharmas exist--(conventional truth); but to refute this notion in the same breath--no, dharmas don't really exist (absolute truth). But the Two Truths were a workaround, and if we don't buy into dharmas with svabhāva (and who does these days?) then we don't need them. We can stay with the singular truth outlined in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, namely that dharmas arise in dependence on causes and by definition lack svabhāva. (And because I maintain this position, I have been called a NeoSautrāntika). Buddhist thought is important because it informs Buddhist practice. From time to time (every couple of centuries or so) we need to be reminded that, having calmed down and become focused, our next task is to turn our attention to our experience as it arises and passes away, because that is where the truth about experience is. In my view this is precisely what Nāgārjuna attempts to do in his works.

Thus, experience itself really is like a ball of foam. We definitely have experiences, but they don't seem to exist in the way that the 'things' we experience do. Keep in mind that this is a simile for the arising of a dharma present to the manas: the foam defines a shape but offers no resistance; the foam can be seen, but close up is transparent; the foam defines a volume of space, but it is hollow; the foam shape exists briefly and then bursts and is gone.

Another favourite analogy is to say a dharma is like rabbits' horns. I can say the phrase "rabbits' horns" and you can hear, correctly parse, and understand what I've said. The words are said and heard and understood and you can imagine what a rabbit with horns might look like. Yet at no time does a rabbit ever have horns. So is the image of a rabbit with horns that the words evoke real or unreal? The Buddhist answer is that neither applies so let's not go down that road. Just because you can name (samjñā) something does not make it real (or unreal).

Trying to unravel and comment on the myriad uses and misuses of the word śūnyatā would be a book length project and I have no intention of undertaking something like that. But it won't hurt us to reflect on how the usages that we encounter map onto this basic meaning. Keep in mind that it's not always wrong to reframe Buddhist doctrine - in fact, it is essential. Buddhism is not made up of eternal truths. Buddhism is a collection of methods and associated ideas which aim to produce a particular experience -- the experience of seeing through (vipaśyana) and understanding (prajñā) the nature of experience itself. And, in the meantime, the exploration of experience is itself a fascinating area of inquiry. And the way we talk about the ideas that inform our practice must reflect the times and places we are in. If we are to communicate the Buddhadharma then we need to use a language and idiom that people can understand.

To do this we must be thoroughly versed in what is meant. Like a jazz musician must be thoroughly versed in scales before they can be truly free to improvise. And Buddhism ought to be like jazz rather than some crusty old classic music always read from the page.

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