28 June 2013

Surveillance Society

From Spero News
One of the few philosophers I have any time for is Michel Foucault (probably because he's mainly an historian). He is more relevant than ever in the light of revelations by whistle blower, Edward Snowden. Snowden has revealed that, surprise, surprise, the powers that be are using that supposed tool of freedom, the Internet, to spy on citizens not only abroad, but at home too. One of Foucault's main contributions to the study of history was to show how hegemonic powers use surveillance to exert control and have done throughout history. He has also highlighted the methods and dynamics of this process of keeping tabs and showed how the power to over-see has shifted around to different parts of Western society over time.

I've already written quite a lot about how I see karma in this light. My thesis is that surveillance is a preoccupation for social primates, especially humans. Surveillance involves keeping tabs on who is contributing to the group and who is not. In human society it also keeps tabs on who is obeying the norms of the group and who is not. The actual content of the norms is largely irrelevant to my thesis - the medium is the message. The reasons behind this dynamic are not rocket science - the two main factors contribute to the smooth functioning of the group, and the long term evolutionary fitness and survival of the group. A third factor is the privilege of the alpha male and female (chimps have both). With more complex organisation the alpha human relies on a small cadre of intimates to hold power, and this is the origin of the aristocracy. Alphas have historically used this power to seize control of resources (for the greater good no doubt) and dole out rewards to underlings who are grateful to be alive. Owning resources allows for the creation of standing armies and such like. Such despots and their armies also provide a modicum of security to the group as neighbouring groups are similarly organised and busy trying to grab resources too.

However once societies get beyond a certain size, which is likely to be predicted by the so-called Dunbar Numbers, keeping tabs on who is doing and saying what becomes difficult. Robin Dunbar's breakthrough paper compared neo-cortex size in social animals with group size and found a positive correlation, now widely believed to be causal. Humans have an upper limit to the number of close relationships they can keep in memory. The average ought to be about 150 - known as the Dunbar Number despite the fact that Dunbar proposed a series limits at varying distance from the individual. Beyond the critical number we cannot know who is doing what with whom. Private actions and words become a feature of social life. And with private actions comes the possibility of blatant and large scale breaches of group norms. Testimony as a source of knowledge starts to become valuable, though the collective knowledge of old people was also a form of testimony. I'm thinking here of witness statements in trials.

And so some solution to the privacy problem must be sought. Many societies invented gods who live in the sky and look down on everything the individual does - and they take on the role of the alpha in dishing out rewards and punishments. This helps to give rise to a new kind of cadre who are expert at communicating with the gods, divining and carrying out their wishes. So we have kings, nobles and now priests - all justifying the subjugation of the peasants because it's for the greater good. We know that in India, for example, the overseer function was initially carried out by a pair of gods, Varuṇa and Mitra, but that sometime after about 1000 BCE this gave way to an impersonal arbiter: karma. I've argued that this was a result of interaction with and influence from Zoroastrianism via smalls bands of immigrants amongst which the Śākya tribe subsequently became prominent. But whatever else is true, it is true that there is no functional difference between impersonal karma and anthropomorphisized over-seer gods. Karma does not even quite manage to do away with priests, though their role was drastically attenuated for a short period and then clawed back rather vigorously (which is why the Buddhist world these days "takes" precepts from a bhikṣu/bhikṣuṇī). From an historical point of view bhikṣus are usurpers, having edged lay people and women out of any positive role in Buddhism for almost 2000 years - something which is slowly changing in the last 50 or so years. 

Foucault, for obvious reasons, dwells on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in subjugating the masses. The RCC emphasised the monitoring of private thoughts through confession particular thoughts about sex. They made pronouncements on what constitutes officially sanctioned sexuality. We are still in the process of wresting the control of sex from their cold dead hand, but part of the power has fallen to the state (which is currently wondering what it might do about all the unsanctioned sexuality of pornography). Buddhist's thoughts are also monitored by karma, and confession has been an important Buddhist practice for avoiding the negative effects of karma for many centuries. Indeed the Buddha himself focussed on thought and especially exercises of will in his teaching. Buddhists these days are (or feel) free to interrogate each other and pronounce judgements on each others' intentions or motivations. And many Buddhists believe themselves to be experts at divining the motivations of others from the flimsiest of clues. Buddhism, like the RCC, enjoined a strict abstinence from sexual activity on it's clergy - guaranteeing a powerful control over priests, and constant occasions for punishment, since most people are incapable of sustaining long periods of celibacy without breaches. There is a massive distinction between transcending desire and suppressing it. And in Buddhism such punishments as are meted out, are done in public, something the RCC could learn from. A celibate clergy also allows the institutions of the church/vihāra to become incredibly wealthy because property is not inherited by any family they might have (though Protestants and some Buddhist clergy have circumvented this by marrying).

Foucault spent a whole book, Madness and Civilization, outlining the way attitudes to madness have changed. It is definitely worth reading. For example, the new idea of locking mad people up only occurred to the powers at be after the decline of leprosy in Europe left the lazar houses standing empty. The example of our treatment of the insane also provides a clear example of how control over the minds and bodies of followers slipped from the grasp of the Church following the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But society did not simply stop overseeing it citizens, it allowed that power, in the case of madness, to drift into the hands of the medical profession. Madness, once a moral issue, is now a medical problem; where once it as the domain of priests it is now dealt with by doctors. We now all accept the metaphor that the mind has mental symptoms that respond to drugs just as the body has somatic symptoms. But it was not always so, and there have been notable rebellions against this doctrine (notably by R.D. Laing). 

If not before, then certainly in the days following the end of World War II, the various governments of the world extended their spying activities to include the lives of their own citizens. Governments developed paranoia, and it was true in some cases that people, there own people, were out to get them. Every spying government has had it's share of high profile double agents. Paranoia lead governments to cast their nets ever wider. Corruption meant that powerful individuals and agencies have regularly exceeded the powers allowed them by law. This paranoia was greater in totalitarian Soviet Russia and it's satellite states, but not confined to them. Also, with the war over, the grievances of the colonial period began to boil over again. Terrorist became a household word. Terrorism is a paranoid's wet dream because it proves that people are out to get them. Since terrorism threatens security, freedom must apparently be sacrificed to keep us safe and the government must judiciously spy one everyone. But not content to deal with the legacies of imperialism, the imperial powers of Europe and the USA set out to antagonise the weaker nations of the world by arming rebels and toppling governments. Small countries frequently became proxies for conflicts between totalitarian Soviet Russia (which was in fact not so different from Tsarist Russia and still is not) and China, and democratic Western Powers. 

If we take the case of Iran (outlined in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World) there were a whole series of interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries, including the installation of an anti-democratic autocratic king (or Shah) who lasted for 25 years before being brought down. Then later the West encouraged Sadam Hussein (then a "good guy") to attack post-revolutionary Iran and sold arms to both sides. As a result Iran now sponsor groups who carry out attacks on those interfering powers and are keenly pursuing the acquisition of the one weapon that will guarantee no further interference by foreign powers in their country: Iran want a nuclear deterrent. It is demonstrably the lesson of history that Iran has more to fear from us, than we do from them. They have been constantly bullied  for a good couple of centuries and thus my sympathies cannot help but be partly with them despite my abhorrence of oppressive religious fundamentalism. The West has promoted conflict and discord throughout the Middle East in order to divide and conquer. I simply do not believe the protests of Western governments that they are only want to bring peace, stability and democracy to the world. I'm more inclined to believe people like Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Though it gives me no peace of mind to do so. 

In any case during the late 20th century surveillance of citizens became ubiquitous. From time to time scandal would erupt as corruption was exposed, but on the whole operations to spy on citizens were secret and stayed that way. Whether this meant they were largely legal is something that we cannot know because the information we would need to answer that question is invariably classified. 

What Edward Snowden has done is remind us that this is all going on and that the scale of it has increased as technology has improved. It's long been a banal fact that the UK has more CCTV cameras per population than any other country including the oppressive dictatorships of the world. We are constantly under surveillance. And increasingly we the people are participating in this via phone cameras and YouTube. The more stupid amongst us even film our own criminal activities and get caught because of it. Kind of a benign version of the Darwin Awards. 

A lot of Romantic people still believe that the internet will set people free. I stopped believing this years ago. It certainly had the potential. And I am still actively uploading original content with a view to participating in the information revolution. But most people I know only download and contribute nothing, except a modicum of self commodification for other consumers. And they mainly download entertainment. Rather than setting people free the vast amount of entertainment and distraction on the internet has enslaved more people than ever to the ersatz vicarious thrills to be had on a small screen (see also my essay on pornography). The internet has become the opiate of the people in most cases. Not in all cases. No doubt the potential for internet fuelled revolution still exists - especially where revolution exists in any case - but in the last 15 years couch potatoes have expanded in both number and size. 

And most of these lazy people have little to hide from the government and aren't bothered enough by the intrusion to protest. Many of my friends simply shrug when learning that their emails are being read because the content is so banal that even they are bored by it. I live in the UK and despite obvious corruption amongst our leaders there's no chance of revolution here. Most people are too comfortable to consider risking their lives. They're confused about the issues (a situation promoted by media and politicians alike) and just adopt pre-packaged opinions without thinking very hard about why (something the present Education Secretary seems keen to encourage through his curriculum reforms). We may have the occasional riot, the occasional home-grown terrorist, but we're not looking for change. Oddly our so-called Conservative party are radically reformist liberals these days and people still vote for them. The spectacle presented in the media--the daily diet of vicarious scandal, crime, war, disaster, crisis--has people enthralled in a way that discourages them from really thinking about what is going on. And the internet is just an extension of this entertaining spectacle. 

It's too hard for most people to imagine what the government might do with this information beyond stopping terrorists. Recently I read one pessimistic view on where it might lead in Ken McLeod's Intrusion. In the near future all women of child bearing age will have their health constantly monitored - if they endanger their health, through exposure to drugs or alcohol for instance, the authorities will know. The surveillance is carried out by rings with are worn "voluntarily". Equally health and safety concerns mean that most work places are unsuitable for women of child bearing age because they are exposed to dangerous situations. Women can very easily become unfit mothers and their children can be taken from them. The concern for terrorism means that police routinely grab people off the street and question them under torture. This practice is illegal and is occasionally taken to court, but most people never report it - from shock and fear of the consequences of failure to cooperate. Victims are given leaflets on trauma counselling as they leave - so the police can show that they do care and are only doing what needs to be done. "People with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear", as our present Foreign Secretary said recently (though presumably this does not apply to foreigners). All of these scenarios are relatively easy to extrapolate from the present situation. And there are other ways it might play out as well. 

If you follow the BoingBoing blog you'll know that personal freedom in the USA is under sustained attack from law enforcement agencies at present - be it spraying non-violent protesters in the face with pepper spray from an industrial sprayer, or illegal 'nationality' checks by Homeland Security officers. Indeed the USA seems quite a lot more paranoid that Britain (e.g. see Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S.)

We probably should be concerned that the government is spying on us. History suggests that our governments are not to be trusted. Given an inch they will take a mile and retrospectively redefine the inch if necessary. It's apparent in the UK that government ministers routinely lie and manipulate information to their own benefit. They don't get caught very often, but often enough to be alarming. Lying about employment figures for example is de rigueur, though not a major scandal it seems. Professional politicians are concerned with being in power, and staying in power and not much else. They may want to make the world a better place, but only for themselves and their wealthy peers.

The oppression of state scrutiny of our lives, however, is just a continuation of the scrutiny all of our ancestors were under. Since the dawn of civilisation ruling elites have always used surveillance in one form or another to help control their citizens. There is at least one episode of espionage in the Pāli Canon, though it was directed against neighbouring states (I wrote about it in How to Spot and Arahant). We, the people, put up with the seizure of resources and wealth, and the surveillance, for the same reason that lesser members of chimpanzee troops put up with the tyranny of an alpha male. We know there is safety in numbers and that group membership equals survival. And a strong leader helps to organise and focus the group for collective survival. Which is not to say that we do not kick against authority, we do. But usually only because we fancy that we could do a better job. There's an interesting discussion of this with respect to Australian politics in Chimpanzee Politics.

"People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear." This has never been true at any point in the history of civilisation. Because it assumes that the one's doing the looking are benevolent, rational beings with pure motives. And they never are. And in the age of professional politicians, whose only ambition is to rule, it simply cannot be true. Governments themselves never operate on the this principle - they can always justify having secrets: people with something to fear, always have something to hide. It's only people with nothing to fear that have nothing to hide. We'd be foolish not to at least be suspicious of our government.

Our thoughts have been scrutinised for a long time now. Often what holds the alphas and their cadres of aristocrats and priests at bay is the sheer numbers of the masses. They can't fight us all at once. They can't control us if we are united against them. This is lesson one of revolutions (lesson two is that we inevitably replace one tyranny with another). Which is why the present splintered and alienated society is a gift to peeping Toms, snoops and sneaks. I doubt we'll get to the level of surveillance of Stalinist Russia here in the UK. But Big Brother is in fact watching us and in most cases it's only the fact that we are mind boggling boring that saves us, not the benevolence of the powers that be. Unfortunately Al Qaeda and groups like them succeed in making everyone a little more paranoid and this has lead to the erosion of freedom in the West generally. When we compare the goals of the sides in the so-called "War on Terror" it's not at all clear who is doing better. Certainly calling our side "the free world" is starting to sound a little optimistic.

I think it's worthwhile trying to become informed and to reflect on what kind of society you want to live and to make common cause with people who share your values. Us peasants only ever have numbers going for us. United we stand, divided we fall. And we have so much in common. We could probably do with a little more enlightened other-interest right now, rather than this bullshit, but pervasive notion of enlightened self-interest. Enlightenment and self-interest are inversely correlated. We also might want to reflect on who we share our private thoughts with and how. In this age of the commodification of the self someone is monetising those thoughts and you aren't getting any benefit from it. And they are also allowing the government easy access. Log off and hang out with your friends. You'll feel better for it.


21 June 2013

Cargo Cult Science

image from Suite 101 Cargo Cults
In an essay from 2011, Explanation vs Interpretation, I outlined an argument from a book called Rethinking Religion by Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley. The book is about two different knowledge seeking behaviours, how they clash, and how the authors proposed to reconcile them. The argument is very relevant in academia because of sometimes bitter disputes between the camps to which academics. I hinted at, but did not really have time to explore, the way this dynamic plays out in everyday life. In this essay I want to go back and see if I can draw out some of these threads.

The basic dichotomy is between two forms of knowledge seeking. Those who seek knowledge through explaining observable facts and formulating them into causal laws which interact and combine to form a robust and highly useful, but to date partial, view of the universe. Science is the epitome of this approach. The success of the scientific method has been such that it totally dominated modern life. Even the detractors of science take to the internet to denounce it. 

The other approach is to interpret events by assigning meanings and reasons to them. In this school of thought all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity, and science is merely another framework. This is the approach of religion and certain varieties of philosophy.  The idea of universal human rights emerges from this approach. It allows a great deal of freedom for speculation but also leads to orthodoxies. However interpretations don't interact and cohere like explanations and thus can conflict with each other. The usual dynamic is cycles of fragmentation and synthesis.

I've since revisited this dichotomy several times, but in particular in my essay Metaphors and Materialism where I suggested that there is a dispute about the existence of the substance broadly called 'spirit'. The scientist finds no evidence of spirit and thus excludes it from explanations, but the religious cannot understand human exist without it and it becomes central to interpreting human existence. That most Buddhists believe in spirit is interesting because a number of early Buddhist doctrines would seem to deny spirit.

Schrödinger's wave equation

If you do not understand this, you
do not understand quantum mechanics
I have also obliquely addressed this issue in my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat in which I sought to debunk the idea that quantum physics has anything to do with Buddhism. The way that Buddhists employ quantum mechanics is through an interpretation of the narrative accounts of some of the consequences of the science, ignoring the mathematics which are central to the science of quantum mechanics (the 'mechanics' part is a reference to the mathematical techniques which underpin the science). This is valid from an interpretationist point of view since science is merely one framework amongst many. Ironically such relativity often cites the so-called 'observer effect', outlined by quantum theorists, as justification of their subjectivism, though this is a rather gross misreading of the observer effect. 

This dynamic of the creative re-interpretation and co-opting of science is what interests me in this essay. It is sometimes called cargo cult science (this label was first suggested by physicist Richard Feynman). Decontextualised facts and figures washed up on the beach are thrown together to make an idol which forms the focus of the psychological needs of the spiritual tribe. The 'power' of science is co-opted by adopting the forms of science without the content or the founding assumptions. A new improved spirituality.

In this approach to interpretation there is a tacit acknowledgement of the success of science as a mode of knowledge seeking. Cargo cult interpreters seek ways of incorporating some of the success of science into their interpretation, but on their own terms as though facts can be detached from their context without any effect. I've said that ordinary people often experience science as a pernicious influence that destroys valued aspects of social and religious discourse and practice. There is a general confusion of values as religion has fallen under the steam-roller of science. Whether the link is causal or incidental I don't know, but clearly some people are seeking a more robust world-view that will not be so easy to overturn as when Darwin overturned the notion of all at once Creation. One strategy for this is to co-opt science itself.

Almost everyone will be familiar with presentations of "evidence" for the supernatural in form or another. In another essay, On Credulity, I explored the readiness of people to accept 'proof' of the supernatural. The spiritual suffer more than averagely from confirmation bias. Despite some high profile debunkings over many years, and the failure of all supernatural claims under strict  laboratory conditions, the spiritual folk latch onto any scrap of confirmation. To some extent I understand the belief in spirit. Recall that Thomas Metzinger says that after having an out of body experience (OBE) that "it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards." (See Origin of the Idea of the Soul). The belief is persistent precisely because experience suggests it. However, all Metzinger's attempts to explain his OBE in dualistic terms failed to account for it, and he settled on understanding it as a failure to integrate several streams of input related to the construction of our sense of self. 

The cargo cult is even more evident in the area of health. The popular media have science reporters who write stories on research with an emphasis on the novel and innovative. Unfortunately such journalists often have no respect for the scientific process. They publish attention grabbing stories without bothering to critique them, without waiting for other scientists to corroborate results. One example will suffice. At some point a journalist published a report on the amount of water a person needs to drink. This was taken up by alternative health practitioners and has become a dogma: a person must drink X litres of water every day or suffer ill-health. So now where-ever you go people have bottled water with them and compulsively sip at it. This is not obviously harmful, but it is a bit infantile and the bottles are not particularly environmentally friendly. The story emphasises that it must water and that anything other than pure water is in fact dehydrating. In fact research shows that it doesn't matter what liquid you drink - coffee is just as good at hydrating as water, and the very mild diuretic effect has a negligible effect on levels of fluid in the body. This is not a simple case of bad science. There is good science here as well. Humans do need to drink water and we can die from dehydration (for instance in cases of dysentery). But if we drink when thirsty, and drink to slake our thirst, then we will get the water that we need. And a cup of tea is just as good as water. There is no need to force ourselves to drink litre after litre of water, over-riding our natural thirsts. Of course this over-riding of natural appetites is part of a much broader problem faced by civilisation which has cropped up in my writing from time to time (most notably in my essay on pornography). The water bottle has become like a talisman and the water a sacrament. Although the behaviour draws on science it exists in a magical worldview. 

Part of the problem is that science is complex and difficult to understand. I recently read Stephen Hawking's new book the Grand Design which presents itself as answering "life's ultimate questions". His proposed solution, M-theory, is so complex that its equations cannot currently be solved. As I understand it the theory itself has yet to be fully described mathematically. Even if they are one day solved it's not clear how they will provide any meaningful results on the human level - one of the main criticisms seems to be that the theory does not make any testable predictions. The fiendishly difficult mathematics of M-Theory are, not surprisingly, entirely absent from Hawking's book. And yet like quantum mechanics the theory is mathematical. What is presented, rather ironically, is an interpretation of M-Theory. Hawking is forced to do this because even if the experts did understand it, the average person never will.

Unlike Hawking I don't think philosophy is dead, but I do think that scientists often make poor philosophers. I can't help but wonder what effect Hawking's existential situation has had on his views on free will and determinism, but I don't want to go too far down that road. What really struck me about the book was that the "answer" put forward by Hawking to the "ultimate question" was conspicuous by it's absence. Hawking does not address the question of how we should live, he is not interested in that question, and M-Theory has nothing to tell us about it. Nor does he address such questions as what life is. Far from answering life's ultimate questions, Hawking fails to even ask them. Thus even a hard-core materialist like Stephen Hawking seems to be inadvertently promoting cargo cult science. 

One of the ironies of cargo cult science is that it fixes results and doesn't leave them open to review. The religieux who idolise scientific results are still interested in absolutes rather than development. Once we have proved that the supernatural exists then we can just relax and get on with our seance. This positivist approach to science has largely been abandoned by scientists themselves, who generally set out to disprove something or other. The best result a scientist can hope for is to disprove the present paradigm in their field and become the next Einstein. But not so the cargo cultist. Having assembled their idol the last thing they want to do is probe it or test it, or dismantle it. Thus cargo cult science is not a homage, but a travesty. One sees this to some extent in the Kabat-Zinn style "mindfulness" clique. They are concerned to show that their approach is beneficial, and thus emphasise studies which show their practices in a good light - there certainly are many such studies now, but they seem suspiciously uniform in supporting mindfulness as a pancea.

Apart from the metaphysics why is this dichotomy interesting? Why are people in opposing camps at loggerheads? Part of the answer to this is politics and economics: or in other words influence and control of resources. These are just the basic social primate motivations. Those who control the narratives about what is important get to control access to resources. So the conflict is non-trivial. Those who co-opt science to make their own beliefs seem more attractive are competing for followers and support. In the market place of souls, science sells. But people also care about how resources are put to use in society. Professor Steve Keen is a heterodox economist who is relentlessly scathing in his attacks on the NeoClassical Economics which, through over reliance on interpretation over explanation, has lead the world to the brink of economic disaster. He has said on numerous occasions that the same economists who seem to have almost deliberately wrecked the world's economies are motivated by trying to make the world a better place.

All sorts of well-meaning people believe that their interpretation of the facts is the panacea and set out to implement policies based on their ideology. Buddhists are particularly prone to seeing Buddhism as a panacea - and this is a narrative with centuries of history for us. But without the element of criticism and dialogue which form part of the explanatory approach to knowledge, we always, always run into trouble that we cannot get out of.


14 June 2013

Using the Dhamma to Win Arguments

At the risk of gross hypocrisy I'm posting this translation of a text about two wayward bhikkhus who like to win arguments more than anything. I suppose this text makes it clear that this is not new problem (c.f. the text on disputes between meditators and scholars).

One of the reasons I (largely) gave up participating in online forums and contentious Wikipedia pages and the like, is that I felt a profound sense of dissatisfaction with it all. I felt that if I could write in a more considered way, and invite considered comments and discussion then it might be more worthwhile. For the same reason I've gradually stopped reading Buddhist blogs and started reading blogs informed by research: on Indology, language, evolution and neuroscience. If anyone knows any (other) Buddhist blogs informed by research I'd be interested to hear about them.

As time has gone on the rigour of my blog posts has steadily increased, and what I'm writing here is often the result of long periods of research and reflection. So the writing itself is quite satisfying. I've clarified a number of knotty issues for myself, and perhaps more importantly clarified for myself where I continue to be confused or superficial. A few regular readers seem to really appreciate this approach to Dhamma study, and to be on something like the same wavelength, and I get the sense that we are exploring something together. I very much appreciate this kind of interaction.

However, when I've spent several weeks (sometimes months!) researching and writing a long blog post and someone who spends a few minutes skim reading it, not checking any of the references or the previous blogs that have led up to the one they are reading, writes a few lines of ill-considered disagreement, I find this pretty tedious. Just having an opinion is not enough to make the discussion interesting. Just opposing your opinion to mine is unhelpful and experience shows that nobody learns anything. And it seems this same problem was recognised in the bhikkhu saṅhga early enough to be included in the Canon.

For what it is worth, here is my translation of this somewhat obscure text, with some notes on the text, but no further comment. I can't see it translated anywhere else online, so at least it's a contribution to making the Canon available.

Ovāda Sutta S 16.6; PTS S ii.203

In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place (in the Bamboo Grove). The Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As he sat, the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma."

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus are rude and unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions." [1] I saw a bhikkhu named Bhaṇḍa, a student of Ānanda, and a bhikkhu named Abhijika, a student of Anuruddha, arguing with one another about their learning (sutena accāvadante): [in this way] 'come bhikkhu, who will speak more, who will speak better, who will speak longer?'"

The Bhagavan said to a bhikkhu, "go and tell Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika that I wish to speak to them."

The bhikkhu assented and went to find Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika to pass on the message. Summoned, they approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As they say there the Bhagavan asked: "Is it true that you two have been arguing over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

"It is Bhante."

"Have you ever heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose?"

"Certainly not, Bhante."

"So if you have not heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose then why are you acting like that, you idiots [2] ? By what understanding or knowledge [3] have you gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline in order to argue over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

The two bhikkhus falling with their heads [4] on the Bhagavan's feet, said to him: "we were overcome by a transgression, Bhante, like fools, confused and unskilful, when having gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline we argued with each other about our knowledge.

Bhante, may the Bhagavan accept this fault of ours as a fault, for [our]
restraint in the future."



[1]  Slow to take on = appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina literally 'not right handed'  (c.f. padakkhina 'to the right'). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture (the Latin word for left-handed was sinister). In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect (see also Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?)

[2]  Moghapurisā 'stupid or confused men'.

[3]  kim jānantā, kim passantā 'knowing what, seeing what?'

[4]  sirasā is an instrumental form that derives from the Sanskrit śiras.

07 June 2013

Only Simple Elements

Kammassa kārako natthi, vipākassa ca vedako;
Suddhadhammā pavattanti, evetaṃ sammadassanaṃ.

There is no doer of actions; no one who suffers the results;
Simple elements proceeding, this constitutes perfect vision.

Evaṃ kamme vipāke ca, vattamāne sahetuke;
Bījarukkhādikānaṃva, pubbā koṭi na nāyati.

Thus actions and results progress, closely connected together;
Their beginning is unknown, like seeds and trees in succession.

Anāgatepi saṃsāre, appavattaṃ na dissati;
Etamatthaṃ anaññāya, titthiyā asayaṃvasī.

The future end of going around, removed beyond discovery.
The goal remains unknown to those unself-disciplined heretics.

Sattasaññaṃ gahetvāna, sassatucchedadassino;
Dvāsaṭṭhidiṭṭhiṃ gaṇhanti, aññamaññavirodhitā.

Grasping what's perceived as being eternal or non-existent;
They grab at the sixty-two views, hostile, each to the other one.

Diṭṭhibandhanabaddhā te, taṇhāsotena vuyhare;
Taṇhāsotena vuyhantā, na te dukkhā pamuccare.

Bound up in the bondage of views, swept along by floods of craving.
Being swept along by these floods, snarled up in dissatisfaction.

Evametaṃ abhiññāya, bhikkhu buddhassa sāvako;
Gambhīraṃ nipuṇaṃ suññaṃ, paccayaṃ paṭivijjhati.

Disciples of the Awakened, they break through to insight of,
Particular knowledge of the deep, subtle, naked condition.

Kammaṃ natthi vipākamhi, pāko kamme na vijjati;
Aññamaññaṃ ubho suññā, na ca kammaṃ vinā phalaṃ.

There is no action in result. Result is not found in action;
Not in each or both or neither. And yet no fruit without action.

Yathā na sūriye aggi, na maṇimhi na gomaye;
Na tesaṃ bahi so atthi, sambhārehi ca jāyati.

Just as there's no fire in the sun, nor in a gem or in cow dung;
Nor does it exist outside them. From the requir'd conditions only.

Tathā na anto kammassa, vipāko upalabbhati;
Bahiddhāpi na kammassa, na kammaṃ tattha vijjati.

So results are not to be found interior to the action;
Nor external to the action. Nor is action found to persist.

Phalena suññaṃ taṃ kammaṃ, phalaṃ kamme na vijjati;
Kammañca kho upādāya, tato nibbattate phalaṃ.

The action is empty of fruit, in action the fruit is not found;
And therefore the fruit arises from the condition of action

Na hettha devo brahmā vā, saṃsārassatthikārako;
Suddhadhammā pavattanti, hetusambhārapaccayāti.

Here is no shining creator of the cyclic world from nothing.
Just simple elements proceed, arising conditionally.


This poem is found in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga [xix.20; p.700 in Ñāṇamoḷi's translation]. It was composed sometime in the 5th century Common Era in Sri Lanka and represents an orthodox Theravāda view of conditionality.

The approach is similar to that found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā but it is much simpler, presumably because it is simply stating a view not trying to argue against one at the same time. The natural consequence of conditionality is a focus on the flow of experience. And in the final analysis there is only experience. Nāgārjuna frequently becomes bogged down in trying to deal with ontological issues, though he cites the Kaccānagotta Sutta he seems not to have taken it fully on board.

The main point is made right away - there is only experience and no one who experiences. Everything we are aware of is a flow of experience, including our sense of self. But within this actions (kamma) and consequences (vipāka) are correlated.  In ancient India the image of trees and seeds is directly equivalent to our 'chicken and egg'. Which comes first? The paradox is that one cannot have one without the other.

Even if we over-ride the pre-scientific sense of infinity and claim to know that egg laying chickens evolved from earlier types we still cannot trace the beginning of this process. Yes, at some point life must have begun on our planet but we know when to within on a 100 billion years or so, and even then the paradigm insists that life had precursors, that it was a consequence of the universe unfolding from a point of no dimensions and infinite density. But infinity and zero in physics equations, as any high school physics student can tell you, means that you made a mistake. Thus the Big Bang was by no means the beginning of time and space, merely a horizon beyond which we cannot at present see or imagine. From a Buddhist point of view cosmic creators and creation are irrelevant in any case because our focus ought to be on the process of creating our own world of experience; on the process of creation involving sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition.

According to my kalyanamitta, Satyapriya, it is particularly as we go into and emerge from samādhi that we see the processes of cognition and prapañca stopping and starting. It's from this observation that we see into the workings of this act of creation. It's as if we stand in the tide of an ocean of sensation and the waves push and the undertow pulls and our mind sloshes back and forth in response. Agonising over the stories it concocts about the sea. Trying to divine the motivation of the wave, and the intention of the undertow.

Another elemental description is used to describe ordinary experience: we are swept along in a flood of experience. Our senses are open doors through which experience pours at a rate faster than we can possibly process - like drinking from a fire hose. And yet we are intoxicated and obsessed these experiences. 

All experience is made up of simple dhammas arising and passing away. Why do we rejoice at arising and weep at passing away. Arising and passing away is what dhammas do. It is their nature. Our task is to see this deep, subtle, naked condition (gambhīraṃ nipuṇaṃ suññaṃ paccayaṃ). Note here the use of suññā not as 'empty', but as 'bare, naked, exposed'. The disciples of the awakened see this. Later suññā is used in the sense of lacking: phalena suññaṃ taṃ kammaṃ literally 'the action is empty with respect of fruit', i.e. action does not contain fruit. One cannot open a seed and find a tree. 

Buddhaghosa also invokes the element of fire. 'Fire is born out of firewood' (kaṭṭhā jāyati jātavedo Sn 462) as they said in the days before oxygen was invented. Fire, as dhātu or element, is associated with the sun, with the flashing of gems, and with cow-dung as fuel for cooking fires (it is still used for this in rural India!). Fire is also responsible for digestion. But it is not intrinsic to the fuel which it consumes. Fire depends on fuel (upādāna) but it's not that fire comes out of the fuel, but it arises in dependence on it. And the kind of fuel determines what kind of fire we are talking about: a forest fire, a grass fire, or a house fire are distinguished by the fuel. And consciousness is just like this. "Bhikkhus from whatever condition consciousness arises, it is called that kind of consciousness. Consciousness arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-consciousness." (Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. MN 38. PTS M i.259). Fire is an important metaphor for the processes of consciousness, see also Everything is On Fire; and Playing with Fire.

Results are correlated with actions in the realm of experience. Conditions are what results have rested on (paṭicca) in order to step up (sam-uppāda) into awareness. The condition in this worldview is not an agent. The seed does not cause the tree. The tree does not cause the seed. They are stepping stones for a process which cycles between seeds and trees.

And thus 'simple elements' or 'bare experiences' are what is happening (pavattati). And because dhammas are constructed at the very least on sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition they are impermanent. For anyone looking for permanence (which is most of us) discovering that what we wish to be permanent is in fact impermanent is frustrating, disappointing and dissatisfying. By the Vedic standard ātman is characterised by permanent being (sat), consciousness (cit) and ecstasy (ānanda) nothing that is impermanent and disappointing could be ātman. More Buddhistically, nothing which is conditioned exists in its own right. Thus these simple elements share three characteristics (tilakkhanā).

Buddhist moralists attempted to apply this theory to rebirth, making rebirth destination (gati) dependent on actions in this life, but they produced an afterlife theory that required constant tinkering by their successors. The problem of continuity just won't go away. But in experience, ah, in experience it fits perfectly. Wrong view concerning experience builds from reactions to habits to fixed views. And this was almost unavoidable by the Buddha's period - the Iron Age. How much more difficult in the present Age of Distraction?

This is the Buddhist hermeneutic of experience applied to the world of India and Sri Lanka. While it forms a template for contemporary Buddhism it ought not to be seen as defining Buddhism. Our problems - that is our fixed views - have some similarities with those of Iron Age, mainly agricultural people. But many differences. It is only be a close examination of our actual views that we will develop a Buddhist critique relevant to our times. We are not Iron Age Indians, or Medieval Tibetans.

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