28 March 2014

Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution

The case for abandoning the tree metaphor for evolution is one that has support from the field of evolution itself. In previous essays, I've proposed the braided river model as providing a richer picture and vocabulary for evolution, both in species and in ideas and cultural functions like religion. In this essay, I want to look at the actual features of the River Ganges along its path and see how these might enrich metaphors for evolution. 

The imagery of rivers features strongly in the history of Indo-European languages. And Indian literature is full of references to and metaphors drawn from rivers. I've argued, for example, that the important contrast between samyañc and mithyā make most sense in relation to a river bed very like the ones seen in the images below. One follows the stream, bending with it (sam-y-añc) or one tries to cut across and fight one's way forward (mith-yā).

If we look at the image above, it shows only the major rivers associated with the Ganges Basin. The hydrological cycle has a number of main features in this view. Firstly, the catchment area extends both north (into the Himalayas) and south (the Vindhya Range). The Ganges accepts tributaries along almost its entire length. Catchment basins give rise to numerous small streams. These streams combine into larger streams, and these into rivers and larger rivers (and this fact is used metaphorically the Pāli Canon: e.g. AN i.243. ii.140, v.114; SN v.396; and also in the Chinese Madhyāgama 43-54)

If we stand on the Maṇikarṇikā Ghāṭ in Varanasi and look out on the Ganges River we see a classic large river contained by two banks though, of course, during the monsoons it often breaks its banks. Most of us have probably seen it in tourist season after the temperatures have dropped a bit, the rains have stopped and the river is well behaved. And, seeing this clearly defined waterway, we think "Ganges River". Even an entity defined by change and process can still have a valid identity, if that change takes placed within well-defined boundaries.

What we don't see at that point are the numerous tributaries which combine (braid) together to form this river. And, in particular, we don't see that, where the Ganges meets the Yamuna River near Allahabad, the Yamuna is the larger of the two. It's quite visibly larger on satellite photos (below):

In fact, the Yamuna contributes nearly 60% of the flow at the confluence (that's a ratio of 3:2). Thus, the resulting river ought to be called the Yamuna. However, for historical reasons, it is called the Ganges. This point of confluence used to define the eastern edge of the āryavarta or the homeland of the Brahmins. Up until just before the time of the Buddha, anywhere east of this point was considered barbaric and foreign by the mainstream Brahmins. The early Upaniṣads document the tensions between āryavarta and eastern Brahmins (Signe Cohen), and there are scattered references to distinctive "western Brahmins" in the Pāli Canon (e.g., S iv.312). Indeed, the distinction appears to be current during the period the Pāli Canon was composed, since there are scattered references to Western Brahmins who have distinctive habits.

Another feature we see is that the Ganges has wandered around the plain, leaving behind distinctive oxbow lakes and sinusoidal shaped dry river beds which are clearly seen in satellite photos (below).

We know that some developments in Buddhism simply dried up, and some continued to exist cut off from the mainstream. Similarly with human evolution - Homo habilis, for example, did not survive into the present.  At times small pockets of human species survived for a time in isolation, e.g., H. floresiensis, which predates modern humans, but whose remains have been found with stone tools dated to only 13,000 years ago, which is well into the era of H. sapiensH. neanderthalensis had significant periods of cross-over with H. sapiens in Europe and Asia, where they appear to have shared genes (hybridised), though this did not happen in Africa. And so on.

The feature I have already highlighted is the braided stream typical of the mature plains river. We can see this on the Ganges as it passes Patna (below). The river is still accepting tributaries, but it is also diverging into separate (major) streams and re-converging. In the image below, the large Son River enters from below left, with the city of Patna mainly to the left of the confluence. The Gandak River converges from above left.

The final stretch of the Ganges sees it combine with the Brahmaputra River (marked with a circle) but then fan out into a massive delta as it reaches the Bay of Bengal.

The combined rivers continue to flow past the ocean-land boundary, depositing banks of sediment that are coloured light blue in this image because they represent shallow water. In the map, one can also see the ancient course of the combined river carved into what is now the continental shelf, from when sea levels were very much lower (when, for example, our ancestors were on their way from Africa to Australia ca. 65 kya to 45 kya).

The present mainstream view sees evolution as being much like the delta region - a single source fans out into multiple streams producing present day variety. The present tree model has no roots, but it also over-simplifies the trunk. The trouble is that this is how history looks when viewed from any point and one is focussed on a single issue. The complexity of the Iron Age, for example, might be traced back to the discovery of Iron. But then iron working extended previous metalworking techniques, and had to be accompanied by advances in kiln technology (since iron requires much higher temperatures) which, most likely, affected the production of pottery and created an industry for coke making. At best, historians of various kinds (and I include evolutionary theorists in this rubric for this purpose) might see several contributing factors to any particular event or phenomenon when, in fact, everything is deeply and multiply interconnected.  

What symbiogenesis and hybridisation tell us about evolution is that it is not a simple system of linear development with binary divergence, but a complex dynamic system including convergence, with symbiosis and hybridisation as the norm rather than the exception. Almost every tree has an associated mycorrhizal fungus symbiont that keeps it alive; without their symbiotic gut bacteria, larger animals could not survive. The individual is simply a community seen from sufficient distance to blur the details. 

It's long been a given in academia that Buddhism, as far as we know it, is the product of a community of people or, indeed, the products of interacting communities more or less members under the Buddhist umbrella. I've tried to extend this by arguing that the community in question has roots in Iran, and has interacted with local communities of a wide variety of types - speaking languages from at least four major groups: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman. Despite differences, these communities probably shared regional cultural traits such as a belief in a rebirth eschatology, and regional linguistic traits such as retroflex consonants. 

In the history of Buddhism one convergence event stands out almost more than any other. This was the 6th century synthesis we call Tantra. In this renewal of Indian religion the various streams of Indian thought and practice were combined, probably at least partly in response to the socio-political chaos of the collapse of the Gupta Empire (Ronald Davidson). In Tantra we find much of Buddhism at the time synthesised with Vedic theory and ritual, shamanistic practices, and yoga, etc., to create an entirely new approach to life and liberation. 


21 March 2014

Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas.

image via theconsciousprocess
Back in January 2014 I wrote an essay exploring the idea that there were irreconcilable pluralities in Buddhist metaphysics. In that essay I focussed on the poor fit between Buddhist ethics and the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda. And I said that "On the face of it this problem ought to have produced a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, though to the best of my knowledge it never has." I no longer believe that it did not create a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, in fact on further reflection we can see a number of high profile responses to just this problem.

One example is found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakā Kārikā where he has noticed the problem of what I call "action at a temporal distance".
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK 17.6 //
If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?
Nagarjuna's answer insists on the metaphysics of emptiness which has the same disconnect from moral imperatives that I've already described.

Having finished my essay on the disconnect between ethics and dependent arising I serendipitously found a passage in the Majjhima Nikāya which asks almost the same question as I had been asking. In the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (The Great Discourse on a Fullmoon) a certain monk asks a serious of question about the pañc'upānānakhandha or five masses of fuel (aka the five aggregates of clinging).

The answers add up to an exposition on how to meditate on the khandhas. We learn that the khandhas are rooted in desire. And that the desires take many forms related to how the khandhas might be arranged in the future. The khandhas are defined in a circularity: any kind of form is rūpakhandha, etc. Then we discover that the four elements (mahābhūta) are the condition for rūpakhandha; that contact is the condition for vedanākhandha, saññākhandha and saṅkhārākhandha; and that nāmarūpa is the condition for viññānakhandha.

Crucially sakkāyadiṭṭhi, literally the view that there is a true (sat) substance (kāya), though more often translated as 'personality view', comes about when we relate to the khandhas in terms of attā or 'myself'. With respect to each of the khandhas we may experience pleasure and joy; but we must remember that each khandhas is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial; and "escaping" from each comes about when we do not feel desire in relation to it, which in this context seems to relate to anxieties about future existence. In order to remove all tendencies towards thinking in terms of a substantial self, including "I making" (ahaṃkāra), "mine making" (mamaṃkāra) and "the tendency to opinions" (mānānusayā), one must not relate to the khandha in terms of etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā 'this is mine, I am this, this is my self'.

Although the order does not match up we can deduce that the two sets of three are related:
  • ahaṁkāra leads to the thought eso ahaṃ asmi 'I am this'.
  • mamaṁkāra leads to the thought etaṁ mama 'this is mine'.
  • mānānusayā leads to the thought eso me attā 'this is my self'.
Now having heard this it occurs to a certain monk (presumably the same certain monk though the pronouns are unclear) who says:
iti kira, bho, rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā; anattakatāni kammāni katham attānaṃ phusissantī'ti? (MN iii.19 = SN iii.82)
It has been said, Sir, that form is without self, sensation is without self, apperception is without self, volition is without self, discernment is without self: which self will be affected by actions performed by a non-self?
We don't know the background of this monk, but we do know that he can't be a Brahmin, because it is explicit in Brahmanical beliefs about the ātman that it is not affected in any way by worldly actions and such a question would not occur to a Brahmin. More likely he is a Jain. In any case this question is similar to the one I raised about morality. If there is no self, then who is affected by actions? Although it breaks protocol to ask this, it's important to see that it rests on an understanding of moral imperatives. The question suggests that the whole system is too abstract to be a motivation to good behaviour.

Unfortunately the answer supplied in the text does not address the question directly, though it does give us an indirect hint about the author of the text. The Buddha is (apparently) concerned that some idiot (or perhaps the monk himself; again the pronouns here are quite confusing) might see the question as a conceited attempt by a contemptible man to usurp his place as teacher (the terms are quite gross). It seems to me that such a paranoid response is far from characteristic of Gotama in the Pāli literature. He is usually supremely confident of his place in the world. Next he has the monks rehearse the same teaching in a slightly different way. It is simply emphasised that what is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial cannot be one's self, and that the khandhas are all characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality.

There is a tautology involved in the last of these because although I'm translating it as "insubstantial" the word is anattā. Of course what is anattā is not attā, this is simply what the word anattā means. The Buddha simply says that what is not the self cannot be the self. Which is clumsy of the author.

While the bhikkhus were delighted and satisfied by these words, we have reason for dissatisfaction. It's clear enough what is intended here. We have the the outline of a meditation practice involving reflection on the khandhas. If one is thinking in terms of khandhas, then this is how one ought to think about them. But how does this translate into other areas of Buddhist thought? Particularly ethics? And why is ethics so often taught in terms of a sense of self that is substantial and stable over lifetimes (as in Jātaka stories)? Even if it is a metaphor, why is it a helpful metaphor? Why is there no answer?

What our interlocutor was doing was trying to shift the discussion. He was saying that if this is what the sense of self is about, then how does karma work? If there is no self then who experiences the consequences of actions? We've already see that the question of "who suffers" (ko vediyati) is an "unsuitable" or even "unhealthy" question (no kallo pañho SN ii.13). The Buddha simply emphasises phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā 'sensations arise from the condition of contact; contact from the condition of greed.' This is how we teach metaphysics, but it's not how we teach ethics. 

The Buddha's answer suggests that whoever composed this discourse felt quite uncomfortable about the shift and was unable to answer it. He could only repeat himself. In the Pali texts people who ask the kinds of question I'm asking here are given a hard time. They are rebuked and chided. So far I've found no patient explanation of how everything fits together, just the answer that it's an unsuitable question. This appears to be the approach of modern writers on Buddhism as well. But if we are at all interested in the notion of Buddhism as a single system of thought stemming from a single mind then a major disconnect like this ought to be important and interesting.

One solution I proposed was that the attempts to see or outline unity in these teachings might be a cultural artefact for us. We have a predisposition to see everything in big bang terms, i.e. in terms of a singularity from which all the diversity we currently see must have developed from zero diversity in the past. It's a kind of parallax error, like the illusion of train-tracks converging in the distance. We have embodied this conceptual error in the tree metaphor which depicts evolution as a linear process with binary branches that always diverge and never converge. Except that everywhere we look at evolution we do see convergences. Our very cells are the result of the convergence of at least three kinds of bacteria that all contributed to the structure of eukaryote cells in varying ways and some of which, like mitochondria, retain their identity billions of years later. This process is now known as Symbiogenesis and was established by Lynn Margulis.

Similarly there is clear evidence that Buddhism is not the result of a single man having thoughts over the course of his lifetime, but is instead the result of a culture or even a complex of interrelated cultures imperfectly assimilating and syncretising a variety of elements. This does not rule out an historical Buddha, but it does mean that we must attempt to see him in context. 

In discussing this disconnection between theory and practice with my friend Śākyakumāra he came up with an interesting analogy. We might think about the distinction between describing what someone does when they drive a car, and the idealised instruction we give to new drivers. There is a single goal, a single activity, but two view points. What we are describing above is the practice one does after cultivating samādhi or at least samatha, while the basic teaching on ethics focusses on mechanics. When we are driving and turn a corner, we do not think, now I'm turning the steering wheel which transmits a rotary action through a rack & pinion and causes the wheels to turn in a different plane (rolling the steering wheel causes the vehicle to yaw), or about braking and shifting gears and the other mechanical tasks involved. One simply does the action, and very often one's attention is elsewhere watching the road, ensuring we are on the correct route, scanning for dangers, etc. But when learning to drive one's attention is divided between coordinating limbs, consciously working the machinery, and scanning the environment (which is why most of us first drive a car in an empty car-park). It is essential to be clear which is the brake and which the accelerator and when to use each, and at first this must be done consciously.

In this view the teaching on ethics is purely pragmatic. It need not be perfectly philosophically integrated with other aspects of the Buddhist worldview because the intention is merely to get a practitioner up to speed on how to approach practice. Once they are practising effectively the question of how to behave is less of an issue since mindfulness and empathy become the best guides to how we treat other people. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mystify these qualities and put them on a pedestal where they seem out of reach. But every human being has mindfulness and empathy in abundance. Being social animals we are evolved to treat our peers and colleagues well under most circumstances. One of the main reasons we might not is that we are brutalised by living unnatural lifestyles in large, over-crowded, industrialised, urban societies. Evolution works over 10,000s of generations, whereas we have utterly changed our living environments in a matter of 10,000 years resulting in a certain amount of confusion.

We are usually taught that Buddhism is a smoothly integrated whole, but that is an illusion created by pedagogues. Once one moves out of the spotlight of ideas that teachers wish to highlight (for whatever reason) one almost immediately encounters matter which does not fit whatever paradigm one is working with. I suggest that ethics remained a separate department that was never fully integrated into Buddhism. This statement may elicit surprise from many who see ethics as central to Buddhism, but in Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics I tried to show why this might be so. In that essay I concluded:
"In the face of the plurality of doctrine, usually the best we can do is select a subset of the teachings that hang together and gloss over the discontinuities. A dense and complex jargon combined with an anti-intellectual discourse helps us to obfuscate such problems. Even those who study the texts more directly are doing so through cultural and historical lens that predispose them to see unity and continuity and to gloss over evidence of the opposite."
I find it difficult to take in the vast sweep of Buddhist ideas across time and space. It's a vast and complex field of study. Most of us can only take in a small part of it. Most Buddhists are probably happy with their little subset of comfort and/or inspiration. Exploration is within strict limits defined by confirmation bias (which recall is a feature of reason and not a bug). Texts are authoritative to the extent they confirm our views and are myth/legend/metaphor/interpolations to the extent that they disconfirm our views. We're easily disconcerted, much like the author of the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta and all too willing to plaster over any cracks that appear. But to me the cracks are the interesting part.

One of the advantages of study is that it helps to identify where we are comfortable and where we are uncomfortable. It can help identify assumptions and presumptions. The kinds of disconnects I'm identifying are hard to see because they are cracks that previous generations have plastered over. They're mostly unwelcome because they force us to consider that our religion is less than perfect and that is an uncomfortable feeling. But the truth is important if sometimes unpalatable and discomfort is the starting point of the Buddhist religion.


14 March 2014

Nonsense and Nonsensibility

The Red Queen shook her head. "You may call it `nonsense' if you like," she said, "but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary !"
At the end of my essay on negation in the Vajracchedikā I asked a question:
When Conze insists that the Perfection of Wisdom "had resorted to the enunciation of plain contradictions as a means of expressing the inexpressible" (cited by Jones 220) what exactly is he doing?
I've already partially answered this question in my essay On Credulity, where I wrote: "People want to believe... People apparently don't want to believe in science which they see as prosaic, mundane, and uninspiring. Accurate, but cold, grey, dull and limited. Whereas magic is exciting and has infinite possibility."

If we need any proof that magic is attractive we need only cite the worldwide Harry Potter phenomenon that made J K Rowling one of the richest people in the world. And her books are a drop in the ocean of fiction in which magic operates. Even mainstream literature cannot help but engage with the wish for magic to be real, with magical realism being a very popular genre. Of course, the vast majority of us make the distinction between a fictional world in which magic is operational and a factual world in which it is not. But we are attracted to the world where magic operates. The attraction is fairly easy to understand. Magic enables us to take shortcuts and to take control of our fate to a greater extent than most of us ever experience. The same can be said of super-heroes, cartoon characters and fictional heroes. In a world where most of us are at the mercy of various faceless bureaucracies and our choices are arbitrarily constrained in ways we either don't understand or don't consent to, we dream of being more powerful. Or we dream of escape to a better world.

Buddhists play into this attraction also. Buddhism holds out the possibility of solving all of our problems, not by addressing them head on, but by indirectly transforming our minds so that our problems no longer seem like problems. By identifying a single, seemingly simple, cause for all problems, like, say, 'desire', and offering a simple (if arduous) way of dealing with desire, Buddhism taps into our desire to be free from afflictions and troubles, to escape our tribulations (this special case of desire even has a special name: dhammacanda). Alternatively, Buddhists sometimes offer us an easy way to a perfect world where all the hard work of Awakening is made easy. 

What are we to make of the idea that some Buddhist texts and masters set out to deliberately confuse us in order to paralyse that part of our mind which is logical so that another, illogical, part of our mind can come to the fore and liberate us from desire? Conze is particularly fond of this idea that unmitigated paradox is part of the method of Buddhism. In my review of Paul Harrison's approach to the Vajracchedikā (a locus classicus of paradox) I tried to show that paradox was not intended by the author of the sūtra. I also mentioned in passing that neither Harrison nor the other translator whose work I cited, Richard Jones, believed that the use of negation was intended to be paradoxical. I've made the same point with respect to the Heart Sutra.

There must be distinct advantages to a paradoxical approach to understanding since it is so popular and relatively long lived. The interpretation of the Vajracchedikā as presenting an apparent paradox is, for example, important to Zen Buddhists. Consideration of paradoxes in the form of the koan is also an important Zen practice. There is a strong theme amongst Modernist Buddhists that reason is the enemy of liberation. There are relatively few of us (European) Enlightenment oriented Buddhists compared to Romanticism oriented Buddhists.

There is a shadow side to this paradoxical approach that I think can be detected in comments by Conze and others. If, on the face of it, Buddhism is paradoxical and confusing, then it is only the adept who can make sense of it. Conze clearly believed himself to be such an adept. In his commentaries on the Vajracchedikā and Heart Sutra he makes several references to his inability to adequately convey in words the truth of the texts he is commenting on, but hints that it is entirely clear to himself what they are getting at. Such a paradox creates a hierarchy within the community - those who "know" and those who don't. Those who know cannot say exactly what they know, since it is something that defies reason and cannot be put into words; and they cannot say exactly how they know, since it can only be communicated with paradoxes. Many of us are perfectly willing to buy into such a situation. We want to believe that there is a special (i.e., magical) knowledge that some 'masters' possess. Mostly we simply shine in their presence and obtain indirect kudos from being closer to the inner-circle. All too often we find that the emperor has no clothes on and wants to go to bed with us! But, being the kind of social animals we are, we crave being part of the inner circle so much that we don't mind if it means spouting nonsense. 

Now, in Conze's case, there is another dimension, because he was a particular kind of character in a particular kind of environment. By this I mean that he was a gifted academic who did not suffer fools gladly and, as his memoirs make plain, he thought many of his colleagues were fools. Conze had been a staunch opponent of National Socialism in Germany, joining the Communist Party in reaction to the Nazis and authoring several communist tracts. One can easily imagine the rhetoric of Marx appealing to his Romantic leanings. Eventually, Conze emigrated to England. But in England he was subject to considerable racism. His neighbours several times denounced him to the authorities as a spy and, when no action was taken against him, they set fire to the wood where he lived in a caravan. His English academic colleagues were no more welcoming. At Oxford they refused to recognise his German doctorate and insisted on calling him Mr Conze. Conze, being a man convinced of his own superiority to the average man, and indeed to the average Oxford Don, must have found this painful. Later on, he found that his history as a communist barred him from accepting job offers from US universities, and strictly limited the amount of time he could spend in the USA (which I think he found more congenial than stuffy England, where prejudice against Germans has still not completely abated, even now).

I suspect, though I can by no means prove this, that in the Perfection of Wisdom texts Conze found not only an engaging project but one in which he could find a measure of revenge against the establishment. By denying the possibility of a purely intellectual understanding of the texts Conze was fully in agreement with arch-Romantic D T Suzuki with whom he had a strong connection. It also meant that he could routinely exclude most of his colleagues from access to the Truth of these texts. He was industrious enough to dominate the field despite being rather slap-dash in his approach to editing Sanskrit texts and idiosyncratic as a translator - the phrase Buddhist Hybrid English might have been invented for his translations and his work is singled out in the article in which the term was coined (Griffiths 1981). Conze was as much concerned to exclude the plodding intellectuals of Oxford and the common man as he was to elucidate the texts for the cognoscenti. In his introduction to the Vajracchedikā translation his notes conclude:
"Spiritual discernment cannot, however, be conveyed by written instructions. It presupposes certain qualities of character, a certain direction of the will, and certain habits of behaviour. Where those are present, the intellectual information will come to life, and flare up into a blaze of light. Where they are not, boredom will result, and everything will appear too difficult. The reader will soon know which category he belongs to." (Buddhist Wisdom Books, p.20)
The implication here is that Conze too knows which category he belongs to. Indeed, the qualities he praises -- character, will and habits of behaviour -- are as much drawn from his aristocratic German upbringing as they are from Buddhism. He has no compunction in dividing his readership, or indeed the world, into superior and inferior people. And he had little or no time for the latter. Elsewhere, he says, "Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism is not a religion suitable for the brainless". Conze saw himself at the nucleus of the group of people interested in Prajñāpāramitā and he disdained those who were not at least part of the inner-circle, the boundaries of which he himself helped to define. 

So, one of the functions of paradoxical religious literature is to divide the world into those who know and those who don't. Religions, generally speaking, have an inner circle of adepts who 'know' and grow concentric rings of those who have progressively less understanding of the Truth. One of the first things the new convert must do is absorb and master the use of religious jargon and appreciate the hierarchy of those in the know. Buddhists are particularly fond of finding new meanings for old words and dropping Indian terms into conversations. It can take years to become familiar with all the intricacies of the lists and lists of lists. Mastery of the jargon allows the convert to join the in-crowd. There is this cultic aspect to all Buddhist groups.

It is strange, therefore, that the early Buddhists did not seem to feel the need to communicate in riddles. The criterion that bodhi must be experienced is still there, but the authors of the methods and doctrines associated with attempting to re-create that experience strive for clarity. It is not that the early Buddhists were completely rational and logical, clearly they were not. But they did not, so far as we know, set out to confuse the intellect or denounce reason. Indeed, the Pali texts seem to praise clear thinking and learning as very useful on the path. Understanding is praised. The post-canonical work Milindapañha is all about sorting out confusion and clarifying apparent contradictions. And I confess that this quality is what draws me to early Buddhist texts ahead of any others. 

However, suspicion of the inner circle appears to have developed fairly early on, as critiques of arahants are an important aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism. If someone is an arahant they have had the same experience as the Buddha. Originally no real distinction between buddha and arahant was made, except that the teacher tended to be revered, as a teacher is in India. How bad must things have got if arahant came to be seen as a lesser goal for those of inferior capabilities? How many charlatans must have falsely claimed that title and abused the position that came with it? And, of course, we find the distinction being hardened as time goes on with the outright dismissal of anyone not eager to join the inner circle of the Mahāyāna (be it Prajñāpāramitā, Ekayāna, or whatever). The idea of "higher teachings" or that Mahāyāna teachings are inherently superior are still to be found amongst Buddhists (just log into the Buddhist thread on Reddit for examples). 

Of course, we hope that somewhere in all that confusion that some of the adepts have had the kind of experiences we seek to have. That someone somewhere is released from that which plagues us, or that someone has, in some way, lived up to the hype. And that somehow they can communicate that experience to us in a way that will whisk us to nirvāṇa without passing Go. But, as far as I can see, there is no substitute for decades of practice. The Buddhists I admire are the ones who have been tempered by years of intense practice. In the end, there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance. I might be accused of being a Protestant for taking this line, and perhaps that is true. I certainly grew up in a broadly Protestant environment. However, life experience suggests to me that perseverance is amongst the most important human qualities.

A lot of nonsense is talked about Buddhism. To me, we have lost something essential if we give in to the notion that our religion doesn't need to make sense. Once we become tolerant of nonsense, then we stop being discerning when it comes to the distinction between sense and nonsense. If we are presented with information, or a "teaching" that doesn't make sense on face value, then we ought to keep asking questions until the idea dies a natural death or we find a way to make sense of it. For example, I find that, having taken on Sue Hamilton's idea that the Buddha was always talking about experience, many paradoxes are resolved.


  • Griffiths. Paul J. (1981) ‘Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists.’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4(2): 17-32.

07 March 2014

The Death of a Child: Moral Particularism in Early Buddhism?

Nepalese Boy: Herald Sun
One of the questions that have concerned philosophers throughout history is whether or not there are universal moral principles. Most Buddhists consider that the moral principles of Buddhism are universal. Moral training rules (śikṣāpada/sikkhāpada) and monastic etiquette (Vinaya) are some of the most characteristic features of Buddhism. 

Although we generally see Buddhism as presenting general moral principles, in this essay I'm going to argue that there is at least an element of moral particularism in the Pāli texts. In the extreme this view says that morality is not about the application of moral principles and that, in fact, there are no universally applicable moral principles. Moral generalists argue that the same principles apply to the same situations all the time. A moral particularist denies this. For example we might say that because something is against the law that there is reason not to do it. But others will say that breaking the same law is a duty.

An interesting contemporary example is the case of Edward Snowden. Snowden was legally and contractually obliged to keep the secrets of the NSA secret. However because the NSA appeared to be breaking the law, and because he got no positive response through legally available channels, he decided that he must break the law and his contract. He stole documents, released them to the news media, and fled the country. For some people the ends do not justify the means. Snowden is simply a criminal who has broken the law and possibly harmed his country. Others see his broken promises as necessitated by the criminal activity of the NSA. Some people see moral rules as always applicable, while others see that each situation is unique. 

Buddhist ethics are spelled out in stories. Most people find it easier to understand a moral principle if they can relate it to through seeing people interact, whether in life or in imagination. This may be the reason that the Jātakas became the main vehicle for teaching ethics in Theravāda Buddhism. Below I very briefly outline three stories in which the moral problem is the same in each case - coming to terms with the death of a child. If there are universally applicable moral principles then we would expect responses to similar situations to be similar. If there are no universally applicable moral principles then we would expect the responses to be different in each case.  

Buddhists probably know the story of Kisā Gotamī and her dead baby. She takes the baby's corpse to the Buddha and asks his help for her "sick" baby. The Buddha says he can help, but only if Kisā can obtain some mustard seed from a house where no one has ever died. After traipsing around the town, Kisā cannot find a house where no one has died and comes to accept the fact that her baby has died, and that humans all die. The moral message is that death comes to all of us and not losing our heads when death takes our loved ones is an essential skill for a good life - because death always comes, and as one of my mentors once said, death is never convenient. The fact that Kisā is so attached to her child that she goes mad when it dies is not criticised.

By contrast in the Piyajātika Sutta (MN 87) the Buddha meets an unnamed man whose son has died and is beside himself. In Indian literature the unnamed person in examples like this is often called Devadatta:  it's the equivalent of "Joe Bloggs". So that's what we'll call him. Devadatta is walking the streets, dishevelled and unhinged calling out "my only son, where are you?" The Buddha simply tells the man, "That's just how it is, those we love cause us all kinds of grief and misery" (Evameva gahapati, piyajātikā hi gahapati , soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass[a]-upāyāsā piyappabhavikā 'ti) and he leaves it at that. The Buddha goes on his way but the Devadatta thinks that the Buddha has got it all wrong. Like most people he thinks that the people we love, especially our children, are a source of happiness. Devadatta seeks solace with gamblers, who represent the worst aspects of society, and they quickly confirm his view that the Buddha has it all wrong. King Pasenadi hears about the exchange and is rather disconcerted by this apparent callousness in the face of death. Pasenadi inquires of his wife, Queen Mallikā, whether the story is true and when she confirms it they discuss the implications together. In a set piece discussion, then deduce that those we love really are a source of all kinds of misery and that it is marvellous how insightful the Buddha is. In the end the shock of the initial rejection, which so strongly contrasts with the Buddha's reaction to Kisā Gotamī, is worked out to some extent, but the story remains unsettling to anyone who loves someone and does not want them to die.

The third story is generally also well known, but not for the particular aspect I will highlight here. I've covered it in writing about the saccakiriyā or "truth act" and it involves the Buddha intervening in the difficult, potentially fatal birth of a child, by giving Aṅgulimāla a magic spell to recite. Here the almost fatalistic acceptance of death is seen in a new light. In this story the magic of the saccakriyā or truth act is used to ensure mother and baby don't die in childbirth. The Buddha intervenes to prevent their death. The implication here is that their death was unsettling to Aṅgulimāla and the Buddha simply enabled him to do something about it.

So here we have three distinct attitudes to the death of a child: 
  1. gentle coxing towards the acceptance of the universality of death; 
  2. fatalistic acceptance that love implies attachment and that attachment brings suffering; 
  3. the use of taboo means (i.e. magic) to avoid the death of mother and child. 
Now clearly these stories are not precisely the same. The comparison between the cases of Kisā and Devadatta is striking. In one the Buddha is portrayed as kind and compassionate. He takes time and effort to help Kisā to understand. Devadatta however is simply left with the barest of factual accounts: "C'est la vie" (Evameva). We suspect that the case of Devadatta was inexpertly composed to provide a frame for the discussion between Pasenadi and Mallikā. It provides them with the stimulus to consider the consequences of familial love and attachment in a way that is far more sympathetic than the frame story. But because the story is canonical we must consider that at some point some early Buddhists thought this a plausible enough depiction of the Buddha dealing with a distraught grieving father to compose and preserve it. On the face of it the Buddha fails to help Devadatta and appears rather callous.

Of course death is inevitable. For any self-aware living being this knowledge is terrible. As living beings we desire continued life above all things. So the irresistible force of life meets the immovable object of death and, in the cases of Kisā and Devadatta, the result is madness. In one case the madness is cured and in the other it is not. But in the case of Aṅgulimāla the prospect of death is put off by the use of magic. Buddhist texts are rather ambivalent about magic. Some miracles are performed by the Buddha and form an important aspect of his hagiographies: the so-called "twin miracles" or the conversion of the Kassapa brothers at Uruvela are two examples. And yet in other places the monks are forbidden to use magic, and in another the Buddha denies rumours that he is (simply) a wizard.

My point here is that there does not seem to be a moral principle which applies in each case. Sometimes one can use magic and other times not, with no discernible pattern, Sometimes the Buddha takes extraordinary care of a grieving parent and other times he simply says "C'est la vie". These stories taken together seem represent at least some level of moral particularism. We can deduce from these stories that early Buddhists did not see behaviour simply in terms of general moral principles, but allowed for different responses to seemingly similar situations depending on factors which are not preserved in the stories themselves.


A very good introduction to the subject of moral particularism can be found in this interview with Jonathan Dancy on Philosophy Bites. [Thanks to Dhīvan for pointing this out]. 
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