26 September 2014

The Nature of Reality?

The purpose of #meditation is to cultivate a mind that is a suitable instrument to discover the ultimate nature of reality. #buddhism— Culadasa (@Culadasa)
September 6, 2014 (Twitter)

We're still selling Buddhism in terms of absolutes. We're still telling people that if they want to discover "the ultimate nature of reality" then we can help them with that. I used to go along with this kind of hyperbolic rhetoric, but a few years ago I started asking what it meant and realised that not only did it not mean anything much, but that early Buddhist texts were replete with arguments against absolutes of this type. Indeed the idea of selling Buddhism as a way to discover the "ultimate nature of reality" is specifically parodied most obviously in the Tevijja Sutta (compare my paraphrase of part of the text).

The persistence of this way of talking about what we Buddhists do and what we seek is interesting. Anyone who wants to argue that Buddhism is not a religion needs to take a long look at this promise of absolute knowledge. It has a distinctively religious feeling to it. So what is the problem with this? I will draw on two sources for my critique: conversations with meditators who appear to have considerable experience of insight; and Buddhist texts.


We need to pay close attention to what deep practitioners say when discussing the effects of Buddhists practices. Those who have the most experience of putting Buddhism into practice are our best source of information on what it feels like to practice Buddhism. Serious meditators I know talk about the insights they gain in a fairly consistent way. And at the outset I would say that none of them talk about their experience in terms of discovering the nature of reality.

In meditation we observe our mind at work. In other words we observe experience. There seem to be several kinds of insight: insights into impermanence of experience generally; insights into impermanence of the experience of being a self; and insights that pertain to the apparent subject/object duality of experience.

I know many people on meditation retreats report periods where they lose their sense of self altogether. One sees a flower and has no sense: "I am seeing a flower." The experience of seeing the flower seems to be without a particular point of view or evaluation. There is just a flower and seeing. I've had glimpses of this kind of perception myself, so I trust the people that report it in far more depth. It's also widely described in other contexts - particularly by Jill Bolte Taylor describing her experience of having a stroke.

One of my teachers explained to me, from his own meditation experience, that the subject/object duality that characterises experience is not native to experience, but imposed on it. However, when we were talking about this recently I observed that this did not affect certain physical facts. Breaking down the subject/object duality for example did not affect his field of view: he could not see what I was seeing through my eyes, because his own eyes were facing in a different direction. I could see what was behind him and he could not. Thus even at this quite deep level of realisation there are still limitations on experience that insight does not erase. Physics, in effect, still applies. It's just that what comes in through the eyes is experienced in a radically different way because something in.

Thus it seems to me that even those who are gaining insights through meditation are not gaining insights into reality per se, not as we usually define reality anyway. They are not gaining insights into the nature of objects, or a world, independent of an observing mind; nor (even) are they gaining insight into the nature of the observing mind. They are not gaining insights into an underlying substrate upon which objects depend either. At least this is not what meditators talk about. The shift in perspective seems to produce insights into the nature of experience. This is exactly what we'd expect from studying early Buddhist texts, so let's look at them next.

Scholars & Texts.

There's a simple question it's important for Buddhists to ask.
Where does reality come in the skandhas?
Traditional narratives tell us the skandhas are everything. So is reality form? Is it sensation? Perception? Intention? Cognition? Is it in a combination of some or all of the skandhas? If reality is something we can gain insight into, if insight into reality is the goal we aim at, then we ought to be able to understand reality in terms of the skandhas. Or if not the skandhas then perhaps the āyatanas - the āyatanas are also said to be everything (Sabba Sutta). However I've yet to see any description of reality in terms of the skandhas. It's hard to see how the idea of reality, as we usually meet it, is compatible with the skandhas

Reality is a word that implies something real. And as we know (or any of my readers ought to know by now) there are a number of critiques of the very notion of 'real'. I usually go back to the Kātyāyana Sūtra (which I've studied in Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions). With respect to "the world" (loka), however we understand that word, reality (astitā) and unreality (nāstitā) don't apply. They don't apply because when we examine the world we see arising (samudaya) and cessation (nirodha). Reality is denied by cessation. Nothing that can go out of being can be considered real in this view. Unreality is denied by arising. Nothing can come into being if it is unreal. Even a cursory exploration of experience shows us experiences constantly arising and passing away. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: 394, n.182)
What about nibbāna? Isn't nibbāna associated with seeing reality? There are a number of "seeings" that are associated with nibbāna. And here seeing is a metaphor for knowing, since Indic languages have the same metaphor as we do in English: see what I mean? During his nibbāna the Buddha is said to have seen his own past lives and how they played out according to karma. And he saw the past lives of all beings doing the same. Lastly he saw the extinction of the āsavas in himself (i.e. the desire for sense pleasure, the desire for eternal being, wrong-views about experience and ignorance about the nature of experience).

The beginning of insight is labelled yathābhūta-jñānadarśana. Sometimes people take yathābhūta as consistent with reality. The word is etymologically a bit vague: bhūta is a past participle of 'to be'. I've tried to explore what it means, but taken in context there's no reason to suppose it means 'reality'. When we translated it as "things as they are" it's important to ask what is meant by "things". My first inclination these days is to answer "mental events". To talk about the "reality" of mental events is something we already know that early Buddhists thought was unhelpful. Reality and unreality don't apply.

One might also gain knowledge of vimukti - liberation from the three akusalamūlaraga, dosa and moha. Or knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (kāma, bhāva, diṭṭhi, and avijjā). But we can hardly translate this into reality. The three unskilful roots or their opposites are hardly reality. They are mental events. As are the āsavas. So in these traditional accounts of nibbāna one is having insights into one's own mental events and processes.  And in fact this is exactly the way that present day meditators describe their breakthroughs as well. There is a great deal of consistency between the two sources of information.

The criticism in the Tevijjā Sutta is extremely apposite here. In the text Brahmins are portrayed as teaching the way to the state of "companionship with God" (brahmasahāvyatā). But on questioning none of the Brahmins or their teachers had ever known this state for themselves. And the basic principle is that one cannot teach what one does not know. The Buddha stands them on their heads by saying the he does know, and Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought) has read this as a sophisticated shift in levels referring to the brahmavihāra meditations. Cf. the Mettā Sutta. In other words the Buddha substitutes the Brahmanical goal of literally dwelling with God in heaven after death and the appropriate funeral rituals (including cremation), for the Buddhist meditations in which one suffuses the directions with positive emotions. A literal reading of brahmasahāvyatā would allow for no return in any case - like nibbāna it was a way off the wheel of birth and death (though note that Mahāyāna practitioners did not allow the Buddha to escape, but forced him to return as saviour, which constituted a major departure from early Buddhism). The Buddha was consistent in that he could teach something he knew, but he was being ironic in related brahmavihāra with brahmasahāvyatā - the two words are close synonyms but are used entirely differently in the two religious milieus. 

I've never met a meditator who had personal knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality. Even those people with deep insight simply don't talk in those terms unless they slip into repeating dogma - its not the natural language of insight. 


In order to make Culadasas's axiom consistent with early(ish) Buddhist philosophy we'd need to rephrase it along these lines:

The purpose of meditation is to cultivate a mind that is
a suitable instrument to discover the nature of experience.

Discovering the ultimate nature of reality is not the purpose of meditation, or at least it wasn't traditionally. It is not what meditation is good for in practice, in the sense that meditators don't report knowledge of the nature of reality. What's worse is that when Buddhists do start to talk about the nature of reality they very often have obviously naive views that are rooted in reading certain types of books, rather than being grounded in experience. Or they expound the nature of reality in one breath and then tell us that reality is ineffable in the next (which is simple confusion). There are more interesting discussions of how the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda might describe reality, but it's been a few years since I found this kind of discussion compelling. The resultant reality is far too vaguely defined, ambiguous and poorly understood to be of much use to anyone. It's better to refrain from treating pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything and apply it in the domain of experience where it makes most sense.

Reality is not something that meditation is going to help with. Meditation is ways about exploring experience and/or cultivating experiences. So often the Buddha is supposed to have said: I teach suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to end suffering. That's it. 

While I've explored the drift of Buddhist thought into the realms of ontology - of reality, what exists etc - in various essays now, I'm confident that, over the course of Buddhist thought, the methods and what they were capable of hardly changed at all (except for once when tantric practice emerged - but event that can be understood in terms of older paradigms with some thought). Of course Buddhist narratives did get caught up with ontological thinking and I expect that a closer examination would show that ideas about 'reality' emerged only once the concept of reality was admitted. This is certainly the drift of the changes wrought in response to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. And what happened was the doctrine decohered from practice for a time. 

Probably the horrendous fudge of the Two Truths helped to bring the idea of a paramatha-dhātu or -loka into being. When you combine ontological thinking with notions of parama it's probably inevitable. It's one of the reasons I disparage the Two Truths doctrine - it facilitates wrong views. I don't think it had any significance in the first 1000 years of Buddhism, but of course that still leaves it with a long history.

What we look for in the long term is a strong coherence between Buddhist practice and doctrine; in fact we look for doctrine yoked to and driven by practice. When that is missing we are due for reform. 


19 September 2014

Cemetery Practice

The city of Cambridge is old. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1208, but the town dates from centuries earlier. We have the remains of a motte & bailey castle overlooking the town. It was built in 1068 just two years after the Norman conquest. But in fact there are Iron Age settlements in the neighbourhood that are around 3500 years old. This is around the time the earliest Indian texts were composed. Romans and Saxons also lived here at different times. Cambridge was under the Danelaw in the 9th century. 

I grew up in New Zealand where human occupation is thought to have begun ca 1000 CE with the arrival of the first Pacific Islanders, probably from what are now known as the Cook Islands. European's began arriving some centuries later beginning with Abel Tasman from Zeeland, Holland (hence the name), and followed by James Cook from Britain. Most of the evidence of human occupation of New Zealand is only a century or two old. Down the road from me in Cambridge is a church built when the Māori were washing up on the shores of New Zealand. 

In New Zealand we think 100 years is a long time. In Britain we live with much longer roots into the past. But we also have reminders of transiency. Some of the most evocative of these are the various cemeteries dotted around. In Britain each church parish had their own cemetery, though some, like the one I'm going to discuss, were shared between parishes. Many of these are now closed, full of the dead, and are slowly being turned into parks. Even headstones moulder given centuries. I particularly enjoy Mill Rd Cemetery. It's quite large and in a quiet part of town so that one can sit there and have a sense of being isolated from the busyness and business of the city. There are many mature trees and smaller trees, shrubs, brambles (if you will eat berries that grow in a cemetery they are juicy and ripe at this time of year). 

grave markers of that time
are rather ostentatious
Mill Rd Cemetery was consecrated in 1848 and closed in 1949 and thus neatly spans the last century of the British Empire. By 1848 Britain was starting to become seriously wealthy on the back of the Empire, so many of the grave markers from that time are rather ostentatious by today's standards. And yet some stones are now so weathered that the names are unreadable. Acid-rain due to fumes from industry and motorised transport has ablated the sandstone headstones, though marble fairs better. A couple of events of savage vandalism damaged many gravestones. The cemetery is slowly giving way to nature. In fact the management of the cemetery are helping nature out by planting trees.

There are a number of paths through the cemetery. However, after some thought I realised that not all of them are official. Some of them are simply shortcuts that have been worn down by use. In fact in some cases the shortcuts go right over graves. When it rains all the paths flood. If there's a lot of rain people go around the puddles and walk new paths into the grass. Again these frequently go over and across graves with apparently no hesitation. These old graves are not as sacred as new graves, if they are sacred at all. I find this aspect of the cemetery troubling. But then after a few hundred years we treat graves as curiosities to dig up and examine. Where is that line in time?

Another aspect for contemplation is that the cemetery regularly attracts groups of homeless people and/or alcoholics. In dry weather it's a pleasant place to spend time. And often-times people sleep out under the bushes in out of the way places. At one point a regular colony became established. But this is Cambridge and such things are not tolerated here, so they were moved on. Watching these people, whose lives and health are wrecked by drugs, alcohol, or fate, is salutary. I dare not stare for fear of inviting confrontation, but I do think that I could so easily have ended up amongst them. I gave up alcohol more than 20 years ago, before it wrecked my life, but had I waited a little longer it might have done a great deal more damage than it did. Both my grandfathers and at least one of my great-grandfathers were alcoholics. One of my uncles died of an accidental morphine overdose, another was a junky who died from a stab wound to his cirrhotic liver that a healthy man would have survived. There are other addicts in the family. I'm not so different from the dishevelled and unwashed street-people drinking their cheap, ultra-strong beer for breakfast. Having shouted conversations, not comprehending or caring. 

Descendants have
forgotten their ancestors.
But what really strikes me about the graves in Mill Rd Cemetery is that except for one or two, none are tended, kept clear of weeds or offered flowers. Descendants have forgotten their ancestors. And this in a town with more than averagely memorable people. Even holding relatively high office in the town is no guarantee of being remembered. Two or three generations after we die we'll, most of us, be forgotten. We think all the stuff we're doing today is so important. But most of it leaves no lasting impact on the universe. Even if we do manage to pass on our genes, our families forget us. We cease to exist even in memory. History has a very bad memory. Most of what we think of as important today is entirely inconsequential in the long view. All those decisions we agonise over for hours, days and months, they won't be given a moments thought in fifty years. Even if we have kids, our graves will go untended. Our cemetery will eventually be closed and turned into a park. Vandals or acid rain will destroy our modest headstones. People will casually walk over our graves to save a few minutes or avoid a rain-filled puddle.

So the question I find myself asking is this. "What will be my legacy?" OK I've written some books and they are in libraries. But they're printed on acid paper and won't last more than a century. And there were only ever a few dozen copies of each. Perhaps Google will leave this blog to stand for years after I die and stop updating it? Who knows? Maybe they'll start deleting cob-websites after a period of inactivity to save a little bit of money? In fifty years it's not going to matter much. Maybe my academic publications will have a longer life (if I ever get my Heart Sutra material published it might last a century). 

Does it make sense to even think in terms of legacy in this light? And if not legacy, then on what standard do we assess the value of our lives. One can see how life after death holds it's appeal for the majority of people. Or should we adopt the YOLO "live in the moment" maxim? In its hedonistic or contemplative aspects. My experience suggests that moments are only bearable if we know they're going to end. One has to have a longer perspective than just one moment in order for any given moment to be tolerable. In the moment, one is utterly alone. In perspective one is intimately connected. If in the long term we don't make a difference or matter, then perhaps in the short term we matter to the extent we experience our connectivity? Being in a dynamic web of relations is fundamental to being human, perhaps it is the ultimate source of meaning also? 

I don't have answers to these questions and I've become distrustful of people who have easy answers. It seems to me that perhaps contemplating such things is a value in itself without ever coming to an end point. If I ask myself these questions then at least I'm not stumbling blindly through my life with no sense what why I do anything. And one gets the sense that so many people are blind. 

So I continue to visit the cemetery. I sit and enjoy the environment, read, drink ginger beer, watch the people, think about the dead, and wonder about my place in the universe. It's hardly the ancient cremation ground practice, but it seems much better than a church or temple as a place for contemplation (weather permitting).


Pics from Mill Rd, Cemetery.
I enjoy Fentimans and Fever Tree ginger beer. Ginger beer, especially these fairly dry varieties, is a great alternative to alcoholic drinks for those who still like the feel of a bottle in their hand. If more of us drink it, the shops & pubs will stock it. Give it a go.

12 September 2014

Living in a Non-Utopian Universe

Garden of Eden
Hieronymus Bosch
Recently I copped some abuse on Twitter because I disagreed with a tweet that, basically, argued that everyone is entitled to security no matter how risky their behaviour. Possibly what I'm about to write will earn me more disapprobation. This does worry me. Like most writers I crave approval. However it's an interesting area of ethics. Do we have a right to safety which is distinct from our duty to care for ourselves?

We live in a non-utopian universe. There are risks. I live in the beautiful and largely tranquil, City of Cambridge. On the whole the streets are safe, even at night. But I make a point of not going to certain places at night because there is a risk attached. There are some places I know where people have been attacked, where drug addicts congregate, or where I feel fear. I've never been physically attacked in Cambridge. I'm careful not to put myself in a situation where I might be, because when I was growing up I was repeatedly assaulted by other kids in my neighbourhood and I'd like to avoid a repeat. 

I'm not arguing that this is ideal or even OK. I don't like to feel afraid. I'd prefer to live in a world where people were all friendly (much more friendly than the average Cantabridgian!) but I don't. You don't. We don't. Most people reading this won't be living in a war zone, but there are people nearby who would rob us or hurt us for a variety of reasons. Even if we are actively trying to change this, it's a fact.

We live in a non-utopian universe. I envisage "utopian" here as a kind of analogue of Euclidean. Euclidean geometry is a special case of geometry that assumes a flat world. On a small enough scale the world approximates flatness so that Euclid's geometry is useful in the way that Newton's mechanics are useful. If you want to build a house, Euclid will do. If you want to circumnavigate the world in a yacht it won't do, you need spherical geometry (at least, though the earth is slightly oblate). There's a logic to Euclidean geometry and it works within artificially constrained frameworks, but it breaks down in any kind of bent universe. The real universe is non-utopian, in the way that real-world geometry is non-Euclidean. We can imagine a perfect world, even do geometry in it, but that does not make it real.

All actions have consequences. This is hardly rocket science. But it is something to keep in mind. In a non-utopian world actions also have risks attached. Some consequences are desirable and some not. For any given action there'll known consequences and unknown consequences; and each consequence will have a probability of occurring with respect to the action. In life we gamble on both good and bad consequences. Sometimes we play safe, sometimes we take risks. Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes not. Research suggests we're poor at gauging probabilities of outcomes, but even so it's still up to us to make the call. We decide.

There are two main issues: the risk and the risky behaviour. If I argue against the latter, it does not mean I endorse or enforce the former. It is terrible that everyone is at risk of being robbed or assaulted. But we live in a non-utopian universe. There's never been a time or place where anyone has lived without unfair risks. No one is, or has ever been, completely safe. If one can take reasonable precautions against the risk of assault that is realistic. It's not necessarily a capitulation to the criminal element. 

I've been assaulted many times, to the point where I have permanent psychological scars (and a badly healed broken arm). Not all the people who assaulted me years ago were male. A number of females joined in or initiated violence against me. But yes, on the whole men are more physically violent than women. The risk of being assaulted by a man are much higher. But the risk of being assaulted by any given man? I don't have statistics, but I've known very few men in my life who assaulted anyone, even counting a childhood full of violence. It was always a select few who were physically violent and everyone, men included, feared them. So I think we need to be cautious about assigning blame for the situation. Just blaming "men" for example, as many people do, doesn't help. All people are products of their upbringing to some extent. The fact of violence in society is complex. 

I had a number of insights on my ordination retreat in 2005. Often on sleepless nights I would walk up the valley to look at and talk to the stars. It was up there, late one night, that I let go all remaining hostility to the people who assaulted me in my childhood. My tormentors were the products of poverty, alcoholism, colonialism and racism and so on. I realised that I knew the fear and anger they experienced. I also knew that they were like that because they too were surrounded by frightened angry people. Being a target for their violence I never had any sense that I was privileged with respect to them, the main difference was that I was loved and cared for (though assaulted by members of my family at times also). We too were poor and working class; living in a rough neighbourhood of a small town with low educational standards; and we had low expectations of life. It was my mother who pulled us out of that milieu, inspired us to be educated and pursue our dreams. She came from a hellish background of abandonment and violent alcoholic adults, so where she got her aspirations I don't know. I think perhaps from the Church. In which case I'm grateful to the Church. I published the story of her early life if anyone is interested.

Today it makes me reflect on the risk of being assaulted. People are usually violent for a reason. They're usually the victims of violence, often from an early age. The fact that some people in my current city are violent is not because of sexism or testosterone or any of the glib arguments put forward by the kind of entitled modern feminists that I met on Twitter. A non-utopian society creates these people, fosters them, and fails to offer them alternatives. Whether it's too much effort, or too expensive, or we're ideologically opposed to helping people that won't help themselves, or whatever it is. Society has an underbelly because of the way that society operates. And we all participate in society. We all make it what it is.

The Utopian Universe. 

The utopian universe is supposed to be moral, it ought to take care of injustice and imbalances of various kinds and  automatically set things to right. In some ways Karma is the ultimate expression of this utopian ideal: it describes a cosmic balance unmediated by any agent human or supernatural. In the utopian universe, morality is or ought to be a zero-sum game. When Anubis weighs the heart of the dead against the feather of the law, that heart is either heavy or light and what happens subsequently is determined by which way the balance swings. 

In the olden days the olden people had agreements with the olden Gods. There was a quid pro quo. They offered sacrifice (we gave up something valuable) or got out-of-their-skulls on magic mushrooms or whatever and all agreed to follow God's rules (whatever they were imagined to be) and in return God would keep the seasons regular, send enough rain but not too much, keep us and our cattle free of disease, protect us from enemies (more on enemies in a minute), and generally give us our Daily Bread. Except God was a lousy provider. We got climate change; floods and droughts; we and our animals got sick; our enemies persistently attacked us; and everyone died sooner rather than later, often horrifically. God doesn't keep Her side of the bargain. When there were no scientists the failure of a bargain with God was not cause to reconsider the bargain. "It's not you, it's me," they'd say. "I did agree to follow the rules all of the time in the full knowledge that no-one follows all of the rules all of the time. Clearly if there is fault it is mine, and punishment is only just. Ebola virus? Well OK, it seems kinda harsh, but God must know what She's doing. 50% infant mortality? God must really love babies!"

In a utopian universe the harsh and unfair must balanced by the beautiful and fair. Rather than give up the belief we became schizoid. We split the World into two. Now & later. Here & there. Here, things are manifestly unfair. Most of the universe is inhospitable to life, and even the good parts are full of parasites and pathogens (the better the weather the worse the flies). Bad people prosper and good people flounder. But all moral debts are paid in the afterlife. It's there we find beauty and justice. 

The generalised archaic utopian religion lives on, but instead of buying it for a price, we demand it as a right. This sense of entitlement is a new game for humans. We have Rights, God damn it. We demand that we have Rights. And we also demand that we have these rights independently of whatever else we might do or not do. The Tweet I disagreed with was a demand for the right to security regardless of risky behaviour. It was a demand for the "authorities" to institute the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, but with no obedience or hegemony, no allegiance or quid pro quo.

"Rights" is also a capricious bulwark against the non-utopian universe. Like God, Rights tends to get distracted and allow terrible things to happen. The Rights of the rich and powerful tend to get more notice than the rights of the poor and oppressed. I may have a Right to live without fear of being robbed or have my arm broken, but that doesn't stop me being robbed and it certainly didn't stop me having my arm broken as a kid. 

Oh, Rights is a good thing in many ways. The UN declaration of Human Rights is enlightened in many ways. The values it expresses are admirable, they are my values. The actions taken on many fronts towards treating everyone with respect and ensuring they have food and shelter put God to shame, as She never did so much in all the Millennia of being worshipped. When we take pride in ourselves and take care of ourselves we do much better than God ever did.  

But the facts are these: we do not control the weather; we are still prone to disease; human enemies of various kinds still exist. Demanding our rights does not change this. Human enemies might include angry people; hungry people; people with compromised empathy; greedy people; powerful people (or some combination of all and more). Of course we can imagine a world in which no one wants to rob or assault us. The more so if we have been robbed and assaulted. But as the olden saying goes: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride". Whereas in fact "beggars can't be choosers". 

We live in a non-utopian universe. Some people find ways to shut out this fact. And they tell you that shutting it out in their particular way is a panacea. All the ills of the world don't even seem like ills if we adopt the position that ills are just a matter of perception. Or the ills of this world are cancelled out by infinite bliss on the other side. But there is no panacea. The things we think will cure all ills are thousands of years old and they have not yet cured all ills. 

After 100,000 years of religion most people are still unhappy most of the time (even the one's with digital watches). Indeed if people weren't unhappy, Buddhism would have almost no customers. Ergo? Ergo, religion (Buddhism) is not the way to institute Utopia. No way of thinking that accepts the definite possibility of a utopian universe ought to be taken seriously. The universe is not broken. It is what it is. It is non-utopian and independent of our values. Fixing the universe is not an option. In a non-utopian universe, morality is a non-zero sum game. There are winners and losers. Some of the winners are good by our values system and some are not. There are values, just no universal values. If we understand what the game of life is all about, maybe we can play it better? Except it's not really a game, now is it? Hunger is not abstract. Pain isn't just a concept.

The best I can do is take responsibility for my own actions. I'm not responsible for all men or the British Empire. I don't blame my family or my neighbourhood for my difficulties in life. There's no mileage in blaming anyone. I joined a Buddhist movement in part because as an individual I am weak and vulnerable. As a member of this collective I hope to make a difference in the world. I could have joined a political or ecological group, but, I joined a religious group. I've dedicated my life to participating as much as I can in the activities of this group and to helping them as best I can to making the world a better, safer, more harmonious place. But the universe is non-utopian. It's never going to be perfectly good, perfectly safe, or perfectly harmonious. Indeed, even a religious community is not always good, safe or harmonious. 


05 September 2014

The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism.

Endosymbiosis according
to Lynn Margulis.
There have been some watershed events in the history of evolution theory. The discovery of fossils. Darwin and Wallace's insights into natural selection. The discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Crick, Watson, Franklin and Wilkins. To this list I would add the discovery of endosymbiosis. Unfortunately there hasn't yet been a defining moment in the study of epigenetics, but it ought to be represented too. We're still waiting for a decisive breakthrough in biogenesis - how life got started in the first place, but it will also be a watershed when it comes.

It's Endosymbiosis I want focus on in this essay. Endo means 'internal' and symbiosis means 'living together' and the compound refers to the fact that each of our cells is in fact a community of bacterial cells living together. This idea was first floated in the early 20th Century by a Russian scientist, Konstantin Mereschkowski. His observation concerned the green parts of plants. Seen under a microscope the plant resolves into uncoloured structures which support small green pills called Chloroplasts. These are very similar to cyanobacteria or blue-green algae and he conjectured that their might be a relationship. In the 1920s another scientist named Ivan Wallin made a similar identification between mitochondria (the oxygen processing parts of our cells) and other kinds of free living bacteria.

However the watershed event for endosymbiosis was the publication, after considerable difficulty with the establishment journals, of this paper:
Sagan, Lynn. (1967) 'On the origin of mitosing cells.' Journal of Theoretical Biology. 14(3) March: 225–274, IN1–IN6. DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3
This rightly famous paper is now copied online in many places. Lynn Margulis had married Carl Sagan young and subsequently reverted to her maiden name for most of her career. So we'll call her Margulis, even though she was Sagan at the time. Incidentally Margulis was a collaborator with James Lovelock and a major contributor to the Gaia Hypothesis. 

Margulis's mature theory goes like this. The first cells were bacterial. They had no nucleus, DNA in loops that could be shared with any other bacteria, reproduced by simple division, and no internal organelles with membranes. Bacteria are able to live in colonies with loosely symbiotic relationships, some are multicellular through their life cycle, but at some point one bacteria engulfed another, or one invaded the cell of another, and the result was not digestion or infection but symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship with one bacteria living inside another. Margulis argues that the complex cells of all plants and animals (called eukaryote) are the result of at least three symbiosis events in the past, with the photosynthesising chloroplasts of plants being a fourth. The resulting eukaryote cells are large, have a nucleus and other internally bounded organelles (particularly mitochondria) and reproduce sexually (they divide their DNA and allow it to recombine with half the DNA of another individual to produce variety). Eukaryote cells don't just form colonies, but collectively form multicellular organisms with a high degree of morphological specialisation.

The paper by Margulis led to the theory of endosymbiosis finding a firm footing and eventually to the idea being included in biology textbooks. However the establishment was and to some extent still are reluctant to follow up the implications of this discovery. NeoDarwinians treat Endosymbiosis as a one-off event 3 or 4 billion years ago with little relevant to evolution in the present.

But consider this. Every sperm is very like two kinds of organism. On one hand they are like certain type of motile bacteria with a single flagellum (a rotating 'tail') that propels them through the liquid environment. On the other hand a sperm is rather like a virus, which Margulis conceived of as a bacteria from which almost all the biological functionality had been stripped out: a virus is nuclear material with a basic mechanism to inject it into the host cell. A sperm travels to its target like a motile bacteria. When it meets an ovum it bonds with the outer surface and injects its DNA into the egg, like a virus. That DNA is transported to the nucleus to form a complete set of chromosomes and the cell is "fertilised". It begins to grow and divide almost immediately. Sperm are also unusual in that production of them requires lower temperatures than any other cell type - we males have to maintain a separate cooler environment for sperm production. So part of the complex human life-cycle is lived as a cross between a motile bacteria and a virus which prefers cooler temperatures. Each fertilisation event is an example of Endosymbiosis. If we don't have endosymbiosis at the forefront of our minds, we cannot understand the basics of reproduction.

Endosymbiosis is the most significant event in the history of evolution since life began. It ought to inform one of the fundamental metaphors for how we understand our universe, but instead we have competition, selfishness and treat the predator as totem. I hate to say this, but it all sounds a bit masculine, don't you think? We we might just have easily focussed on the combinative, symbiotic, collective aspects of life. So why don't we? 

Evolution and Empire.

Margulis speculated in interviews that the reason her idea was so difficult to get published and the establishment was so reluctant to take it seriously, was to do with Victorian attitudes amongst the mainstream (mainly male) proponents of evolutionary theory. The maxim of evolution is "survival of the fittest", coined by Herbert Spencer and adopted by Darwin in later editions of On the Origin of Species. By this Darwin apparently meant "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life" (Darwin Correspondence Project). In this section I want to look at the historical context for this maxim.

Britain and various European powers had fought repeated wars over many centuries, but with the opening up of Asia and the Americas, trade was making Europe seriously wealthy at the expense of their colonies. The British, perhaps more so even than their European neighbours, developed a sense of superiority. The decisive battles involved in defeating Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century left Britain in almost total control of the world's sea lanes and trade routes. This cemented a victory in the long running trade wars between expanding European Empires and accelerated the growth of wealth in the UK. Investment money poured into technological innovations that turned the industrial tinkering into the the Industrial Revolution. The great symbol of the British Empire is found in Trafalgar Square in London. There Admiral Nelson is celebrated by a very ostentatious, and very costly monument: a statue set on a towering column supported by four enormous bronze lions. Less obvious are the aisles of St Paul's Cathedral which are lined with statues of military heroes rather than saints, something that shocked me when I first arrived in this country but now makes perfect sense: church, mercantile sector, state and military are all aligned here.

Darwin, Spenser and a previous generation of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (father of utilitarianism) and Adam Smith (humans primary motivation is self-interest) were writing at a time when Britain was the world's only super-power and it was busily using that advantage to exploit the entire world for individual profit. Even the peasants of England were exploited. The newly rich forced the enclosure of common lands for example, in order to both become more wealthy, but also to keep pressure on peasants to stop them revolting. Britain was, and to a great extent still is, a deeply hierarchical society dominated by a few wealthy and powerful families. Everyone is expected to play the social role they were born into, though anyone can aspire to be middle class these days because that threatens no one (except some of the middle class).

Back in the 19th Century Charles Dickens chronicled this way of life and the baleful influence it had on the less fortunate. Another contemporary, Karl Marx, saw the system for what it was and wanted to completely replace it. What has changed since Dickens and Marx is the rise of the middle class: a class of people whose main function is to manage and facilitate the wealth making activities of the wealthy. They do so in exchange for lives of relative comfort and security (compared to the poor) but seldom make enough money to escape the need to work for a salary for the best part of their adult lives. Averages salaries are about 1% of the earnings of their company's CEO and a tiny fraction of the actual profits of the company. Religion is still the opium of the people, but the middle classes oversee the production of the empty calories and mindless entertainment that are the crack cocaine of the people. 

Thus for members of the landed gentry, such as Spenser and Darwin, it was only natural that they subscribed to the theory that nature favoured some members of a species above others. Some were destined to succeed and dominate the herd. It was at heart a notion that justified their position both in British society and the dominance of the British internationally. They and their whole class saw themselves as the fittest to rule. This attitude persists in Britain and is on open display in today's government. The members of government have hereditary privilege and wealth and often title as well. They see themselves as the natural leaders and arbiters of morality. In other words there is a political dimension to Darwin's ideas. We cannot understand the development of mainstream science of evolution without understanding this political dimension. 

A key NeoDarwinian figure like Richard Dawkins is very much a product of the British class system: born to a Civil Servant father who administered a colony (Kenya); educated in a private school, followed by Balliol College, Oxford University; eventually becoming a "Don" at Oxford. There's no doubt that the boy was bright, but he was a member of a privileged class and as such had opportunities no ordinary British person would have, even now. And the vision of his class is basically the Victorian one. The Selfish Gene is essentially the Victorian gentleman's values expressed as an ideological view of genetics. Dawkins repeated says that the Selfish Gene is only a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for, even an apology for, the values of the British upper-classes as much as it is a metaphor for evolution. We can see that being enacted even today in the policies of conservative governments. Dawkins basically recapitulates Adam Smith's idea that each individual striving for their own benefit is the best way to benefit society. He even argues that this is the best way to understand altruism!

Compare Adam Smith
"Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 1776
With Richard Dawkins:
"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. " The Selfish Gene. 1976.
Coming in the late 1970s the conception of The Selfish Gene coincides with the rise of the new political and economic ideologies of the Right: the new libertarianism, that deprecates government's role in society and says it's every man for himself. Neolibertarians distrust government and believe an abstraction called "the market" can mediate and arbitrate the price of everything (including political and white-collar corruption). This is erroneously called Neoliberalism, but there is nothing liberal about it. Three years later Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister of the UK and began transforming society with this same metaphor in mind. Stripping away anything which put the breaks on the profit making activities of business people or the need for them to contribute to society beyond paying the lowest possible wages to their staff. Her successors, including the New Labour Party, have gone much further: NLP removed credit controls allowing the largest amount of private debt in recorded history to build up (topping 500% of GDP in the UK ca. 2008) so that when bust inevitably followed boom, it was arguably the worst in recorded history. The present government are slowly dismantling the welfare state by selling off provision of services to the private sector where they themselves are major investors (in any sane society this would count as corruption). Meanwhile vast amounts of taxes go unpaid, and the wealthy are helped with the process of insulating themselves from social responsibility by shoddy laws enacted by their peers in government and corrupt administrators.

Dawkins and Darwin must be seen in their political landscape. Must be seen as active participants in both shaping and justifying the ideology of the ruling classes, at least in Britain. Seeing things clearly is part of waking up.

Each year we discover more and more about the role of symbiosis in speciation, in the effective working of our gut, in evolution generally. And not just symbiosis, but cooperation more generally, and related events like hybridisation.  All of these make a mockery of the Selfish Gene metaphor because everywhere we look things only work at all when they work together. Where Dawkins saw altruism as rare, it is in fact ubiquitous. Where Dawkins saw genes only working for the benefit of similar genes, in symbiogensis and symbiosis completely unrelated genes benefit each other. Genes are in fact very generous. 

In fact there's no level of organisation in which the part can function independently from the whole. A gene requires a genome; a genome requires a population; a population requires an ecosystem. The dependency is not mere abstraction, it's an absolute. For example, the cell is a product of its genome as a whole (including epigenetic factors) and without the cell the gene can neither survive nor function. This is not to say that there is no competition or no examples of self-interested behaviour. But it is to question the pivotal role given to metaphors involving selfish individuals pursuing self-interested goals benefiting the whole, especially when generally speaking. It is to question what is a self in the first place. When what we think of as a "self" is in fact a community, what does selfish even mean?

The Values of Modernist Buddhism

The self-justificatory Victorian metaphor runs very deep in British society. And is generally quite popular at the moment, because the USA is inventing stories to justify its position in the world: the self-declared champion of freedom. The idea that the vision of nature put forward by ideological zealots, steeped in the politics of Libertarianism, is the only possible view is beyond a joke. It's a tragedy. At present it is being used to justify exploiting working people throughout the first world to pay off debts incurred by corrupt bankers and their political facilitators. The effect in the developing world is often akin to slavery. The every-man-for-himself and no-holds-barred approach was supposed to allow wealth to accumulate across the society, through "trickle down economics", but in fact it just meant that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Wealth is being funnelled up to the wealthy. This happens because given free reign, greed forces wage-earners to work longer for less money. Neolibertarians only see staff as an expense that sucks money out of the pockets of shareholders: a line item to be minimised. People don't matter to them.

More than any other area of science I know of, the science of evolution reflects politics and in particular the political values of the Right. As George Lakoff has wryly observed, the Right have not only been setting the political agenda for the last 4 or 5 decades, they have been cunningly using language to frame and control the political discourse for everyone. I fear we may be seeing an end to the liberal experiment, to the spirit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

This critique, if you believe it, has much wider implications. The idea of creating a world that might be consistent with Buddhist values is at present losing ground. Survival of the fittest, as envisaged by the wealthy elite, is driving us backwards. A survey of Buddhist countries offers no great insights and no models for emulation (unless we fancy the brainwashed peasantry of Bhutan). While I do not agree that Modern Buddhists are necessarily complicit in and facilitating this situation (Slavoj Žižek strikes me as a fatuous pseudo-intellectual), I am not seeing the clarity of economic and political thinking from Buddhist leaders that might make a difference. Because of this deficit I see Buddhists engaged in activities, which, while in themselves are admirable enough, are entirely ineffectual and insufficient to make a significant difference to the status quo. We continue to reach 100s of people each year in countries with populations of 10s or 100s of millions. Of those 100s the vast majority are middle-aged and middle class and none at all are of the ruling classes. Indeed as Westerners have begun to take Buddhism more seriously, the Western world has taken substantial steps away from our values because legislators and businessmen are now one and the same. That was the revolution. It was not televised. The rule of the business people, for the business people, by the business people. The only Buddhists challenging this at present are those taking mindfulness into the corporate and political arenas and they seem to get nothing but flack from other Buddhists.

At present our Buddhist leaders tend to be introspective and politically naive meditation teachers. Our organisations are headed by introverts who fail to be outward looking enough to properly engage in politics let alone effective organisational communication. We have great difficulty managing the politics of our own organisations, let alone getting engaged with the world in a united way.

Modern Buddhists generally have a tendency to disengage from worldly events and distance themselves from politics. We still draw heavily on the baby-boomer counter-culture ethos that sat back and let the Neolibertarians take over. In this we are quite unlike our monastic antecedents. Buddhist monks were sometimes so wealthy and so heavily involved in politics that they virtually ran empires. Sometimes the conflict between monks and bureaucrats spilled over into open war, in which the monks usually lost out. Obviously some kind of middle-way would be preferable.

We Buddhists need to get up to speed with economic and political critiques and to get involved in public discourse. We need to understand the metaphors that underpin modern life, where they originate, how pervasive they are, and develop strategies to effectively counter them where necessary. At present all the major political parties have bought into Neolibertarian ideology to some extent and it is inimical to our values. Dropping out of the system does not change the system. It merely allows the system to change in ways beyond our influence. This is the lesson of the baby-boomer counter-culture approach.

It won't be easy. Most of us are middle-class and middle-aged already (80% of the Triratna Order are over 40 and I gather this is not unusual in Buddhist Groups). We're used to being able to do pretty much what we want in exchange for our functionary roles in the economy. We don't expect to lose our freedom of religion or our comfortable way of life. Or we're comfortable with dropped-out obscurity. We do worry about being able to sustain that comfort after we stop working. And since we live longer, our retirement lasts longer and decrepitude progresses much further before we die, meaning we have to put more effort into ensuring that comfort. We're hardly revolutionaries, though many of us like to think we are. With all due respect to my teachers, the counter-culture thing was never revolutionary because it hardly changed anything and in contrast to the rise of Neolibertarianism that happened at the same time, it was negligible. Contrast this with the aggressive engagement and success of the suffrage movement and its successors (though I sometimes blanch under the scorn of feminists, I support equal rights). There are models for changing the social landscape, and to-date we are too proud to follow any of them.

I'm not a Buddhist leader, nor do I have the ear of any Buddhist leaders. I know one or two influential people read this blog, but I'm not getting open endorsements or anything. The best I can hope for is to be an irritant. One of my intellectual mentors once asked "Of what use to me is a friend who is not a constant source of irritation?" (Richard P Hayes. Land of No Buddha, p.179). I've tended to paraphrase his conclusion as "a friend ought to be a constant source of irritation; but not a source of constant irritation." I hope to be a friend to Buddhists everywhere.


It so happens that George Lakoff  recently updated his book on political metaphors and framing political debates: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Due in shops mid September 2014. Worth a read if this kind of thing floats your boat. 
Related Posts with Thumbnails