27 November 2015


It was ten years ago yesterday that I started this blog. This is essay no.447. I was going to write a review and reminiscence of the years, but frankly this turned out to be a boring task that did not interest me. So here instead is another essay exploring Buddhist doctrines. It seems more relevant to celebrate ten years of writing by more writing in the inquisitive and skeptical mode that I hope characterises my project/object. 

We all have "Ah ha" moments. I enjoy it when some new piece of information lights up my mind and makes me reassess what I know. I'm lucky enough to have experienced this many times. There is a process of reorganising that goes on. In some cases, it can go on for years. One of these occurred for me in 2006. I was newly ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and went to attend some lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich at SOAS, in London. These later became a book, but hearing the professor talk us through the various arguments that he was making and having the opportunity to ask him questions at the end of each lecture was invaluable. I wish every non-fiction book I read came with 10 hours of the author talking about it and available to answer questions.

Now I realise that I was ignorant at the time and it is slightly embarrassing to admit this, but during one of the lectures Professor Gombrich said something about dharmas being the object of the manas or mind sense. As we know the early Buddhists saw cognition (vijñāna) as a function of this mind sense, as just as the eye sense (cakṣu-indriya) has form (rūpa) as its object (alambana), so the manas has dharmas as its object. I must have heard this at some stage, but for some reason it hadn't registered. When I heard Prof. Gombrich say it a light-bulb came on. To repeat: dharmas are the object of the manas. This is perhaps the single most important axiom of Buddhist doctrine that I know. It is vital to keep this in mind. 

Dharmas are the object of the manasIt is dharmas that arise in dependence on conditions. Conditionality, first and foremost, refers to this.
One of the first insights that came to me on the basis of gaining this understanding was that when we say "things arise in dependence on conditions", by "things" we actually mean dharmas. It is dharmas that arise and cease. Later, I realised that dharmas don't arise in the mind because Buddhist texts lack the metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER. Dharmas are cognized by the manas, but not in the manas. Dharmas arise in the experiential world, loka. This is a subtle point, but quite important when we are trying to understand the Buddhadharma from the point of view of early Buddhists.

The fact that it is dharmas qua mental objects that arise in dependence on conditions, rather than anything more substantial, is central to making sense of many other Buddhist teachings. For example, the trilakṣana or "three marks" apply to dharmas. In other words, when we say "All conditioned things are impermanent", again by "things" we mean dharmas. And dharmas are conditioned because they only arise when a sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) meet giving rise to sense cognition (vijñāna). And this brings us to the so-called unconditioned dharmas.

There is an experience one can have, relatively easily I gather, in which all sense experience and all mental experience stops. By cultivating the meditations known as arūpāyatana (sometimes called the higher- or arūpa- dhyānas) one comes to experience emptiness (suññatā) as it is defined in the Pāḷi Canon (see especially MN 121, 122). Compare also the Buddha's experience described in my 2008 essay Communicating the Dharma. As I understand it, if there is no sense or mental experience then technically no dharmas are arising or ceasing in this state. Mental activity (and therefore karma) has ceased while one is in this state. It is also sometimes called a "temporary liberation of the mind" (sāmāyika cetovimutti) to distinguish it from states of liberation that are thought to be permanent (I'll return to the issue of permance shortly). It may also be called nirodha-samāpatti "attainment of cessation", or  saññā-vedayita-nirodha "cessation of sensations and perceptions".

This experience of cessation threw up a major problem with Theravāda solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance. Linking actions to temporally distance consequences required an unbroken stream of mental events. But the most obvious interpretation of the experience of cessation is that dharmas stop arising. This would interrupt the connection and destroy the mechanism of karma. When they thought about it, sleep also posed the same problem. In order to preserve karma the Theravādins had to invent a whole new type of dharma called the bhavaṅgacitta that arose to fill the gap in mental events during cessation or sleep, but remained unconscious so as not to spoil cessation (by arising into awareness). Compare my description of this problem in Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda. Yogācārins, who also accepted the Doctrine of Momentariness as a solution to Action at a Temporal Distance also had to bridge this discontinuity. They did this with an invented entity called ālayavijñāna. Unlike the bhavaṅgcitta this new entity is constantly present in all mental events as a kind of background to awareness, a solution that brings its own problems because the ālayavijñāna starts to look eternal. Both bhavaṅgacitta and ālayavijñāna are ad hoc solutions solely designed to maintain continuity and neither really achieves their aim.

It seems to be this experience of cessation that unlocks the insights sought by Buddhists. Vedantins also cultivate these kinds of states and what seems to distinguish them from Buddhists is that Vedantins take the experience of emptiness to be an absolute. Or, they might say, that in a state of emptiness one is in contact with the absolute, with Brahman. By contrast, Buddhists, on the whole, reject absolutes except in one interesting case: asaṃskṛta-dharma.

Asaṃskṛta Dharma

In an almost hackneyed passage from the Udāna, the Buddha says:
atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. no cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha.
There is [something that is] unborn, unreal, unmade, unconditioned. If there were not, it would not be possible to understand escape from [something that is] born, real, made, conditioned. 
In Pāḷi the words jāta, bhūta, kata, and saṅkhata (born, real, made, conditioned) are all past participles acting as adjectives of something unspecified. The ambiguous nature of the sentence makes it perfect for Romantic projections, but very difficult to actually understand. Another related adjective is amata 'deathless' which is equivalent to ajāta, only focussing on the other aspect of repeated death and rebirth. Buddhists appear to have decided that the unspecified something being described here was a dharma, and that this dharma was nirvāna. But nirvāna cannot simply arise and pass away like other dharmas. So Buddhists said that nirvāṇa is not conditioned, i.e. asaṃskṛta (Pali asaṅkhata), which means that it does not, it cannot, arise and pass away. Clearly if nirvāna could cease, that would be a major problem for the mythology of Buddhism as it would make nirvāṇa a temporary experience like any other experience. Having attained, or obtained, nirvāṇa, a Buddha must always have it. In fact as my last essay points out this permanence itself became a problem for the Mahāyānist religion. 

But an asaṃskṛta dharma is really very deeply problematic. If there are no conditions for the arising of the dharma and we argue that it has been cognized by the Buddha, then it must always be present which in the Buddhist worldview means that it exists as a permanent entity. So already we have something eternal. However, eternality is forbidden by axiom. It is also logically inconsistent for any dharma to be eternal. That is simply not how our minds work. The importance of the insights into dharmas qua mental events, is that they are constantly arising and passing away. The Kaccānagotta Sutta points out that "real" or "unreal" (astitā or nāstitā) in this context are meaningless terms, precisely because a dharma that arises cannot be permanently non-existent and a dharma that ceases cannot be permanently existent. Neither permanent existence (i.e. realness) nor permanent non-existence can possibly apply to dharmas. And yet, here we are, with a permanently existing dharma at the heart of Buddhist doctrine in a glaring apparent contradiction. Worse, if we do not have a permanently existing dharma then the entire mythology of Buddhism collapses.

Another way of looking at the problem is that dharmas are the objects of the manas. Another axiom of Buddhist psychology is that mental events occur one at a time: one citta follows another citta. So if a dharma is asaṃskṛta it must always be present or always be absent from our experiential world. But if we allow the existence of a mental event which is always present, then it constantly takes up that single slot in the manas. An asaṃskṛta dharma can neither arise nor cease. Thus if it exists, then it must always exist. If it exists we must be aware of it to the exclusion of all else. If it doesn't exist it is irrelevant. If there were an asaṃskṛta dharma only two possibilities exist: we would only ever be aware of that one dharma to the exclusion of everything else; or we would never be aware of it. This same logic pervades the writing of Nāgārjuna with respect to svabhāva.

If we argue that we might not be aware of the existence of an asaṃskṛta dharma, then this is a simple contradiction. To be unaware of a dharma (mental event) is the same as it not being cognized and this is tantamount to saying that it has ceased and been replaced by another mental event arising; or that it has not arisen. A dharma is a dharma because it is cognized. According to the universally accepted model of the mind, without cognition nothing arises. This is also an argument against the possibility of the bhavaṅgacitta - a mental even that is not cognized is a contradiction in terms. 

This means also that any kind of argument along the lines of nirvāṇa being obscured by adventitious defilements is also a logical contradiction. Obscured here, with reference to dharmas means did not arise. And if tathāgatagarbha is not a dharma then what is it? So the ideology of Tathāgatagarbha is caught in a logical inconsistency, which leads to this kind of circular logic: If there is a tathāgatagarbha and we are not aware of it right now and always, then there is not a tathāgatagarbha

We might argue that it can work if the dharma has a permanent existence that is independent of any mind. But this contradicts the very definition of dharmas as the objects of the manas. Additionally an unchanging permanently existing real object independent of the mind would create problems for the universe. How would an unchanging entity interact with a constantly changing world? Interaction is change, so interaction would be impossible. This may be why some modern Vedantins, perhaps under the influence of Sāṃkhyadarśana, deny freewill. If you believe in absolute being in any sense, then the logical conclusion is that all change is mere illusion. Under these conditions there can be no freewill because it would contradict the fundamental assumptions the worldview is based on. we begin to see why the early Buddhists were right to reject any kind of absolute being. It's a philosophical disaster. Absolute being wrecks everything and results in a kind of nonsense world, where everything interesting is just a trick of perception. 

But if an asaṃskṛta dharma is a wrecking ball in Buddhist metaphysics, why on earth would they have adopted one (or three in the Vaibhāṣikavāda)? I'm not sure I understand this, but I have some preliminary thoughts. Firstly, of course, they were trying to use their simple philosophy to explain the experience of cessation. But as well as temporary cessation some early Buddhists experienced a seemingly permanent transformation of their minds. In mythic terms they wanted to see the Buddha , the anthropomorphic face of this transformation, as having crossed a threshold from which there was no coming back. And since their goal, in common with most, if not all, North Indians at the time was to end rebirth. If the Buddha had succeeded in his goal that would involve, at the very least, the end of rebirth. This quality the Buddha attained was at first hailed as his greatest success, though for Mahāyānists it was his greatest failure, because it left them without a saviour. 

In an experiential world in which everything changes, there is no possibility of a irreversible change. If everything changes, then reversibility is always a possibility. Thus if nirvāṇa were to involve an irreversible change, then necessarily something non-changing had to be introduced into the mix. That doing so broke Buddhist metaphysics was probably a consideration, but I imagine it seemed like the lesser of two weevils. By introducing an asaṃkṛta dharma, the early Buddhists opened up the possibility of a permanent change. This enabled them to have an afterlife which mimicked some features of the Brahmanical afterlife, i.e. ending rebirth, without explicitly committing them to absolute being. 

To get around absolute being, the early Buddhists argued that questions about the afterlife of someone who had experienced nirvāṇa, i.e. "someone in that state" (tathā-gata), had to remain unanswered or undifferentiated (avyākṛta). The early Buddhist position was that there was no way to know something that was absolute - for the reasons outlined above. Later Buddhists also rejected this axiom. When Kūkai returned from China with Tantric teachings one of the roadblocks he struck was his claim that the teachings came from the dharmakāya, personified as Mahāvairocana. At that time, in line with Mahāyāna orthodoxy, the Japanese mainstream considered the dharmakāya to be "formless, imageless, voiceless, and totally beyond conceptualisation" (Hakeda 1972: 82). They saw the dharmakāya as an absolutely transcendent state of being (rather like the Brahmanical brahman in fact). Because of this, they understood that no direct communication was possible. Kūkai set about undermining this by pointing to existing scriptural passages in which the dharmakāya Buddha does communicate and eventually won over the majority and went on to hold the highest post in the imperial government's ecclesiastical hierarchy. Absolutes are poison to Buddhist philosophy and practice.


So this idea of asaṃskṛta dharmas, although in some ways essential to Buddhism, is actually illogical and unworkable. It creates more problems than it solves. In our times the idea of unconditioned dharmas almost inevitably comes to be treated as an absolute: The Unconditioned (with definite article and capital letters). We have the same problem in the Triratna Community now with Sangharakshita's new take on dhammaniyāma, it has quickly replaced The Unconditioned to become The Dhammaniyāma. Lord, help us. 

As convert Buddhists we are expected to take up certain articles of faith. We have to accept, first and foremost, that  Buddhism does not require us to take up articles of faith (!); that karma creates a just world; that the afterlife in which this justice is enacted involves rebirth; that the sequence of lives is supposedly like one thought arising after another (or at least that the same model applies in both domains); that the Buddha achieved a kind of permanent transformation not reproduced by anyone we'll ever meet; and that certain nonsense propositions such as asaṃskṛta-dharmas are in fact sense. The first article makes it almost impossible to talk about the others because they are not really acknowledged for what they are. To give up or reject these articles of faith is to risk being expelled from the friendly and compassionate embrace of the religious community. Many converts are assiduous in learning the rhetoric with which these articles of faith are defended (I know I was). Some quite sophisticated arguments have been developed over the years and these can be deftly wielded by adepts to win arguments. But winning arguments about Buddhist doctrine is a pyrrhic victory.

It's a bit like the emperors new clothes. No one wants to be thought an idiot, so they go along with saying that they can see the fine new garments the emperor is wearing. To even admit that we don't understand something like asaṃskṛta-dharmas is to risk being looked down on by those who pretend to understand. To actively say that a central doctrine of Buddhism does not make sense sets off a whole new layer of defences in those who believe Buddhism makes sense of everything. Sceptics learn the meaning of peer-pressure. It has taken me many years of research and writing to get to a position where I feel confident about expressing my doubts and the consequences of doing so. I'm fortunate to have a small group of like-minded friends I can talk openly with about these issues.

I would like to say that I believe these articles of faith are being unravelled, but I don't think this is the case yet. Those who are questioning the traditional articles of faith are often merely replacing them with more acceptable articles of faith. Most are silenced by direct or indirect peer pressure. Apologists for traditional Buddhism are stepping up their efforts to preserve the faith and these śraddhāpālas are often able to exploit positions of power and influence within organisations to ensure that their followers fall into line. And underneath it all we want Buddhism to be right. Just like religieux everywhere, like human beings everywhere, we want certainty, absolute certainty.

What I'm saying is that we won't find it in the doctrines of Buddhism, which were broken from the start. I'm truly sorry about this, it was a wonderful dream while it lasted. And it's clear that the Buddhists of ca 200 BCE - 400 CE knew this and were scrambling to salvage Buddhism from its own incoherence. They patched something together, but it's not the raft that will take across the ocean.



Hakeda, Y.S. (1972) Kūkai, Major works: Translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York: Columbia University Press.

20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 

13 November 2015

Reflections on living things.

Caenorhabditis elegans
What would be involved in a complete understanding of a single animal? It would require a full study of its behaviour at all stages of its life cycle. We'd need a complete map of its genome and an understanding of all the proteins that the genes code for, as well as an understanding of the interrelationships of these genes (epigenetics) and which genes were active across the lifespan of the organism. Also a complete wiring diagram of its nervous system and a way of correlating all behaviour to brain activity. Amongst the most closely studied of all animals the tiny nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans is probably closest to this ideal.

C. elegans is an unsegmented, round-worm, transparent, about 1mm in length, which normally lives in soil. It is a relatively simple organism that has digestive and reproductive systems, but no circulatory or respiration system. Most individuals are described as "female hermaphrodites" (a female that also has male gonads and can self-inseminate) while a minority are males. We know the precise number of cells that make up the body: 959 cells in the adult hermaphrodite; 1031 in the adult male. There are also about 2000 germ cells in the former and 1000 in the latter (Alberts 2002). Reproduction is clearly important!
Body plan of C elegans. 

We have a complete genome for the worm (The C. elegans Sequencing Consortium 1998) and this information is open access. The worm has a total of 100,291,840 base pairs in its genome including some 19,735 protein-coding genes. That's about 100 million bits of information, a mere 12 megabytes, but these code for roughly 20,000 different proteins. The 2000-3000 cells are of a relatively limited number of types: nerve, muscle, gonad, skin, gut lining.

The development of all the cells in the animal's body over its lifespan has been traced in detail:
"C. elegans begins life as a single cell, the fertilized egg, which gives rise, through repeated cell divisions, to 558 cells that form a small worm inside the egg shell. After hatching, further divisions result in the growth and sexual maturation of the worm as it passes through four successive larval stages separated by molts. After the final molt to the adult stage, the hermaphrodite worm begins to produce its own eggs. The entire developmental sequence, from egg to egg, takes only about three days." (Alberts 2002)
A complete wiring diagram, or connectome, for the brain of C elegans, has been mapped out (White et al. 1986). The nervous system contains 302 neurons and 7000 synapses (including sensory and motor nerves).
C elegans connectome diagram (head to the right).
Scientific America
In 2008, Stephens et al. published an article that began to characterize the behaviour of the worm in response to a temperate gradient. And this showed that more complex behaviours are the result of combinations of simpler behaviours that can be described mathematically. The results of this paper were partial, partly because they only concerned two dimensions, and the authors flagged the need for more study and especially fully three-dimensional descriptions of movement. But this seems to be an important step in understanding how the simple mechanism can produce relative complex behaviour. In turn, this will eventually make it easier to link behaviour (i.e. movement) to brain activity.

Another interesting experiment was an attempt to use the neural wiring diagram to control a lego robot (right) roughly modelled on the worm's body.
"It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward." Black (2014)
There are some fairly obvious gaps. We need to know how to get from the genome to the adult animal. A genome is certainly interesting, but we need to know which genes are active, when in the life-cycle, and where in the body. This involves identifying all the proteins that protein-coding genes code for, and the interactions of controlling genes that switch other genes on and off (the epigenetics). We particular need to know how the expression of genes over time as proteins leads to the construction of the cells, organs, and body of the worm.

We know a good deal about the internal workings of animal cells but are nowhere near a full understanding or having the ability to make a living cell from scratch. Most of the research I've cited about is five or more years old. Progress is occurring all the time. Small gains, lead to bigger breakthroughs, that perhaps in time will accumulate and amount to a paradigm shift. If we do gain a full understanding of a complex living organism then C. elegans is a very likely candidate to be it. 


What's clear about this project is that we gain a huge amount of information through analysis, i.e. from breaking the worm down into its component parts. This many cells, of these types, arranged in this way. This many neurons connected by this many synapses. This many genes, encoding this many proteins. These kinds of internal cells structures and mechanisms. It's quite essential that we have all this information in our quest to understand the organism C. elegans. But once we have it, we need to understand how it is organised into and operates as systems. All of the parts have to fit together and operate together over time. There's no question that the genome and connectome were huge advances in our understanding of organisms. But we already see that this kind of static information represents first steps on the way to a much greater goal of understanding the dynamics of the parts functioning together as a system, and as systems within systems; or systems of systems; or networks of systems.

Understanding how the parts at the organism, cellular, and genetic levels, change over time emerges as a key goal. Life happens in time. It is particular patterns of change amongst the constituents and the whole over time that are key to our understanding that something is alive. We can use an analogy for this.

Imagine we stand at the top of the Tower of Pisa with a cannonball and a bird. We drop them at the same time. For perhaps half a second they both simply fall towards the ground (in reality, as they convert potential energy into kinetic energy, they follow a curved path through space that appears to us as acceleration towards the centre of the earth). The cannon ball continues to fall, it's path describing a parabolic curve until it hits the ground. We can describe the path it follows to ten decimal places. In Newtonian terms, it appears to accelerate at about 10 meters per second per second. Air resistance is minimal, but in a longer fall or a less aerodynamic object it becomes significant after a few seconds and the acceleration of gravity is equalled by the drag of the air so that a falling object reaches a maximum or terminal velocity. Since all non-agentive objects behave this way we usually gain an intuitive understanding of them quite early on. And at least by physical maturity, but often much earlier, we can accurately predict the path of a falling object by seeing a fragment of its path and use this to perform feats like catching balls that are thrown to us or dodging objects that might otherwise hit us. Next time you see a juggler, note that they do not look at their hands, i.e. where the ball lands, they look at the top of the arc of the ball which gives them all the information they need to catch it. This is possible because all simple objects behave similarly. All humans have always known this. We now have incredibly accurate models for the patterns and an understanding of why these patterns exist, which we call "physics". 

On the other hand, the bird behaves very differently from the canon ball. It may well fall for a very short time, but it soon stabilises its orientation to the ground, extends its wings to generate a counteracting force of lift, and begins to fly in a non-parabolic course, perhaps in a level, straight line away from the tower. It is this failure to fall that alerts us that a bird is not an object, it alerts us that the bird is not an object. The ability to move in ways that are not simply determined by the laws of motion is a defining characteristic of living things. We humans usually assume that anything which can do this has some kind of (human-like) agency for making decisions. For a creature with only 302 neurons, this projection is stretched to breaking point. For a single-celled organism, it is broken completely. Still deliberate movement in response to stimulus is characteristic of all living things.

Of course, as I previously described, there are non-living systems that defy prediction, such as a double pendulum (as I mentioned in my essay on freewill). Still, the movements of a double pendulum seem random, like raindrops falling or leaves shivering in the wind. There is nothing purposeful about them and they do not make us think that an agent might be present. 

The words organic and organism come from an Indo-European root *werg-  'to do'. Cognate words include work, erg, and orgy. In Latin, an organum is a tool or implement. In ancient Greece, orgia were religious perform-ances; just as in India karma ("work" from √kṛ 'to do') originally meant a ritual action.
The distinction between an object and an organism in terms of how they operate under the influence of gravity, one bound inexorably to it and the other free to work against it, is very similar to our intuitive understanding of the distinction between non-living and living things in general. Movement that is obviously bound by rules external to the object, or which appears random, is indicative of non-living systems. Of course, the physicist will say that all movement is bound by the laws of physics and that even the apparently random double-pendulum follows a lawful path. But by "rules" here we refer to the rules that can be intuited by an uneducated human being unconsciously observing their environment. In terms of Justin Barrett's psychology of belief, these are non-reflective beliefs in that they typically emerge unconsciously as a result of interacting with our environment (see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth [Still] Plausible [for Many People]?).

In George Lakoff's terms, the cannonball (a lump of iron) is probably close to most people's prototype of the category of non-living objects. The bird is certainly not in this category and is more like a prototypical living being. The bird is not bound by gravity, but can (by creating a counteracting lift force) defy gravity. Culture plays a part here. Pāḷi texts talk about the gods of rain (deve vassantecausing rain to fall, suggesting that the authors might have believed weather to be the result of agentive behaviour. English people also commonly treat the weather as the result of a mildly malevolent agent. Folk beliefs almost always allow for disembodied agents. Justin Barrett places such imagined agents in the category of "minimally counter-intuitive concepts": those that conflict with our intuitive beliefs, but only minimally, and in such a way as to be interesting and memorable.

These observations give us some insight into what we think of as a living organism versus a non-living object. The individual parts of the organism appear to conform to our non-reflective beliefs about non-living things. We take the parts not to be alive because we don't observe any violation of the non-reflective beliefs about how non-living things behave. Take any one of the 20,000 proteins from C. elegans and, for all intents and purposes, it is non-living. Organic but not of itself an organism. The parts together are capable of complex interactions that routinely violate our non-reflective beliefs about how objects behave; the parts alone are not capable of this. The basic difference between the cannon ball and the bird is in the complexity of their behaviour and the extent to which they conform to category prototypes of non-living objects and living beings.

Categories are imposed on nature by human beings (Lakoff 1990). This imposition is not arbitrary since our experience of interacting with the world is fundamental to the construction of categories. But the basic categories with which we think are based on non-reflective beliefs generated by experience and conditioning. All human beings have more or less the same sensory and motor equipment to interact with the world, but some cultures emphasise difference aspects and interpretations. In other words, the distinction living beings and non-living objects is a perceptual one that exists in our minds on the basis of non-reflective beliefs about previous experience. Indeed, many cultures have a distinction between living and non-living categories that is permeable: some non-living objects (e.g. mountains for example) are attributed with living qualities, and thus can be placed in the living category. Or take an animated cartoon, for example, which can elicit emotional responses appropriate to interacting with another person! Other cultures take living things, people, for example, and allow them to be in the non-living category (e.g. zombies, or strangers). People who live in cities very often treat the strangers around them as people-shaped objects. They are just obstructions to be navigated around, not beings to be interacted with. Unintentional interactions are often met with hostility ("watch where you're going, idiot!"). The distinctions still apply and what allows these exceptions to arise is that the features attributed to them are counter-intuitive in just the right way to make them interesting and memorable (cf. Barrett 2004).

Systems are capable of such complex behaviour that they confound our ability to distinguish living from non-living. They easily overwhelm our criteria for categorising in the same way that an animation does, by presenting us with motion that is too complex for our non-reflective, experientially derived rules for describing the behaviour of objects. Computers, for example, are not intelligent, but they are complex enough that sometimes they don't seem to fit the non-living category or to partially fit the living category. We begin to suspect an agent at work, especially as our desires are thwarted.

Life is complex. A problem with understanding life is that we don't see the underlying complexity because it is microscopic. That vast complexity could exist, at several scales deeper than what we see (cells, molecules, atoms, particles, quarks...) is counter-intuitive. That a gram of carbon might contain a number like 1023 atoms is inconceivable. For example, it is vastly more than the number of hairs on our heads (ca 100,000); or people in the world (ca 7 billion); or the seconds in the average lifespan of a human being (only about 2.5 x 106); or the stars in our galaxy (ca 100 billion, though we can only see about 10,000 with the naked eye under ideal conditions) or even all these numbers added together. 1023  is more than all the stars in all the galaxies in the universe. For most of us cells, molecules, atoms etc are just something we have to take on faith. It is true, that their existence can be demonstrated, but we'll never know it from experience.

This animation (by David Bolinsky and team) gives a brilliant, but simplified, glimpse into cells from a particular point of view (response to inflammation). It is simplified mainly by making water molecules transparent - all that space you see is filled with water, salts, sugars, etc.

So life is complex but complex in ways that are non-experiential and more or less beyond imagination (the video shows a reality unlike anything ever imagined by a pre-modern society). The ordinary person bases their understanding of living things on their own non-reflective beliefs, derived from interactive experience and (cultural) imagination. Generalising from interactive experience is extremely unlikely to succeed in producing an accurate description of life except by unlikely accident. Nor does so-called "insight into reality" help us here. No account of insight, Buddhist or otherwise, ever gave us a hint that the body might be made of cells or anything like a Newtonian, let alone post-Newtonian, explanation of the world.

For example no one who insists that there is not a self or that the subject-object duality is an illusion is telling us anything at all about reality, the world, or living things. They are telling us (more) things about how generalising from our perceptions of these things results in erroneous conclusions. They explicitly want us to believe that they perceive the world not just differently, but more accurately, in a more satisfying matter. I would generously estimate that about 1% of 1% of religious practitioners gain access to this perspective (about 1 in 10,000). Not all of them are people I'd want to emulate. Some of them have some very peculiar ideas that can be traced to culturally specific theologies. A Vedantin and a Buddhist might well experience the same phenomena, say the cessation of specific aspects of selfhood, and yet each might tell us that it means different things. For one it is ātman, for the other it is anātman. So it is entirely apparent that even insight doesn't grant access to an absolute truth. If it did everyone that had that experience would express the same ideas about it, and we's have stopped arguing about it more than 2000 years ago. As yet scientists do not fully understand life either. We understand perhaps about 1%, but we currently understand life (as a process) better than any pre-modern culture ever did. No supernatural forces are required in this description. 

The arguments about features of living things, such as so-called "consciousness", suffer from exactly the same problems. Buddhists are working almost entirely from pre-modern models and generalising from individual experiential. They haven't a hope of understanding life, or consciousness, or any complex feature of life. Half the time Buddhists are just regurgitating some ancient ideology (something I trust less and less the more I find the ancients to have been confused or plain wrong in their thinking). But they may well come to some understanding of something, so what is that they do understand? It's this question that fascinates me, more than arguments over models and semantics. I only wish more Buddhists would deprecate the legacy jargon and ideology and just describe what they have experienced or at least the effect is has had on them in plain English. It would help us all to understand what is going on. 



Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. (2002) Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26861/

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Black, Lucy (2014) A Worm's Mind In A Lego Body. I Programmer. Sunday, 16 November 2014. http://www.i-programmer.info/news/105-artificial-intelligence/7985-a-worms-mind-in-a-lego-body.html

The C. elegans Sequencing Consortium (1998) Genome sequence of the nematode C. elegans: a platform for investigating biology. Science 282: 2012–2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.282.5396.2012

Hillier LW, Coulson A, Murray JI, Bao Z, Sulston JE, and Waterston RH. (2005) Genomics in C. elegans: So many genes, such a little worm. Genomes Research. 2005. 15: 1651-1660 doi: 10.1101/gr.3729105

Lakoff, George. (1990). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:  What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Stephens GJ,  Johnson-Kerner B, Bialek W, Ryu WS. (2008) Dimensionality and Dynamics in the Behavior of C. elegans. Computational Biology. April 25, 2008DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000028

White JG, Southgate E, Thomson JN, Brenner S (1986) The structure of the nervous system of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Phil Trans R Soc B 314: 1–340 (1986). http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1986.0056

06 November 2015

In Conversation about Karma and Rebirth

This post is to accompany an interview with me by Matthew O'Connell of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Most of what I said was first written in the web pages of this blog, so it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with my writing, but it might interest readers, especially those who don't know me, to hear me in conversation. We covered a good deal of ground as one might imagine with such a large topic. My book on the subject currently stands at about 170,000 words over 500 pages. I'm editing it now, but can't say when it will be finished.

We talked a lot about my discovery that karma and rebirth can't work based on any of the traditional models. Matthew focussed particularly on my essay, There is No Life After Death, Sorry, which recapitulates Sean Carroll's arguments against any afterlife based on the equation he is now calling The Core Theory:

"It’s a good equation, representing the Feynman path-integral formulation of an amplitude for going from one field configuration to another one, in the effective field theory consisting of Einstein’s general theory of relativity plus the Standard Model of particle physics." (Now available as a tee-shirt in the USA).
What we need to understand about this equation is that at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant human experience, we can describe the behaviour of matter and energy very, very accurately. No extra force needs to be added to explain any observed behaviour of matter and energy on these scales. If there were other forces, of any kind, that could affect matter on this scale (and thus be part of our experience of the world), then we'd have seen some evidence of them in the millions of experiments carried out to date. If they cannot affect matter then they are of no interest as they cannot make a difference to us.

I also talked a little bit about how karma contradicts dependent arising, i.e. what I have called the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, and how the several solutions to this problem do not stand up to scrutiny. These have been the subject of a number of recent essays that can be found under the heading Karma and Rebirth. In fact I've put a lot more more effort into this kind of argument than I have the science-based argument.

Karma and Rebirth Have Never Worked

Matthew, in an attempt to move the discussion along, begins to ask me, "So, if we get rid of karma and rebirth...". As you can hear, I interrupt at this point because something occurred to me that I had not thought of before. It's not that we "get rid" of anything. I don't advocate getting rid of karma and rebirth. At no stage in Buddhist history have we ever had a workable theory of either karma or rebirth. We cannot get rid of what we never had it to begin with. 

We never had a workable theory of karma. Our theories of karma always contradicted dependent arising. Even when Buddhist intellectuals tweaked dependent arising to come up with the Theravāda doctrine of momentariness or the bīja/ālayavijñāna theory of the Yogacārins (which currently dominate the Buddhist intellectual landscape), what I've shown is that even these more sophisticated versions of the karma doctrine do not work as explanations (See The Logic of Karma). Other explanations such as the sarva-asti-vāda or the pudgala-vāda, which were popular in North India for a time, did not work either though they were ingenious alternatives to the explanations that by accident of history are familiar to us today. The ingenuity doesn't become apparent until one realises what they were grappling with, i.e. action at a temporal distance. It is such a huge problem, and yet the Buddhist world suffered a collective case of amnesia about it. Once it was the driving force in the development of the most influential schools of Buddhist thought, with at least two schools taking their name from their solution to the problem. Without understanding the problem many of the major developments in Buddhist thought don't make any sense.

We never had a workable theory of rebirth either. Rebirth either destroyed the connection between action and consequence, thereby destroying the possibility of morality; or it proposed a definite and substantial continuity which allows for morality, but is eternalistic. If the person who experiences the consequences is not me, then I won't care (as much) about the consequences. If it is me, then I seem to be altogether too substantial in an impermanent universe. Early commentators and systematisers tried to get around this by arguing that it is neither me or not me (e.g. Milindapañha), but this simply fails to meet any reasonable criteria for a workable morality (See Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics?). As far as morality is concerned, it has to be me. But according to Buddhist metaphysics, it certainly cannot be me. The result is an intellectual stalemate. Not that Buddhists ever admit this. No, they seamlessly segue between non-continuity when talking about metaphysics, and continuity when talking about ethics without anyone ever noticing what they are doing. I listened to and read Buddhists doing this for about 20 years before I realised that they were doing it. We can charitably chalk this up to pragmatism, but it does mean that dependent arising cannot explain rebirth or morality.

Dependent arising, the explanation for how mental states arise, cannot explain karma, rebirth, or ethics. This is already clear from Buddhist śāstras composed in the period ca 200-400 CE. Nāgārjuna says as much in his second-century work the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 17.1-6). Unfortunately for Nāgārjuna, his radical alternative of treating the whole shebang as like an illusion never caught on in the mainstream. I think his solution, while metaphysically more tenable, pragmatically could not be used as the basis of a system of morality. It required that awful Buddhist fudge: the Two Truths. The Two truths formalises the me/not-me hedge and makes it a feature rather than a bug. But any Buddhist theory couched in terms of existence or non-existence, let alone any absolutes, is faulty.

Modern science also shows us that dependent arising is not a good explanation of how matter and energy work either. I play down the role of science in critiquing karma and rebirth because in my experience Buddhists simply dismiss any inconvenient science as "Materialism" and stop paying attention. Such critiques are often seen as attacks on Buddhism itself, which Buddhists take rather personally. But the critique is there, it's quite comprehensive and compelling. The main problem for Buddhists who wish to deny it, is that they end up having to re-write the laws of physics. And I have yet to see any Buddhist even try to do this.

Sometimes, even within the same anti-science context, science can be seen as the saviour of Buddhism. Buddhists do this in two main ways. The first is through drawing false analogies, usually between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. I've dealt with this problem at some length before in two essays that try to debunk the kinds of claims that Buddhists make (see under Quantum Mechanics).

The second way is looking for confirmation of our beliefs in the empirical results of studies of the brain and behaviour under the influence of Buddhist practices. As far as I can tell this research is certainly worth pursuing. But the field is rife with confirmation bias and needs to find some rigour. We need to pay attention to study design (especially sample size), start doing pre-registration of studies, and publication of negative results before we can get too excited. The buzz word in this kind of work is reproducibility. We are not there yet. And even if we were the evidence is for a fairly mundane form of efficacy. Meditation causes measurable changes in the brain that probably affect how we perceive ourselves, other people, and the world in general. It has nothing to say about karma, or rebirth. 

Modernists Responses to the Crisis in Buddhist Doctrine

One of the ways that Buddhist Modernists negate some of the criticism of traditional Buddhism is to read inconvenient aspects of Buddhism as allegorical. They argue that we have to understand rebirth as an allegory, a symbol of some psychological process that plays out in our lives. A fine example of this is an essay by Alan Peto I stumbled on recently. In Is Buddhism Bewitched With Superstition? Peto puts forward exactly this kind of argument about superstition. However, in reading his argument I realised that while his central values were modernist, he none-the-less was endeavouring to justify his Modernist readings in traditional Buddhist terms.

There was the inevitable reference to the Pāḷi Canon, for example, in which the character of the Buddha is portrayed as reprimanding his followers for being superstitious (the word used is actually maṅgalika, but superstitious is not too bad a translation). This is read literally, rather than allegorically, as The Buddha telling his followers to abandon superstition. "Basically, the Buddha is saying that we should not fall into the trap of superstition, but instead pursue and gain wisdom." So if it fits our preconceptions, read it literally; if it does not, then take it as allegory.

Because there is a canonical injunction against it, the argument goes, there is no superstition in Buddhism, or at least in true Buddhism. In fact an injunction against something is evidence for the opposite, i.e. that it was widely practised. This leads us to the realisation that, in practice, Buddhists are really a very superstitious bunch. But how did pristine, rational Buddhism become infected with irrational elements? According to Peto, it is the creeping influence of "beliefs and traditions of society". Unfortunately there is simply no evidence for an originally rational Buddhism. That entity is a fiction of the modern imagination. As far as we know, Buddhism was never rational, did not decline over time. Indeed the opposite is evidence, major efforts went into making Buddhism more rational over time. Repeated attempts were made to solve the problems apparent in early formulations of Buddhism.

In another essay on rebirth, Peto tells us:
"While karma is referred to in popular culture as some sort of supernatural force (almost godlike) that determines your “fate”, but it is nothing like that at all."
Which is simply not true. Karma is the supernatural force that links willed actions and their consequences over time. It is supernatural because it cannot be accounted for by natural forces. In this case however, pre-modern Buddhists did see karma as a natural force. But mind you so were the miracles associated with the birth of the Buddha. So were the various spirits (benign and demonic) which abound in the pages of the Canon. Peto actually doesn't tell us what karma is, if it is not a supernatural force, but he hints that it is like "cause and effect" (which is not the traditional Buddhist view, but one clearly influenced by modernism). This particular allegory works because cause and effect is something that everyone intuitively understands and non-reflectively believes. Our understanding of cause and effect grows out of our experience of gaining control of our limbs as infants and learning how to use them to manipulate objects in the world. But karma is in fact nothing like this. Karma not only defies our modern understanding of cause and effect by separating the two ends of the relationship in time and space, but defies the traditional understanding for the same reasons! The consequence of the action is stored up until the end of your life, and then it manifests as the arising of vijñāna in another, embryonic, being either in the moment after death or after some time in a kind of limbo.

How this is achieved is unclear. For example, according to most schools of thought, the skandhas are definitely not transferred. So it is not personality, intelligence or experience, that are transferred, nor strictly speaking could it include memories (which are covered by the skandhas). And yet somehow the results of our actions are visited upon that embryo as it lives and dies. 

The approach falls well short of coherence. Modernism is applied unconsciously and inconsistently to patch the inconsistent tradition with inconsistent results. This is perhaps the biggest problem of Modernist Buddhism, i.e. the failure to fully embrace Modernism and apply it consistently.


Does the fact that so far no model of Karma and Rebirth works mean that there is no model that can possibly work? Probably. We've had 2000 years to think about it. The brightest minds of Buddhist history thought about it. And got nowhere. Now we are in a worse situation, because we must also consider science. Physics shows that there are strict limits on how matter and energy can behave and that these limits appear to be universal. At the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to human experience, this means that no afterlife is possible. So rebirth is ruled out, except as allegory and I side with those who find allegory distasteful. Of course it is always possible that someone will turn up with reliable evidence that the Core Theory is wrong. But anecdote is certainly not going to cut it as evidence in that argument. And any new evidence that would allow for an afterlife would require a whole new understanding of physics and chemistry. Again, this is possible, but nothing like this is on offer at present. What's on offer is philosophical (i.e. ontological) dualism, which states as an axiom that the mind is not to be understood through studying matter and energy. But dualism is also ruled out by the Core Theory. If the other stuff could affect our body and, in particular, our brain then it would be obvious to detectors other than the brain - there are only so many ways to influence matter;. Matter itself shows no signs of being nudged by forces other than the four so far identified (of which we can observe two unaided by machinery: gravity and electromagnetism). 

Many people get to this point in the discussion and the same question arises as Matthew asked me: "Now what?". I didn't answer that question very well in the interview I thought, so this is my attempt to do better.

So, "Now what?"

Now we need to take stock. It is only fair that we allow time to consolidate our arguments and for people to catch up if they wish. When you undermine someone's worldview to the point of collapse, a good deal of what they value suddenly must be reassessed. This is not easy and must take time. Many people will be so strongly committed to the traditionalist view are not interested in a major reassessment of their life and work, especially not on my say so. I expect virtually all people who've made life-long vows of celibacy, or those who make their living from traditionalist Buddhism, will be in this camp.

I think we have to take the psychology of belief seriously and not expect everyone to drop everything just because we have better facts. My case study for this has been the problem of communicating evolution, which in many respects has been disastrous. According to some surveys, only about half of Britons believe in evolution. Less Americans. Buddhists who agree with me about karma and rebirth ought to take evolution as a cautionary tale. We can easily screw this up, by failing to express enough kindness towards the people whose views we disagree with. My role in this is to establish new facts. I'm not a diplomat or a politician.

The problems we face are not yet well enough understood. My work, for example, only scratches the surface and my ability to persuade people is quite limited. People who are smarter and/or better connected need to be exposed to my conclusions and to test the logic of my argument. My book on this material might help with that, but I ought also to write something more pithy for an academic journal and see if I can get it through the editorial and review processes. At the very least I'd like to write something about the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance for a journal. Other's need to take my ideas and see if they stand up to scrutiny. Not just in the sense of accusing me of Materialism (believe me this happens all too often), but by looking again at my primary sources, at the Kathavatthu, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (which ideally involves being able to read Pāḷi, Chinese and Sanskrit; though all three are translated into English); and at my secondary sources (particularly David Bastow and Collett Cox). Someone needs to assess how well or how badly I've understood the sources, and either way to develop the ideas I'm proposing here. But the reality is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. That dynamic is almost entirely lacking in Buddhist scholarship even when the idea is put forward by a well know scholar with qualifications and a teaching post in a university. Most scholars are too busy pursuing their own avenues of research to spend time criticising the work of others. 80% of social science journal articles are never cited at all, so the problem goes beyond Buddhist Studies. Though I may say that David Drewes is a positive example of someone who does engage in this way. 

Interviews like the one for Imperfect Buddha Podcast are valuable in the sense that a friendly discussion of challenging material is possible, and the discussion reaches a new audience. Most of the time I don't go around trying to upset people, so I tend to pull my punches when talking to them if I think they are unlikely to agree with me. I have only one or two friends with whom I can be completely unguarded about what I say on these subjects. Some people I know have quite strong views themselves, often developed over decades. I tend not to insist on my own conclusions at the expense of another's. Something about the dynamic of the interview allowed me to state my conclusions without hedging. To put it out there in a more public way. And that felt good. Maybe there will be some response from IBP's audience that I could never get from my blog. Matthew says his own beliefs might have shifted as a result of talking to me. That's more than I could have hoped for.

Once the ideas have been more rigorously tested and refined, and once a lot more people with a stake in the game are on board, then would be the time to start exploring what to do next. I'd prefer to see us coming up with something cooperatively, than for Buddhists to continue atomising. If we get dozens or hundreds of competing models then it will take a very long time to sort out which is best. In my mind what Buddhism lacks is something like Sean Carroll's Core Theory. With a modern Buddhist Core Theory we could explain how our practices work to bring about positive change. The way that mental states arise and pass away will most likely be at the heart of our Core Theory. This is also extremely unlikely. 

The likelihood is that in 50 years time I'll be long dead and all this will be forgotten. And I will have changed nothing. Life is absurd, eh?  


My thanks to Matthew and Stuart of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast for their interest and the opportunity to talk to them and their audience about my ideas. 
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